A new hope for "Star Wars" in "The Mandalorian" season finale

It may be built out of memes and sentiment, but this season is a sturdy bridge to the next level of "Star Wars"

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published December 27, 2019 7:00PM (EST)

The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) and the Child in THE MANDALORIAN (Disney+)
The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) and the Child in THE MANDALORIAN (Disney+)

The following article contains extensive details about the Season 1 finale of "The Mandalorian," titled "Redemption," as well as spoilers for "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker." If you haven't watched either yet, stop reading now or you will be spoiled. We have spoken.

Once upon a time there was a lone gunslinger known only as The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal). When first we meet him — that would be in early November, when "The Mandalorian" debuted on day Disney+ launched — he is a member of a bounty hunter guild at a time when jobs are scarce and pay is low. In order to survive he takes a job from a shady client who happens to be an ex-Empire official, played by iconic German filmmaker Werner Herzog.

The man directs him to obtain an "Asset" with the promise of a hefty fee upon successful retrieval. What he doesn't tell him is that the "Asset," listed as a 50-year-old, is actually a toddler of the same alien race as the all-powerful green being Yoda. Thus, at the end of the pilot, a worldwide obsession with Baby Yoda, officially known as The Child, was born.

From there, The Mandalorian's journey has been simple. He hands over Baby Yoda for a handsome sum of rare Mandalorian steel called Beskar. The Mandalorian has it fashioned into nearly impregnable armor, then returns to the Empire's hive and steals The Child back.

Together Mando and The Child head out on the lam and make new allies and enemies along the way in seemingly unrelated episodes. That is, until the very last two installments of this first season.

What we have been watching for all this time has been prologue, meme machine and Easter egg factory, all that at the end of a veritable cameo flotilla. Herzog and Carl Weathers were the first thrills and back again for the finale episodes. And it looks like Weathers may return again, possibly at the side of Gina Carano's ex-Rebellion shock trooper Cara Dune, revealed in the finale to hail from Princess Leia's home planet of Alderaan.

Not as fortunate is Nick Nolte's moisture farmer Kuiil, who came along for the final mission to help Mando and The Child, only to be gunned down by bike scout troopers who take The Child, punch him in the face few times, and at least make us laugh, because underneath those helmets (we think) are Adam Pally and Jason Sudeikis.

Also appearing this season? Amy Sedaris! Ming-Na Wen! Bill Burr! Clancy Brown! "Harry Potter" and "Game of Thrones" actor Natalie Tena! And as of the finale, we get the most important guest star — it's not an actor, but an object known as the Darksaber. That's an ancient black-bladed lightsaber created by the first Mandalorian to ever be inducted into the Jedi order. "The Mandalorian" only shows it to us, telling us nothing. But the faithful recognize a new toy when they see it.

In that regard, Season 1 of "The Mandalorian" is a complete success. You wanted more "Star Wars"? Sold: "The Mandalorian" season finale, titled "Redemption," is a 49-minute action flick.

As for the titular hero, series creator Jon Favreau, who wrote the finale directed by Taika Waititi (who also voices the droid IG-11), intentionally kept personal details about Mandalorian himself, and Mandalorians in general, encased in that Beskar until the last moments. But at least he gave up a few items.

Our man was not born a Mandalorian but saved by a heroic group of them during a ruthless purge, the pivotal moments of which we see in its entirety via flashback. His parents hide him, are blown up, and then before a droid kills him he is saved. And his real name, announced by Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito) — the evil ex-Empire villain who shows up for the first time in the penultimate episode — is Din Djarin.

Episode 7 leaves us on a tragic note, with Mando, Weathers' Greef Carga and Cara Dune pinned down and about to be blown to bits by Moff Gideon and a full battalion of stormtroopers. Their friend Kuiil  is dead, The Child in the hands of the enemy.

And when the situation seems to be at its darkest, IG-11, a hunter droid reprogrammed to "nurse and protect," kicks into gunner mode to retrieve The Child and head into town, guns blazing and reigniting the story just in time to end the season. IG-11 turns the tide, although a blast nearly kills Mando.  But with the droid's help, they find a way out into the sewer tunnels beneath the bunker where they were trapped.

There the Mandalorian hopes to find his brethren but instead only discovers their remains … along with the group's Armorer (Emily Swallow), who provides him with a jet pack and, at long last, his sigil: the skull of a mudhorn. Din Djarin also receives his mission, which is to protect The Child until he can be reunited with its kind or make him Mandalorian.

The crew makes it out by way of a lava river, but are only able to make it to safety due to IG-11 sacrificing itself by self-detonating. In the final moments The Mandalorian uses his jet pack for the first time to singlehandedly take down Moff Gideon's tie fighter before burying his friend Kuill and flying off with the little one. Before anyone can relax, we cut to Gideon's downed fighter, and see him cut himself free of the wreckage using the aforementioned legendary weapon. Which I'm sure we'll see more of in Season 2.

Although "The Mandalorian" finale ties up the season in a neat post-Christmas bow, most of its freshman run defied critical analysis. Yes, we watched and for the most part, we enjoyed for purely insubstantial reasons. What do people trained to find artistic originality and narrative meaning do with a scripted series whose greatest worth is that it offers simple reliable pleasure, with some episodes delivering better grades of storytelling than others?

Not to mention one that is part of a fictional universe so enmeshed with our actual universe that the mere appearance of characters, places and objects are immediately mined for meaning?

We observe — with enjoyment, I'll admit — and we surrender to what "The Mandalorian" exemplifies in the realm of franchise storytelling. We have questioned how a series containing so little in the way of gravitas, or even a gravitational point, can hold the audience's attention over the long term. Nevertheless, not an episode went by without new Baby Yoda GIFs flooding the internet, and weren't we overjoyed to have them in lieu of action figures and plush toys?

So with "The Mandalorian" using the Force is less vital than allowing the Force to use us, and there's very little we can do about it but float with it or choke on it.

Why not float?

The success of "The Mandalorian" rests in its one-to-one ratio of old-school "Star Wars" nostalgia and innovative marketability. Cinema and comic book buffs point out the thematic similarities between The Mandalorian and The Child to other roaming duos such as "Lone Wolf and Cub."  Each episode's style and tone harkens back to old-style 1970s and '80s genre, with the hero finding a new adventure each week with no clear objective beyond survival — a lot like "Kung Fu" in feeling, with a little bit "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" tossed in for kicks. He walks many worlds, like Caine, and he flies between them in a ship with a very cool name, the Razor Crest.

All these details combine to create story driven by feelings and vicarious desires, each exemplified by the main characters. Who doesn't want to snuggle with Baby Yoda? And who wouldn't love to be as resourceful and formidable as Mando? Honestly, the guy has enough gadgets to make a Sharper Image addict emerald with envy — including, as of the finale, a jet pack.

And The Mandalorian himself remains literally armored in mystery until the briefest of moments in the finale when we received confirmation that, yes indeed, it really was the telegenic Pascal underneath that helmet. Most of the time, anyway. Body doubles were used, but could you tell?

Not that it matters, since the majority of the eight-episode season's unrelated adventures exist to teach us about what makes this hero tick. The Mandalorian tribe has much in common with the Jedi.  The tribe has a soft spot for protecting orphans — or, as they call them, foundlings. Our Mando, as he is referred to by old associates, was one such foundling.

As we're informed in the finale, the Mandalorians are not members of a race. To be Mandalorian is to follow a creed where weapon training and usage is akin to a religion, and one vows to never remove his helmet or show his face to another living being, lest he be obligated to renounce his warrior ways. (Handily, the decidedly not-living IG-11 unmasks him for the briefest of moments to administer medical attention, thereby keeping his tribal status intact.)

But the green-skinned, big-eared Child also serves to show us a few things about the Force that we didn't know and otherwise shows up first in the "Star Wars" screen universe here, and in "The Rise of Skywalker," for the first time. Behold the power of franchise synergy: Baby Yoda uses the Force to heal extensively wounded flesh, as does Rey in the movie. (Force healing is previously known to have been used in the "Star Wars" books and video games.)

Both the movie and TV series have pivotal tide-turning moments involving droids: Mando doesn't trust them, and Rey underestimates the ones around her, and each is surprised (Mando, in a moving way) to be proven wrong. These are small details, but they matter in a universe that is ever-evolving and obviously expanding. Speaking of which, did you know there's an entire line of "Star Wars"-themed Instant Pots? Never underestimate a droid!

The end of the Skywalker saga in theaters augurs a reset of this universe we know so much about and of which have only seen a small corner. Heretofore this mythology is described to us in the simplest of terms using three movies that set us down in the middle of the story, invited us to look back at the history of one family and forward towards the introduction, it seems, of new ones.

The fact that we find so much meaning in those original movies speaks of the resilience of the "Star Wars" legacy. The fact that its repeating themes are being met with lower levels of patience with the release of each new film indicates how hungry we are for a new beginning and a fresh paradigm.

And this makes "The Mandalorian" a successful bridge between the old and a tantalizing unknown, expanding our gaze into worlds and people few have bothered to explore in depth because we were so obsessed with Skywalkers and Organas and Solos and Palpatines.

Now we feel more for a renowned warrior faith previously represented by a villain, and currently exemplified by one who numbers among the last of his kind, traveling with a precious package of power from a race about which nothing is known. "The Mandalorian" is an action adventure and primarily a very simple journey alongside a clan of two, figuring out where its path leads and keeping one step ahead of an evil man's obsession.

Successful TV shows have been built on lot less. This one has an empire of sentiment serving as the wind at its back, and as long as it keeps up its momentum, even those of us programmed to dissect and critique programs may be content to simply sail along with it.

All episodes of "The Mandalorian" Season 1 are currently streaming on Disney+ . 

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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