The secret weapon of Disney+'s The Mandalorian, is discovery.
It's pretty much in the DNA of the series — which became a streaming TV phenomenon last year — on the strength of a new character the series calls "The Child" but most of us fans call Baby Yoda.
The goal: to explore all the nooks and crannies of the Star Wars universe that the big movies ignored and build compelling stories around them.
I'm happy to note the first episode of the show's second season leans hard into it with spectacular results. We see a new side of Luke Skywalker's home planet Tatooine, learn the aftermath of the second Death Star explosion (seen in 1983's Return of the Jedi), uncover fresh depths in the Tusken Raiders' culture and meet a character from the original films whose legacy has shadowed this series since it debuted with the Disney+ service back in November 2019.
(Don't worry, I'm not dropping that name. But there will be a few smaller spoilers and hints sprinkled through this review, so consider yourself warned.)
For disenchanted Star Wars fans like myself – folks who have grown frustrated and dismissive of the bloated predictability in the franchise's recent films – The Mandalorian is an impressive, expertly-executed do-over. It revisits and reinvents a fictional world loaded with storytelling promise, too often underutilized on the big screen in the drive to build the next sci fi blockbuster.
From its start, The Mandalorian had simple goals and a direct style. Built around a bounty hunter presumed to be a member of a legendary warrior race, the first season turned on his discovery of The Child during a job and his decision to become its defender.
Fans knew immediately this kid was a pint-sized specimen from the same race as one of the most famous Star Wars characters, Jedi Master Yoda. Over the course of the first season, "Mando" — a nickname from the show which sounds so close to a slur I resist deploying it – discovers he must find other members of this race and bring The Child to them, pursued by remnants of the evil, authoritarian Empire who realize the youngling is a powerful resource.
For all those who complained about the series' slow start in 2019, this year's model kicks off with a swirl of intensity. Our Hero survives a fight, only to learn he must head to Tatooine to find another Mandalorian who might know where The Child's people live.
Once there, he stumbles on Mandalorian armor any Star Wars fan would instantly recognize, worn by a local marshal played by the best actor to ever embody a sharp-shooting lawman, Justified alum Timothy Olyphant (told you there would be a few spoilers). The moment Olyphant lets fly with one of his smart-alecky quips, you know these two are teaming up for something.
If the mothership Star Wars movies are space operas built around reimagined fragments of samurai films and the legends of medieval knights, then The Mandalorian finds its tone in a slightly different genre: it's a straight up Western.
And there is no greater Western trope than the story of a scrappy, dusty frontier town threatened by a grand danger, depending on a stalwart sheriff and mysterious, gunslinging stranger to help save the day.
The great challenge of The Mandalorian is to keep us entertained, even as it references familiar storytelling most fans know so well, they can predict the end of the tale even as it begins.
Because we know how Westerns work, we know Our Hero and Olyphant's character will form an uneasy alliance, after a tense initial moment. We know they'll eventually find success. We know that success will cement an uneasy, culture-bridging alliance between the townspeople and the Tusken Raiders, marauding pirates who attack Luke Skywalker in the very first Star Wars film.
But the brilliance of The Mandalorian's new installment is how it deploys revelations about the Star Wars universe to keep us guessing and engaged, topped by the episode-ending reveal of a character that will make fans squeal with anticipation and delight (How do I know this? Guess who squealed loud enough to wake my neighbors when the final scene appeared?)
Creator Jon Favreau — who wrote and directed this first episode of the new season – seems to have learned from critical snipes about the first season. The storytelling pace here is quicker, with more reveals that spark deeper questions; just as scenes lapse into the gobbledygooky space jargon needed to build the plot, we get a little action to break things up and remind us we're watching a gritty, occasionally grand adventure. And the new episode is 55 minutes long, compared to last season's installments, which averaged about 40 minutes each.
Best of all, I left this new episode eager to see what comes next, and a little annoyed with Disney+ that they don't follow Netflix's binge model and drop an entire season at once.
