'The Mandalorian' Season 2: TV Review

The Mandalorian
Courtesy of Disney+
Some signs of sophomore season bloat, but still fun, occasionally thrilling popcorn TV.

Baby Yoda is back, and so is his terse sidekick in the suit, as the Disney+ sensation returns for a second season.

My immediate reaction to the pilot of The Mandalorian, when it premiered last November, was that it was a pleasant little show set within the unaccountable vastness of the Star Wars universe — with the surprising emphasis on "little."

Sure, The Mandalorian delivered strong special effects, a steady stream of midlevel action — never star wars, but certainly star skirmishes — and the Emmy-winning score by Ludwig Göransson was always epic (though that score always felt a bit like a terrier puffing itself up to stare down a Great Dane). The series was marked by generally underpopulated crowd scenes, endearingly limited running times — 30 minutes at its shortest and only two episodes over 40 minutes — and a structure that was almost iconoclastically episodic in a cable/streaming landscape where hyper-seriality is seen as a mark of quality. Even the show's breakout character was little, the adorably shamrock, saucer-eyed whelp known either as The Child (if you're a slave to Lucasfilm branding) or Baby Yoda (if you're an actual human being).

Of course, The Mandalorian proved to be a breakout hit for Disney+ (at least so far as we know, since there are no ratings for such things), a surprise Emmy sensation and, after a brief merchandising blackout, Baby Yoda became the most ubiquitous TV tyke since Bart Simpson. So it was no shock to press play on the second-season premiere at midnight on Friday (Oct. 30) and see that the premiere was 54 minutes. Could Ozark-level bloat be far behind?

So really the big question in this review — which spoils bits and pieces of the premiere but surely not any of the biggest twists (singular, really) that presumably caused Disney+ to once again eschew screeners for critics — is "Did success spoil The Mandalorian?"

And the short answer, fortunately, is "Not really." If you tuned in to the premiere hoping for new worlds, deeper exploration of old characters and imaginative new characters, there's a chance you might have left "The Marshal" with minor disappointment. But like a monster rock group from the '70s still drawing a crowd on the state fair circuit, this episode was all about playing the hits and playing them loud. The result was, for a little show, easily its biggest and perhaps most purely entertaining episode to date.

Describing plot in The Mandalorian is a silly thing, owing to that episodic structure. You know going in that you'll see Pedro Pascal's masked bounty hunter on the proverbial road with Baby Yoda, encountering a guest star or two in a close-ended adventure lifted either from a Japanese samurai movie, or an American Western lifting its plot from a Japanese samurai movie, and "The Marshal" is no different. Following off of the finale, our faithful hero Mando is on a quest to find out how he can return Baby Yoda safely to his (or her) home safely. And after a brief jaunt on what was I believe an unnamed ruffian planet, home to copious graffiti, unseen critters with red eyes and underground Gamorrean fighting, it was time to get to those established hits, with a return to Tatooine, an encore cameo by Amy Sedaris' wacky mechanic Peli Motto and more easy-to-spot Easter eggs than any episode in memory.

Credit writer-director Jon Favreau for simply giving audiences what they want, and the first 15 minutes of the premiere are almost nonstop pleasant pandering, from the aforementioned Gamorreans — even the most casual Star Wars fans remember the Gamorrean guards from Return of the Jedi — to a steady torrent of recognizable creatures. My notes are almost nothing but, "Hey look! A Bantha!" Or "So many Tusken Raiders!" Or "Ooh! Wamp rat close-up!" And that's before you get to the healthy diet of Baby Yoda reaction shots. I don't know if there will, at some point, be diminishing returns to the effectiveness of Baby Yoda cooing in contentment or concern, enjoying a nice ride with the roof down or hiding in inopportune places, like an alien bar spittoon — but we have not yet reached that point.

It tells you something that the episode's "new" element/character is Cobb Vanth, a wry, scruffy marshal of a dying Tatooine mining town played by Timothy Olyphant, an actor so entrenched in his wry-and-scruffy-lawman image that this is the third time he's played off of his Deadwood/Justified persona in winking fashion this very year. And don't get me wrong! Olyphant isn't just good at what he does, he's spectacular, and Cobb Vanth is a much better use of his squinting, drawling authority than his current work on Fargo (and maybe even better than his turn as himself on The Good Place). It's only the tiniest of spoilers to note that when the episode's one-off adventure ends, Cobb tells Mando, "I hope our paths cross again" and my immediate reaction was, "Yes, please!" which hasn't always been the case with the show's big-name guest stars.

Cobb's storyline is not just by-the-numbers (residents of a dying Western town make an uncomfortable alliance with their longtime enemies); it's borderline irrelevant to the show's main arc, more shaggy dog detour than narrative progress. And that's completely OK when you have Favreau giving the episode nonstop quippy banter of the sort the franchise's last feature film lacked and you have a couple action beats of real grandeur. I'd say that, keeping with the show's general approach, even the battle scenes remain a little sparsely populated, yet the main episodic adversary — a Dune Worm meets Tremors Graboid dubbed a "Krayt Dragon" — is properly imposing, threatening and thrillingly realized.

The episode isn't rich or character-driven. It pretty much takes us nowhere we haven't been before. But it's funny and exciting and very pretty. Plus, like the series premiere, it introduces a twist at the end that I'm assuming has fans all in a tizzy — and more casual viewers searching online in an effort to try to understand why fans are all in a tizzy.

While I definitely wouldn't mind a return to the endearing brevity of last season's episodes, and I'd surely welcome a hair more depth, the Mandalorian premiere was a return of high-octane popcorn TV and there really isn't anything else like it.

Cast: Pedro Pascal, Baby Yoda

Creator: Jon Favreau

Premiered: Friday, Oct. 30, on Disney+