Five episodes in, it’s pretty clear: Andor is the best piece of filmed Star Wars material since either 2017 or 1983, depending on your disposition towards The Last Jedi. After several attempts at a live-action Star Wars show, none of which achieved much of anything outside of fanservice, Disney+ has finally found quality in the form of Tony Gilroy’s resistance thriller. It’s, like, so motherfucking good.
There’s a lot to love about Andor. The dialogue is intelligent, well-observed, and often darkly funny. The casting – all renowned theatre performers and character actors – has netted incredibly memorable performances. The production design team shot on real locations and built real sets, instead of relying on ILM’s Stagecraft, lending additional verisimilitude to the storytelling. It’s revived the proud Star Wars tradition of sticking things to real-world devices and animals to turn them into sci-fi props and aliens. And amid all its seriousness, it’s still got time for a cute robot with a funny voice. But the thing about Andor that really sings for me is pretty simple:
It’s actually a story about rebels fighting an empire.
REBELS WITH A CAUSE
Star Wars has, of course, featured rebels fighting an empire before. It’s the backbone of the entire original trilogy, and the sequel trilogy (with “empire” and “rebels” meaninglessly swapped out for “order” and “resistance”). There was even a whole show called Rebels, and it was pretty good! But something that Andor has thrown into devastating relief is the fact that those films and TV shows weren’t really about rebels in any serious fashion. They were less well-equipped than the Empire, but they still had an air force, uniforms, capital ships, and a clear leadership structure. What they were – more than being rebels – was the good guys. Likeable people, friendly with one another, who even enjoyed what they were doing sometimes, in keeping with the original film’s breezy adventure tone. The actual reasons for the rebellion were there under the surface, but mostly paid lip service. They’re just the good guys, fighting the bad guys. Simple.
In Andor, the rebels are different. It’s set earlier than A New Hope and Rogue One, so there’s an argument to be made that they simply hadn’t built up their resources yet, but there’s more to it than that. This show demonstrates the harsh reality of rebelling against an incalculably huge enemy, hewing much closer to George Lucas’ original Vietnam War metaphor. The rebels of Andor don’t quip. They don’t posture. They aren’t friends with each other. They’re angry, disenfranchised, desperate, determined, working-class people brought together by a common purpose, not flashy heroes or descendants of legendary space wizards. They’re committed to their cause – obsessed with it, even – to the point that they write manifestos and knowingly sacrifice their lives for it. These are people who have truly suffered at the hands of the Empire, all pursuing “their own rebellion”. It’s not an abstract concept for them, and by painting them as such, it’s not abstract to the audience, either.
The one character drawn from any of the main-line films, Mon Mothma, isn’t the experienced military leader seen in Return of the Jedi or even Rogue One. Instead, she’s a long-suffering behind-the-scenes operator, struggling to make a difference in the Senate and struggling equally to scrounge up money to fund the underequipped rebels. Her husband is a piece of shit; her daughter’s on her way to following in his footsteps; she’s essentially without allies, and as she makes clear, her activities could become untenable at any point.
Hell, the Rebel Alliance doesn’t even really exist here as a coherent, unified force. Instead, it’s described as a series of smaller groups with presumably slightly different focuses – “Alliance, Sep, Guerilla, Partisan Front” – that evoke the disorganised unrest parodied in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. That’s how rebellions actually tend to foment. Unification might come later, but when nobody is well-funded or well-equipped, when the resources for organisation simply aren’t there, all these groups have to their names is commitment to a cause.
Even more importantly, Tony Gilroy’s show paints the Galactic Empire as a believable fascist regime. One issue Star Wars has often had – if you want to take its portrait of fascism seriously – is that its villains are simply too charismatic, too cool. They’re cartoon bad guys, effectively, which in turn makes them beloved. Darth Vader is the most iconic and popular character from the original trilogy, and in Rogue One received standing ovations from fans for slaughtering a roomful of rebels. Stormtroopers are seen as comical or even loveable, showing up at conventions everywhere. Even Disney’s interactive hotel gives you the option of selling out Chewbacca to the imperials, because it sure is fun to be the bad guy, isn’t it?
Andor has no badass warrior villains, no cool imposing body armour, no evil Emperors. There are no arch taking-over-the-galaxy plots, no space stations that blow up planets, no grandstanding or monologuing. No, the Empire of Andor is more evil than any of that, because frankly – it’s boring. The true villainy of real-life empires is in making their villainy seem quotidian and mundane. The Nazis, of course, are the poster children for this practice, industrialising their genocide into mere statistics, but every regime has some element of burying its crimes in bureaucracy and policy. There’s even – in the Empire’s toxic strip-mining of Kenari, and the decimation and enslavement of the Aldhani population for the sake of a freighting hub – a significant nod to the everyday colonialism and exploitation inherent in empire-building that frequently goes ignored next to something like blowing up a planet.
As Alex Lawther’s fresh-faced rebel Kamik says in his breathless manifesto-writing spree:
“It’s so confusing, isn’t it? So much going on, so much to say, and all of it happening so quickly. The pace of oppression outstrips our ability to understand it, and that is the real trick of the Imperial thought machine. It’s easier to hide behind 40 atrocities than a single incident.”
Christ, what cracking dialogue – and it’s not hard to find real-world examples of that concept.
Taken as individuals, Andor’s villains are spineless, incurious twits to a man – a quality that makes for a valued servant of evil regimes. It’s one thing to have a villain cackle with glee as they torture a hero. It’s far more chilling to see them do it impassively, because it’s their job, because they want a promotion, because it’s Tuesday. In this way, the villains follow in the footsteps of the Star Wars sequel trilogy’s secret best character, Hux, seeking to advance their own interests without a thought as to what they’re doing to that end. Nobody’s gonna want to dress up as these people for Halloween; nobody’s going to actively like these characters, and that’s a conscious, brilliant choice on the part of Gilroy and his team.
The show’s principal villain Syril, also probably Andor’s best character, is a pathetic, snivelling rat of a man, driven by humiliation and spite, which makes him far more dangerous, in his own way, than someone driven by ideology. To him, the ideology is a means to an end; he’s the kind of self-serving cog in the system that would be just as repellent a person were he working for the good guys. Only in Andor, he wouldn’t work for the good guys, because their defining characteristic is believing in something bigger than themselves. He might be meek, but he’s right at home in a hierarchy of bullies and cowards.
I’ve seen a couple simplistic criticisms of Andor, saying that it’s “grimdark” (come on, the show’s frequently hilarious!) or that it’s attempting to paint shades of grey amongst its heroes and villains. But despite Cassian being introduced shooting a man in the face, and despite Syril having a mean mum, I don’t think there are “shades of grey” here, at least not in the Watchmen “who’s the real villain, huh?” sense. The heroes and villains are clearly distinguished. The show just takes a more nuanced look than the movies into what defines someone’s character – what it actually means to be “good” or “bad”. In Andor, it’s not enough to be a passively decent person; you have to truly commit to fighting the good fight, even if it’s an unpleasant one. Likewise, the villains might not all be cruel a la Dark Lords of the Sith, and some of them do indeed suffer their own problems – but they’re still utterly devoid of humanity in the ways that really count.
Andor is a show about belief, compassion, solidarity, struggle, and probably sacrifice, by the time it eventually draws to a close (to say nothing about the ending of Rogue One, which set a benchmark this show has easily cleared). It’s intelligent, curious, and entertaining as fuck to boot. Star Wars has never been this rousing, and it’s incredible to experience.
“Don’t you want to fight these bastards for real?”