5 Takeaways From Episode One Of 'The Mandalorian'
January 6, 2020
Your weekly break-down of a popular movie or television episode to see what a screenwriter—or any writer, for that matter—can take away from what’s on screen: what worked, what didn’t, and how you can use what’s popular to craft your own stories.
This week, we’re jumping into the deep end of the cultural zeitgeist swimming pool: Star Wars. More precisely, The Mandalorian, the new streaming series from Disney+.
Even though the show is already a few episodes in, you’ve been forewarned: spoilers ahead! Turn your spaceship around now if you haven’t seen the premiere.
The Mandalorian: Takeaways from episode one
- Nostalgia with a new can of paint.
This show is a masterclass in taking things that are familiar to billions of people and giving them a small makeover. Mandalorians, Stormtroopers, carbon freezing… Every step of this episode is a nod and a wink to the Star Wars that so many of us grew up with. It feels like we’ve been here before, but not quite. Our love of Boba Fett is now transferred to the mysterious new character known only as The Mandalorian. Bounty Hunter IG-88 isn’t in this episode, but his robot cousin 1G-11 is (I don’t know if they’re cousins, but you get the point). We even get to see the remains of the Galactic Empire sneaking around after their defeat, still up to no good. Nostalgia is always a beloved part of human memory and using something that is familiar to your audience isn’t a bad thing. However, if you don’t give it a little fresh spin, people get tired of the “same old, same old” really quick. New locations that feel like places we recognize, new characters that remind us of old favorites, even nods and callbacks to other bits and pieces of culture and society, are a great way to drop your audience into a brave new world, while still giving them the sense of, “yeah, I get this. I don’t feel so lost.”
- Everybody is an exposition character.
Science Fiction is a tough genre to set up in a story. You’ve got new planets, new governments, new weapons, new aliens, new rules, etc. That’s what also makes it such a fun genre to create. However, it means you have to bring your audience up to speed on the entire make-believe mayhem you’ve created—and fast—to keep them focuses on the story instead of the details. And episode one of The Mandalorian proves itself a Jedi Master at exposition. Instead of having one character who trots around and dumps exposition on the rest while they’re sitting down (I’m looking at you, Old Ben Kenobi), The Mandalorian parcels out all the sci-fi world building via various characters. The blue alien Mythrol (by the way, that’s Horatio Sanz from Saturday Night Live) gives us a chance to understand how our hero acts and operates, while the head of the bounty hunting guild Greef Karga (he’ll always be Apollo Creed to me) explains to us the ins and outs of bounty hunting. Then, there’s the mysterious Werner Herzog just chewing the scenery to give us some villain exposition along with his slimy scientist friend. And we haven’t even gotten to Nick Nolte as the grumpy Ugnaught, Kuiil, who sits our Mandalorian down to explain the rules of the mission he needs to go on. There’s plenty more, but suffice to say, The Mandalorian allows us to meet tons of new characters by splitting up its massive load of information the audience needs to understand.
Genres like sci-fi, fantasy, military, spy and political all need lots of exposition, so don’t be afraid to break up all that expo into different scenes and different sources. If you only have one or two characters in your story to explain the rules of the world and give us our “table setting scenes” (moments where the characters deliver the setup of what’s coming next) your audience is going to get bored, fast. Take another look at your script for “exposition dump” characters—just look for huge blocks of dialogue in early pages! If you’ve got those, chances are that you’ve got yourself an exposition explosion.
- The mysterious hero.
Sure, there were mysterious, strong and silent heroes before Clint Eastwood, but Clint did it the best. Fast forward to 2019, and we’ve got our new “Man with No Name” in our Mando. Delivering this subtle, knockout performance is Pedro Pascal, who does more with less lines than anyone working in TV today. The Mandalorian is a great example of a mysterious hero, full of unanswered questions and very few words. Sure, we get a few flashbacks and see him do his job, but this type of character rarely stops and explains themselves. As an audience, we’re left watching their actions and always racing to understand why they do what they do. Less is more with a mysterious hero, and audiences can’t get enough of them. The strong, silent type is a character archetype that keeps popping back up for a reason in film and TV—because it works. However, if you’re thinking of putting a mysterious hero character in your own story, see takeaway number one above. Make sure you’ve got something fresh about him, since this is a classic trope.
- Stack the odds.
The Mandalorian’s pilot is action packed, and the show amps its action up by outnumbering our hero every chance they can get. When we first meet the Mando, he’s in a frozen bar and the odds are four to one. Then, he faces off against a giant ice manatee (it’s called a ravinak, by the way) and then he’s surrounded by Stormtroopers—all in the first ten minutes. Not to mention the massive number of baddies he’s pinned down by in the climactic fight alongside a malfunctioning bounty droid. The point is that, when it comes to putting your hero through the paces, more is more. The Mandalorian is excellent at stacking the odds, backing our hero into a corner, and giving him what seems like no way out. This doesn’t always have to mean “more red shirt bad guys to blast,” this can also mean complications. Add a bomb about to blow up in the middle of your fight scene or put it in a location that’s about to be destroyed (why do you think so many fight scenes happen in burning buildings?). Of course, there’s one other tried and true takeaway from episode one that keeps the audience watching. And it’s such a classic, I’ve kept it for last…
- Save the cat (or save the Baby Yoda, in this case).
You didn’t think we were going to leave him out, did you? Listen, putting something innocent or weak in danger is the granddaddy of all the tricks of the storyteller’s trade. A lot of screenwriters call this “Save the Cat” from a book by Blake Snyder, which is basically a reference to the fact that if there is a cat stuck in a tree—or in any kind of danger—you’re going to keep following the story simply to see if the poor animal gets rescued. Lots of writers hate this book, lots of writers love it, but you should at least read for yourself and see. Anyway, that’s what the current hero of the internet, Baby Yoda, is. He’s a “save the cat.” He’s in danger, he’s cute, and he’s innocent. And so, all sorts of horrible things are out to get him. Therefore, we as the audience will watch/read/listen to see if the innocent creature is protected. Baby Yoda (and stop, I know he’s called “The Child,” but I am just not calling him that) is the latest in a long line of cute things put in danger. We could do a whole series on this trope in action. I don’t care what the critics or the snobs say, here is the real truth to all you aspiring writers out there: when a “save the cat” is done properly, you can rule the internet meme game, you can have fans, and (most importantly) you can sell your script. It’s that simple. It works. But, be careful, anyone who’s seen more than two movies in their life knows what you’re doing, so make sure you use this takeaway sparingly. Every scene can’t have a box of puppies about to be tossed off a building or a bus full of kids about to drive into a river. Putting innocent things in constant danger numbs the audience, and worse, they quickly figure out that this is cheap trick and your more sophisticated audience members will turn on you. That being said, I must not be very sophisticated, because Baby Yoda gets me every time.
This fun and fresh trip down memory lane knows what the audience wants, and it gives it to them.
Written by: Dennis FallonDennis Fallon is an award-winning journalist and screenwriter. When not ghostwriting feature films in Los Angeles and Europe, he is a member of MENSA, an ordained minister and a rock musician who has composed music for over two hundred episodes of television.