There should be a resolution after this week’s The Mandalorian, “The Prisoner,” to just let Rick Famuyiwa direct the rest of the first season. Maybe all the rest of all of them. Between this and “The Child,” Famuyiwa demonstrates a strong sense of how to work with actors and move a camera. While “The Child” remains the best episode of the season, “The Prisoner” checks in just behind as our anti-hero stages a prison break with a motley crew of miscreants. When things go bad as they inevitably must, Mando finds himself betrayed and put in the position of picking off his former partners-in-crime one by one. This leads to some genuinely inventive fight sequences that highlight the different capabilities of each of the bad guys. It shows off, too, exactly how ruthless our hero can be when angered. Famuyiwa turns it all into something that behaves a lot like a slasher movie. It’s great.
As the episode opens, Mando visits old friend Ran (Mark Boone Jr.), who is possibly named after the Kurosawa film but who is definitely interested in hiring Mando’s Razor Crest ship to be the getaway vehicle in a plot to free an old colleague from a New Republic prison barge. Along for the ride are ringleader Mayfeld (Bill Burr), a muscle-bound Devaronian called Burg (the great Clancy Brown), and a lithe Twi-lek assassin with a troubled, possibly romantic, history with the Mandalorian called Xi’an (Natalia Tena). A droid, Zero (voiced by Richard Ayoade), takes on piloting duties and, when the team are on the barge, directs them by accessing maps, disabling security systems and opening passages. It all reminds, of course, of R2-D2’s hacking of the Death Star computer to free his buddies from a trash compactor and diehard fans will get a charge out of all the retrograde heads-up displays and set designs.
In an attempt to reduce the body count, perhaps, the guards on the barge are all droids. This is problematic as one of the great things about the Star Wars universe is that the robots have feelings and appear to experience pain. The more egregious equivocation, however, is a final shot which undermines a great deal of the coolness of the episode in the hopes of preserving the “family friendliness” of the Disney brand. It’s best to pretend the episode ends about a minute before it does. Until then, “The Prisoner” is an absolute blast. It’s the first time since that second episode that the series has found a way to use its guest stars to advantage, and it does so by making the smart decision of moving Mando into a supporting position. Boba Fett wasn’t cool because he spouted wise cracks, after all. With professional talkers like Bill Burr and Richard Ayoade on board, it’s best to just let them go hog.
I love a moment where Burr, a standup comic (one of many already to be featured in this series) says “nice family” after their prize, Qin (Ismael Cruz Cordova) suggests abandoning his sister to certain death. Burr pulls it off with just the right amount of Han Solo cheekiness. Burr is so natural, it’s fair to wonder if he was allowed to improvise his asides. Brown is, of course, exceptional, and Tena stands out as a dangerous, feral presence fueled by chaos and the constant threat of violence. I suspect it’s not an accident that the best performances in this series so far are under the guidance of Famuyiwa. Even a sequence with Zero hunting the largely inexpressive Baby Yoda puppet through the belly of the Razor Crest finds a certain rhythm and tension. Of all the things to reference, it actually reminds a little bit in execution of the Karen Black segment from Trilogy of Terror.
Famuyiwa’s real gift is his ability to marry all of the fan service in this series to events that drive the narrative. There’s a tendency in The Mandalorian to stop the story dead to recite a few pages of toy names from the old Sears catalog. Famuyiwa avoided that tendency in “The Child” and he does so again in “The Prisoner.” Mouse droids appear, but are used as a plot device. There’s a reference to Canto Bight, a Mayfeld line that defames the Razor Crest in much the same way as another hunk of junk was once defamed, and his own cameo (along with other series directors Deborah Chow and Dave Filoni) in a scene I won’t spoil, marks the third time this series has made me cry. The Famuyiwa episodes point to a direction this show could take in the hands of a gifted filmmaker more interested in story and pace than servicing the vocal minority. They’re so much better than the other four episodes that I almost wish the last three weeks hadn’t happened at all.
Walter Chaw is the Senior Film Critic for filmfreakcentral.net. His book on the films of Walter Hill, with introduction by James Ellroy, is due in 2020. His monograph for the 1988 film MIRACLE MILE is available now.