“What is my sacrifice? I’m condemned to use the tools of my enemy to defeat them. I burn my decency for someone else’s future. I burn my life to make a sunrise that I know I’ll never see. And the ego that started this fight will never have a mirror or an audience or the light of gratitude. So what do I sacrifice? Everything!”
After a recent string of disappointingly mediocre Star Wars shows from Disney (namely, Obi-Wan Kenobi and The Book of Boba Fett), it was a refreshing experience for me to watch Andor, a character-driven show that portrays the birth of the rebellion. This shows offers a patient, mature story that is wholly unique in the Star Wars pantheon. There are no force-wielding Jedi, nor CGI-infused explosions, and the Skywalker saga is nowhere to be found. Instead, Andor presents an on-the-ground, personal meditation upon the nature of rebellion –where does resistance come from? What causes a person to become a revolutionary? Is it better to accept tyranny in exchange for security, or risk death in the hope of freedom?
Tony Gilroy, writer for the original Jason Bourne trilogy as well as the celebrated thriller Michael Clayton (2007), initially brought forward an idea for a Star Wars show to Disney focused on raw political intrigue, an exploration of the problems facing forgotten towns and places in the galaxy, all within the context of an espionage thriller. This is a tale that takes us on a slow-burn adventure among ordinary people throughout this galaxy as the “fat and satisfied” Empire seems primed for downfall. Mr. Gilroy, who worked on Andor’s predecessor film Rogue One (2016), has called this show the “education of Cassian Andor.” It captures some incredible sweeping cinematography, from neon-lit cityscapes a la Blade Runner to the mist-soaked hills of the Scottish Highlands. And to top it all off, there is a truly inspired score replete throughout the show by Nicholas Britell.
As a prequel to Rogue One (2016) –which is itself a prequel to A New Hope, and is one of the best Star Wars movies to emerge during the Disney era—Andor takes place five years prior to the battle of Yavin. We follow Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a poor boy who escaped from the rural planet of Kenari after it was destroyed by an Imperial mining disaster. He has since turned into a thief, living on Ferrix –a rusted over planet populated with working class people who dwell in an almost medieval culture and community. It is a dusty place filled with scrapworkers and shopkeeps, complete with a looming belltower which announces secret rituals and traditions that have sprung up organically within the people. However, we first meet Andor not on Ferrix, but rather on Morllana One as he trudges through the a-moral, rain-drenched streets in search of his missing sister whom he has been tracking since childhood. He quickly becomes embroiled in a scandal when two Imperial officers accost him outside a strip club, and he somewhat accidentally kills them both before. He then decides to flee the planet, returning to Ferrix, but the local authorities are keen to find him. An investigation is opened by the Preox-Morlana (Pre-Mor) Authority, the local corporate contingent on Moralana One which has been hired by the Empire to oversee the region. As an aside, this struck me as a fascinating idea –namely, that the Empire could hire private security paramilitary forces to oversee the governance of its various planets. While the regional leader of this company insists on overlooking the murder to protect his own career, the deputy inspector Syril Karn (Kyle Soller) decides to pursue the situation anyway.
At this point, all throughout the galaxy, we get the sense that the Empire has been slowly and quietly expanding its bureaucratic tentacles. Resentment among the people has been brewing in correlation with lazy Imperial complacency. On Ferrix, we meet Maarva (Fiona Shaw), who is Andor’s adoptive mother, as well as her stuttering droid B2EMO. We also meet Andor’s ex-girlfriend Bix Caleen (Adria Arjona) a mechanic, and black-market junk trader whose jealous boyfriend betrays Andor to the authorities. This leads to a series of hurdles for Cassian Andor. He quickly tries to flee the planet by selling a rare Imperial Starpath Unit, a device used to track Imperial ships, but it turns out that his black-market buyer is actually Luthen Rael (Stellan Skarsgård), a covert leader of the burgeoning rebellion posing as a high-end art and artifact dealer by day. He hires Andor for a job on Aldhani, an intense undercover heist operation in which a small band of rebels steal a huge sum of payroll from an Imperial outpost. By now, Andor remains a somewhat reluctant rebel, but he joins the cause nonetheless simply for his own payment. After a long build-up of tension, the anxiety of this undercover heist bursts forth in episodes 5-6 (“The Axe Forgets” and “The Eye”) as Andor and his band of fellow rebels sneak into the outpost while hoping to avoid detection. It is a nail-biting scene unlike any other previously shown in Star Wars.
