I am hardly the first person to say that Andor, the latest Star Wars release, is very good. In fact, this seems to be the consensus opinion among both people I know casually online and among critics. But what makes Andor particularly interesting is in how it is excellent.
At the most basic level, Andor is simply well-written, well-acted, and well-filmed television. Tony Gilroy’s show takes the viewer through three separate arcs, each of which gradually adds characters and builds complexity to the story. No episode is longer than an hour and most are less than forty-five minutes, but the spare dialogue packs an enormous punch, which, in turn, allows the show to soar.
I should start at the beginning.
Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) was one of the characters introduced in Rogue One, a daring and ruthless intelligence office who accompanies the raid to steal the Death Star plans. Andor starts years before, at a time when Cassian is living with his adopted mother Maarva Andor (Fiona Shaw) on the planet Ferrix. While trying to locate his sister who he hasn’t seen since before Maarva adopted him, Cassian kills two security personnel, thus drawing the attention of Syril Karn (Kyle Soller), an officious officer who ignores an order to brush the incident under the rug and starts an investigation with no name, but just enough information that Timm Karlo (James McCardle) can respond to the alert because he suspects that his girlfriend Bix Calleen (Adria Arjona) is sneaking off to spend time with her ex, Cassian, when she has been secretly passing information to the Rebellion.
Bix introduces Cassian to Luthen Rael (Stellan Skarsgård), and through Luthen to the larger apparatus of the inchoate rebellion. Cassian initially sees the Rebellion as a means to pay back his debts, but, inexorably, he becomes enmeshed in its mission. Andor also adds new characters on both sides of the conflict, including Senator Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) and Supervisor Dedra Meero (Denise Gough). These stories are happening concurrently, too, which allows Gilroy to start with what could be a solo show and develop it into a complex harmony. In one particularly poignant moment, the show inserts a short wordless scene of an imprisoned and tortured Bix between two other scenes.
A lot of the praise for Andor centers on its sensitive treatment of the very concept of rebellion (I particularly recommend Abigail Nussbaum’s review). Where shows that broach this theme sometimes speak of rebellion as a good in its own right, Gilroy uses Andor as a vehicle to explore how oppressive systems drive one to rebel, and weaves that central premise deeply into the fabric of the show. Cassian is obviously exhibit A for this process, but it also manifests in Mon Mothma’s arc when she gradually realizes that her diligent opposition in the Senate is futile and Keno Loy’s (Andy Serkis) epiphany that the prison industrial complex is rigged, as well as in a host of smaller characters and moments that reveal the myriad of ways that can lead people at all levels of society into rebellion.
But Andor is also a show about how an empire sets in. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) memorably declares to Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (1977), “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers,” but the Empire by this point is fully-developed. They have a space station capable of destroying planets. The Empire clearly has a war machine in Andor, but it is hardly unassailable and if the Death Star is under construction, as there is some suggestion that the parts the prisoners are assembly parts for, we don’t know about it. Rather, the cruel machinery of Empire churns in more mundane ways: the board rooms of the security services, the imperial courtroom of the imperial magistrates, the prisons that despoil the environment, and the decisions to deter indigenous communities from their sacred spaces to clear the way for a new installation. More people interface with these systems than would have seen the Death Star. And, critically, they are created and perpetuated by people. Not faceless systems or the embodiment of evil, people.
And these systems are hard to resist, especially when you can’t see the whole picture. Resistance is a lonely, dangerous path that requires sacrifice, as captured in an exchange between Luthen and Lonni Jung (Robert Emms).
Lonni: “My sacrifice, it means nothing to you. Does it?
Luthen: “I said I think of you constantly, and I do. Your investment in the Rebellion is epic. A double life? Every day a performance? The stress of that? We need heroes, Lonni, and here you are.”
Lonni: “And what do you sacrifice?”
For all of this, I was particularly struck by how little this show relies on the existing mechanics of Star Wars canon.
Back in June I lamented that the attempts to “fill in the gaps” of the Star Wars mythology were strangling the franchise. Even a film like Rogue One, which I generally liked, tried to tell a fresh story while still bringing in Tarkin, Leia, and Vader–a choice that I thought undermined a lot of what it did well. By contrast, Andor brings in Cassian and Saw (Forest Whittaker) who had been introduced in Rogue One and builds out the character of Mon Mothma, who was briefly introduced in Return of the Jedi (1983, played by Caroline Blakiston). The emperor is mentioned a few times and once, that I caught, as Palpatine, Coruscant, the capital is a frequent setting, and the visual language is unmistakably Star Wars, but there the connections end. There is no Tatooine and no mention of the force. The doings of the Jedi and the Sith might as well be mythology, for all that they affect these people’s lives. Instead, Gilroy breathes life into a series of specific settings and characters, whether for the full twelve episodes or just a few minutes, which makes this both more harrowing and more memorable than anything Star Wars since the original trilogy.
In other words, this is exactly what I had hoped for from a Star Wars show.