When The Mandalorian debuted on Disney+ in 2019, it was like nothing else on television. The first live-action small-screen installment of the Star Wars canon, the series was a departure from the whiz-bang of the Sequel Trilogy and a loving tribute to the Westerns and samurai films that influenced George Lucas’ original masterpiece. It was surprisingly still and quiet, following two protagonists — one faceless, one wordless — from one weird little adventure to another. Plots were simple and mostly self-contained, allowing the show to run almost entirely on vibes. But over the course of two seasons (and the borderline unwatchable Season 2.5, The Book of Boba Fett) much of the shine has come off The Mandalorian’s beskar armor. The story has become tangled up in a decade’s worth of mythology from its animated antecedents, the novelty of its deliberately wonky mix of digital and practical effects has faded, and the father-son relationship that served as the heart of the show has run its course. As Season 3 debuts, The Mandalorian feels like it’s running on fumes, and the vibes are in shambles.
The season premiere, entitled “The Apostate,” finds armored mercenary Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal) exiled from his clan as punishment for willingly removing his helmet in the presence of others. He made this sacrifice last season, in the process of rescuing his adorable young charge Grogu (a.k.a. Baby Yoda) from the clutches of the Empire and returning him to the care of the Jedi. That would have been a natural place for the series to end, with the masked manhunter having found his heart and then releasing his loved one back into the galaxy to fulfill its destiny, as all proud papas must eventually do. However, in between seasons on The Book of Boba Fett, Grogu decided to forsake his Jedi training to rejoin his surrogate father, and the pair now travels the stars once again in their new, hot-rodded Naboo Starfighter.
Djarin’s new quest is to redeem himself in the eyes of his fellow Mandalorian fundamentalists by returning to their pulverized homeworld and re-baptising himself in its holy waters. “The Apostate” teases that this will have grander implications for the fate of all Mandalorians, as stateless Mandalorian royal Bo-Katan Kryze (Katee Sackhoff), is also back in the mix. Bo-Katan wants to retake the planet Mandalore, but has lost the Darksaber (our space Excalibur) to Djarin, and with it, the right to command her people. Djarin has the sword, but no political ambitions. Eventually, something’s gotta give, and we’ll presumably find our answers in the ruins of Mandalore over the course of the season.
Personally, I’m hoping that Djarin’s expedition recovers something else: My interest in this show.
It’s hard to tell if The Mandalorian has actually declined in quality, or if it’s simply been outshined by competing programs. After all, if you want to see Pedro Pascal play a gruff Battle Dad, you can get a more satisfying fix from The Last of Us. Last year’s Andor has proven that a Star Wars show can be legitimately great television rather than just a sweet little treat for your inner child. And to be clear, “The Apostate” opens with a sequence of a dozen Mandalorians battling a giant lizard; your inner child will be satisfied. But apart from greater numbers of action figures in helmets and jet packs fighting bigger and badder threats The Mandalorian’s latest season doesn’t promise much that it hasn’t already given us. He’s taken on bounty hunters and stormtroopers, and now he’s provoked the wrath of some space pirates. Grogu goofs off with some more cute puppets and reprises some of his precocious toddler shtick, but there’s no indication that he’ll ever evolve as a character. Apart from its act two shootout taking place under harsh, even lighting that is unflattering to the latex-covered faces of Djarin’s pirate foes, very little about “The Apostate” stands out as particularly bad. There’s just not much to praise, either.
(Also, though you’d be forgiven for not immediately noticing, composer Ludwig Göransson has moved on, which is a grave omen for the show’s aforementioned vibes.)
Perhaps it’s just franchise fatigue finally setting in, as in the case of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Quantumania has taken a shellacking from critics, but is it actually worse than Thor: Love and Thunder or Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness? Maybe, but not by much. Likewise, The Mandalorian’s third season premiere doesn’t approach the level of boring or clumsy as The Book of Boba Fett. But more and more it’s an open question as to how long these elevated Saturday morning cartoons can hold the attention of a mass adult audience. For die-hards who have loved these properties since before geek culture went mainstream, there’s no reason to jump ship. Nothing has changed. But if Disney wants to maintain their stranglehold on the zeitgeist itself, they’re going to have to put forth some actual effort. And though it’s hard to see under that helmet, The Mandalorian doesn’t appear to be breaking a sweat.