If you like your ‘Star Wars’ cut with moral ambiguity and class warfare, we’ve found your perfect show
Have you ever thought, “You know what? I really love Star Wars, but I’m getting tired of space wizards with laser swords, deus ex machinae lazily explained away as just “the force,” and cloyingly cute kid-friendly characters introduced only to sell tons of merchandise? And also, what the Star Wars Universe needs is more gritty cynicism, moral ambiguity, class warfare and PTSD?” If that’s the case, I think I’ve found just the show for you, and it’s called Andor.
The newest entry by Disney Plus into the galaxy far, far away, Andor is not, to say the least, the same Star Wars mooned over so nostalgically by Gen Xers who grew up with the original trilogy. Or, for that matter, Millennials, who grew up with and adore the prequels, a phenomenon I still have yet to fully wrap my brain around (they…like Jar Jar Binks?). With this latest live action Star Wars television effort, the first three episodes of which dropped on Disney’s streaming service last week, neither Jedi nor Sith are anywhere to be seen, and might as well not even exist. No one even mentions The Force.
Storm troopers? X-wings? Light sabers? A Campbellian hero’s journey ripped straight from The Power of Myth? Nope, nope, nope, and super nope. So what, we’re left to wonder, is left of interest in the Star Wars universe without the things with which we’ve so consistently come to identify it? How do you tell a compelling Star Wars story without all the quintessential Star Wars stuff?
As it turns out, Andor doesn’t need all or really any of these elements to craft an original and interesting storyline within the established universe. Essentially, the show is a prequel to the movie Rogue One, which itself is a prequel to Episode IV: A New Hope. Rogue One, you might recall, is about a scrappy band of rebels teaming up to obtain plans to the Death Star that contain a certain catastrophic vulnerability roughly the size of a womp rat, giving them a small chance to bring down the ultimate weapon in the galaxy. Cassian Andor was the leader of that particular mission, during which (SPOILER ALERT) nobody makes it out alive. Andor, then, is a pre-prequel to the first Star Wars movie. A prequel², if you will.
If you’re wondering if that doesn’t seem like a whole lot to hang an entire series on, you’re not alone. But even without force chokes and Jedi mind tricks and lightsaber combat, Andor has one crucial narrative element in its back pocket: an evil empire, and the rise of a rebellion against it. When we meet Cassian Andor, reprised here with grim handsomeness by Diego Luna, he’s not a leader within the Rebel Alliance. He’s a thief and a smuggler and a thorn in the nefarious Galactic Empire’s side, but he’s not quite yet a freedom fighter, all of this taking place 5 BBY, or five years before the Battle of Yavin, i.e. the events of “A New Hope.” How he gets from scrappy criminal to resistance icon is the crux of Andor’s narrative, and, for the most part, it’s a good one. It is, however, pretty damn dark.
Andor is, without doubt, the darkest live action TV show in the Star Wars franchise, and perhaps the darkest story in live action Star Wars history. How dark, you ask? Well, for starters, our protagonist shoots a guy in the face while he’s begging desperately in tears for his life, and that’s just the first episode! It makes that whole “Han shot first” debate absolutely quaint, by comparison. Not that Cassian didn’t have reason, of course. When we meet him, Andor is hiding out from the Empire on a dour, rainy, dystopian planet called Morlana One. The man is on a twofold mission there: find information that could lead to his lost sister, and figure out a way to sell a McGuffin box of highly sensitive Empire tech. In the process, he runs afoul of the planet’s law, a contracted security service that are essentially glorified rent-a-cops for the Empire and its mining interests on the planet.
When a couple of those security goons try to rough him up in a dark alleyway, Andor winds up killing them both to cover his tracks, and in the process attracts the attention of a young and ambitious security officer, Syril Karn (Kyle Soller, looking like a younger, skinnier, angrier Kyle McLachlan). Despite his superior’s orders to let the matter slide, Karn goes full-on Inspector Space Javert with the case, becoming almost immediately obsessed with identifying and bringing the murderer to justice. This ropes in what might be the most compelling subplot of the series, a genuine cat-and-mouse game between Andor and Karn. It’s a trope we’ve seen before in the Star Wars Universe, with Agent Kallus hunting the eponymous rebels in Star Wars: Rebels, for instance, and so far it works well here, incorporating a solid story hook to keep us eagerly coming back for more.
As we learn more about Cassian’s efforts to sell the McGuffin and escape off-world, Andor introduces us to our stable of supporting characters, some more interesting than others. Most importantly, we meet Maarva Andor, our protagonist’s adoptive mother, played by the always-brilliant Fiona Shaw. One thing this series does effectively is introduce a series of flashbacks fleshing out a bit of Cassian’s history, although unlike The Book of Boba Fett, they’re intercut abruptly into the narrative without any clunky framing devices like bacta tank fever dreams.
