How The Mandalorian’s Second Season Brought Balance to Star Wars

The Mandalorian finally reconciles the franchise's history with the new stuff.

The Mandalorian
The Mandalorian

Cultured Vultures spoilers

The entire Star Wars community was abuzz after the jaw-dropping finale of The Mandalorian’s second season. The appearance of Luke Skywalker in his prime, a true Jedi master saving the day with just the Force and a glowing green lightsaber as his allies, had this viewer holding his face like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone for ten minutes straight. At the close of a fantastic second season, The Mandalorian has established itself as many things: a story of an unlikely father and son finding one another, an expansion of the Star Wars mythology, a love letter to classic Star Wars, and a launching pad for a slew of new shows helmed by masterminds Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni.

Most importantly, The Mandalorian has found something integral to Star Wars that has been missing from the galaxy of late: balance. No, not balance between the light and dark sides of the force. Rather, The Mandalorian has struck a balance between the nostalgia of Star Wars’ past and the potential of its future.

As with any major new entry into the Star Wars canon, some critics had mixed feelings about The Mandalorian’s finale. They believed the show to have betrayed itself and its main characters, claiming that the inclusion of legacy characters in The Mandalorian’s corner of the galaxy caused the show to be “swallowed whole by nostalgia”.

Their argument is that by tying the story of Din Djarin (Mando himself) and Grogu (Baby Yoda forever) so explicitly to the films’ “Skywalker Saga”, the expansive Star Wars universe feels much smaller, with the show’s stars taking a backseat to established canon. Why create something new, they say, when you can keep people glued to their screens – and their Disney+ accounts – by having beloved characters like Luke Skywalker appear for a few moments of nostalgic euphoria, taking the wind out of an otherwise self-contained narrative?

Though perhaps not explicitly identified as such, the concept these authors are really complaining about in The Mandalorian is “fan-service.” In Star Wars circles, fan-service has become a catch-all term for perceived pandering to the audience by using familiar characters and tropes. And though Star Wars fans are notoriously finicky, recently there has been good reason for their negative view of the idea of fan-service: the idea that it was a major factor in the inconsistent tone and quality of Star Wars’ sequel trilogy.

Across those three films, you can see the push and pull of fan-service at work. In The Force Awakens, Director J.J. Abrams opted to lean fully into nostalgia. Some saw the film as nothing more than a flashy, hollow homage to Star Wars’ original trilogy. Seemingly in a direct reaction, The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson presented a more complex film that seemed designed to challenge what Star Wars could be, and to force it into the future.

Johnson’s choices – specifically his portrayal of Luke Skywalker as a broken man who has lost his faith in the Jedi – alienated many fans who believed that he had strayed from the core concepts that defined Star Wars. Then, in his own reaction to Rian Johnson’s reaction, J.J. Abrams was brought back to the franchise, and with The Rise of Skywalker seemingly repudiated much of what Johnson had established. Abrams once again leaned into fan-service with the return of Emperor Palpatine and many other familiar tropes.

If that paragraph gave you whiplash, then you understand how Star Wars fans have felt over the last few years. Instead of standing on their own as quality entrances into the franchise, the films of the sequel trilogy function more as an ideological sparring match over what makes Star Wars Star Wars. The fatal flaw in these entries seems to be going too far in either direction: leaning too hard on fan-service at the expense of new ideas and quality storytelling, or straying too far from what has come before and losing the core values of Star Wars. The sequel trilogy, which like all Star Wars is ultimately about balance, ironically failed to find that balance between these two conceptions of what Star Wars should be.

We were all thinking it: if the combined forces of Disney and Lucasfilm couldn’t solve this dilemma, then maybe it just couldn’t be done. Maybe we should just let Star Wars be and stop trying to reinvigorate a franchise that will never be as good as it was in 1977. The Skywalker Saga was over, Star Wars had said everything it needed to say, and now we could let the galaxy rest awhile. And then a Mandalorian met a child, and the very same galaxy that was beginning to dim ignited as brightly as that first lightsaber 44 years ago.

The Mandalorian found the sorely needed balance that the sequel trilogy lacked. Every episode of the second season told a new and interesting story about the Mandalorian, Grogu, and other original characters, while simultaneously including moments of fan-service that made Star Wars fans across generations smile with gleeful recognition.

Just a couple of years ago, I certainly couldn’t have imagined that we’d see faithful live-action appearances of Ahsoka Tano and Bo-Katan Kryze, the resurrection of Boba Fett as the badass he was always meant to be, and a de-aged Mark Hamill returning to his most famous role. I also would have scoffed if you told me how attached I would become to a quiet, always-masked gunslinger and a baby version of Yoda.

But here we are. Fans like me are once again excited about the future of Star Wars. That is due in no small part to the creativity and love for the franchise of showrunner Jon Favreau and writer/director/George Lucas-protégé Dave Filoni. Where the sequel trilogy faltered under a lack of direction and behind-the-scenes turmoil, The Mandalorian has been guided consistently by Favreau’s singular vision of what makes Star Wars great. That vision is buoyed by Filoni’s steadying hand, years of experience, and deep reverence for Star Wars’ history. The result of their collaboration, as well as the contributions of a slew of other fantastic directors and writers, is the best thing to happen to Star Wars in decades.

So no, I don’t think the appearance of Luke Skywalker takes anything away from the narrative of The Mandalorian. Like Ahsoka, Boba Fett, and a laundry list of other instances of “fan-service,” it adds to the creative equation of the show, not subtracts. And let’s be honest – The Mandalorian was never a separate entity to the Star Wars films. The very first episode ended with the appearance of a child of Yoda’s mysterious species. From that moment, Grogu and Mando were on a collision course with Luke Skywalker, Yoda’s apprentice and one of the only Jedi left in the galaxy. Showing anything less than Jedi Master Luke Skywalker would have felt like the show was going out of its way to avoid him.

Luke’s appearance as a fully realized Jedi master is a strong counterpoint to the version of him we saw in The Last Jedi. But that doesn’t mean The Mandalorian has lost its way chasing after the Skywalker Saga’s failings. It just means the show has established its role as both something new and something old. By embracing the franchise’s past in Luke Skywalker, Jon Favreau gave us one of the greatest sequences in Star Wars history. And then moments later, he gave us an equally emotional moment with characters that represent the franchise’s future.

When Din removed his helmet so his son could finally see his face, it wasn’t any less meaningful because Luke Skywalker was in the room. Skywalker’s heroic appearance and the duo’s heartfelt goodbye aren’t at odds with one another. They are two halves of a whole. This is just the latest and greatest example of the dichotomy of The Mandalorian – the balance between “fan-service” and the future which the franchise has found. If the new Star Wars shows and films on the horizon can strike this same balance, then it’s an incredible time to be a Star Wars fan.

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