“#It’s All Connected – /Film”
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This post contains spoilers for The Mandalorian and the latest episode of WandaVision.
For better or worse, the debuts of The Mandalorian and WandaVision on Disney+ within just 14 months of each other represent something of a game-changer in this Streaming Era. Amid so many different shows all competing for the same spotlight in a post-Game of Thrones vacuum, here comes the unstoppable might of Disney’s Star Wars and Marvel brands to break through the clutter of our current “Peak TV” reality. Achieving pop culture relevance as these two shows have is no small feat, to be sure, but it’s even more notable to do so while expanding from dominating cinemas to taking over our living rooms on a weekly basis.
Because of these factors, it’s difficult to compartmentalize one smash-hit series from the other – as divergent as their goals and intentions may be – when evaluating the ripple effect they both will have (and have already had) on the trajectory of their respective franchises… and most significantly, on how we as viewers engage with them. Weirdly enough, the stories of a lone bounty hunter looking after his orphan sidekick and a grief-stricken superhero cocooning herself in a television fantasy have become a bellwether for studying the volatile dynamic between pop culture entertainment and audiences on a large scale.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the many eerie similarities between these two shows: from misplaced complaints about “filler episodes” throughout both seasons of The Mandalorian and the first few episodes of WandaVision, to their gradual prioritization of shared universe connections over self-contained narratives.
Defining Our Terms
Ah yes, the dreaded “filler episode” accusation. Increasingly, it appears that modern fandom takes a fickle “You know it when you see it” approach to judging entertainment by this standard. Nobody seems entirely sure of its precise meaning, but boy does social media light up with angry mentions of that phrase when convinced that a popular show has dared to commit such a time-wasting cardinal sin.
The first three episodes of WandaVision, for instance, are wholly committed to its genre trappings in a way the Marvel Cinematic Universe has rarely been before. But with only minimal hints as to what the overarching plot might be, impatient fans predictably lashed out (to the point that creator Jac Schaeffer actually had to issue a public response), even though much of the show’s appeal in the first place came from seeing how superheroes would fare as sitcom characters.
Meanwhile, Season 1 of The Mandalorian features a number of “adventure-of-the-week” interludes in which the eponymous hero, Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal), faces a modest challenge and spends the subsequent runtime overcoming it (or not) before moving on to another standalone quest. Not all of it works as intended, but it’s also not a coincidence that an episode like “The Prisoner” – directed by Rick Famuyiwa and practically a textbook example of so-called “filler” – turns out to be the clear highlight of the season.
But as with much of internet discourse these days, a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes “filler” or not tends to muddy the waters.
Addressing the same sort of criticisms resurfacing during Season 2 of The Mandalorian, The Mary Sue cites the TVTropes definition as “…entries in a generally continuous serial that are unrelated to the main plot, don’t significantly alter the relations between the characters, and generally serve only to take up space.” Though that might feel more or less accurate, writer Kimberly Terasaki rightfully points out that beloved episodes of any given show would also fall under the umbrella of this rather vague, derogatory description. The most obvious victims of this would be famed episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender, but so too are ones like “Tricia Tanaka Is Dead” from Lost, Game of Thrones’ “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”, or even the highly-lauded (and Rian Johnson-directed) “Fly” from Breaking Bad. Each of these three examples take noticeable detours from their respective main plots, add subtle character work that binge-watchers might easily overlook, and could conceivably be skipped entirely while only missing minor plot details… but any serious viewing experience would undoubtedly suffer for it in the long run.
At the heart of this divisive topic, perhaps, is the misguided implication that any chapter of a series lacking in massive plot developments, twists, or expansion of lore simply must be an inherent pacing flaw or structural mistake on the part of the writers. From that perspective, “filler” merely becomes a convenient talking point – a proxy for a viewer’s deeper, harder-to-articulate discomfort with not getting what they wanted.
Part of this can be traced back to post-2000s television chasing the overtly serialized trend popularized by prestige shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, leaving younger audiences unaccustomed to the episodic storytelling that used to be the medium’s forte. For instance, it’s not hard to imagine newcomers to Star Trek: The Next Generation dismissing entire seasons as “filler” for focusing on standalone adventures instead of furthering the sporadic Borg plotline. The fact that “episodic” is generally conflated with “filler” may be no more complicated a mystery than a generational divide.
Another likely culprit, however, could be the very franchises that The Mandalorian and WandaVision are but a small piece of. Look no further than the carbon copy instances of highly-anticipated cameos derailing how fans engage with these two shows – one involving two different Jedi, the other an overhyped “aerospace engineer” (though with yet another is still to come). Through years of emphasizing continuity-heavy spin-offs and crossovers, Star Wars and Marvel have successfully trained obsessive fans to expect outlandish cameos and speculate wildly despite very little evidence (textual or otherwise) supporting these theories.
To a certain extent, both shows have fallen victim to their own hype. Some of this is innocent fun and not inherently wrong, mind you, but alarm bells should sound once these isolated conversations turn into the loudest conversations. With The Mandalorian and WandaVision, one can draw a straight line between the proliferation of “filler” complaints and the most outspoken voices hijacking the overall discourse with ignorant demands.
It’s All Connected… But Did It Have To Be?
Of course, no individual movie or show can be held fully responsible for outsized expectations stemming from connections to a larger ongoing franchise. But sometimes, just sometimes, the show itself is the one directly feeding into this self-destructive mindset, undercutting its own ambitions for the sake of The Brand™. Unfortunately, both The Mandalorian and WandaVision have fallen headlong into this same troubling trend, placing more weight on aspects that a cynic might ironically label as actual filler.
