The Mandalorian's delicate balance

The Disney+ series is candy for hardcore Star Wars fans. Can it still work for a mass audience?

The Mandalorian.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock, Disney Plus)

The Mandalorian's second season has been a dream come true for hardcore Star Wars fans.

Before now, it's tended to be the case that the deep catalog of Star Wars content other than the live-action movies and The Mandalorian — including books, video games, and animated series — has played second fiddle, rarely crossing over in a major way with what most viewers have seen. The reason makes sense: Star Wars should remain accessible to all, and catering specifically to the most devoted fans might alienate everyone else.

Yet the Disney+ series is drawing surprisingly heavily from Star Wars material outside the films. As the show delves deeper into the franchise's lore, are casual fans getting left behind? Or can Star Wars more meaningfully acknowledge its broader fictional world without becoming impenetrable?

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So far in its second season, The Mandalorian is striving to do just that, providing an experience that's deeply satisfying for diehards but, for the most part, still satisfying for casual Baby Yoda lovers everywhere. It is, however, a delicate balance, and the show hasn't always gotten it right.

The new season began carefully threading this needle from its premiere, "The Marshal," seemingly a standalone adventure in which the Mandalorian teams up with a marshal on Tatooine. But what average viewers might not realize is that this episode was a deep cut to Star Wars: Aftermath, a book series where Timothy Olyphant's character, Cobb Vanth, originated. Cobb's presence right off the bat was a kind of acknowledgement to those passionate about all corners of this franchise that the creators respect that investment.

The key, though, is making this extra investment in the books and the animated shows feel worth it while at the same time not truly necessary. After all, Cobb Vanth's entire backstory is laid out (and tweaked a bit) within the episode. Reading Aftermath beforehand makes the buildup to his appearance more exciting, but it isn't fundamental to following the plot, and the majority of fans unaware that Star Wars books are even a thing wouldn't realize this isn't an original character.

This was also the case with the season's third episode, "The Heiress," in which our hero encounters a group of fellow Mandalorians. It's another instance in which we effectively have two entirely different shows being enjoyed by different sets of fans simultaneously. In the first show, this episode provides a glimpse at Mandalorians outside of Din Djarin's circle, confirming the "way" he's devoted to isn't universally shared while hinting at a larger conflict.

In the second show, though, the episode is notable because the main Mandalorian introduced, Bo-Katan Kryze, is a beloved character from the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, and The Mandalorian picks up years after her storyline left off to provide long-awaited answers about her status. Certain elements of the episode, such as the backstory of Bo-Katan's relationship with the Darksaber and why the chapter is titled "The Heiress," won't be fully clear without having seen the animated shows. But to watch The Mandalorian and this episode about raiding an Imperial ship, they don't exactly need to be.

This past week's episode, "The Jedi," then featured the highly-anticipated live-action debut of Ahsoka Tano, another beloved character from The Clone Wars and Rebels. Ahsoka's most recent animated appearance chronologically ended on a cliffhanger, which saw her leaving to search for a missing Jedi, Ezra Bridger. "The Jedi," then, could have easily devoted much of its runtime to following up on this cliffhanger, despite casual fans having no investment in it.

Yet Ahsoka's episode ended up being fairly restrained, again mostly not requiring knowledge of The Clone Wars and Rebels. There are moments in "The Jedi" that dedicated fans view differently; when Ahsoka mentions that she's seen what fear and anger can do to "the best of us," it's a gut punch for those aware she's talking about the fall of Anakin Skywalker, her former master during The Clone Wars. And, of course, just seeing Ahsoka depicted in live-action for the first time is deeply gratifying for fans of the cartoons. But the explicit connections to them are light, and had an episode been written in which the Mandalorian comes across a new Jedi character so that Baby Yoda's backstory and name could be revealed, it might still basically look like this one.

At least, it would with one exception: a climatic moment in which Ahsoka asks for the location of Grand Admiral Thrawn. This, a reference to Ahsoka's mission to find Ezra from Rebels, is the one time the show has gone a little too far in the direction of alienating casual fans. When Bo-Katan spent all of "The Heiress" trying to find the Darksaber, at least that was a weapon seen before in The Mandalorian, and newcomers are told it's something she needs to rule Mandalore. But here, similar to the way the reveal of Darth Maul in Solo: A Star Wars Story confused many viewers who didn't realize he was revived on The Clone Wars, there's no way for those who haven't watched a separate animated show to know what the Thrawn reference means without looking it up. That may be slightly discouraging for viewers who were under the impression they could watch this series by itself, especially if this is only meant to set up a Rebels animated sequel show and will never actually pay off within The Mandalorian itself.

To be sure, the Thrawn mention is a brief enough moment not to be a huge deal. As The Mandalorian goes forward, though, the danger exists of it gradually forgetting about casual fans while catering more and more to the obsessives. Luckily, we're not there yet, and for now, it seems casual and hardcore Star Wars fans alike are still united in their love for The Mandalorian. Hopefully producers Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni can, like the Force itself, continue to maintain balance in the franchise.

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