The Mandalorian season 2 episode 5 review: Ahsoka Tano vs. samurai
A beloved Jedi from the Clone Wars cartoon debuts as the Disney Plus Star Wars spin-off strikes a Kurosawa note.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
A big part of The Mandalorian's appeal is its familiarity. The Disney Plus show is set in the
galaxy, which is in turn a mirror of the western genre. And season 2 episode 5 (Chapter 13: The Jedi) brings in other familiar elements: The Jedi Ahsoka Tano, iconic '80s action star Michael Biehn and a visual style that draws heavily on Japanese samurai stories. But it's the combination of these elements that makes this sci-fi adventure feel fresh, vibrant and enormously entertaining.
This combination of the familiar into something new makes The Mandalorian such welcome comfort viewing -- that and Baby Yoda. Streaming now, Chapter 13: The Jedi sees the Mando and Baby Yoda continue their adventures on a planet ruled by a mendacious magistrate straight out of an Akira Kurosawa film. (Mild spoilers to follow.)
The Mandalorian has so far leaned heavily into westerns with its tales of gritty gunslingers facing off in dusty saloons. Episode 5 makes a stylish sidestep to draw on the other major influence shaping this famous sci-fi saga: the samurai epic.
There's always been a connection between these two quintessentially Japanese and American genres, as westerns often updated the frontier fiefdoms of Japanese historical stories. The films of legendary director Kurosawa were directly translated: Seven Samurai became gunslinging western The Magnificent Seven, Yojimbo became A Fistful of Dollars and 1958's The Hidden Fortress provided the template for a little movie called Star Wars (or Episode IV: A New Hope, if you prefer).
Episode 5 wears the influence of samurai, wushu and martial arts epics on the sleeve of its flowing robe. Our space ronin hero arrives in a new world where orange-hued deserts are replaced with blasted forests and manicured gardens. Asian actors and styling nods fill this village, and Ludwig Goransson's score shows a certain Asian influence in its sombre drums and lilting pipes. Best of all, the final showdown eschews six-shooters for sword and spear. Crouching Jedi, hidden badass.
The villainous magistrate is played by stunt performer and martial artist Diana Lee Inosanto, goddaughter of Bruce Lee, no less. She provides an intense presence that more than stands up to the other more showy cameos in the episode.
Let's leave aside that big name appearance for a second. You may also recognize that grizzled henchman: It's only Michael Biehn! Although he's slightly underused as a one-dimensional baddie, the Terminator and Aliens star joins Carl Weathers and Nick Nolte in the show's enjoyable exhumation of retro action icons.
And then there's the big one (if you're a major Star Wars nerd). The Mandalorian is sent to kill a rampaging Jedi by the name of Ahsoka Tano. A key figure in the Clone Wars cartoon and other spin-offs, Tano is a much-loved figure among fans. Happily, Rosario Dawson looks perfect -- especially when lit by two super-cool white lightsabers. And is it just me or do they make a particularly satisfyingly percussive zhwoomp noise?
It's a sliiiightly muted live-action debut for such a popular character, who's surely earned more of a buildup than running in from the very first moment of the episode. And I certainly would have liked to see more of Tano pitched against the Mando. Still, what her appearance lacks in suspense it makes up for in Jedi-tastic action, particularly when Tano entertainingly outwits the Mandalorian's familiar bag of tricks.
Tano's appearance is another example of the tightrope The Mandalorian's creators have chosen to walk. I noted a few weeks ago that the show is striking a perfect balance between wider Star Wars continuity and standalone story, crossing over characters from other spin-offs but making sure casual viewers don't feel they're missing crucial backstory. Like Bo Katan in that previous episode, Tano's general backstory is sketched in enough to make her fit in with the many side characters the Mandalorian encounters in these self-contained episodes. If anything, I would've liked a bit more about where she came from and where she's going, but I get the feeling that's in the works -- especially as she opened the door to another major spin-off character showing up.
As a side note, it's interesting that The Mandalorian draws its Star Wars continuity from books, TV shows and even toys, rather than the movies. Instead of shoehorning in more cameos by C3-PO and Chewbacca, the show is giving spin-off characters the opportunity for their first live-action appearances -- and firsts are always memorable, right? As more and more spin-off characters turn up, there is a danger that the Mandalorian himself could feel sidelined in his own show. But after mixed reaction to recent films, maybe it's time to stop referring to the creativity and depth of expanded universe titles as mere spin-offs.
Even as other showy cameos do turn up, The Mandalorian still has its ace in the hole, or rather in the satchel. The title of Chapter 13: The Jedi may not refer to the person you think as we learn more about Baby Yoda. The little green ball of adorbs-ness even gets a name, but it's unlikely anyone will call it Grogu any more than they'll call it The Child.
Baby Yoda (sorry, Grogu) continues to bond with the Mando. They even toss the ol' ball around (Star Wars-style). It's striking how the show seeks to marry two sides of the Star Wars coin: Unlike Han Solo, who didn't much get involved with the Force, this cynical gunslinger and skeptical adherent of the material world not only sees but begins to actively participate in the spiritual element. By helping Baby Yoda learn (or re-learn) about the mystical connection between all life, both learn about another mystical bond: the emotional connection of family, of love.
Then they go and straight up murder a bunch of fools, obviously. But it was a nice moment...
Check out our recaps for all the Mandalorian's Easter eggs and important Star Wars continuity references: