The Emmy-nominated Star Wars sensation returns with a new galaxy of adventure — and TV's biggest 16-inch star.

By James Hibberd
September 08, 2020 at 08:45 AM EDT
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Francois Duhamel/Lucasfilm Ltd.

Baby Yoda was somehow in France — that’s what tipped it. 

It was December 2019. The Mandalorian had been airing for only about a month on the nascent streaming service Disney+ when showrunner Jon Favreau saw an online photo of a large mural halfway across the world. The street art depicted his show’s cherubic, wide-eyed, Force-sensitive character peering solemnly from under a bridge. That was the moment, Favreau says, when he realized his series was becoming a phenomenon: The Mandalorian hadn’t yet aired in France — or anywhere in Europe, for that matter.

“The show wasn’t there!” Favreau says. “Something was going on where people were connecting with the characters, with social media allowing them to see aspects of the show before they even knew what it was.”

Baby Yoda — which Disney has fruitlessly tried to persuade the world to call the Child, as its actual parents are unknown and its species is considered rare and mysterious — was only part of the frenzy. After a slew of recent Star Wars movies were met with fandom reactions that ranged from “Hey, that was fun” (2015’s The Force Awakens) to “Why, exactly?” (2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story), The Mandalorian's audience score on Rotten Tomatoes (93 percent "Fresh") was higher than any live-action Star Wars title since George Lucas’ beloved original trilogy. The show also earned 15 Emmy nominations in July, including a nod for Outstanding Drama Series, a feat that stunned industry insiders. Not too shabby for a show about a hero whose face you cannot see (Pedro Pascal) who is partnered with a kid who doesn't speak. 

The 53-year-old Favreau, who also helped launch the Marvel Cinematic Universe with 2008’s Iron Man, managed to inject life into a franchise that some in the media had speculated was about to fade out of existence like, well, OG Yoda in Return of the Jedi. And it was a TV show! The last time anybody had attempted live-action Star Wars for the small screen was 1978’s infamous Holiday Special, a project that made even the mild-mannered Lucas declare he wanted to “track down every copy and smash it” with a sledgehammer.

So what did The Mandalorian do right, that other Star Wars titles did not? Favreau believes the lower expectations of television versus movies helped give his show an edge. “I think it was the fact it was live-action Star Wars on TV for the first time," he says. "Having worked on bigger, higher-profile films, there’s a much different set of standards that you’re judged by. We’ve benefited from the smallness of our world.”

Another key factor, Favreau says, was the creative input of executive producer and director Dave Filoni, who was closely mentored by Lucas while helming seven seasons of the acclaimed animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Favreau does the bulk of The Mandalorian’s writing, bringing his story sense that he refined over the years of working within the Marvel Universe and on Disney projects like The Lion King, while Filoni keeps him on track as the arbiter of what works for Star Wars

Justin Lubin/Lucasfilm Ltd.

“Quite simply: We didn’t overthink things,” Filoni says of the show's debut season, which was inspired by the opening act of A New Hope and straightforward compared to the frenetic tangle of characters, story threads, and callbacks that filled 2019’s saga-concluding The Rise of Skywalker. “George started with these very iconic characters whose relationships are very clear, and then introduced what’s at stake — for us, the [fate of] the Child,” says Filoni. “An audience tends to enjoy a story by sticking to tropes and characters they understand — like a gunslinger in the Old West. So it was a clear story and a fun adventure even if you’ve never seen anything [in the Star Wars universe]."

Filoni’s mind is so deep into a galaxy far, far away that he often expresses his thoughts in Star Wars metaphors, such as describing his partnership with Favreau as “bringing balance to the Force.” Favreau breaks down their process: “I’ll come up with ideas and sometimes Dave will say, ‘You can’t do this in Star Wars.’ Then I’ll cite examples from the movies, or Clone Wars, to try to use as a justification. I’m like a lawyer talking to a judge; I am to him as he was to George. I won't do anything without Dave's approval. And to his credit, he understands that Stars Wars needs to be fun and ever-evolving.”