Shaw is great, per usual, as we see her younger version scooping an orphaned Cassian off his home planet of Kenari just before it’s razed by the Empire, and later as an older mom just trying to look out for her troublesome boy. Shaw gives a sense of empathy to the show that it desperately needs, considering its melancholy and often morally gray nature. She also owns an adorable droid that’s new to us, B2EMO, who resembles nothing if not the direct descendent of WALL-E and V.I.N.C.E.N.T. from another Disney property, “The Black Hole.”
Additionally, there are a few forgettable side characters who either help or hinder our man, the standout being fellow smuggler Bix Calleen, played by a distractingly gorgeous Adria Arjona, the only character on the entire planet who doesn’t seem to get even a single mote of dust or smear of grease on her face. Bix sets Andor up with her high stakes fence, Luthan Rael (Stellan Skarsgård), who of course turns out to be not just a simple black market buyer, but a recruiter for the nascent Rebel Alliance, and he likes what he sees in Cassian. At the end of episode three, amid the show’s first big action set piece with the corpos homing in, guns a’blazin, on our protagonist, we find Cassian fleeing Morlana with Luthan to, we surmise, graduate from rogue thief and murderer to rebellion freedom fighter.
Underpinning the various narrative elements is, perhaps, the most important aspect of Andor as a show: It highlights just how brutal and oppressive living under Imperial Rule actually was for the proletariat. Their lives as cogs in the Empire’s galactic war machine is just as bleak as you would imagine, and it gives us ample reason to root for the Rebel Alliance and for Andor, even if he’s a morally questionable protagonist.
Once again, the idea of the Empire’s true nature hits home. They’re Space Nazis. The ultimate bad guys. Assuming you’re not one of them, how could you possibly not root against them? In that respect, Andor deepens our understanding of the stakes involved in the rebellion against the evil Empire, and those who gave their lives to support and defend it. Including, eventually, Cassian Andor, who we’ll remember winds up being one of the first casualties of the Death Star.
As a new and untested entry into the Star Wars franchise, there are a number of things that the show does well, and other aspects that seem lacking in the first three episodes. First, the use of practical sets, instead of the CGI “Volume” employed by The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, makes the dank and dismal world of Andor’s characters feel both real and lived-in even for being on a faraway planet, something that worked so wonderfully way back in 1977.
The sets and costumes and creatures all fit seamlessly into this world, and allow us to focus our attention on the story and characters instead of distracting from them. It might seem a less than thrilling thing to accomplish, but in the Star Wars universe, this is a big deal. Also, as usual, the musical score is fantastic. It’s not as fresh or catchy as Ludwig Göransson’s work on previous shows, but it fits perfectly into the established world. By the time we find Cassian racing away in a spaceship from certain capture at the end of episode three, the soaring score truly hits home.
Another thing I love about this show is that Andor doesn’t rely on nostalgia to rope us in. No “memberberries” here! Granted, there are a few sly easter eggs for the keen-eyed nerds among us, but the plot doesn’t hinge upon them. Andor is largely a plot and character-driven show. This is a refreshing change from previous series and movies using every lazy, questionable method to shove R2-D2 into every possible spin-off and sequel/prequel. Andor takes that idea one step further by omitting not only any appearance of Jedi knights or Sith lords, but even any mention of them, or the force, for that matter. We don’t even see a single Storm Trooper or Imperial officer in the first three episodes, but rather corporate security thugs in bright blue uniforms as our designated baddies. The lack of many of these defining franchise elements is both a creative challenge and a creative freedom for Andor, and so far it’s working well for the new show.
Not everything Andor attempts goes completely swimmingly, however. Amidst the grim backdrop of proles being crushed under Imperial bootheels, there’s almost zero levity. Outside of a single scene in which a creditor and his enormous alien assistant shake down Cassian for debt money, Andor employs little if any humor. As opposed to J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars characters quipping at every conceivable moment, this series seems devoid of quips and snarky sarcasm almost entirely. The lack of omnipresent wisecracking is nice, but a little humor or charm would really help soften the melancholy atmosphere here. Perhaps that’s the point, but the show comes dangerously close to wallowing in its depressing environs.
For its few misgivings, Andor represents a truly fresh entry into a fictional world that in recent days has started to flirt with staleness. It sounds counterintuitive, but the best thing this series does for the Star Wars universe is to deliberately avoid many of the elements we know and love about the Star Wars universe. Sure, it’s a bit dim and grim, and I still have yet to decide how I truly feel about our protagonist and his disturbing willingness to murder people if he feels necessary, but it’s also surprisingly invigorating. It is, if anything, a Star Wars series for adults.
And if Cassian Andor is a true anti-hero, then the series that bears his name might be seen as an anti-Star Wars show. I’m sure we’ll get into more familiar territory as the series unfolds and characters like Mon Mothma and K-2SO appear, but for now, I’m eager to embrace Andor for all its lugubrious grit, and ready for the rise of the Rebel Alliance.
Especially if it gives us more Bix Caleen. Dank farrik, she’s a smoke-show!