Character Development in The Rise of Skywalker and The Mandalorian

I recently guested on Draft Zero to talk about about how the writing of The Rise of Skywalker and The Mandalorian use fanservice differently in shaping story. You should listen to that, and all the great work Stu and Chas do.

This post about fanservice in character development notes a few of those key things, but mostly as a basis to discuss how The Mandalorian develops Mando over time, using fanservice and other narrative shorthands.

Thoughts and mistakes mine alone.

Both The Rise of Skywalker and The Mandalorian use archetype and cliche to get character development across; this is not necessarily bad, and can be hugely helpful to the writing process. But this writing tool does make it easier to veer into contradiction, clunkily-laid-exposition, or missing the mark entirely.

When examining the two properties, keep in mind the difference between writing for feature film versus TV; broadly, one has more space to work with, but specifically the differences in where climaxes and character beats land (and how many you get); how dialogue, plot, and travel from A to B unfold; etc. 

The crux of the issue here is Plot To Decide Character versus Character Driving Plot. The trilogy’s creative team wasn’t shy about the fact overall story [and thus character] arcs were haphazard, make-it-up-as-you-go. This leads TROS to Plot Deciding Character . . . and it shows.

The Rise of Skywalker

POE

Poe goes from “learning what leadership looks like, how to trust your allies and friends” to “exposit much backstory while exchanging longing looks with perfectly-smoky-eyed Keri Russell.” The additional backstory serves no story purpose, it’s there to sound cool and make offhand reference to spice-running.

REY

I talk a lot in the podcast about Rey’s story both as projected in The Last Jedi and retconned [let’s be real, “her parents are nobody but her GRANDDADDY is Palpatine!” is cheap narrative workaround] in The Rise of Skywalker.

Both stories are things we need, but shoehorning one of them onto Rey is fanservice shaping story, especially when better / additional ways to accomplish it are in plain sight. Even with Rey, they could have made explicit how learning her heritage made her worried about repeating the cycle of abuse; instead they simply mimicked Luke’s arc beat for beat, down to fighting for their lives with the same damn guy, even though Luke’s history, personality, and experience with the Empire to that point were all different than Rey’s, so their journeys should have had different emotional impact. It all culminates with the most fanservice-y ending line possible, which doesn’t make sense narratively (as Stu expounds on in the podcast). It relies on power through nothing but audience familiarity, IE nostalgia.

In short, while struggling with the weight of corrupt and abusive legacy is an interesting story, that’s not what we get. Instead Rey’s arc boils down to the idea ‘everyone needs to be related.’ That TROS so heavily leans on two Original Trilogy characters to signal why Rey and Jannah – the only women of note in TROS – are important and badass is horribly lazy storytelling.

Speaking of Jannah . . .

JANNAH

What makes the Calrissian lineage most egregious is its lack of mattering a single whit. If they made the relationship part of Jannah’s or even Lando’s arc, it might make sense. Jannah trying to distance herself from her scoundrel of a parent, meeting Finn as he tries to distance himself from his stormtrooper past and lack of parental presence, might help her realise new things about her situation. Realisation wouldn’t require exposition, it could be a quiet character beat. We get none of that.

On the other side, instead of being a Scoundrel Ex Machina, Lando would have a character-driven reason to lead the rest of those ships to the rescue. Instead of an off-screen change of heart, Lando could be shown deciding to help his daughter, prove he is deserving of her, etc.

The fact this storytelling potential is right there and they use none of it makes the fanservice completely hollow.

Contrast that with The Mandalorian, where fanservice doesn’t drive the storytelling but is part of it; IE it works if you notice it, but just as well when you don’t. 

The Mandalorian 

Central Hero With Dark History meets younger Good Person, rejects their companionship, comes to grudgingly protect the newbie, slowly becomes close, grows to care for and respect them, teaches noob necessary skills, eventually is made better through their journey and adventures together . . . but also ends up conferring some Bad Ways on the new person. It’s Xena without the explosive sexual undercurrent (and if Gabrielle were an absolutely adorable 50-year-old teenage potential reincarnation of a beloved muppet).

Avatar: The Last Airbender shares a creative team member / writer with The Mandalorian, and similarities also abound between those shows, both heavily influenced by Westerns and Samurai stories. Slow story and incremental character development via lesson learning can happen in any genre, but these shows are quite explicit about it. Both creatively compensate for a distinct lack of nuanced facial expressions, use lots of colour in gorgeously painted sets, use simple, archetypal stories, and rely heavily on score to convey emotion. Last, both are made for young kids as well as teens and adults, unlike many Westerns or similar Western / Space Opera / Samurai hybrid Firefly. (I wondered if I could go without mentioning Firefly. Turns out: nope.)

