Mild spoilers ensue
This is probably going to be a relatively short review, because The Mandalorian “Chapter Five: The Gunslinger” has so little to talk about. Nearly everything about this episode feels off-key, which is a shame, because it doubles as a return to Tatooine—where both Anakin and Luke Skywalker’s Star Wars adventures kicked off many years ago. This episode genuflects to that hallowed history, with a quick tour of Mos Eisley Cantina’s patrons, but in line with the rest of the episode, the bar is pretty empty. There is a kernel of good story in “Chapter Five: The Gunslinger”, but time constraints and irrelevant dilly-dallying strangle it in infancy (don’t worry, the baby Yodaling is fine!). Ultimately, the dullness is distressing.
The problems endemic to the episode start before the rendezvous with Tatooine, however. The Mandalorian “Chapter Five: The Gunslinger” opens on a space dogfight, with Mando tailed by some other bounty hunter. It felt weightless, which is not something I expected to say about a Star Wars mid-space ship battle. Even the lesser Star Wars films have managed to create engaging battles, as has animated television, even when their function is simply to create an inciting incident. In trying to deduce why this one felt pointless, I went and rewatched a few of the more notable battles in franchise.
The brevity of The Mandalorian’s battle (all of a minute) isn’t really the problem, nor is its style, which follows the effective cross-cutting between combatant ships and their cockpits that is typical to Star Wars. Rather, there are no clear destinations or obstacles to direct the focus of the action and the audience, unlike almost every other battle Star Wars has shown. Obviously the audience knows Mando is being pursued and is trying to avoid being killed, but in desolate space, it’s simply two ships whirling around one another. There’s emotional detachment stemming from the lack of the physically orientating stakes in the scene. For the first time in The Mandalorian, the lack of an expositional opening crawl or some narrator (like in The Clone Wars) also hampers the show. Without an explicit goal other than the vague notion of survival, the battle would need more time to breathe so that the audience can settle in. For this reason alone, it’s all too quick.
The entire sequence only exists to damage the ship and force Mando to have an emergency landing on Tatooine for repairs. Arriving dilapidated in Mos Eisley repair bay 3-5, Mando’s ship grinds to a halt. And so does the episode’s momentum.
I don’t know why writer and director Dave Filoni prioritised spending so much time with Amy Sedaris’ Pelli Motto, but it’s honestly excruciating. Motto is styled after a mixture of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from Alien and Dana Barrett from Ghostbusters, but Sedaris over-acts as if she stepped out of a far worse 80s comedy movie. Maybe it’s because she has to interact with CGI DUM Pit-droids and the Yodaling puppet, but it’s risible, and undermines the character chastising Mando, who has “a awful lot to learn about raising a young one”. Especially as the viewer knows that fact (it’s part of his character arc) and Mando’s been doing an okay job keeping the baby alive so far. Her role is pretty extraneous as well: the final confrontation doesn’t have to involve Motto in order to have the same character beats. Trapping the story in a Mos Eisley repair bay for nearly half the episode diverts the narrative away from its most interesting elements.
It’s not all Pelli Motto’s fault though. Star Wars on television has one narrative penchant that never seems to work—the inexperienced rookie shadowing the experienced protagonist—and it’s true for “Chapter Five: The Gunslinger” too. Not even George Lucas’ protégé, Dave Filoni, can make it compelling. These types of episodes are usually underwhelming because the rookie, this time an aspiring bounty hunter by the name of Toro Calican, simply exists to be the exact opposite of the protagonist. Five episodes into The Mandalorian, we don’t need reminding that Mando is deliberate and cautious in his manoeuvres compared to everyone else. There’s nothing new to say.
The experience is further degraded by Jake Cannavale’s performance. While definitely having the right look for a cocksure amateur, Cannavale plays the arrogance and stumbling naiveté in a flat and fairly monotonous manner. Maybe there’s a point to it, because the reversal late in the episode is more shocking (though not that shocking) when Calican’s cunning comes to the fore. With slightly more to work with, Jake Cannavale shows brief flashes of his dad’s acting talent for dangerous gangsters, but for most of the episode, Toro Calican is a boring entity. It’s all the more evident when going toe to toe with Ming-Na Wen’s Fennec Shand.
The short martial arts fight between Shand and Calican is the episode’s highlight, and I hope to see more of it. Furthermore, Wen alternating between hardened clipped tone and seductive whisper during her brief tempting of Calican to betray Mando is electric. Shand’s namesake is the fennec fox, and Wen absolutely evokes the slippery slyness as a long-time assassin. The former Mulan voice actress and current Agent of Shield is still wasted though. I suppose the episode wants to only give a taste of the antagonist in order to make her seem more mysterious, but given how much more invigorated the episode becomes with her appearance, surely giving Wen a larger acting role in “Chapter Five: The Gunslinger” would only benefit proceedings.
Enjoying Ming-Na Wen’s presence is not the sole reason for wanting Fennec Shand around more. She’s an adversary whom Mando has to demonstrably outwit (outfox?). If there’s a positive to the draw from these recent disappointing episodes, it’s that Mando’s tactical awareness has been given a spotlight, and his plan to use flash charges to block Shand’s thermal-scoping sniper is a neat trick. Looking back on my favourite episode so far, “Chapter Two: The Child” as well, I can only conclude that The Mandalorian is at its best when Mando has to overcome enemies and problems with the barest of utensils at his disposal. The end of the episode makes Shand’s fate unclear, so I am remaining optimistic Ming-Na Wen’s enigmatic foe will potentially confound Mando in the future. Their dynamic is the one thing to salvage from this episode, but mainly because of its potential. Please don’t screw this up, The Mandalorian.
As we enter the Christmas season, The Mandalorian “Chapter Five: The Gunslinger” adorns itself in Star Wars decorations, but they’re hanging off the boughs of a withered tree. Apparently no amount of moisture farming can save it from parching in the Dune Sea desert on Tatooine. May The Mandalorian fair better on the next planet it ports at and be less barren.
The swell of Ludwig Göransson’s Spanish guitars and maybe also electric guitars, as the speeder bikes crossed the Dune Sea was awesome, however.
In continuing this idea of problem-solving, I’d almost have preferred the episode to force Mando to repair his listless, drifting ship in space, rather than immediately reconfiguring the engines. Add a bit of hard sci-fi engine recalibration to the mix. Oh well, we’ll always have The Expanse.
As perhaps the review implies, nothing really happens in this episode to move the plot or character arcs forward. However, as my brother noted in a message, the episode mentioned the infamous “high ground” that is the secret to all of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s success, so The Mandalorian “Chapter Five: The Gunslinger” is a 10/10 episode (it’s not).