That Star Wars show just had an episode that was a stone cold killer. According to José Barbosa, you can thank director Dave Filoni’s animation background for that.
[Spoilers for episode five of The Mandalorian follow, if you care about that sort of thing]
The year 2019 brought many TV streaming joys including that second glorious season of Fleabag and the bonkers but sad Russian Doll, to name just a couple.
But for sci-fi fans, nothing could compare to the buzz of moving between episodes of Watchmen and The Mandalorian as they rolled out. The former was chiefly a story about layers of meaning and history; the latter was stringently unconcerned with thematic layers other than exactly what it is showing you right this minute.
That’s not a criticism of The Mandalorian – reasonably uncomplicated yet well made Star Wars fare is a balm after the ridiculous thrashing of the recent feature films (although I maintain The Last Jedi was probably the most interesting Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back, but its promise was squandered by the final film of the trilogy).
If you’re looking for concrete examples of why The Mandalorian works so well, look no further than the latest episode, ‘Chapter 13: The Jedi’. It’s a high point for the series and it mostly comes down to basic pillars of storytelling as exemplified by writer/director (and series executive producer) Dave Filoni. And it’s surprising, at least to me, how much of it comes back to principles regularly employed in animation, where Filoni has worked for years.
The first is that often cited maxim that a successful character has to be recognisable in silhouette. In general every major character in The Mandalorian has a distinct profile: the bucket head and thin neck of the titular Mando; Baby Yoda (or Grogu as he shall henceforth be know) and his long elf ears; even Peli’s (Amy Sedaris) super curly perm – all are designed to be read in an instant no matter where the character is placed in relation to the camera.
(It’s interesting to note how the strongest design is reserved for the good guys. The bad guys are mostly baldy humans in cloaks; even the big bad Moff Gideon is just a slightly more chunky cloak person.)
That clarity of design extends to The Mandalorian’s set design and general staging. Even though the cinematography of ‘The Jedi’ is somewhat desaturated you can easily read the characters and their positions within the environment. Take the opening scene, in which fan favourite Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson) cuts through the armed scouts of magistrate Morgan Elsbeth. The action takes place within the misty remains of a forest, hundreds of burnt trunks thrusting into the sky. It’s a striking backdrop, but one that allows us to see all the characters – apart from Ahsoka, who uses the mist to her advantage, slipping in and out of the trees to ambush the scouts. Here movement – key to cinematic composition and directing the viewer’s eye – comes into play. Waving two great big white lightsabers also helps.
The arrangement of people within their setting is so well planned that even the most drab settings – like a wintry, bare-branched forest – become beautiful. It’s not hard to see how Filoni’s animation background informed the choices here.
The introduction of Ahsoka Tano ranks up there with Joss Whedon at his best (for an example, see the one-shot crew introduction scene in Serenity). Ahsoka is a long established character in the Star Wars animated universe – she emerged as a character during Filoni’s tenure at the helm of The Clone Wars – but The Mandalorian can’t assume viewers know who she is. Thus ‘The Jedi’ begins with the forest scene, which shows us that she knows how to handle a lightsaber.
Then, in her conversation with Morgan Elsbeth outside the town’s gate, we see she’s also extremely capable in one on one negotiation. Morgan does the old “I’ll kill innocent townspeople if you don’t stop” villain gambit. But Ahsoka’s been around too long to fall for that. She flips it back onto Morgan: she’s already killing the townspeople, she has one day to decide whether to give Ahsoka the information she wants or she’ll come back.
The rest of the story is a pleasing series of minor story set ups and pay offs: a character who helps out early on is elevated to head of the village, signalling that things will definitely change for the townspeople, and Baby Yoda/Grogu’s obsession with that round doohickey on the Raven Claw’s control panel comes back to help and then hinder the chances of Ahsoka training him in the ways of the force.
In addition: the strung up townspeople we saw before are freed by the Mandalorian while Ahsoka distracts and dispatches Morgan’s army in the back alleys of the town. A perfect example of showing, not telling, the audience why the super bad-ass Jedi needed help: she couldn’t fight and stop townspeople being executed at the same time.
The final battle between Ahoska and Morgan is genuinely exciting and a good demonstration of the rule that a fight scene should tell you something about the characters and the story. It’s played out more as a stop-start testing of defences than the usual whirlybird Star Wars lightsaber fight, with its beats played out on the actors’ faces. Morgan is able to disarm Ahoska and remove one of her lightsabers from the fight; the Jedi, usually unfazed and cucumber-cool, is visibly worried. When I first watched this fight I was singing its praises, but on a second watch I’m slightly less entranced by it. In technical terms it doesn’t land for me: Rosario Dawson isn’t quite selling the saber swings and hits, and I’m not sure her foot work is all that convincing. But in terms of story and character it’s an exciting conclusion and Dawson is excellent as Ahoska. Roll on the spinoff series.
Other small gripes are some of the line direction which has actors clumsily pausing in the middle of sentences. When the Mandalorian is required to show hesitation or unwillingness he does it in the most obvious way possible: “Wait here, I’ll … go get him”. While the awkwardness isn’t helped by the lack of a face to help him emote, it still comes across as something you might hear in a first reading. The dialogue in the series is so stripped back, in keeping with the overall vibe of the show, that I wish there was at least a touch of flair here and there.
And what exactly happened between Ahsoka and Morgan? The last we see of them is Ahoska with her lightsaber at Morgan’s throat. Did the Jedi get her information? Did she nip off Morgan’s head or is Morgan slapped in chains in the dungeon? Morgan’s fate isn’t immediately essential to the story and it’s enough to know Ahsoka bested her in battle, but y’know … throw us a bone here, Filoni.
Ultimately though, ‘The Jedi’ is the strongest statement of intent The Mandalorian has achieved thus far. And that’s mostly thanks to Dave Filoni applying the skills and story approach he’s honed in his years in animation.
Season 2 of The Mandalorian is on Disney+ on Fridays.