Though many episodes work well standalone,TLA has an fairly explicit overall objective it moves towards. The Mandalorian is not heavily as serialised in its first series; in fact, until the last two episodes tie together various characters and give some new objectives, it seems quite vignette based. So, what about the character development has to come in a specific order in the middle 6 or so episodes? How much do we see him progress or change versus how much is revealed

CHAPTER 1 – THE MANDALORIAN / CHAPTER 2 – THE CHILD

The first two eps are mostly setup and action. Mando hunts! Mando is good at fighting! Mando wants the hard / pricey assignments! Mando doesn’t take off his helmet! Mando shows signs of trauma! What we know about him is mostly voiced by other characters or revealed in flashbacks..

Mando also kills some Jawas pretty hard, which could demonstrate several things. It may set up how ruthless he is, that he kills in certain circumstances, that he has species / type bias against more than just droids, or that Jawas are considered especially disposable on this tough planet (something viewers who’ve seen the original trilogy might assume quicker than new viewers, but wouldn’t be required to understand how the plot is working). We aren’t sure exactly what this interaction means until later actions confirm, but looking back from the end of S1 it seems clearly a setup to show Mando becoming less likely to kill without need; see in particular the contrast between this interaction and Ep 6.

CHAPTER 3 – THE SIN 

More character-via-rules, actions, and flashback, all of which slowly adds up to character development. A Mandalorian’s face cannot be shown whether by desire or by force, and Mando has kept to this rule. There was a purge which killed his parents among many others. Mando is considered a bit of a Black Sheep amongst those left of his people because he deals with the Empire (which equals not one but two weird surrogate quasi-families-where-he-doesn’t-quite-belong). Most importantly, though he has kept the Mandalorian code, he decides to break the bounty hunter code to save the Child.

We knew it was coming here, of course. We know the lore. We know how important a Yoda-like child is. We know Star Wars loves nothing more than redeeming rascally bounty hunters / blockade runners, and here uses not both genre archetypes and its own history to signal to the audience. Small, slow culmination of moments, coming to a head over something as small as Baby Yoda fooling with the knob on Mando’s warp-speed activator, is well executed.

In contrast, TROS mostly relies on 1. Things we’ve seen before 2. Things the characters SAY they’re doing. Most of Poe’s development (including via exposition) actually stands in opposition to what we learned before. For example, his past as a spice runner doesn’t gel with someone looking to serve the resistance and gaining leadership, at least without more information and seeing more of his [back]story.

Contradictions within a character is not necessarily bad writing. In The Mandalorian we get an interesting blend of someone who still does business with the Empire while following the Mandalorian code, who is clearly looking for some semblance of family and embracing some of its mores (The Way and the helmet rules) while rejecting others (collusion with the Empire), and somewhat cruelly and illogically being rejected by the family for both. But, hell, that’s family. In other words, when properly fleshed out instead of exposited from left field, contradiction in action can be character quandaries, and are natural, relatable, human, instead of plot devices.

CHAPTER 4 – SANCTUARY

The Seven Samurai / Magnificent Seven setup tells us as much about Mando as it tells us about the town he’s stumbled into. It feels very Xena: Doomed Hero Slowly Learns Humanity By Helping Save People with Violence and Training in Violence, down to the reliance on simple and effective visuals.

The script immediately shows us how similar Cara and Mando are by literally having them mirror each other in a fight; Duck Soup with punches and blasters.

From a writing standpoint, it is more important than most shows for anime and The Mandalorian to write action lines describing sound effects, facial expressions (for anime) and body language (for The Mandalorian), IE more unfilmables. This episode of Scriptnotes talks about writing fight sequences, and one of the best things about the fight sequence in “Chapter 4: Sanctuary” is how Mando and Cara often mirror each other as they fight . . . meaning we subconsciously project her facial expressions onto him. Even after the fight, they both display gruff attitudes which eventually dissolve, as children and the vulnerable are a soft spot for both of them. As Cara becomes a character unto herself, she also becomes a tool for reading Mando; having a simpatico character means we can read her face and extrapolate things Mando must also be thinking / feeling.

Besides fighting, Mando shows he likes to teach, whether it’s The Way, or . . . well, more fighting. Of course much is conveyed via dunununununununuh MONTAGE.

Mando also gets to show how he’s softening and thinking of others. He wants to give Baby Yoda the thing Mando actually wants; a home, a family, but struggles knowing being abandoned will still be brutally difficult. We’re shown and told Mando still has trauma from his own childhood, but understands it may be unavoidable to cause trauma if he is going to do what’s best for Baby Yoda. The episode relies on simple, short dialogue to underline its themes; it’s not afraid of that Western/Samurai statement of the obvious:

“It’s gonna break his heart.”
“He’ll get over it. We all do.”

“I don’t belong here.” reminds us Mando wants nothing more and believes in nothing less than somewhere he can belong.

“I’ll cover you”  is repeated, underscoring its double meaning.

Ultimately, what’s said matters, but what’s shown matters more. Taking Baby Yoda with him isn’t just about protecting the child, but the entire village, which tells us something about Mando’s inner compass.

