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Andor: Star Wars Finally Grows Up
Yes, you read that headline correctly. The latest Stars Wars show, ANDOR, is a major step-up from what Disney—or George Lucas before it—has ever managed with the franchise. I say this as a lifelong fan, and as someone who has enjoyed most of what Disney has put forth in that galaxy far, far away (with a few exceptions, which I’ll touch on).
This essay contains spoilers for ANDOR: Season One, and assumes the reader is familiar with the Stars Wars saga across its various mediums.
ANDOR shows us the daily lives of people struggling under the yoke of tyranny. There are no lightsabers, no Skywalkers, and no cuddly alien creatures that will fuel the Star Wars marketing machine. There are no cameos for the sake of nostalgia. I adore The Mandalorian, but it’s obviously checking those boxes. Not with ANDOR. Instead, we are given a cast of characters who dwell in the grey moral area of those using the tools of their oppressors against them. Though the action is smaller scale that previous entries, it’s more visceral because it’s not mere spectacle, but advances the plot. ANDOR’s tension is comparable to such dramas as Breaking Bad, and doesn’t welch on its narrative gambles. Even the music is different: Nicholas Britell’s moody, electronic-tinged score is a better fit for this material than John William’s orchestral bombast (and I regard Williams as the greatest film composers of the 20th century).
The show’s ethical complexity, emotional depth, and politically-driven impetus go beyond the franchise’s typically lighter trappings, and thus illustrate a far more compelling narrative. It’s not because a grimmer story is necessarily better; it’s because we are more invested in these characters. Their actions have weight. Their inner turmoil tugs at our hearts. And their triumphs, though few, fills us with a real sense of achievement. There are no flippant plots (Palpatine returning in Rise of Skywalker, anyone?), poorly developed protagonists (I still weep for what Book of Boba Fett could have been), or soulless comic relief that will not age well (I’m not only referring to Jar Jar here). This is Star Wars, finally taking itself seriously.
There’s a brothel at the very beginning of the show. In another scene, a couple prepares to engage in sex. The dialogue isn’t dumbed down with cliché declarations or cringe-worthy jokes. The violence isn’t gratuitous, but it’s not stylized scifi action meant to impress with overdone choreography. The story requires that the viewer possesses an attention span longer than thirty seconds. This is Star Wars for adults. I’m not saying the rest of the saga is solely within the realm of children’s entertainment, but it’s always had general audiences in mind. There is nothing wrong with that. But after all this time, it’s nice to see the franchise delve into heavier material—not for one scene or one episode, but for twelve hours of consistently brilliant content.
The entire cast brought their ‘A’ game to ANDOR. There is not a weak performance or unnecessary character. For this essay, I will highlight the story’s prime movers: Cassian Andor, Luthen Rael, and Mon Mothma.
Diego Luna delivers a quiet, intense performance as Cassian Andor. He isn’t afraid to shoot unarmed people that threaten him; in his turbulent life, that is the only way he’s survived. There are centuries in his gaze, like he has seen so much pain and hardship in his young life. His character doesn’t try to steal the show, nor does he try to be the leader, but selects the best person for the job, and is willing to follow others to get that job done. There’s no inflated ego or recklessness, just a man trying to make his way in the galaxy. He comes to the rebellion slowly: first it’s selling stolen Imperial equipment to Luthen, then participating in a major heist against the Empire. Afterward, he’s imprisoned by the Empire (ironically, without good reason), and realizes he can never go back to being just another faceless drifter in a spaceport. His adoptive mother’s final request is that he fight such oppression, which is delivered with conviction. Cassian’s not a chosen one, a dashing rogue, or any of the classic hero archetypes Stars Wars has typically used. He is what some of us would be in the same situation—a survivor. He is more believable as a result.
Stellan Skarsgård, as Luthen Rael, gives the shady rebel contact equal charm and cool indifference. He is willing to sacrifice his own people to achieve a goal; the end definitely justifies the means with him. Luthen leads a double life, playing the part of an antiquities dealer on Coruscant, which is a front for his insurrectionist operations. In the past, the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars has (mostly) been shown as a force for good versus the evil Galactic Empire, in easily defined terms. Rogue One, the film which spawned Cassian’s character, hinted at the shady world that we see Luthen embrace whole-heartedly. Again, there’s no ego with him, but a drive to smash those that have despoiled the galaxy. His monologue on personal sacrifice to an Imperial double agent is not only one of the highlights of the show, but of the entire franchise, and will go down as one of television’s great speeches. “I burn my life to make a sunrise I know I’ll never see,” shows us the real cost of the Rebellion that was only glimpsed in Rogue One.
Genevieve O’Reilly as Mon Mothma portrays the future leader of the Rebel Alliance with dignity, grace, and a palpable anxiety that her support for the fledgling rebellion will be discovered. She is trapped by her social position and familial obligations: her husband doesn’t share her ideals and could threaten her operation, and her daughter resents her and seems well on her way to supporting the very system that Mon is trying to bring down. The added tragedy, of Mon having to marry her daughter to a crime lord in order to receive his help, highlights her personal sacrifice. She reduces her own child to chattel in order to achieve a goal, to aid rebel agents she neither knows nor will ever know. Her barely-contained anguish at having to erode her own moral core is heartbreaking. It’s one thing to watch the old films with all of those X-Wings, blasters, and whatnot, but it’s another thing to know how some of those fighters were armed. That equipment did not come cheaply, and I am not talking about the monetary cost.
With ANDOR, Disney has not only produced one of the best television shows of 2022, but easily the best Star Wars television project thus far. I would even say this ranks in the saga’s top tier with The Empire Strikes Back, Rogue One, and Revenge of the Sith. Its message is timely, given the rise of fascism across the world in the last decade—particularly in America. ‘Oppression is the mask of fear’, Karis says on the show. Like Cassian and his allies, we must stay true to ourselves, and to each other, if we hope to defeat those who hide behind that mask.