Without the driving Force of the Skywalkers, the lightsaber slap-fights, or the grand speeches, The Mandalorian established itself on the Star Wars background. The people and human-length critters reserved for cutaways in bars or fill-in textures on the mattes of its universe are now the protagonists. Bolstered by Greig Fraser and Baz Iodine’s cinema-worthy visuals, the show’s first two seasons powered through some short stories worthy of a paperback collection on a kids’ low-hanging bookshelf, which isn’t a bad place for Star Wars to end up.
As the series drifts on the current of Disney+ ubiquity, Season 3 starts with a 35-minute scene-setter for the rest of the 8+ episodes that Jon Favreau and co. will put out in the next couple of months. It doesn’t do anything cardinally wrong, but the dopamine jolt wasn’t there. There are a few reasons why this journey to the Star Wars outland seems to have outlasted its identity.
New visuals squeak into view under the direction of Dean Cundey this time, who also set the visual tone for The Book of Boba Fett, the interim series between Mando Season 2 and Season 3. Like Boba Fett, this new season has a TV-worthy sheen in the place of Fraser/Iodine’s high-powered outback sunsets. Not one shot in the Season 3 pilot provokes interest, where the previous seasons took any opportunity to set Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal) in hard light against the tin-can opening of a saloon or ship door, or in a low-focus profile against a seedy town, or bathed against distant dunes in front of the signature grey-orange skyline that Fraser used to give The Batman its autumntime angst.
The Season 3 pilot in comparison shoots in bright, artificial light with the dead-on angles of sitcom television without mixing the focus to generate energy. Only the space scenes in the full-digital fantasy between worlds have any impact. It may not feel right to let Cundey, the analog master behind the iconic John Carpenter cult leaders (Halloween, The Thing, Escape From New York, The Fog), fade into blatant criticism like a first-time photographer, but his more recent work, including Garfield and Jack and Jill, doesn’t leave much room for confidence in his newly digitized working conditions.
Beyond the visual setback, The Mandalorian has reached a point narratively, even in its second season, where its writers no longer seem interested in telling single-issue tales tangential to the Star Wars canon. They want to connect, contextualize, and sell the wider universe of stories by recalling favorites in auto-generated arcs of intertextuality that can serve as setups for potential new shows. They want Star Wars stuff. Even limited to this show, the writers rely on Redemption, the final episode of Season 1, for the context of Season 3, rather than strike a new path. This is disheartening considering that Taika Waititi’s directorial debut in the series is without question its worst episode, drawing on the Marvel cinematic tone to give the show that little babyish jiggle in each scene of the screenplay that saves it from the cost of any investment. Somehow, not even Thor: Love and Thunder was enough for the Disney machine to reroute power away from his style, which is the last thing The Mandalorian needs.
Now the “high” magistrate of the frontier town of Navarro, Greef Karga (Carl Weathers) goes on a labored corporate butt-saver about why Cara Dunne (Gina Carrano) isn’t playing the clearly-defined role of the Marshall of their little trading post, not even as a recast to avoid the reputation of the actress. His little blip about why she’s anywhere but on camera is sandwiched between his pleas to the Mandalorian to embrace freedom from bureaucratic agencies and live independently, as so many of Star Wars’ most likable characters dream despite the business interests (both Light and Dark) that always re-recruit them back into the fray for another piece of corporate media. The irony of those statements mashed together only highlights how wrong Disney’s imperatives are for the wild frontiers of imagination that George Lucas created in a garage. Good or bad, The Mandalorian Season 3 isn’t going to escape the gravitational pull of its corporate interests, designing callbacks by committee and writing characters in or out by social media consensus. If Mando was real, he wouldn’t have anything to do with this.
Image is a screenshot from the show: ©Lucasfilm/Fairview Entertainment