By Jonathan E. Hernandez
A cloaked figure walks towards a small establishment on the horizon. His past is a mystery, and yet this morally ambiguous man-with-no-name seems at once familiar. We can practically piece together his backstory as we watch in anticipation – and that’s long before the almost nostalgic score from composer Ludwig Göransson kicks in. The fact that our protagonist refuses to take off his helmet only adds to his intrigue. With a rifle slung over his back, he has a profile that might one day become as iconic as the outline of an Imperial AT-AT walker.
The establishment is a bar on a world in a galaxy far, far away, but might as well be a tavern in a small Southwest town. We know this bar because we’ve seen it before – metaphorically.
Our main character pops in and practically strikes a pose just long enough for us to admire his costume – before trundling up to the bar keep. He leans over and mutters a line of dialogue as a trio of shady characters in the background glare and leer, and everyone from the patrons to the audience at home know what’s about to happen. The tension is so thick you can slice it with a lightsaber.
This is how the pilot episode of Disney Plus’s new show, The Mandalorian starts – and it’s glorious. The Mandalorian appears to have not only secured enthusiasm for the Star Wars franchise, but has also enticed viewers to subscribe to Disney’s new online streaming service. There’s a lot of talk and buzz (especially about baby Yoda, which we’ll get to later). And – at least for now – the fans seem happy. The show is set five years after the fall of the Galactic Empire and is noticeably darker in tone – and yet still feels like a return to what we know and like (right down to shady bounty hunters who seem abundant in this universe). With the show being a smash hit, it’s fair to ask why, or how. I suspect that the secret behind the interest lies not so much in any of the individual bits – not even baby Yoda – but rather how each of the components work together in a narrative form that might be as old as the history of storytelling itself.
It might seem unthinkable now, but Westerns used to be as hot as pop music and reality TV. From TV shows and movies to radio programs and comic books, America memorialized the legendary Wild Wild West with characters like the Cisco Kid and The Lone Ranger. Westerns helped launch the careers of well-known actors like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Even former US President Ronald Reagan cut his proverbial teeth as an actor in cowboy flicks. Westerns captivated the imaginations of their audiences to such an extent that when Gene Roddenberry pitched the now-iconic Star Trek to CBS executives, he described it as a “space Western.”
This is undoubtedly part of why we like The Mandalorian so much. Not because it’s a Western in exotic trappings, but because it has consciously (and perhaps sometimes unintentionally) inherited many of the themes and motifs that have been transmitted throughout the long history of narrative art. There’s a very familiar archetype in the titular character – a man of few words and a cold heart who nevertheless has a turn and “does the right thing.”
“Mando” the Mandalorian’s bounty turns out to be a fifty-year old “baby Yoda” at the end of the pilot; himself a character steeped in mystery and intrigue as fans speculate about his origins. And while the adorable little green guy has a “Wanted: dead or alive” contract practically stamped on his wrinkly little forehead, Mando eventually decides to save him from his would-be captors. It immediately draws the ire of the galactic bounty hunters’ guild, and is sure to make Mando plenty of enemies in future episodes. We don’t know why he changed his mind, and it doesn’t matter. In that instant, viewers knew everything that they needed to know. Despite whatever flaws he might have, the fights which Mando chooses to have make him likable – if not lovable. And even though this turn is an oft-predictable convention of the genre, it still seems to satisfy a desire to see righteousness prevail. It’s a deep-seated psychological draw made all the more welcomed because we know just how unfair and dark real life is. Make no mistake – The Mandalorian shares a lineage with old Westerns, but that lineage goes back even further than that.
It’s a well-known fact that the classic The Magnificent Seven was loosely inspired by the black-and-white Japanese film The Seven Samurai. And while it’s not a secret, it’s sometimes overlooked how another Akira Kurosawa film, The Hidden Fortress, inspired a young filmmaker named George Lucas when he made Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
If one browsed a selection of samurai movies, one would see many of the features that found their way into American cowboy flicks. Typically taking place in medieval Japan, our protagonists were frequently mysterious swordsmen – commonly dishonored Ronin with conveniently obscure pasts and questionable ethics. Much of the drama derived from following the protagonists who could just as easily slice up an innocent bystander as much as help them. And yet, these rough-and-tumble characters win the hearts of their audience by fighting unwinnable battles for love, revenge, honor (sometimes for money, let’s be honest), or old-fashioned justice. It’s a formula that speaks directly to the viewer – in whatever trappings and in as many different permutations as you can think of.
