Andor is a Delight
*Spoilers for Andor Episodes 1–6*
Star Wars has always held a special place in my heart. My story is not unique. I watched the special edition on VHS growing up and my first Star Wars movie in theaters was The Phantom Menace. While I enjoyed the operatic conflict of good vs evil, I have been wanting something deeper. What does rebellion look like under the Empire? Who are the people on the ground doing the hard work? Does Mon Mothma have a good family life?
Andor is a show I thought could never happen. The current era of Star Wars is dire. The Rise of Skywalker crash landed in theaters. The Mandalorian had some highs paired with unbelievable lows. The Book of Boba Fett was so disinterested in Boba Fett that it became The Mandalorian season 2.5 halfway through. Kenobi wasted so much potential that I forgot it happened. Going into Andor I was not expecting much. In fact, I was prepared for the show to be interesting for two episodes and then fall flat on its face. Cassian Andor was a cool character in Rogue One but he couldn’t sustain an entire show right? Never have I been more wrong.
Taking the World Seriously
From the jump Andor considers the history of the Star Wars universe. The Empire rules the galaxy but it is not so simple. To maintain control, the Empire outsources security to corporations. Corporations balance on a tightrope. They are the first line of defense of the Empire, but the second they mess up they are tossed aside. Their status is dependent on the Empire’s security whims. Imperial control over a system can shift the methodology of oppression at a moment’s notice.
“The pace of oppression outstrips our ability to understand it,” the character Nemik says later in the season. Applying real world anti-Empire critique to Star Wars grounds the setting. Creating ideological tactics against an “imperial thought machine” only works if the show depicts that thought machine at work. The Coruscant scenes give clear depictions of the managerial aspect of control. The Imperial Security Bureau (ISB) is the Empire’s CIA. Their monitoring of systems is vital to galactic control. A surveillance state is vital to imperialism. The people must feel monitored at all times. However, they cannot predict where problems will arise and thus they can only be reactive. When corporate security botches Andor’s arrest, ISB takes control of security in the system with a heavy hand. They change the face of oppression on Ferrix and now the citizens will have to navigate a new norm.
The show doesn’t run away from the Star Wars Prequel trilogy. It folds history into the conception of the world. In a flashback we see Cassian explore a proto-Separatist ship. At this time, there is no Separatist alliance. Maarva, Cassian’s surrogate mother, mentions that the Republic will kill every person in the area because a Republic Officer from the ship was killed. These facts pull out a subtextual reading of the Galactic Republic from the prequels. The Empire is a continuation of the Galactic Republic. Even before Palpatine, the Republic was mired in corruption and corporate control. They forced populations to accept Republic governance. The military cannot be defied or else the entire wrath of the Republic is brought down on the populace; even a tribe of kids. The ease at which violence is wielded by the Republic continues decades later with the Empire.
Giving the characters time
Unlike the recent outing of Star Wars shows, Andor builds up its characters for exceptional payoffs. From the jump Cassian is given depth. He is cool and reserved while being harassed by two corporate cops. Everyone on the planet Ferrix constantly tries to collect on his debt but he navigates each situation with slippery charm. Cassian can switch social roles at a moment’s notice. All of this is conveyed by how he talks to different people. With the parking lot security he lays the charm on heavy. When he is with Blix, he is touchy and sensual with her. He lies as if his life depends on it. It is clear he suffers from deep trauma. When someone touches him he recoils and demands to not be touched. His true self is so closed off that everyone projects what they want to see in him and he responds in kind.
Episode four, “Aldhani”, introduces a small rebel cell. Every moment with them is meaningful. Nemik is crafting anti-Imperial theory with his manifesto. At the start, Nemik believes that Cassian will fight for the cause. He calls Cassian his “ideal reader”. Before Nemik dies, he tells Vel to give Cassian the manifesto. Skeen came from the same Imperial prison system as Cassian and immediately assumed Cassian is only out for himself, “You’re like me, we were born in the hole, all we know is climbing over somebody else to get out.” After the Imperial Payroll heist goes off, Skeen sees an opportunity to take the money, run away, and split it with Cassian. Cassian knows exactly who Skeen is and kills him. Skeen reminds Cassian of the worst part of himself while Nemik reminds him of the best part of himself.
The show is constantly pulling Cassian between these two poles. Cassian looks out for himself, but deep down he feels the call for something greater. That call scares him as evident by the way he initially rejects Nemik’s postmortem gift. He knows the cost, his father was killed by his defiance to the Empire. We know by the time of Rogue One he is all in on the cause. This show is taking the time to build up Cassian‘s belief system and that is just something I haven’t seen in Star Wars.
Spectacle paired with tight action
Everything written before would be enough to say this is the best Star Wars show. However, episode six, “The Eye”, demonstrates how well the creators can pull off Star Wars spectacle. The episode’s flow of movement and tension are impeccable. The heist crew are surrounded by danger at all times. When they are under disguise they stop their escort march of the Aldhani pilgrims, some members of the Imperial garrison seem to question why the crew are there. There are no audible lines from the Imperials so they could be chatting about literally anything. But this tension underlined the entire episode.
The episode flings into beautifully choreographed action when the crew throw off the guise and take the Commandant and his family hostage. There is not a single dull moment during the heist. The heist is intercut with scenes of the Aldhani people celebrating The Eye. I got whiplash switching between the religious chanting of the Aldhani to the heist. The composer of the series, Nicholas Britell, underscores the episode with tense music. Every action is punctuated by a low pitch synthesized horn that increases the tension.
This culminates to a breathtaking sequence inside of a comet storm. Green, blues and oranges paint the sky. In order to fly through the storm, Cassian has to believe in Nemik. Nemik tells him to “climb” through the storm. Cassian doesn’t think they will make it if he climbs into the storm. However, he puts his faith in Nemik and they make it out of The Eye. Cassian believed in Nemik and it brought him out of the storm.
What makes the spectacle work is that it also drives Cassian’s character forward. In the episode before Nemik holds up his navigator and his manifesto and says, “this charts an astral path and this maps the trail to political consciousness.” Nemik guided Cassian through the physical realm, and now Cassian has the manifesto that will guide him through the ideological realm.
It feels optimistic to say that Andor is one of the strongest Star Wars projects to date. There are still six episodes left and Disney’s track record is abysmal. However, at this point I think it would be truly shocking if the show runs into the ground. The fundamentals and foundation of the show are strong. Even if it does fail, I will always have these first episodes.