Oftentimes debates on making Star Wars for modern television will hinge on a bit of dialogue like, for instance, the phrase “a dime a dozen.” “There aren’t dimes in Star Wars,” Filoni says. “So how do you get that across? Or should it be avoided altogether?”

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The first season followed the bounty hunter Din Djarin, an orphan raised by Mandalorian warriors, as he hopscotched across the galaxy while protecting a mysterious, soup-sipping Child from the clutches of Galactic Empire governor-turned-warlord Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito). The season concluded with Mando embarking on a search for the Child’s own kind, and Gideon was revealed to possess the mysterious ancient black-bladed weapon the Darksaber. 

Expect the Outer Rim to get a lot more crowded in season 2. While Disney has not confirmed any new cast members or their characters, there's a rogue's gallery of actors who seem optimized for a Comic-Con panel reportedly coming on board: Rosario Dawson (Sin City) as Clone Wars fan favorite Jedi apostate Ahsoka Tano, Temuera Morrison (who played Jango Fett in the prequels) playing presumably some version of a clone trooper or iconic bounty hunter Boba Fett, Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) as a live-action version of Bo-Katan Kryze, and also Michael Biehn (The Terminator) and Timothy Olyphant (Justified) as unknown characters.

“Some of them are true, some are not true,” says Gina Carano, who plays mercenary Cara Dune on the show. Carano notes the heightened secrecy included actors getting scripts only for their own episodes and being ushered to sets in black cloaks and hoods like incognito Sith Lords. 

Francois Duhamel/Lucasfilm Ltd.

“The new season is about introducing a larger story in the world,” says Favreau. “The stories become less isolated, yet each episode has its own flavor, and hopefully we’re bringing a lot more scope to the show.” Adds Filoni, “Everything gets bigger, the stakes get higher, but also the personal story between the Child and the Mandalorian develops in a way I think people will enjoy.” 

And while the first season’s episodes very strictly focused on Mando, season 2 adds new storytelling angles. “As we introduce other characters, there are opportunities to follow different storylines,” Favreau says. “The world was really captivated by Game of Thrones and how that evolved as the characters followed different storylines — that's very appealing to me as an audience member.” 

The larger scope was aided by having fewer start-up costs for the second round, which meant a greater percentage of the show’s big budget (estimated at $100 million for the first season) will wind up on the screen. Once again, there will be eight episodes of different lengths (“There’s probably even variation [in episode lengths] this year,” Favreau notes), and directors include season 1 standout Rick Famuyiwa, Carl Weathers (who plays bounty hunter guild chief Greef Karga on the show), franchise newcomer Robert Rodriguez (Alita: Battle Angel), and, for the first time, Favreau himself, who helmed the season premiere airing Oct. 30.

As Mando and the Child continue their quest, expect the bounty hunter to face a series of obstacles that will increasingly challenge his paternal loyalty to his ward. “We start very directly after the first [season] and he's going into very dangerous territory," Pascal, 45, says. "He is very much a passenger to the experience in unexpected ways — not knowing what’s to come, not knowing how much or how best to protect the Child. We don’t know how far he will go to do that, and they’re finding new ways to push the envelope.”

In addition to wearing a helmet nearly all the time on screen, Pascal points out that Mando’s motivations are largely obscured as well. “On a moment-to-moment basis, he’s discovering that question: ‘What do you want?’” the Game of Thrones veteran says. “That isn’t clear to him, or to me." Adds Filoni, “We think we know how the characters are going to react, and it can be surprising how they do react.”

Mando and the Child are pursued by Gideon, who will serve as a source of temptation, in the classic tradition of Star Wars villains trying to lure heroes down darker paths. “I’ll be going toe-to-toe with Mando,” says Esposito, who was nominated for an Emmy for his first-season performance. “It’s an iconic battle. I want to disarm him mentally as well. Who knows? Maybe there’s an opportunity to get him to fight some battles for me. You may think I’m a villain, but I’m trying to harness some energy and some powers for a path that could be best for all. You'll get to see him be somewhat diplomatic and more of a manipulator."  

Francois Duhamel/Lucasfilm Ltd.