All that said, do audiences ever get tired of the formula? Do the conventions get stale? Most assuredly. And while The Mandalorian is hot right now, is such a format sustainable moving forward? The Star Wars universe is vast. We have only seen a fraction of its lore which in film stretches across several fictional periods from the Old Galactic Republic to the creation of a new one. And the decision to focus on darker themes and tones could open up storytelling possibilities that weren’t an option for previous treatments.
It would be a mistake to discount how compelling the conventions of storytelling are. They persist, and for a reason. They are retold because they need to be. We once remembered our pasts and tried to divine our futures through stories. We used them as safe spaces to discuss radical ideas and taboos. We dared to dream and ask questions, and sometimes fantasized about things that we knew could never happen.
And despite the social revolutions that have happened since the black-and-whites, many of the more persistent themes somehow still seem relevant today. The genre seems to renew itself from time to time depending on the tastes and societal norms of the generations. They’ve long evolved from the silly, singing cowboy serials to the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone with their morally gray antiheroes. In time, we would see an explosion of sub-genres and variations: revisionist, steampunk, acid – even horror-infused Westerns such as the film Bone Tomahawk. And throughout all of these endeavors, the anti-hero archetype – itself a variation of the hero archetype – refused to die.
Kurosawa was inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth when he made Throne of Blood – right down to a scene with ‘walking trees’ assaulting a castle. And another film of his, Ran, was inspired by King Lear. These facts illustrate how ubiquitous Shakespearean literature tends to be in art – and the connective tissue that links together many forms of narrative art.
The English in the Elizabethan period didn’t have television, but a production like a Shakespearean play was their form of popular entertainment. The works of Shakespeare had connective tissue linking together other artists of the English Renaissance from Milton to Edmund Spenser, as it was common for poets and playwrights to draw inspiration from biblical and classical sources. The recited poems of Homer were inspired by myths that were already old by the time he put his twist on them. And the Greeks would hear stories that reached their shores from the Near East – stories about Asian god-kings from the epic of Gilgamesh and King Sargon of Akkad. And going back further still there were the orally transmitted tales – most of them forgotten without a written language to record them. These tales have been told and retold in various forms since the days when our ancestors huddled around fires. We used to dream about heroes who explored a demon-haunted world, unafraid of the monsters that we knew haunted its borders. They made us feel safe by slaying the beasts – beasts that we had a hard time even visualizing. And these heroes and monsters themselves are psychic projections of collective fears that we would need millennia to decode. Everyone has copied everyone and no one is original. As it says in the Bible ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ The Mandalorian is not original – it’s an abstraction of what’s existed before woven into an already-existing franchise. It’s a product with ingredients that have been expertly distilled, and then aged admirably.
For the time being, it seems that the show has found its following and is supported with a solid base. And while those sound like famous last words, there is nothing to suggest that the show’s popularity will wane any time in the near future. The reviews look good, and while many streaming services are notoriously opaque about their subscription figures, stats used to track viewership seem to indicate that The Mandalorian is dominating in the online show category with one of the largest viewership gains in history. Whether fans are invested in the character, the plot, or just really love baby Yoda, they are tuning in regularly and enthusiastically to see what happens next.
In addition to reeling in a new generation of Star Wars fans, or maintaining the interest of old ones, the success of the show might illustrate how compelling narrative art and storytelling are. One of the secret weapons of the Star Wars franchise is merchandising – but that merch won’t sell itself without a story – the cuteness of baby Yoda notwithstanding.
The Mandalorian – despite whatever hiccups or lulls it might have in the future – will likely inspire a new generation of fans who are interested in this style of story. They may check out the classic Kurosawa films or curiously skim through the many reels of old Westerns. They might even crack open a dusty volume of Shakespeare as they explore and re-explore these fertile settings, plots, and character types for many more years to come.