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Why is Andor So Damn Good?
Star Wars for adults
Last month on Space the Nation Ana Marie Cox and I raved about the first half of the first season of Andor, Tony Gilroy’s prequel to Rogue One on Disney+. We will record an episode about the second half of the season later this month. I’m looking forward to that.
In the meantime, however, I have been trying to puzzle out why this show is so damn good. Sure, the writing is stellar. Sure, the locations are great and there are some arresting visuals. But I think there’s a deeper, simpler reason: this is the first Star Wars property that is intended for grown-ups.
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Full disclosure: this take might be due to my membership in Generation X. We were the generation that saw the original trilogy as wide-eyed kids, the prequels as hopeful twenty-somethings and thirtysomethings, and the final films as an exercise in exhausted, cynical obligation. Even now, however, I suspect many in my peer group feel strangely protective of this franchise, much like Millennials feel about Harry Potter. We grew up on it.
The truth about the Star Wars saga is that it has been aimed at children. That’s not an insult! The original trilogy is great, with dashing heroes and menacing villains and aliens galore and awesome space battles and some legitimately great plot twists. The films pushed the boundaries of special effects. Parts of the later films work in a similar way. The Mandalorian has that baby Yoda character, who is just adorable. The younglings I know rave about the animated shows.
But let’s be blunt: with the possible exception of The Empire Strikes Back, the Star Wars saga has not thought very hard about either politics or the characters who inhabit those politics. The original trilogy had a very simple political story and pretty simple relationships. The rest of the movies are similar in that they do not really delve into the characters all that much. The Force Awakens, for example, introduced a Stormtrooper who had finally had enough and defected. That’s a really interesting idea! And yet as a character trait it’s left unexplored. The original trilogy does a decent job of showing Luke’s maturation. Other than that, the politics and the characterization hew closely to archetype. There’s a good rebellion, there’s a bad empire, that’s your politics.
As a kid, I didn’t mind this. As an adult, I still don’t mind it when it’s well executed. But as Gilroy is demonstrating, there are other colors in the Star Wars palette. It is possible, nay, even good, to do Michael Clayton in space.
Rogue One hinted at something more complex, showing a fractious Rebel Alliance, but those were just hints. That movie works as well as it does because of the Battle of Scarif: that might be the most successful retcon in popular culture, a thrilling original trilogy-style of battle with 21st century special effects. There was a reason that many viewers, myself included, believed that the most fully realized character in that film was the K-2SO droid. The humans seemed less interesting and had less of a character arc.
So when Andor was announced, I was ready to be done. The Book of Boba Fett was bad, Obi-Wan Kenobi was mediocre. I thought I could afford to skip this show.
But even the trailer hinted at something great:
Andor has followed through on that promise by doing something pretty amazing. It has taken the basic Star Wars premise — there’s a Galactic Empire, some citizens are starting to chafe at its oppressive rule — and considered the stakes of such a world. It has fleshed out the coercive structures undergirding the Empire. There is the shambolic muddling through of the corporate proxies who govern the Outer Rim and the machinations of the Imperial Security Bureau trying to maintain order. The characters in charge display a world-weariness about what their jobs are: mostly trying to muddle through and prevent things from breaking down even further.
In doing so, the show does a fantastic job of showing the institutions of autocracy at work. In response to a successful rebel raid on an Imperial outpost, the Empire responds by ratcheting up coercive pressure. In the second half of the season, Cassian is arrested for a minor offense but sentenced to a labor prison on Narkina 5. There are a lot of treatises on the carceral state, but the shell-shocked look on Andor’s face during his first day there says it all. Kino Loy, played by Andy Serkis, is an excellent addition to the show. He plays a floor boss convinced that if he plays by the rules he will be released. How he copes with the end of this pleasing illusion makes for some great character work.
Andor also fleshes out the nascent rebellion — by making it clear exactly what the stakes are if you decide to resist. Sometimes you need to put on a smile to disguise your true self. Sometimes you need to be ruthless, to goad your adversary into an overreaction. Sometimes you must allow compatriots to die so that the resistance is not compromised.
This is best encapsulated by Luthen Rael, played to perfection by Stellan Skarsgård. In his best scene of the show to date, Luthen meets with a mole deep in the ISB who wants out. Luthen refuses. At which point the mole complains about the sacrifices he has made, asking Rael what he has had to give up. Luthen’s response is, well, epic:
Calm. Kindness. Kinship. Love. I’ve given up all chance of inner peace. I’ve made my mind a sunless space. I share my dreams with ghosts.
I wake up every day to an equation I wrote fifteen years ago from which there’s only one conclusion: I’m damned for what I do. My anger, my ego, my unwillingness to yield, my— my eagerness to fight, they’ve set me on a path from which there is no escape. I yearned to be a savior against injustice without contemplating the cost and by the time I looked down, there was no ground beneath my feet.
What is— 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!
“I’ve made my mind a sunless space” is a beautiful piece of writing, but it is part of a monologue that would does not fit anywhere else in the Star Wars saga. The speech is for a grown man recognizing the true cost of the choices his idealistic younger self has made. Even if he believes in rebelling against the Empire, he is under no illusions of the cost to his soul. It is not a coincidence that this speech takes place during the same episode in which Cassian tries to escape from the Imperial prison on Narkina 5. Not all of the prisons are physical in Andor; the strictures of past choices are almost as binding.
On a surface level, we know in the first ten minutes that Andor is an adult show about adult themes. Cassian visits a brothel and kills two men before we even know what’s happening. On a deeper level, however, Andor is also an adult show. It takes the concepts of empire and resistance seriously — and the appalling costs to those who decide to coerce and resist coercion.
Disney recently announced that Andor would also become available for viewing on ABC, FX, and Hulu by the end of this month. I strongly recommend it. It’s a great Star Wars show with all the requisite Easter eggs. Even if you have never watched a single piece of the saga, however, it’s also just a great piece of television, period.