BARNHART

The Mandalorian Is Much More Than a Little Green Meme

Baby Yoda is great, but the must-see-TV quality of this Star Wars-inspired show goes way beyond a GIF.
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    Prior to Disney+’s debut of The Mandalorian, people (like me) who don’t follow Star Wars that closely were asking, “What’s a Mandalorian?” Now we have our answer — a Mandalorian is Baby Yoda’s bodyguard.

    In possibly the greatest reveal since The Sixth Sense or maybe Soylent Green, the title figure of The Mandalorian — a masked bounty hunter played by Pedro Pascal — goes in pursuit of a fugitive that seemingly half the universe is after, and it turns out to be Baby Yoda. OK, but now you ask, “Who is Baby Yoda?”

    For starters, Baby Yoda is an adorable, wide-eyed, infantile version of the wizened green man who first appeared in 1980’s Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. He’s not called Baby Yoda — he’s only known as “The Child” on The Mandalorian—but that’s what the Internet, which instantly fell for the little guy, called him. And it’s not clear if he’s the Yoda or a close relative. Also, he’s 50 years old, though he’s tiny, only makes goo-goo sounds, and mostly stays in his baby buggy. Yet he already knows how and when to deploy his greatest power: an energy force that he can summon in extreme cases to protect and heal those around him. I think this is what they call “the force.” I’m not sure. I never saw The Empire Strikes Back. In fact, I’ve only seen two Star Wars films, 40 years apart.

    So I turned to people who really, really know and understand Star Wars. According to them, Baby Yoda is “a license to print money” and “the logical endpoint of a sinister company.” Baby Yoda is “an inherently manipulative product of the most powerful media conglomerate on this or any other planet.” Baby Yoda was a meme cynically designed for maximum virality . And credit for the rise of this little green creature goes far beyond Disney. “Baby Yoda is the decline of the movie star and the ascendance of IP,” as in intellectual property, which is an actual license to print money. Lastly, Baby Yoda is “the product of a merciless capitalist machine bent on one goal: buy our sh*t.”

    Now let’s turn to the ivory tower, where they take TV criticism to a whole new level. “Baby Yoda animates the extremes of power and powerlessness that have come to define today’s stark and escalating inequality,” writes one academic. Two Duke University professors argue that Disney is not in show business so much as the “cultural icon” business, and that “Baby Yoda is the perfect figure to convince customers Disney+ is not just another video streaming service: it is the streaming service you have to have.”

    I’ll shorthand these and many other Baby Yoda critiques I’ve read online into a single mega-hot take: Only a sucker would let this cute green Trojan Horse into their home. Rarely have I been made to feel like a dupe for being entertained by something that a huge entertainment company put a great deal of thought and creativity into making ... entertaining.

    To be clear, that “something” I’m enjoying so much isn’t Baby Yoda, it’s The Mandalorian. From all of the coverage it would be easy to think that this is a show about a GIF, but really, Baby Yoda is just part of the total package. And the total package is totally entertaining.

    It starts with the title character who, despite what you may read, remains the beating heart of The Mandalorian. He’s called Mandalorian and is not to be confused with the Man DeLorean whose car was so essential to that other sci-fi classic, Back to the Future. Mando, as he’s also called, belongs to an elite breed of warriors, known collectively as Mandalorians. They are always suited in armor from head to toe and appear to be tough as nails. But events in the universe has apparently stripped them of their power and made them nomads in the galaxy. So they do what they can to get by while maintaining their solidarity and devotion to the Mandalorian code, such as never taking off your helmet and showing people your true face.

    Trust me when I say that all of this backstory matters very little when deciding whether to watch The Mandalorian. Showrunner Jon Favreau has created a highly accessible first season that draws deeply on his love for spaghetti westerns, quietly powerful characters, and yes, Star Wars.

    The reason even dummies like me have invested time in this show — other than the fact I wanted to watch something with my grandkids — is that Star Wars is such a known quantity. I trust it to be entertaining, even if I don’t understand all the nuances of Imperial this and revolution that. It’s an escape to a world that only exists in Southern California, in this case a soundstage in Manhattan Beach where the Mandalorian magic happens.

    In each episode, Mando flies his rocket ship Razor Crest — a barely spaceworthy rustbucket so old that it can travel undetected by Imperial radar systems — from one TV-sized adventure to the next. Mando is a man of few words, and when he utters them, he sounds like Clint Eastwood. The show has already given us the moving-train scene, the Mexican standoff, the Gatling gun, and other tropes of the great westerns. The violence on the show is bloodless, other than some android gore, mild by gamer standards. In other words, it’s got something for everyone.

    What few things I know about Mando make me want to know more. He obeys a strong honor code upheld by members of something called The Guild. (This is Favreau’s tribute to samurai films, not the actors’ union.) He’s old school, never wanting a task done by droids that could just as well be done by humans. When he was a child, his home was destroyed and his parents sent him off in the nick of the time. The Mandalorians found him and raised him.

    And now, he’s seemingly stumbled into the biggest manhunt in the galaxy. In his endless pursuit of gas money, he’s found his way to a mysterious and powerful client, conveniently known as “The Client,” who wants him to find a very special fugitive ... our little green man-child with the Christlike superpower.

    The Client is played by Werner Herzog, one of the most distinguished makers of documentaries on this planet. When he was on the set, he saw Favreau and Dave Faloni, the other showrunner of The Mandalorian, taking the mechanical Baby Yoda figure out of the frame and shooting scenes with a blank screen. Their thinking was that they might have to computer-generate the character instead. Herzog, who says he was moved to tears by the beauty of the Baby Yoda puppet, called the producers “cowards” for even thinking of replacing it with CGI.

    I mention this story in part because I’m not a CGI fan either, and because I was delighted to learn that not everyone in show business is obsessed with Star Wars. Werner Herzog admitted he hadn’t watched any of the films before The Mandalorian. And yet he knows beauty when he sees it. You don’t have to be a Star Wars fan to be sucked into this tale of frontier justice and the dynamic duo who might someday save the universe.

    Fortunately, a large portion of the Star Wars fanverse have ignored the harsh takes on The Mandalorian. Like me, they are wondering how the impossible cliffhanger of the seventh episode could possibly resolve to our heroes’ favor (though of course, it will eventually). Like me, they aren’t wondering how they could be so cynically used by a megacorporation that somehow keeps churning out the hits. In the end, we all know our investment of time ... and yes, dear cynics, our monthly fees paid to The Walt Disney Company — will be rewarded.

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    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Star Wars: The Mandalorian, Disney+, Jon Favreau (actor/director), Pablo Pascal, Werner Herzog