Meanwhile, as the unspoken and ragtag rebellion is just beginning to form, the inner politics of the Empire appear to be in a state of bureaucratic decay. Syril Karn’s career goes downhill after he fails to apprehend Andor, and he lands in a monotonous desk job on Coruscant. At the same time, other Imperial governors squabble and hide their failures as much as possible –Dedra Meero (Denise Gough), and her colleagues square off with Major Partagaz (Anton Lesser) over inane rules that govern their various systems. When Dedra Meero fights to cross boundaries and explore new solutions it is met with hostility from within.
Following the Aldhani heist, Andor escapes with his money to the tropical planet of Niamos where he is quickly arrested on unrelated, trumped-up charges. Despite living incognito as “Keef Girgo,” Andor has unknowingly stepped into a corrupt situation wherein the Empire has been arresting citizens of Niamos in a kind of mass incarceration in order to construct materials for the future Death Star. In a cruel twist of fate, Andor is locked away in the planet’s massive prison Narkina 5, a sterile institution which keeps prisoners as workers and uses electrocution flooring –just one step on the floor when illuminated will kill a man. In time, we meet Andor’s fellow prisoners, most notably Kino Loy (Andy Serkis), who collectively stage a massive prison break. Along with the heist on Aldhani, the scene of the prison escape is one of the best in the show in my view. Andor manages to escape Niamos and return home to Ferrix just in time for his adopted mother Maarva’s funeral. Her death and subsequent funeral march through the city (her funeral song has actually been the show’s theme this whole time) sparks an uprising as the people on Ferrix attack their Imperial overlords.
One other gripping plot thread in this show features the backstory of Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), a wealthy heiress from the planet Chandrila who is well-connected within the Imperial Senate, while secretly funneling her family’s money to the rebellion via Luthen. Her story is a troubling glimpse into the kinds of life-threatening politicking necessary to stage a rebellion. The climax of her story comes after the Empire begins cracking down on wealth oversight, thus she turns to a somewhat slimy financier who requests the opportunity for his son to court an arranged marriage with Mon Mothma’s daughter. Mon Mothma is not actually a confident rebellious leader, fully sure of her decision to support the rebellion. Instead, she faces questionable problems in front of her –what is the right choice to make? Perhaps more than any other, Mon Mothma’s future lies in question. There are also other great characters that reappear in this show, like Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) who learns of Luthen’s morally grey decision to sacrifice a fellow rebel leader in order to preserve an Imperials insider’s status as a double agent. Most of Star Wars portrays relatively clear delineations between good and evil, however Andor shows the often blurry decisions and trade-offs that must be made. Only zealots and fanatics believe that good and evil are always clear and distinct.
While it’s admittedly a bit of a slow start in the first few episodes, Andor is a show that is well worth your time if you can stick it out. It offers some deeply gratifying crescendos, a cohort of new characters, and above all whole new perspective on the Star Wars universe. I hope there will be future seasons of this show, it seems likely from this vantage point. By the end of the twelve episodes, the strong implication is that there is a further story to be told. What will happen to Luthen? Will Mon Mothma’s daughter get married so that her mother can freely withdraw her money? What happened to Kino Loy? Will Andor ever find his sister? With shows like Andor, at least Disney can still manage to hit the nail on the head once in a while. With Andor we are treated to a blended political thriller and corporate espionage-heist show all in one. And all of it comes devoid the typical Star Wars mainstays like lightsaber duels and high-octane space battles. Andor offers a much-appreciated rejuvenation of the possible stories to tell within the Star Wars universe.