For many the first season of “The Mandalorian,” the first-ever live-action “Star Wars” television series and the flagship show for the fledgling Disney+ direct-to-consumer streaming platform, was hit-or-miss. Some got on its wavelength, a comparatively low-stakes adventure series inspired equally by old westerns and samurai films as it was the original “Star Wars” films and embraced the chance to ooh and ahh over the character most refer to as Baby Yoda. But others found it episodic, “Bonanza” in space, plodding and pointless, lacking the narrative and emotional complexity of Peak TV’s very best shows.
But in last week’s episode, it was hard to resist the series’ considerable charm – it brought together many of the disparate threads from earlier in the season and raised the stakes considerably. And in this week’s finale (dubbed “Redemption”) solidifies the show as a “Star Wars” saga very much worthy of your time and continued emotional investment (filming has already commenced on season two).
The last episode concluded with the biggest cliffhanger of the series so far — Stormtroopers (modeled after the ones on the speeder bikes on Endor in “Return Of The Jedi“) killed the lovable grump Kuiil (voiced by Nick Nolte) and escaped with the child, while the Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) and his confederates (Carl Weathers and Gina Carano) were being held down by a new big bad, Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito) and his Deathtroopers (as seen in “Rogue One“) and Stormtroopers. Things seemed, if not quite hopeless, then incredibly low on hope, and in the latest episode, which picks up right where episode seven left off, things don’t seem much better: the Mandalorian and his crew look desperately for a way to escape into the subterranean world where he suspects other Mandalorians might be hiding out, even as communication with Kuiil fizzles out. And Navarro is being flooded with Stormtroopers. Things are dire. We’re trying to avoid spoilers here, but the character grows and changes in some pretty fundamental ways, as do other characters we’ve gotten to know, and the paradigm of the show shifts by the end of the episode, setting up season two in more than one way.
Right from the outset, the atmosphere and mood of the episode is more suspenseful than virtually any other episode in the series; it’s longer too — while earlier episodes have fluctuated wildly in terms of their runtime, most have hovered around the half-hour mark, while this episode goes over 45 minutes. And much praise should be directed towards this week’s director Taika Waititi. Waititi has been a part of the show since the very first episode when he voiced IG-11, an assassin droid that was competing with the Mandalorian for the prized bounty. Last week he reemerged as an assistant droid to Kuiil, having been reprogrammed to care and feel. (One of the greatest sequences in Deborah Chow‘s episode was a beautiful interlude where you watched IG-11 evolve.) Waititi returns to voice the character in this episode, who comes across as a hardened version of Baymax from “Big Hero 6,” but he’s also responsible for everything else in the episode and it shows.
From an early sequence where the two Stormtroopers who nabbed Baby Yoda are chatting (one sounds a lot like Jason Sudeikis), to the breathlessly inventive action sequences that seem cut from the same cloth as “Thor Ragnarok,” Waititi’s fingerprints are all over this installment. You can tell that Waititi isn’t terribly interested in the more expanded universe-y aspects of the series; elements that have noticeably tripped up and slowed down earlier episodes. There are some big “reveals” in this episode and some gummier mythology building, but Waititi wisely frames everything in the context of what it says about our core characters, always asking how does this change them, affect their relationships, and help them grow? It’s a monumental task, really, to try and focus on deepening the characters and adding dimensionality while also staging aerial combat sequences and robot chases and setting everything up for season two. And he’s mostly successful, truth be told. There is some awkwardness towards the end of the episode and some phony “well everything’s wrapped up” sentimentality, plus a final shot that, while cool, will have you scrambling to Wookiepedia (hint, it’s a reference to something from “Star Wars: Rebels” and the Mandalorian culture explored on that show). But Waititi is one of the most gifted storytellers working today, and his singular style is all over this episode, elevating it to something else altogether.
And honestly, thank god. While almost every episode has been at least satisfyingly enjoyable, if yes, narratively baggy, this is one of the installments that is actually compelling. And it sets things up very nicely for another season, which will hopefully come sooner rather than later. “The Mandalorian” had to check a lot of boxes and be a lot of things to a lot of people, and it did all of those things remarkably well. It was entertaining and inventive and captured the imagination of the internet in ways few pop culture events can these days. What this final episode shows is that it is also a great character piece, concerned with emotions and relations and really thrilling action set pieces. While the final installment of the Skywalker saga tripped itself with convoluted plot mechanics and underwhelming twists, the final episode of “The Mandalorian” is remarkably streamlined and gratifying. Bring on season 2. [B+]