To borrow from the Mandalorian’s mantra – is this really the way?
It’s great, for “Star Wars” fans like me, to have the show back. We could all use a little Baby Yoda in our lives again. And the second season, which debuted on Oct. 30, continues to deliver high-quality, rollicking, space-western adventure. But you know what would make it better?
If protagonist Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal) could maybe stop traveling to different planets, meeting large exotic animals and slaughtering them.
“The Mandalorian” has made a splash as one of the most satisfying “Star Wars” properties in decades thanks to zeroing in on the little guys in the galaxy, not capital-H heroes. It offers the irresistible plot device of a hardened, macho guy softened by his intersection with an incredibly vulnerable being – The Child, a.k.a. Baby Yoda. I defy you not to hear your heart squeak a little when he reaches his tiny green hands out for his armored protector.
But despite its fantastic juxtaposition of action and empathy, “The Mandalorian” has a weirdly regressive tone. (I’m not the first to say it; feminist critics of the show last year already came under heavy fire for pointing out the paucity of juicy roles for women in the series.)
I feel this tone not so much in the show’s absence of women – I’m a fan of Gina Carano’s super-tough Cara Dune and Katee Sackhoff’s Bo-Katan Kryze this season – but in the way the series treats its non-humanoid characters.
In season 2’s opening episode, “The Marshal,” the Mandalorian ends up in a dusty mining town on Tatooine, whose occupants (including a mayor played by eternal cowboy Timothy Olyphant) live in fear of the Krayt dragon – a creature whose terrifying size was hinted at in 1978’s “A New Hope.” Here, the townspeople live on top of its habitat, which doesn’t seem to be working out.
When we finally do see the dragon, it’s impressive computer-generated stuff, reminiscent of the enormous sand worms of “Dune” – gargantuan creatures rippling around under the ground. But where the “Dune” worms are revered, “The Marshal” is about killing the dragon, and fully half the episode turns into a quasi-whale hunt, including loading up a trembling Bantha – the shaggy, Tatooine equivalent of a camel – with explosives to use as digestive bait.
Where most of the human body count in this show comes from the cartoonish use of blasters, those omnipresent “Star Wars” laser guns, killing the Krayt is a visceral showdown that really pulls out the stops on the many stages of taking down the monster – starting with dragging it out of its cave, spears embedded in its face.
It reminded me of my least favorite episode in the first season, when Din was tasked with stealing a giant egg for the junk-hoarding Jawas holding his ship hostage. To take the egg, he has to get past its mother, a rhino-esque Mud Horn, guarding it in a cave. With the help of Baby Yoda’s telekinetic powers, he kills her with a blade. The punchline: When he delivers the supposed treasure to the Jawas, they crack it open and devour it. Like, you know, an egg.
I get that the Mandalorian is a bounty hunter, not David Attenborough. I get that sometimes Din has to fight his way out of a situation. And, obviously, I get that these are fictional creatures. But it’s still a bummer to see a series so dedicated to portraying alien civilizations with scrappy nuance – as some have said, it’s the best “Star Wars” storytelling since “The Empire Strikes Back” – exhibit such a sadistic streak toward animals, imaginary though they may be.
Like sci-fi serials “Star Trek” and “Doctor Who,” this fantasy series presents a new alien scenario in nearly every episode. But both of those shows have a fundamental ethos about respecting other life forms; here, not so much.
“The Mandalorian” has already gotten into hot water this season thanks to Baby Yoda’s bottomless appetite. In the second episode, the child is seen repeatedly gobbling up a Frog Lady’s eggs as they’re en route to be fertilized, to save her species from going extinct. The egg theft was scripted as comedy but read as offensive to some, and caused an uproar so big it earned an official response from Lucasfilm: Creative arts manager Phil Szostak tweeted that the eggs “are unfertilized, like the chicken eggs many of us enjoy.”
The outcry seemed a little hyperbolic to me at the time, but after watching the scenes with the dragon and recalling the Mudhorn, it started to point to a strange and off-putting through line. (Not to mention a preoccupation with eggs.) The Mandalorian might have sworn to protect Baby Yoda, but look out if you’re any other creature who crosses his path.
Lest you think this brutal ethos is just how the “Star Wars” universe always is, it’s not. You can pinpoint similar moments in the earlier movies – like Luke Skywalker battling Jabba’s Rancor monster to the death in “Return of the Jedi” – but more recent additions to the canon seemed to take a more enlightened view of the animal kingdom in the galaxy far, far away.
In 2017’s “The Last Jedi,” Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) traveled to a planet full of rich, gambling jerks and ended up freeing horse-like beasts used, and abused, for racing. Then there was the moment Chewbacca, about to eat a roasted porg – a puffin-like bird that lived on Luke Sykwalker’s remote island – was confronted with a tearful clutch of the adorable little birds and lost his appetite. Heck, even back in “Empire,” when the Falcon was perilously close to being eaten by something along the lines of the Krayt Dragon, Han Solo made a run for it and got away as the creature gnashed its mouth shut behind the ship.
Series creator Jon Favreau and Pascal have talked about the show’s debt to old western serials, and elsewhere about monster-of-the-week movies, and in many ways these throwbacks work incredibly well. But it seems a little tin-eared to evoke a time when conquest of the natural world was considered a heroic journey. Today, after all, a majority of Americans think trophy hunting wild animals is repellent. Watching stuff get mindlessly killed isn’t nearly as entertaining as the inter-human drama on this show (more Moff Gideon, please).
More broadly, annihilating inconvenient creatures is at odds with one of the founding principles of the “Star Wars” universe: compassion. George Lucas himself has said as much: “Everybody has the Force. You have the good side and you have the bad side. And as Yoda says, if you choose the bad side, it’s easy because you don’t have to do anything….But the good side is hard because you have to be compassionate.”
Here’s hoping the Mandalorian picks up more of it when he and Baby Yoda finally find a Jedi. Blast all the Storm Troopers you like, Mando, but let the wild, weird fauna of “Star Wars” live.