It’s particularly disappointing in The Mandalorian Season 2, as creator Jon Favreau seemingly spent most of the first season figuring out the proper balance…only to sacrifice the previously straightforward focus on Mando and Grogu in favor of a parade of bizarrely Marvel-esque guest stars and cameos. The otherwise lively premiere “The Marshal” immediately makes it clear that Boba Fett’s (Temuera Morrison) (re)appearance is inevitable and, within a few episodes, Star Wars truly goes full #ItsAllConnected on us as Katee Sackhoff’s Bo-Katan Kryze and Rosario Dawson’s Ahsoka Tano make their leaps from the Rebels and Clone Wars cartoons into live-action. As someone who has never watched those shows (and shouldn’t be required to), it’s not surprising that their appearances land with a resounding thud here.
To be clear, none of this would be so unsatisfying if only these extraneous characters adequately integrated themselves with Mando’s journey (as, say, Bill Burr’s Miggs Mayfield does in “The Believer”, also written/directed by Famuyiwa and also the best episode of the series by far), not constantly distracting from it.
Compare how Bo-Katan’s motivation revolves around Moff Gideon’s (Giancarlo Esposito) Darksaber (a plot device from an entirely different show that has nothing to do with The Mandalorian) with how Ahsoka insists she can’t train Grogu because, as we find out, she’s too busy hunting Grand Admiral Thrawn (another character who, you guessed it, has nothing to do with The Mandalorian). The pattern is fully established by the time Boba Fett’s plot function loses steam in the finale, as it’s plain he’s not there to add a single meaningful layer to Mandalorian culture or Din Djarin’s arc, but to blatantly promote his upcoming spin-off series. And let’s not even get started on Luke Skywalker, a cameo so excessively intrusive that it undermines three Mando-centric moments: the resolution of his confrontation with Gideon, his reluctant fight with Bo-Katan over the Darksaber, and his parting with Grogu.
If lugging around dead weight from other parts of Star Wars lore with no real narrative justification for being there isn’t egregious enough, WandaVision puts its own MCU-style stamp on the fourth episode.
Initially, to its credit, the show’s sitcom premise initially appears to serve dual purposes: testing the boundaries of what genres these heroes can adapt to, and playfully acknowledging criticisms of the standard Marvel “formula” by making the shocking intrusions of far more standard MCU tropes an integral part of the text itself. Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) is as unhappy to see a SWORD drone-helicopter (and the typical Marvel storytelling mode that it implies) disrupting the reassuring safety of her heightened sitcom world as we are. Frustratingly, this couldn’t be further from how WandaVision unfolds in the aptly-named “We Interrupt This Program.” Gone are the impeccable attention to period detail and loving homages to sitcoms of yore, replaced by a far more traditional MCU subplot involving rushed superhero origin stories, self-congratulatory metatextual humor, and no shortage of building blocks for future sequels.
In fact, the repercussions of this course-correction could’ve extended to WandaVision’s other major selling point: the fact that, due to Vision’s (Paul Bettany) tragic death, it’s ostensibly an exploration into a woman’s grief. (There have been hints and feints towards a compelling immigrant metaphor as well, punctuated by “Pietro” and Wanda’s discussion of their anglicized accents in “All-New Halloween Spooktacular!” However, crediting this as an intentional throughline instead of a happy accident would’ve likely required leveraging her shared history with the actual Pietro, previously portrayed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, not using Evan Peters’ headline-grabbing iteration to play meta games about Disney owning Fox’s X-Men movies.)
Last week’s episode, “Previously On,” helped put to rest some concerns that since all indications suggest this is little more than just another MCU installment while exacerbating it in other ways, of course we shouldn’t have wondered whether Wanda is solely responsible for her sitcom fantasy. Presuming it doesn’t walk back the questionable (but admittedly delightful) Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn) reveal without denying Wanda’s agency or her responsibility for the creation of Westview’s fantasy world, WandaVision avoids becoming a watered-down show about how there’s always an external threat waiting to manipulate superheroes while grief is only an incidental obstacle. Instead, for really the first time all season, it reinforces how survivors of trauma can withdraw into themselves and, in some ways, become the villain of their own story. Granted, much of the information in this episode could and arguably should’ve been doled out earlier in the series to clarify character motivations and, at times, it plays like an extended reel of MCU Greatest Hits references that dilutes some of the emotional hits. But for the most part, the penultimate chapter inspires confidence that the WandaVision conclusion will at least fare better than The Mandalorian’s latest season.
Although we thankfully aren’t done with Wanda’s storyline hijinks just yet, the series has unmistakably shifted gears and now devotes far less time to its once-bold experimental approach with each passing episode. The format of The Mandalorian can’t quite be considered as radical (relative to the genre, at least), but the end result is sadly the same. Having stumbled onto a formula for success early on, the gunslinger and the witch are ultimately let down by storytellers who themselves gave in to the conventional “filler” mentality.
Looking Back and Moving Forward
If any of this feels unnecessarily harsh towards two smash-hit shows with an undeniable pop culture impact, think of it more as a plea to raise the bar for how we talk about these sorts of watercooler events. At the end of the day, nobody can diminish the very tangible impact WandaVision and The Mandalorian have had on devoted fans and mainstream audiences alike. As a result, even their biggest defenders would agree they deserve better than to be reduced to little more than X-Men or Fantastic Four connections and fodder for spin-offs.
So let’s approach these stories with a deeper level of nuance – even on infamously nuance-less platforms like Twitter. What if terms like “filler” are just too subjective and ill-defined to casually throw around as definitive takes on why an episode might feel lackluster? Maybe it’s time we retired other commonly-used barbs like “overrated” or “Let people enjoy things” that say a lot without really meaning anything. Star Wars and superheroes – the closest modern artifacts we have to a universal, shared language – can, do, and should inspire a higher class of conversation surrounding them. Let’s start here.
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