This new episode of The Mandalorian proves the first season wasn't a fluke. They have revitalized one of sci-fi's biggest franchises, boosted one of media biggest streaming services and marked a bold new chapter for one of TV's most ambitious and well-crafted series.
Not a bad day's work — even for the coolest Mandalorian in a galaxy far, far away.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
"The Mandalorian" - and yes, that bundle of big-eared green cuteness Baby Yoda - is back on Disney+. The TV series set in the "Star Wars" universe just dropped the first episode of its second season. NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans says it proves that the quality of last year's episodes, which helped launch Disney+, was no fluke.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: The secret weapon of Disney+'s "The Mandalorian" is discovery. It starts with the journey of the title character, a bounty hunter from a warrior race referenced in the "Star Wars" films. Here, he's a hero who champions a young, powerful orphan known as The Child who fans call Baby Yoda. The new episode opens as our hero faces off against an unscrupulous criminal who wants his blaster-proof armor.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MANDALORIAN")
JOHN LEGUIZAMO: (As Gor Koresh) Give it to me now or I will peel it off your corpse.
PEDRO PASCAL: (As The Mandalorian) Tell me where the Mandalorians are, and I'll walk out of here without killing you.
LEGUIZAMO: (As Gor Koresh) I thought you said you weren't the gambler.
PASCAL: (As The Mandalorian) I'm not.
DEGGANS: That sound is The Mandalorian doing what he does best - defeating a roomful of bad guys with an array of cool, hidden weapons. Turns out, our hero needs to find more Mandalorians, warriors who keep a low profile because they're feared, prized and hunted for their combat skill. So he follows a tip from the criminal to head for Tatooine, the home planet of "Star Wars" hero Luke Skywalker, where he finds someone wearing Mandalorian armor. And here's a huge but necessary spoiler - that man in the Mandalorian armor is a marshal played by Timothy Olyphant, who sounds an awful lot like another marshal he once played on TV, "Justified's" Raylan Givens.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MANDALORIAN")
TIMOTHY OLYPHANT: (As Cobb Vanth) I've never met a real Mandalorian - heard stories. I know you're good at killing and probably none too happy to see me wearing this hardware. I figure only one of us walking out of here. But then I see the little guy, and I think maybe I pegged you wrong.
DEGGANS: If you've seen even one other Western movie or TV show, you know these guys are going to team up. Indeed, that's the great achievement of "The Mandalorian," especially in this new episode. It borrows so heavily from Western tropes, most viewers can guess what will happen - who will win a fight, who will team up, who will learn from an unlikely alliance. But the show deploys revelations about the "Star Wars" universe to keep us guessing and engaged. For instance, we learn the aftermath on Tatooine of a crucial scene from 1983's "Return Of The Jedi," after the empire was defeated and the second Death Star was destroyed.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MANDALORIAN")
OLYPHANT: (As Cobb Vanth) The empire was pulling out of Tatooine. There was blaster fire over Mos Eisley. The occupation was over. We didn't even have time to celebrate. That very night, the Mining Collective moved in. Power hates a vacuum, and Mos Pelgo became a slave camp overnight.
DEGGANS: Creator Jon Favreau, who wrote and directed this episode, finds deeper storytelling by digging into parts of the "Star Wars" universe overlooked by the franchise films. He somehow gets a performance from the puppet that plays The Child, mining its reactions for humor and sympathy. And he caps the new episode by revealing the existence of a character from the original "Star Wars" films whose presence is so impactful, I actually gasped when I first saw the image.
Best of all, I left this new episode eager to see what comes next and a little annoyed with Disney+ that they don't follow Netflix's usual binge model and drop an entire season at once. Favreau has shown the second season of the series might be even more creative, ambitious and compelling than the first. Not a bad day's work, even for the coolest Mandalorian in a galaxy far, far away.
I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.