CHAPTER 5 – THE GUNSLINGER

(We talk in the podcast about how they use this setting as shorthand, down to where Toto’s sitting in the cantina as cocky flyboy. They’re trying to get us to identify him with Han, having their cake and eating it too when Toro takes the opposite path to Han. Along the way we get plenty of signposts showing he isn’t just cocky but green: he doesn’t know who his target is, he buys new toys, he underestimates the locals, he takes ill-advised assignments, talks big but constantly gets surprised, etc.)

This episode was hella fun to watch unfold, but ultimately pretty light on the overall impact. Mistrust of droids has been shown before but the running joke gets a thorough workout here. I also found it interesting how many women Mando interacts with in different ways; friendly, combative, romantic, cultural leadership, forgers of his armour, friendly, slightly flirtatious, blatantly bribing, etc.

CHAPTER 6 – THE PRISONER

We are exactly zero percent shocked Mando has been a dick in matters of the heart.

This episode is probably the most superfluous in terms of development of the Yoda/Mando dynamic, as it mostly asks “When your old friends don’t recognise you, is this . . . growth?” and fills in some blanks about Mando’s past. But damn! is it fun, particularly the fighting-on-a-spaceship sequences. With Mando, and to a smaller extent Baby Yoda!, this ep puts us in the position of rooting FOR the hunter-on-a-ship, in other words the Alien in Alien. Mando uses every trick in the book: ghosting without telling his group what he’s up to so he can best sneak around and ambush the ambushers; fighting hand to hand using multiple tricks and techniques; shooting and threatening to shoot; showing zero compunction destroying droids; and silently sneak-attacks those who betrayed him with a cool “they got what they deserved.”

(Side note: Mayfield waving off the team so nobody helps Mando fight is a good bit of character development in a tiny package, and would definitely have been scripted, or at the least worked out in the room / table read, because it shifts the scene in a big way.)

The crux of the episode comes when Mando tries to talk the Imperial officer down with a cool “you can walk away with your life.” Does he mean it? Is it a tactic? The narrative lets us keep guessing, then brings the same question to bear at the end: will Mando kill someone unarmed and surrendering, who deserves it? For a moment we’re left with a Schroedinger’s  Twi’lek.

The grey morality is fantastic. Mando let other people kill the bad guys; how much is him knowing he was gonna be double crossed, and how much is him siccing someone else on his enemies so he doesn’t get his hands dirty? What is Baby Yoda learning from Mando? Would he kill in defense of others, or himself? He seems to have thought he destroyed Zero, a droid, with the Force. Again, we don’t have to find out yet, because we know Mando would and here does. But Baby Yoda is developing, too, which comes to a head in the final instalments.

CHAPTER 7 – THE RECKONING / CHAPTER 8 – THE REDEMPTION

No time is wasted setting up Karga’s super-transparent-doublecross-offer. The episode knows we know it, it assumes we know Mando knows it, but doesn’t care because the greatness comes from not what it’s about, but how it’s about it.

We learn of Cara Dune’s character through the way she accepts Mando’s proposal. The danger in itself is a lure, but not enough; no, the moment she buys in is the moment she finds out their target is Imperial. Also coming to bear early in the story is Mando’s mistrust of droids. We can safely assume both those things will play heavily in the story resolution, and of course they do.

“Droids are not good or bad. They are neutral reflections of those who imprint them.”
“I’ve seen otherwise.”

That ‘imprinting’ note manifests in the very next scene as Yoda tries to choke Dune when he erroneously thinks Dune is hurting Mando. While Baby Yoda may be making Mando want to be a ‘better person,’ Mando has also imprinted on him; Mando’s ruthlessness, situational morality, and code around murder and harm is rubbing off.

The family thread comes through again in Mando’s sadness over the droid, and having finally found family (after seeing the family which had rejected him destroyed).

While many of the episodes plots don’t impact the final arc, everything we learned about the character of Mando come into play here. It’s a lovely demonstration of character revelation over time, and how character information/backstory and growth naturally shape story when done right.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS

– It’s not as simple as Abrams loves a Mystery Box (as seen in Cloverfield and told in a Chris Pine interview I can’t find where he talks about being directed to act harder because that’s what matters) and Favreau is Character-First (Chef, even Daredevil and Iron Man), but that’s a factor. Many reference LOST, but you can trace JJ’s super-mythic-puzzle-connections pitfalls to ALIAS [whichIloveforever], especially the ‘everyone important is literally biologically related’ arc.

– I love Dune’s petty insistence on reminded people “This is dumb. I’mma do it anyways, but it’s dumb.” See also: “FOUR stormtroopers!?” and “who’s this guy?”

– Twi’lek healing baths being code for ‘brothel’ is pretty obvious, but is it just me or did Mando DEFINITELY sleep with both Twi’lek siblings?

– The Stormtroopers as Shakespearian gravediggers / clowns may be one of my favourite things. That scene is a perfect standalone short film, and I would watch a dozen mini-eps of them.

– Imperial Werner Hertzog speech about being the best ‘by any conceivable metric’ is dee.lish.ush.

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