The galaxy may be far, far away, but all roads lead back to Tatooine. Despite being described in the original Star Wars (A New Hope) as a desolate wasteland located on the Outer Rim of nowhere, the wretched little desert planet remains the most crucial location to both Rebel and Imperial history. Not just the birthplace of Anakin and Luke Skywalker, but Tatooine is also the home or hideout of Jabba the Hutt, C-3PO, Uncle Owen, Aunt Beru, the hermit Ben Kenobi, Han Solo, Greedo, Biggs Darklighter, Wattoo, Sebulba, Womp Rats, Jawas, Tusken Raiders, the Sarlacc, Rotta the Huttlet, Boba Fett, and now The Mandalorian.
On the run from the bounty hunter guild, Mando (Pedro Pascal) and the Child — that’s newly cemented pop culture icon Baby Yoda, to fans — were forced to flee the serenity of Sorgan for the vastness of space. What’s our hero’s plan? What coordinates did he punch into the Razor Crest when they took flight last episode? No idea. Whatever his original destination, Mando’s journey is interrupted when his ship falls in the crosshairs of a fighter piloted by Riot Mar (Rio Hackford).
The two dogfight for a bit, but Mar’s aim is about as true as any Stormtrooper flunkie. He gets a few licks in, but Mando hits the space-breaks, propels himself behind his target, and hopefully, Riot Mar’s final prayer before blaster obliteration was for a hearty legacy as a Hasbro action figure. Damaged and sputtering, the Razor Crest seeks repairs from the nearest planet. I swear, this dusty orb must magically appear in the void of space whenever a scoundrel requires assistance.
The current most famous outlaw in the galaxy is now stranded on the most famous outlaw hive in the galaxy. Fair enough. The Mandalorian is a show that proudly operates in tropes and referential celebration. Producers Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni are making their childhood dreams come true, and we’re along for the ride, crossing our fingers that they achieve a few of our own in the process.
Directed by Filoni, chapter five of The Mandalorian is entitled “The Gunslinger.” For the three people in fandom who didn’t already know this series was one giant hug strangling the Western genre, here’s your declaration. At the same time, you have to scratch your head at the moniker a little bit. Mando is The Gunslinger, right? This is obvious. Why shine a spotlight on him more than halfway through your season?
With episodes barely cracking 35 minutes, you don’t have to wonder for long. Mando enters a familiar-looking Mos Eisley cantina, haggling for work that will pay for Razor Crest repairs (courtesy of Amy Sedaris seemingly cosplaying as Ellen Ripley). Since the collapse of the Empire, the hustle and bustle have dropped from the joint, and a droid who once spent his days torturing hunks of metal for Jabba has taken over bartending duties. Unlike their experience in A New Hope, C-3PO and R2-D2 would happily be welcomed here today, but they may still want to stay away from the barkeep.
Mando is told that there is no guild work to be found on Tatooine anymore. Before he can slink off to scrounge for credits in the couches of his ship, a patron chirps from a corner. Say hi, Toro Calican (Jake Cannavale). The kid is a wannabe gunslinger on the hunt for a bounty. He’s all talk, but Mando sees through it. He offers partnership, allowing Mando to take all the credits while he keeps the biological prize as an entry fee into the guild.
At first, this week’s chapter seems to take its inspiration from Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. A young kid asks for the aid of a seasoned veteran to stalk a killer. Somewhere out amongst the sand dunes lurks Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen), a lethal assassin who’s butchered countless creatures for the Hutts and various other crime syndicates.
Toro has the will, but he certainly doesn’t have the skills. At multiple points, he is almost transformed into Bantha poodoo if not for Mando’s knowledge. When the two finally do get their hands on their target, it’s through strategy and distraction rather than bravado and firepower.
With the sun setting, Mando ventures off into the night to retrieve a Dewback so that the three of them can crawl their way back to Mos Eisley and reap the reward. Mando asks Toro to do it, but trust between the two is not quite there. While he’s away playing round-up, Fennec and Toro get to talking. She convinces him that Mando’s hide is worth more to the guild than hers. He agrees, and she gets a blast in the gut for her troubles. Fennec Shand joins Riot Mar as another one-offer who’ll have to settle for an afterlife in plastic.
Betrayed, Mando waddles back to the Razor Crest, where Toro has a blaster on helpless (?) Baby Yoda. Here is where “The Gunslinger” chapter heading starts to simmer. What is the life of a bounty hunter or a shootist? They’re destined to face their doubles until they’re killed and replaced. Once you pick up the gun, you can never put it down. The moment you do, your time on this plane of existence is over.
The cycle of killers is one considered in Unforgiven as well as in dozens of other Westerns and samurai films. For me, watching Mando conclude this chapter by putting a hole through the life of young Toro instantly ignited the image of Gregory Peck from a 1950 Western fittingly entitled The Gunfighter. The theme of that film involves an old shootist strolling into town to nab a drink at the local tavern. When he’s recognized, a younger, sharper, but slower on the draw cowboy challenges him to a duel. The kid is killed, and Peck sits back while he waits for the posse to charge his position.
In the final moments of “Chapter Five,” one more gunslinger steps into frame. A pair of boots, jangling with space-spurs, pauses next to the corpse of Fennec Shand. The spurs send shivers of recognition. Boba Fett‘s cadance jingled similarily. Here we go. Mandalorian vs. Mandalorian. The ultimate mirror to challenge our hero.
Fans are hot for Fett to crawl from the Sarlacc, but we’re just getting to know Mando as his own being and we’re already in the weeds/grains of sand of Tatooine fandom. The series already has a perfect doppleganger to square off against Mando: Greef Karga (Carl Weathers). He survived his shoot out with Mando in “Chapter Three” and is hot in pursuit of his best operative. In their rivalry resides the most satisfying emotional combat. And going by the wardrobe of the mysterious gunslinger, our bet is on it being the one we’ve already seen.
The story of a Gunslinger or a Mandalorian is one of damnation. Thou shall not kill. The taking of a life cements the manner in which you’ll go out. You’re doomed to a quest of murder, one which sees you repeatedly slaughtering those that wear a similar face and fate. In these sagas, where happy endings are presented (meaning not Unforgiven or The Gunslinger), redemption often presents itself in the form of an innocent on the verge of a similar path. In The Mandalorian, that’s not Toro, but it is Baby Yoda and the briefly glimpsed foundlings of “Chapter One.”
Every episode of The Mandalorian acts as a Where’s Waldo. Did you clock Anakin’s Attack of the Clones swoop bikes? Can you find the Tusken Raider? What about the Dewback? Most are not really hidden gems but flagrant high-fives to the choir. It’s fun and rewarding for a kid who chose Kenner toy cards as his predominant form of literature. It might feel alienating to those that preferred Jane Austen, or maybe the literate are free to enjoy the show for what it is. Bless them, but I doubt it.
The emotional arc of The Mandalorian demands some broad understanding of tropes. These are half-hour narrative pops. Mos Eisley is shorthand for Outlaw Town. Toro and Shand are mirrors for Mando’s soul in descent. If Favreau and Filoni are going to deliver on the hero from antihero swing that they seem to be playing, then they need our appreciation for the game they’re trudging inside.