By: Erick Mertz
“How can I be substantial unless I cast a shadow? I must have a dark side if I am to be whole.” — CG Jung
The Mandalorian is an exemplary story on several levels, which features classic spaghetti western motifs, sharp cinematography, and action-packed writing brought to life by wonderfully memorable performances. The eight-episode story in the ever-expanding Star Wars universe has managed to keep fans gripped on the edge of their seats. The writing in this series is among the best in recent television.
Flashbacks Can Be Good Writing
We’re still hearing not to use flashbacks in our writing. That cautionary tone, especially strong in screenwriting, supposes that looking backward in time is antithetical to good storytelling. That warning hangs on a galaxy-sized contingency, though. More accurately, the warning should state that writers should not write poorly orchestrated or unmotivated flashbacks. You may have seen it somewhere on your editorial feedback, a comment that a reflective moment was meandering, uninspired, or perhaps purposeless navel-gazing.
That then begs the obvious question. What makes a flashback motivated? The Mandalorian uses that backward look at its character’s life, without losing sight of what is to come.
Breaking Down the Mandalorian
The Mandalorian bridges the largest gap in the Star Wars universe – five years after the events of The Return of the Jedi and twenty-five years before The Force Awakens while following the title character, Din Djarin, a Mandalorian bounty hunter, showing us his exploits on the lawless fringes between the Empire’s defeat and the rise of The New Republic.
The term Mandalorian begs a physical description. Djarin wears battle-scarred armor and a helmet over his head that he has sworn never to remove. In the original Star Wars trilogy, the easily recognizable Mandalorian character was Boba Fett. In action, the Mandalorian is a fierce fighter, equipped with devastating melee skills as well as fierce weapons.
Writer and director Jon Favreau explores several deep themes in the eight episodes. He touches on good and evil, or, more specifically, nature versus nurture. The story also takes a deep and unexpected dive into personal responsibility and the question of what makes one a father.
The Quintessential Clint Eastwood Model
Similar to many western-styled heroes, the Mandalorian comes across as the strong and silent type. In the opening sequence of the eponymously titled first episode, we see him execute the functions of his job with relentless efficiency. But he also demonstrates a high regard for duty and code. He does everything by the book.
Twenty minutes in, viewers are acutely aware that the main character is dutiful and deadly, but he also carries moral fallibility. Toward the end of the first episode, his boss, Greef Karga, leader of the local order of bounty hunters, offers him another job. His payment for this job is so much more than usual that the Mandalorian has no choice but to accept the offer.
His task is to fetch an unnamed bounty, which turns out to be “The Child,” an adorable character resembling a baby Yoda.
Unresolved Issues? A Flashback Will Clarify Them
This bounty tests the Mandalorian, putting himself on the line breaks with his gruff exterior and his prevailing sense of duty and is a test of his character. Rather than follow the rules of his order and turn the Child over, he runs. This decision is in stark contrast to much of what we learned thus far about the character.
At the beginning of the second episode, “The Child,” he has broken with his Mandalorian order. He rescues the Child more than retrieves him, forcing him to set off alone, unsure of what comes next, but confident he cannot turn over what he’s found. It is an astounding turn.
Flashbacks Set the Stage
Starting in Episode #2, viewers see a brief flashback from outside the main storyline. There is a battle inside a city under siege; screams and explosions as seen through the eyes of a frightened young boy.
Gradually, as the series progresses, the scope of those flashbacks begins to broaden when we see that the young boy ushered away to safety by his parents. They are running for their lives from something awful. It feels as though Favreau is slowly waking the character’s inner eye, giving viewers a wider lens through which they can view the trauma within this story.
Skipping forward, by episode eight, “Redemption,” the Mandalorian has his back fully in a corner. Saving the Child has not only put his life at risk but also the lives of a host of other allies he has picked up along the way. Yet, despite incredible odds, and the opportunity to comply, he refuses to turn the Child over.
The question of why he’s doing this isn’t just urgent. It becomes necessary to understand the entire course of the story.
Making Sense of The Flashback
The flashback is revealed when we discover that the boy is, Djarin, in a younger, more innocent form and time. We learn, however, that his family is on the run from an attack on their city by droids. Then at the very moment when a droid attacker nearly ended the boy’s life, he is miraculously rescued by a member of the Mandalorian order.
Everything in the story suddenly becomes quite clear. The reason the Mandalorian cannot turn the Child over is that he was, at a point in his life, in the same place as the Child.
He was helpless at the hands of evil. His hatred and mistrust of droids are a constant theme, even including comic relief moments.
When we realize that a cold, robotic killer almost ended his life, we see how the full flashback is a brilliant reveal.
In a single moment, viewers know precisely how they got here, as well as how and why they have such an emotional connection to the hero.
Why the Flashbacks are Effective
What makes this series of flashbacks effective? They are organically designed to function much like our memory; they are brief but colored with a great deal of uncertainty. As the story evolves, however, the picture broadens and becomes more fully fleshed out.
The first aspect leads directly into the second.
As the scope of the flashbacks opens up, it brings with them an even greater sense of mystery; we know what is happening to the family, but who they are is still shrouded in secrecy.
The writers created a greater need in us to understand more about the characters and the story with the use of flashbacks.
Flashbacks Create a Need in a Viewer or Reader
The third aspect is perhaps the most important as the flashbacks are motivated. They pull us into the family’s terror. We want to know who these people are, who they are running from, and why they are so afraid.
The flashback tells us every missing element we need to know about the main character’s past. It is an entire series worth of backstory in less than one minute.
Don’t Be Afraid to Use Flashbacks
The flashback formula employed in The Mandalorian, however expertly orchestrated, is only one of many. Avenues into the past are as many and varied as points of view, which is to say, limitless. Click To Tweet
It is critical is to recognize that a flashback has a dual purpose.
It is primarily a dive into the psychic foundation of a character, a glimpse at their wounds, joys, and motivations.
But it also has a second need to press the story forward. It must serve as a way for the character to face off against what Jung would call their “shadow self” on the journey to the next stage of life.
Or, as a writer might say, the next page.