When watching The Mandalorian "Chapter Four: Sanctuary", I was reminded of a couple of things: firstly, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones had Anakin and Padmé awkwardly falling in love whilst picnicking in the fields of Naboo (where the most interesting takes were cut from the film). Secondly, Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Rebels did "outsiders train the local populus to protect themselves" storylines, replete with Seven Samurai homages, multiple times between them. Most of all, however, a pernicious thought crept in: is this the limit for The Mandalorian's storytelling?
Don't get me wrong, "Chapter Four: Sanctuary" -- directed by Bryce Dallas Howard and, as always, written by Jon Favreau -- is good Star Wars. It's still flabbergasting that fully-fledged live action Star Wars is on television, even knowing the progression of technology and approach to creating high-quality prestige television as a norm. Furthermore, in a string of consistently great Star Wars episodes, this mostly keeps that tally going (though I am still more partial to the moody vistas in "Chapter Two: The Child"). The success is largely derived from the women in the two pairings that are the focal points of this episode: Julia Jones as Omera, a widow and potential love interest for our increasingly stalwart Mando, and Gina Carano as Cara Dune, an ex-Rebel Alliance "shocktrooper".
Julia Jones gives a deeply empathetic touch to her performance that sells dialogue which otherwise might be slightly too hammy (in a galaxy full of potentially hammy dialogue) or detestably on-the-nose in less capable hands. For example, "This nice man is going to help protect us from the bad ones" is a little much, but Jones says it reassuringly to her daughter, while her tone also conveys reassurance towards Mando that he can be his better self, not out of ignorance due to living in the backwater planet Sorgan, but rather a knowing acceptance of his life. Jones believably creates Omera as a possible romantic partner without being overly cloying, aided by a subtle pink colour palette and the exchanges between Omera and Mando being framed in very close proximity.
Jones' performance is responsible for Omera being anything more than a symbol for the villagers' plight or a life Mando inevitably cannot currently attain, because the script certainly isn't multifaceted. Beyond her immediate mixture of appreciation, clear infatuation, and practical consideration of the two of them jointly raising their children (yes, Mando's absolutely a dad now), the most interesting aspect of Omera as a person separate from Mando is her competence with weaponry. However, the story behind that particular capability is left to the audience's imagination -- maybe she too has escaped a military past, learnt for survival, or perhaps her dead partner taught her. It adds a layer of interiority to the character, and a reminder that one doesn't need a physical helmet to mask one's life and person.
There's also something to be said for the idea that The Mandalorian is just a sequence of briefly intersecting independent lives, and that is certainly realistic, as well as keeping to the series' Western heritage. It's quite melancholic, however, and maybe even dissatisfying at this point, especially when fellow mercenary Cara Dune's wise-cracking is a fun complement to Mando's at-most deadpanning.
Gina Carano's mixed martial artist background naturally lends some effortless brutality to her role as Cara Dune (Mando once again goes down in melee), but it's really the evident and infectious enthusiasm beneath her character's sassiness that makes Cara Dune something more notable than a generic badass talkative bounty hunter to Mando's quiet one. Still, the two get a couple of tussles against each other and other enemies, so Carano's physicality isn't forgotten. This episode also really emphasises the tactical side of Mando's approach to combat, and Cara Dune is an able partner.
So by comparison, it's disappointing that the final battle against the orc-like Klatooinian raiders is memorable only because of the composition of wide shots: the AT-ST's glowing red window panes emerging from the darkened forest is a plain image, but intimidating. The rest of the battle is also plain, but just conventional. Maybe one can't blame The Mandalorian for using tried and true battle staging in a year when Game of Thrones managed to botch the impact of its notoriously dark, climatic "Long Night" battle by losing cohesiveness. Yet it's still dull.
Take Asif Ali's Caben and Eugene Cordero's Stoke (hello The Good Place's Pillboi!). Their existence perfunctorily grants Mando and Dune a vector by which to stay and fight the Klatooinians (transporting them shelter in the middle of nowhere). So while giving these characters a heroic moment at the end to round out their arcs is routine -- as all battles tend to do these days for (barely) comedic relief characters -- it's insipid, because the audience was never meant to have much of a connection to them anyway. Conversely, while Omera does shoot a few raiders, she never really gets the same treatment in the battle. Her role in combat is forgettable, which feels much more egregious given how much more attention she has been given.
Most gratingly for the remotely cinematically-savvy viewer is the repetition of variations on the phrase "we just need [the AT-ST] to step forward" into the trenches and fishing pools to topple it. It's very obvious that the AT-ST won't fall over easily, and somebody (Cara Dune) will need to heroically put themselves in the line of fire. While in "Chapter One" it was clear that Mando wasn't about to be riddled with torrents of plasma blasts, there was some uncertainty as to how things would be resolved. Here, there's merely a veneer of tension.
Maybe that's true for the entirety of "Chapter Four: Sanctuary". While this is probably a necessary step for Mando's development, it all feels a little rote and the dialogue occasionally pat. Even if one subscribes to Georges Polti's analysis that there are only thirty-six dramatic situations anyway, Star Wars has done this particular situation before. Even The Mandalorian has already hit most of these story beats.
Generously, this episode repeating a narrative framework demonstrates the changes in Mando's personality, and maybe that is the issue: Mando, as a character, is not static. Throughout these reviews, I have lauded the gradual shifts in his personality, and that is still true, but in the space of four episodes, he is no longer the icy, detached gunman first introduced. He's significantly softened. The Mandalorian "Chapter Four: Sanctuary" has him take off his helmet while loitering alone in some really heavy-handed symbolism, and then never relenting to Omera's attempts in doing the same in company -- equally clumsy symbolism. It's character growth, however, and maybe the only parts of the episode that utilises subtext.
