Herzog in a Star Wars western? Meet ‘The Mandalorian’ (Review)

“The Mandalorian,” the first live action Star Wars TV series, is the Star Wars fan’s wet dream.

It is a gritty take on Star Wars, so obsessed with the scum and villainy side of the story that it crams two cantina scenes into its first 40-minute episode. No one in this slice of the galaxy says, “may the Force be with you.”

The first episode, titled simply “Chapter One,” is certainly a fun shoot-em-up adventure, but it also has a tone of mournful desperation and more heart than expected from a show about a lone bounty hunter.

The series, masterminded by writer/director/actor Jon Favreau, doubles down on Star Wars’ roots in western films, with musical cues that recall Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti soundtracks; a post-Civil War reconstruction setting (Galactic Civil War, that is); and a main character so like Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name that he has not only no name but no face.

Pedro Pascal (“Narcos,” “Game of Thrones”) stars as the titular Mandalorian, a gun-slinging rogue on the edge of the frontier, just getting by in the period immediately following the Galactic Civil War and the collapse of the Empire.

He manages, like the original Star Wars movie, to do a lot with very little.

The Mando wears a helmet through the entire episode, and, if marketing materials are to believed, throughout the season. Yet with a subtle swagger, tilts of the head, and sparing dialogue, Pascal manages to imbue this suit of armor with a real personality.

The Mandalorian is a member of a fabled warrior race brought low during the days of the Empire and made famous in Star Wars fandom by the iconic bounty hunter Boba Fett.

(Listen, Fett wasn’t actually a Mandalorian, but he made their distinctive armor famous.)

The Empire, in this period shortly after “Return of the Jedi,” is no more, but its presence is still felt.

In which the title character meets a mysterious figure.

An ex-Imperial officer (or is he with one of the Imperial remnants, a smattering of small entities that persist after the end of the Galactic Civil War?) played by a gravely scene-chewing Werner Herzog (!) hires the Mando for an off-the-books bounty, promising to pay him not in money but in a trove of beskar.

Beskar is a near-sacred metal that Mandalorians build their armor out of, so strong that it has been seen deflecting glancing blows from lightsabers in the animated series “Clone Wars” and “Rebels.” But our mysterious hero is clad in a shambolic collection of rusting panels cobbled together from different sets of armor. Only his helmet appears to be made of beskar.

In a surprisingly moving scene, Herzog’s character, also unnamed, hands over a bar of silver beskar stamped with an Imperial seal.

It is a sad sight — a treasured piece of Mandalorian material culture stolen by the Empire, stamped and catalogued. It recalls the sight of Jewish texts confiscated by Nazis, then stamped with a Reich seal. Restoring a large quantity of beskar to its rightful place in the hands of the Mandalorian people would be an almost sacred quest. 

Joining Pascal is an excellent cast, including the leader of the guild of bounty hunters, Greef Carga, played by Carl Weathers, who looks absolutely stoked to be in Star Wars.

Kuill, an alien guide played by Nick Nolte, repeatedly deploys an instant-classic catchphrase; amusingly, despite being under a full-face animatronic mask, he looks exactly like Nick Nolte.

And then there is director Taika Waititi as the voice of an unintentionally funny suicidal assassin droid.

Still to come in the season are Giancarlo Esposito as an Imperial moff (or former moff?), MMA star Gina Carano as a former rebel soldier, and Ming-Na Wen as another bounty hunter.

Werner Herzog narrates the trailer like it’s one of his documentaries.

The production design is everything you want in Star Wars, complete with an undeniably cool ship, the Razorcrest — the Mando’s rusting chrome vessel, which comes complete with an onboard carbon-freezing chamber, natch.

“Chapter One” closes with the best shoot-out the franchise has ever given us. The whole episode is perfect Star wars, without being a retread of stuff we’ve already seen.

Unfortunately, there is a reveal in the final moment of the episode that is perhaps too Star wars, and left me feeling a little dubious.

And yet — it’s cool. It’s fun. It moves like a house on fire. It’s the Galaxy Far, Far Away. It’s Star Wars. And it is, dare I say, worth the seven bucks a month Disney wants you to lay down for its new streaming service.

Fabulist media critic David A.M. Wilensky is the digital editor of jweekly.com and modmin of the Star Trek Jewposting group on Facebook. 

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