Mando’s back and, like a lot of stressed single parents, he still hasn’t got time for any of your nonsense. The Star Wars spin-off from Disney+ works because it mimics its bounty-hunting main character and unwaveringly follows its own path. The Mandalorian has all the quirky luxuries of the fictional universe you know from the films – the monsters, the gadgets, the characters who only previously appeared in Return of the Jedi novelisations – yet it never lets the weight of expectation slow it down, as it does exactly what it wants.
What it wants is to deliver sleek, lean action stories that jettison the lamer elements of the movies and focus on the cool bits. No to windy philosophising, yes to punch-ups against bipedal reptiles in bars with blue clientele. Less sentimentality over fallen heroes, more moments like the one halfway through the season two opener, where a failed attempt to snare a ravenous sand-worm leads to perhaps the funniest horrific death in the whole Star Wars canon.
And yet this isn’t just gun-spinning machismo and matchstick-chewing snark. The show’s most startlingly confident creative decision is the central presence of the character known as Baby Yoda, an infant whom the titular Mandalorian must – because he’s a man of moral strength and iron principle – protect until he can return him to his tribe. He’s an unstoppable galactic avenger who’s not too embarrassed to bring his kid to work, a ruthless mercenary who knows how to sing a lullaby. He’s Jason Bourne bringing cupcakes to the NCT coffee morning. Once you recognise The Mandalorian’s endless quests and battles as a metaphor for parenthood as well as old-fashioned science-fiction entertainment, you can enjoy it on a new level.
The signature mix of violent toughness and attentive-dad sexiness is in evidence straight away this time around, as Mando arrives ringside at a presumably illegal axe-fighting match, with Baby Yoda in his pushchair (it’s an armoured space pushchair that hovers in the air, but still). The guy running the event, a footling hoodlum with one big eye and a grassy combover, is reluctant to give our man the info he needs but, one massive fight sequence later, Mando has it and is off to Tatooine, the land of sun(s), sand, and desert breezes rippling the hair of people filmed in silhouette.
This is the ideal location for a genre that Star Wars and The Mandalorian always have one eye on, but rarely embrace as fully as they do here: the western. Mando, perpetually clad in that helmet with the T-shaped aperture that makes him seem as if he’s wearily narrowing his eyes at everyone – guardians of pre-school children will again feel the resonance – encounters another figure who has a similar get-up. Just as aficionados might be clocking that his armour looks a lot like Boba Fett’s and is therefore probably stolen, he helps the rest of the audience out by shattering Mandalorian protocol and taking his headgear off, to reveal the welcome silvery sparkle of Timothy Olyphant as Cobb Vanth – not one of Mando’s brethren, but a smooth-talking chancer who has lucked his way into the job of marshal in a dirty little town full of dismal, fearful folk.
The two of them face off, standing in a saloon bar in front of a bartender nervously polishing shot glasses. Creator/writer/director Jon Favreau, never one to miss a knowing gag, even allows himself to pull focus on to Olyphant’s right hand twitching by his holster – but then the town is threatened by a vicious outsider. It’s the aforementioned massive man-eating worm rather than black-clad bandits on horseback, but the effect is the same.
Thus begins the sort of simple story that Favreau and his cast always execute efficiently. There’s a monster, it’s going to kill innocent people, and so the Mandalorian has to shape his new pals into a ragtag army and blow the big bastard up. If this involves a little too much recycling of the series’ own tropes – the narrative is a supersized remake of season one’s second episode – that doesn’t matter much when the special effects are so impressive and when Olyphant’s naughty cheek is such a good odd-couple fit with the deadpan monomania of Pedro Pascal, who continues to give his lead performance its nuance without the use of any facial expressions.
After a typically spectacular and satisfying battle, the beast is slain and Baby Yoda is safe. Mando is bruised and somewhat sticky but, as befits TV’s coolest dad, he’s ready to do it all again.