Therefore, The Mandalorian keeping its story in a relative holding pattern and re-treading ideas is incongruous with its main character's development and arguably antithetical to the spirit of Star Wars. For all their faults, the Prequel Era films are distinct from the more personal, adventurous Original Trilogy with their heavier socio-political angle. The Last Jedi is divisive partly because it defied certain expectations, for better or worse. Not to overly insert paratext, but Disney CEO Bob Iger reports that George Lucas criticised The Force Awakens for having "nothing new".
It would be foolish to claim that Star Wars isn't also a product of pre-existing influences (from the typical Campbell's monomyth to Samurai films to Flash Gordon to Isaac Asimov's Foundation series), but it is responsible for pushing technological boundaries and instituting a grimy, technologically advanced though stagnant aesthetic that has profoundly affected science-fictional design and approach. The Mandalorian itself, within those recognisable Star Warsian trappings, has been toying with and successfully reinterpreting that set visual language up to now.
We're now as close to the midpoint of The Mandalorian's first season as we possibly can be, so it's worth taking stock of where the series lies as an entity. In the first episode review, The Mandalorian was cast against the history of Star Wars up to now. Even then, its more contemplative approach set it apart from much of the more directly swashbuckling milieu. Star Wars has had complexity and meaningful themes that give it enduring appeal, but The Mandalorian primarily traded on elements like subtextual implications and atmosphere as ways to dissect the protagonist, which is rarer for Star Wars. So suffice to say, this show is largely an exceptional piece of Star Wars storytelling at a time when the idea of what makes Star Wars, well, Star Wars, is once again in flux.
However, in shifting its approach to being "Star Warsian" every episode, The Mandalorian is implicitly also trying to be more than just great for a Star Wars series. Therefore maybe, if it deserves to be considered simply one of the better series of 2019, it should be assessed on those terms as well. The artistic intent of series should be different, and The Mandalorian arbitrarily not meeting the expectation of having the same emotional nuance as, say, The Americans or Breaking Bad, doesn't make it a bad or "worse" series. But these reviews maybe have been doing a disservice to the aspirations of The Mandalorian by only celebrating its greatness as Star Wars.
There is perhaps a level of implied condescension there, that Star Wars isn't high artistic expression already, and that is not the intent, because Star Wars, regardless of its saturating brand, was in many ways revolutionary, Oscar Award-winning cinema in 1977. A series cannot resonate for forty years and be devoid of artistic merit. Personally, several of them are amongst my favourite films.
Yet the first few episodes of The Mandalorian have been trying to do more than be excellent Star Wars, and etching away at that boundary with confidence, so tempering expectations of how far the series can go is not necessarily beneficial.
This quandary is laid out, because, once again, The Mandalorian "Chapter Four: Sanctuary" is good, solid Star Wars. Not the best episode thus far, but it's fine. On a technical level, Director Bryce Dallas Howard and returning Director of Photography Baz Idoine accentuate the differing colour palettes in each scene, so that they're vibrant. Omera and Mando's conversations supersede Padmé and Anakin's in Attack of the Clones in sounding natural. Yet "Chapter Four: Sanctuary" lacks an ephemeral quality that would make it brilliant television outside of Star Wars.
It's more disheartening because there are hints of the episode potentially continuing exploring the relationship between predator and prey from "Chapter Three: The Sin" in a more unique way: The Klatooinian Raiders against the villagers; the hissing Tooka Cat almost eating the Yodaling; the Yodaling deciding to not eat another frog. I was hopeful that keeping the camera on Omera's face hiding underneath the water from the Klantoonian invasion in the opening sequence would lead to the entire episode giving an outsider's perspective to Mando's effects on the galaxy, and follow on from the simple, but clever, visual trick of repeatedly cutting to the Yodaling's point of view.
Not to impose inflexible ideals upon The Mandalorian "Chapter Four: Sanctuary", or claim that such a filming technique would be the most creative or inventive idea, but something like the aforementioned approach would probably alleviate my qualms with Omera's more superficial characterisation. You could probably even follow this episode's story beat for beat, and it would be more intriguing.
Most of all, at least it would be different. At this stage, The Mandalorian is too good to not try being different instead of rehashing the rest of Star Wars. May this episode just be an anomaly; it would be disappointing that such a fertile premise would remain tepid and uninspired.
The Yodaling's still cute, but I feel it's remained more of a prop than a lively baby since "Chapter Two: The Child". I'm mildly nauseated by the repeated visual gag of the Yodaling popping up right behind Mando when he's told him to stay or put him down. Don't overplay a good joke, The Mandalorian!
I really hope that Kuiil and Cara Dune eventually join Mando permanently. They're both interesting enough characters, and even Cowboy Bebop managed to keep its disparate, solitary characters, together by convenience, grouped for most of the series! You don't have to be alone to be brooding Mando!
If there's one thing that really should be appreciated about this series, it's how naturally diverse it is. Pedro Pascal is Chilean-American; Carl Weathers is African-American; Julia Jones is mixed-race, including being of African American, Choctaw, and Chickasaw descent; Omid Abtahi is Iranian. It may just be a few examples so far, but the fact that these are pretty major or reoccurring characters in a Star Wars series is significant for redressing the imbalance in racial diversity. It sets a good example, and Lucasfilm should be commended. Now to work on furthering characterisation.
I'm a little miffed that "Chapter Four: Sanctuary" drops its definite article, but I suppose it's defying convention in one way.