In the recent past of the Star Wars franchise, the screens have gotten smaller and so has its galaxy. This isn’t a new phenomenon; the saga has often had proximity issues in terms of how its vast roster of characters tend to pop up in each other’s lives whether the story needs them to or not. Darth Maul (Ray Park) made an unexpected cameo at the end of Solo: A Star Wars Story, a bewildering appearance (if you hadn’t watched a pair of animated spin-offs, that is) that promised exciting things, and wound up becoming a peculiar narrative cul-de-sac. Yoda teamed up with Chewbacca, briefly, in Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge Of The Sith, for no serious reason other than it was easy to do and the timeline favored the pairing. The expanse of Star Wars has always felt more like the volume of a toy box. Does Star Wars TV have to be just as small?
It doesn’t. In fact, the first year of Star Wars television felt like an invigorating blast of Hoth-frosted air because it didn’t bother with familiar faces from the wider canon. Each episode from The Mandalorian’s first season had the patience of an hours-long spaghetti Western, with lengthy, gorgeously crafted shots of Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal) hustling from one dangerous mission to the next, his diminutive green friend (then known only as “The Child”) trilling softly behind him.
The Mandalorian staked a claim on outposts never before seen in the broader Star Wars galaxy, and jettisoned legacy characters in favor of creating intriguing and memorable new ones: Nick Nolte’s Ugnaught hermit Kuiil, Amy Sedaris’ jovial (if dodgy) mechanic Peli Motto, Bill Burr’s rough-and-tumble Migs Mayfeld; the list of stand-outs goes on. As Lucasfilm’s first live-action Star Wars series, The Mandalorian felt like it was on the cusp of something new; beyond its bleeding edge behind-the-scenes innovations, it made Star Wars feel bigger and more mysterious than it had in a generation.
Which is why season two of The Mandalorian makes the first look almost experimental by comparison. Where season one took risks, season two burrowed into the toy box and pulled out fan-favorites from other Star Wars stories such as Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson), Bo-Katan Kryze (Katee Sackhoff), Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison), and perhaps most controversially, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, kind of).
Looking back, the lack of a cameo conga line played a large part in giving The Mandalorian’s first season drive and a sense of purpose. The same can’t be said of Mando season two, which indulged scenic detours to easy thrills—it went to work setting up the next batch of Star Wars shows as soon as it could—instead of steering the Razor Crest towards uncharted territory. By the time the season-two finale rolled around, the show known and lauded for its minimal approach was getting crowded. It’s interesting that Mandalorian showrunner Jon Favreau also directed Iron Man 2, itself a sequel to a successful, paradigm-shifting story (Iron Man, which Favreau also helmed) that got bogged down in various plot threads designed to set up future sagas.
Character-stacking is a trend we’re seeing more and more from Star Wars television, and not even its animated offerings are immune. Star Wars: The Bad Batch tackled the fallout of Emperor Palpatine’s (Ian McDiarmid) catastrophic Order 66 by zeroing in on an elite squad of clone troopers known as Clone Force 99: Hunter, Echo, Wrecker, Tech, and Crosshair (all voiced by Dee Bradley Baker) as well as the mysterious (and chipper!) clone Omega (Michelle Ang). At least, it did in the beginning: In its crackerjack first episode, Crosshair betrays the Batch and joins the Empire, an act they believed at the time to be triggered by the same mechanisms that turned the Republic’s clone army against the Jedi. It was a chance for Star Wars to follow Crosshair into the chaotic transfer of power from the Republic to the newly forged Empire, as well as a chance to learn how this turn of events affected the sharpshooter and his former brother-in-arms, Hunter.
Instead, The Bad Batch largely stuffed the Crosshair-Hunter character work into the periphery for the majority of the season and outright ignored other dramatically rich plot points, such as Echo’s traumatic transformation during the final season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Instead, popular characters from other Star Wars shows, like Rebels’ Hera Syndulla, were given full episode origin stories that pulled the show far, far away from the crew of the Havoc Marauder, characters we were tasked with caring about as they cruised around searching for a new life in a deadly galaxy. For that week at least, Clone Force 99 were made guest stars in their own TV show.
Which brings us to The Book Of Boba Fett, a series that gleefully digs into that Star Wars toy box and pulls out ringers from Disney’s broad line of animated series, comic books, and films. Some arrive quite naturally to the show, like the Wookie gladiator-turned-hired-muscle Black Krrsantan (who first appeared in Marvel’s 2015 Darth Vader comic), while others show up and utterly disrupt Boba Fett’s first real crack at becoming an actual character himself—to say nothing of robbing what little momentum Fett’s soft gangster story arc had.
It’s really quite stunning: Din Djarin and his plucky little pal Grogu hijack the fifth and sixth episodes of Boba Fett to set up their own third season (effectively lending warmth and tenderness to a show largely bereft of it, but still), and a surprise appearance by Rosario Dawson seeds the upcoming Ahsoka series. In these episodes we’re also reunited with Luke Skywalker, an uncanny fusion of stand-in, deep fake technology, and AI-constructed voice work that is handily the most egregious inclusion to the show, a hollowed-out forgery of a bygone character whose auto-tuned cadence is a chillingly robotic sign of even more creepy resurrections to come. (Seriously, guys, Sebastian Stan isn’t too busy for Star Wars.)
This might not bother a large contingent of the faithful who consider dusting off beloved action figures and smashing them together to be a feature of Star Wars, not a bug. Visceral thrills and warm feelings leased from well-loved stories, doled out at the cost of drama and substantial change—depending on your point of view, this could complicate the prospects of future Star Wars projects, even those that aren’t at first blush related to the Skywalker Saga, such as The Acolyte, a “mystery-thriller” that will venture into the fabled final days of the High Republic. How will Lucasfilm tie this story, which takes place 200 years before Anakin Skywalker was conjured out of thin air, to the more familiar, fan-friendly trappings of the original Star Wars trilogy? There’s a chance that it won’t.
Less certain is how Disney+’s hotly anticipated series, Obi-Wan Kenobi (set for a May 25 release), will handle its balance of story and character when we already know that the show will include Hayden Christensen’s Darth Vader, a surprise inclusion that fudges with established lore for the sake of freaking its audience out. (Vader’s line in A New Hope—“When I left you I was but the learner. Now, I am the master”—is now doing a lot more work than it was likely originally meant to.)
Star Wars might be looking to the future with technological leaps that have already changed the way ambitious genre television gets made, but it sure feels like it’s terrified of letting go of the past. Not helping matters is the chaotically mixed reaction to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which showed a rift in the fandom that separates those who yearn for something different from this decades-old saga and those who like the way things are just fine.
With every step towards something innovative and daring, Star Wars takes two steps back. World-famous Mandalorian bucket head and floppy green Yoda ears aside, Din Djarin and Grogu are special because they represent a boldness for which Star Wars isn’t generally known these days. Charting a course to unknowable new frontiers alongside characters who aren’t already printed on our frayed security blankets—now that is the way, not just for the future of Star Wars television, but for Star Wars as a whole.