Star Wars shouldn't feel like homework. And yet, with The Mandalorian Season 2, the various twists and turns of the plot have led the series into the deep gravity well of the larger Star Wars expanded universe. For those of us who played Dark Forces in the '90s or loved The Clone Wars when it began in 2008, this season is like a greatest hits tour for fandom. From Ahsoka Tano to Bo-Katan to Boba Fett, each episode feels like a Star Wars action figure grab-bag.
But, what became of the simpler, more artistic series that sported Werner Herzog sneering while rocking a garish medallion? What happened to the finale that promised us a story dominated by the machinations of Giancarlo Esposito? With over half of The Mandalorian Season 2 complete, it seems the series is playing by a totally different set of narrative rules than Season 1. In 2019, The Mandalorian was building its own mythology, forging its own path, and not worrying too much about complex Star Wars baggage. This refreshing and minimalist approach in Season 1 has been replaced in Season 2 by something equally fun, but totally unwieldy.
The Mandalorian Season 2 feels like a live-action Star Wars comic book. Season 1 felt like a cool TV show that just happened to be part of Star Wars. The difference matters, because Mando can't carry all this other Star Wars baggage forever.
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What The Mandalorian and A New Hope have in common
In 1977, Star Wars was a new kind of throwback. Everything you needed to know about the galaxy far, far away was contained within the narrative of the first movie. Since then, the Star Wars franchise has moved away from that simplicity. Even the so-called "stand-alone" films — Rogue One and Solo — are, in fact, totally incomprehensible unless you understand the Star Wars timeline going in. From the prequels to the sequels, the more Star Wars we got, the more complicated it became. The simplicity of A New Hope, became less simple the moment it was renamed "A New Hope."
This doesn't mean the art of Star Wars narratives is somehow worse, but the charm of the first film — just called "Star Wars" — was forever lost the second it became a series. The Empire Strikes Back might be edgier, but it's only edgier in response to the first movie, which automatically makes you recognize the minimal genius of the original. In various degrees of accessibility, this has been the status quo since 1980. The simple approachability of Star Wars recedes into the sunset as the series adds new entries.
The rare antidote to this trend was the 2019 debut of The Mandalorian. With the debut of Mando, the fresh and approachable feeling of the 1977 Star Wars was confidently and miraculously rebooted. Everything about Season 1 of Mando brought back the casual fan, the viewer who had grown tired of midi-chlorians and Skywalkers. When it debuted, The Mandalorian didn't demand anything from a casual viewer. Like Star Wars in 1977, it dropped you into a detailed and multi-layered galaxy but didn't require the uninitiated casual fan to understand a lick of backstory.
The Baby Yoda debacle
If you think this isn't true, then consider the "Baby Yoda" debacle, in which millions of fans were confused about why Baby Yoda wasn't literally Yoda. If you're someone who consumes fan theories and knows the Star Wars canon backward and forwards, this might sound laughable, but my wife is married to me — a person who writes about Star Wars professionally and has done so since before we were married —genuinely did not understand why Baba Yoda wasn't just Yoda. She also loved the series. And part of the reason why, was that "explaining" the timeline of Baby Yoda relative to the rest of Star Wars didn't impact her enjoyment of the series one bit. Like the classic 1977 film, Season 1 of The Mandalorian was self-contained, and the popular response of casuals being confused by the timeline proved how successful the series was.
In The Mandalorian Season 1, Easter eggs and references didn't control the plot. Sure, people went rushing to Google to the Darksaber after the season finale, and Baby Yoda debuted Rey's healing power two days before The Rise of Skywalker somehow brought back Palatine, but none of that impacted the larger story — at least not to the same degree references and deep-cuts control Season 2.
The Mandalorian Season 2 presents itself as more "Chapters" in the same story, but from the first episode, "The Marshal," forward, it plays out way more like fan service. Contrast the last moments of Season 1 Episode 1 with those of Season 2 Episode 1. The big twist in Season 1 was that Mando was going to have to protect a baby. The big twist in Season 2 was....the actor who played Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) was back as Boba Fett; a character who'd previously had roughly four lines across six Star Wars movies.
Yes, the return of Boba Fett is "cool," but it's also distracting as hell. Now that Boba Fett has injected himself back into the story, the series should probably be retitled The Mandalorian and His Amazing Friends. The small, focused quality of the series, in which the galaxy was big enough for Mando to avoid a bunch of legacy Star Wars characters is over. Nearly everything this season is a reference a call-back, or a huge Easter egg which gestures at the plot developments from other parts of the franchise — from animated shows, to novels, to video games.
The Mandalorian Season 1 was its own thing. The Mandalorian Season 2 is more like a weekly celebration in which the show yells: "Isn't Star Wars cool!"
So is The Mandalorian Season 2 better or worse?
We would have never been asking about Luke Skywalker this much in Season 1, but Season 2 has forced us to think about it (pun intended). In terms of the complicated canon references, it didn't take much for The Mandalorian to become a potpourri of rebooted ideas from the books and leftover plot threads from Rebels. None of this makes the show bad, to be clear, but it does make the show different. The stakes of the first season were earned by the characters and situations within that season. The stakes of the second season all come from without. The Mandalorian Season 2 would be like if Thanos, Thor, and Spider-Man had all been introduced in Iron Man 2. The series went from zero to lightspeed in terms of leaning on outside characters and plot points to further its own story.
A Star Wars loyalist would say that it's all been earned, and that larger mythology might enrich the series. I think that's a decent argument, but it still doesn't change the fact that this is a different series. In Season 1 "The Way" of Mandalore meant one thing. In Season 2, characters Mando has never met are making up the rules. The Mandalorian Season 2 is still a good Star Wars product, but it's missing the one thing that made Season 1 great.