And as for that Darksaber, in the new episodes Gideon demonstrates he’s quite adept at wielding it. “It’s so exciting for me to be in a show where I can wear a cape and own it, and where I can have a lightsaber and really own it,” says Esposito, 62, who will also command “a larger vehicle, hint-hint” and spend some one-on-one time with the Child (the idea of Gus Fring facing off with Baby Yoda is alone worth the new season’s price of admission).

Favreau's original mad-brilliant conception of the Child as a key character was one of his earliest discussions with Filoni, and the idea at first seemed like a truly radical and perhaps heretical notion. "When he brought up in the very beginning of doing this child and having it be of Yoda's species, I was like, 'Oh, that's very tricky, because there's never been this before outside of Yoda, and then Yaddle in the prequels on the Jedi Council. It's kind of a sacred thing ... We just have to be responsible when we're telling a story with what we're deciding to do. The fans want to know things are a calculated, careful decision. Then if you tell a good story, most of the time they go with it."

Francois Duhamel/Lucasfilm Ltd.

Then by season 2, even on a show full of celebrity talent, when guests visited the set, nobody was a bigger draw then the green 16-inch puppet. "Last season, the Child was on set and we weren't sure with the puppet if we would even use much of it — and it turned out, we used a lot of it," Filoni says. "But in season 2, he was the biggest thing on the set. There was a total shift around him. Everybody liked him before, but he wasn't quite the celebrity that he was in season 2. This time, he was quite a big deal." Adds Esposito: "Even as a puppet, you can't walk by the Child without having an interaction, because it's so very sweet and innocent."

One major visitor to the season 2 set was Lucas himself, who stopped by to watch some filming while Filoni was directing. Actors who worked with the Star Wars creator on the original trilogy have famously said Lucas' most common direction to his actors was go "faster" and "more intense." Even after 40 years, some things have not changed. "He would be giving Dave a hard time about how many setups he was getting and how fast he was shooting and urging him to go faster," Favreau says. "He was like a boxer's corner man coaching him, but always with a twinkle in his eye."

Other familiar supporting players like Karga are back too, and the bounty hunter is “on a quest to be more legitimate,” Weathers, 72, says, "but I'm not sure there isn't something in the back of his mind that isn't more self-involved." Karga has grown closer to mercenary Cara Dune to the point where they “almost finish each other’s sentences.”

While former MMA fighter Carano, 38 — who made her dramatic TV debut with this role — says she’s more confident this time around, explaining she was helped by Pascal agreeing to remove Mando’s helmet during their scenes whenever the camera was only on her. “I really wanted to see his eyes, which really helped,” she says.

Justin Lubin/Lucasfilm Ltd.

Pascal has continued to refine his Mando performance, continually trying to figure out how much he can convey with how little he can do. "Which is a strange thing to say in a world like this where there are so many things that are just larger than life," Pascal says. "All of these galaxies and planets and ships and action sequences and creatures and stuff. And yet, ironically, as far as what I believe works in terms of storytelling, it's the very small physical gesture, those specific intonations in a voice, that make him compelling. A little goes a long way."

Their filming fortuitously wrapped just four days before the industrywide COVID-19 shutdown in March. But the team then had to figure out its labor-intensive postproduction process in the pandemic era. The biggest challenge was pulling off Ludwig Göransson’s orchestral score. “We had to have people either recording remotely, or in much smaller groups, distanced very far apart,” Favreau says. “I’m hearing the music now as we’re mixing episodes, and it’s remarkable what they were able to achieve under the circumstances.”

The breakout success of season 1 has fandom anticipation for the new episodes running extremely high. If Favreau is correct that The Mandalorian benefited from low expectations, there will be no such grading on a curve this time. Yet nobody sounds worried. “I have no question fans are going to like this season even more — everything’s in there,” Carano says. “If you’re a Star Wars fan, you’re going to get to see things you’ve always wanted to see.”

Or, as Filoni reliably puts it: “You want The Empire Strikes Back to be better than A New Hope.”

© LUCASFILM LTD. & TM.

For more on The Mandalorian and EW's Fall TV Preview, order the October issue of Entertainment Weekly now, or find it on newsstands beginning Sept. 18. You can also find an alternate Mandalorian cover (above) at Barnes & Noble — or pick up the set of both issues. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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