Somehow, I wasn’t expecting to love The Mandalorian. Sure, people told me it was a space western. But I’d heard that a lot of times about a lot of things, and only sometimes did what people called a “space western” really feel like one to me. So, I was skeptical.
The space western. It’s not a new concept. Gene Roddenberry sold Star Trek to CBS in the 1960s by calling it “Wagon Train to the stars” because TV execs understood how a western would tell stories. When Star Wars: A New Hope came out in the1970s, people complained it was just a bunch of cowboys in spaceships. (Sometimes, I wonder if the studio executive who green-lit the first Star Wars movie, Alan Ladd, Jr., saw that similarity and felt drawn to it. After all, his father had been one of the most popular stars of western movies twenty years earlier.) In the early 2000s, Joss Whedon made the cult classic show Firefly and its big-screen follow-up Serenity about literal cowboys in outer space.
All of that means that, in a lot of ways, a show like The Mandalorian is natural. Inevitable. Unsurprising. After all, the Star Wars universe has had bounty hunters since the beginning. And bounty hunters are a stock character type for westerns. Why not take that concept and run with it? Seems like a solid idea for a show.
Why did this little series hit me like the kick from a sawed-off carbine? Since I was already a devoted fan of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Firefly, wouldn’t I have known what to expect from this new space western? Well, to be honest, I thought I did. I expected a sci-fi show that borrowed a trope or a theme or an archetype here and there from westerns. Because that’s what other space westerns gave me.
But that’s not what The Mandalorian delivered.
Instead, I got a western show that borrowed some costumes and settings and weaponry from science fiction. And I could not have been happier.
Yes, Din Djarin rides in a spaceship or on a blurrg, not on the back of a horse. Yes, his weapons fire blast bolts, not bullets. Yes, he uses sign language to converse with Sand People, not Native Americans. Yes, he wears a helmet, not a ten-gallon hat. But Djarin is a cowboy in the best sense of the word, and you will never convince me otherwise. In the grand tradition of Josh Randall (Steve McQueen) and Vin Tanner (Eric Close), he is a bounty hunter with a conscience who travels the west dispensing justice when he can and at least some fairness when he can’t. Or, at least, that’s who he becomes.
In fact, it’s Djarin’s journey to morality that makes this feel more like a western than anything else. Western movies and shows have always been about exploration and taming. Outwardly, of course, they’re about exploring wide landscapes and taming everything from horses to the land itself. And we get that here too, with Djarin landing on one barren and bleak planet after another, battling the elements and various monsters and his ship’s increasing fragility. He tames a blurrg. He subdues many monsters. He endures hostile elements of every sort.
But all that is outward. Inwardly, westerns are about exploring our own inner selves and taming our sinful inclinations. From Ethan Edwards letting go of a death-grudge in The Searchers to a wanderer sacrificing himself to save a town in Shane, westerns love to explore the human need to reflect, learn about oneself, and grow beyond what you were.
Although the Star Wars universe has its own religious mythology separate from the Christianity that permeates both the historical Old West and most on-screen iterations of it, the parallel rings true. Din Djarin must subdue his selfishness and serve others. By doing so, he learns to understand himself aright. By recognizing his own failings and faults, sins and shortcomings, he’s able to move forward and help those around him. The Star Wars mythology may have no place for confession or absolution, but they definitely reward repentance and atonement, and Djarin becomes a hero by embracing both.
In the end, blurrgs or broncos, a blaster pistol or a Colt .45—those trappings don’t matter. The Mandalorian feels like a western to me, inside and out, a fact that will delight and surprise me again and again whenever I re-watch it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s western fairy tale retelling novels are now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com.