Star Wars is well known for its bigger than life aspects: the space wizards, the laser swords, the bounty hunters with jet-packs, the monstrous villains, the huge battles, the spectacle. But when you take all of that flash and flair away, what is Star Wars actually about? I’m sure there are some who would suggest it’s about adventure, or family, and whilst those things are true I think the thing that Star Wars is really about is the dangers of fascism, of evil systems, and about allowing those things to take root.
Those messages are all over the franchise. In the original trilogy the villains’ soldiers were called Stormtroopers, and the Imperial uniforms were based upon those of Nazis. The sequel trilogy told the story of a galaxy that had already beaten back fascism, but had allowed it to take root once more in their complacency. And the prequel trilogy showed how it begins, how it grows in the shadows, how it makes itself look appealing. There’s the famous line of “So this is how liberty dies… with thunderous applause” that might be one of the most important things George Lucas has written.
This is what Andor is about. It’s not about the spectacle, it’s about ordinary, regular people living under the heel of fascism, and finding the bravery and strength to fight back against it, even if it means their own death. It does this primarily through the character of Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who we first met in the film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story which ultimately saw Cassian die in order to warn the universe of the Death Star. In that film we met a man dedicated to the cause, who had given his life over to stopping the tyranny in the galaxy. He was willing to kill; to do unspeakable things to do it. But the Cassian we meet in Andor isn’t there yet. He’s just a regular man.
Andor is the longest of the Disney Star Wars shows to date, with a first season run of twelve episodes. Almost taking a leaf out of The Clone Wars book, the series is split into some distinct arcs, with a main overarching story throughout. The first three-episode arc introduces us to Cassian when a pair of cops take a dislike to him and stop him in a back alley. Afraid for his life, Cassian kills them, and thus begins a series of events that sees the police coming down hard on him and his town, bringing the full force of their authority with them. Luckily, Cassian gets to meet a mysterious figure called Luthen (Stellan Skarsgård), who he’s been selling stolen Imperial tech to for months, and the two of them are able to effect an escape. This sends Cassian out into the galaxy with a man whose mission is to end the Empire, and sees Cassian learning more about the evil that exists out there.
Cassian is, for most of the series, an unwilling participant. He kills a couple of cops because he’s been backed into a corner and thinks he’s going to die. He has to flee his home, leaving his mother and friends behind because he knows he’ll be arrested. He ends up working on a job to steal from the Empire because he’s got no other choice. He’s constantly being pushed and pulled, shoved around, and for the majority of the series he doesn’t get to make his own decisions. And that’s because this entire twelve-episode arc is the story of Cassian finally becoming the man we see him as in Rogue One. It’s a long journey, and at times an incredibly painful one for him, but by the end you really don’t question why an ordinary man would stand up against a fascist force like the Empire.
But Andor isn’t just about its titular character, as is features multiple stories and more original characters than any other series yet. One of the cops who fails to arrest Cassian on his home-world, Syril Karn (Kyle Soller), forms an obsession with getting the man who cost him everything (his failure at capturing Cassian getting him fired) and he ends up at the bottom, living with his mother, working a dead-end job, trying desperately to do what he considers the right thing thanks to his devotion to the Empire. Andor does a surprisingly good job at humanising these kinds of characters, and you begin to understand why some people would love the Empire, even if you don’t agree with those characters yourself.
Characters like Dedra Meero (Denise Gough) are a prime example of this. An ISB (Imperial Security Bureau) supervisor, she’s in a high ranking and powerful position. But she’s one of the only women there, and she’s relatively young. As she battles to make her voice heard and to get her point across, you begin to feel for her, seeing her fighting against misogyny in the workplace. She makes a lot of sense, and she’s smarter than most of the men there, but she’s ignored. By the time she’s finally commanding respect and achieving her goals she’s doing so by torturing characters you’ve come to care about. You start off wanting her to succeed, forgetting what that eventually leads to; much in the same way fascism sucks people in with good promises before becoming a force for evil. You’ve been made to see the Empire as human, as individuals rather than a faceless mass, and it forever changes Star Wars for you.
But it’s not just the Empire that gets the focus, as another returning character who gets a decent amount of screen-time is Mon Mothma, played by Genevieve O’Reilly once again. Mothma is still an imperial Senator, but is quietly working in the background, building alliances, shifting money around, and slowly building the foundation for what will become the Rebel Alliance. Her scenes are perhaps some of the most isolated in the show, with the only other characters she interacts with involved in the larger story being Luthen, and her cousin, Vel (Faye Marsay), who’s part of Luthen’s cell. This isolation is intentional, and shows how alone she is in things, how she’s working towards this goal of a free galaxy pretty much alone. She’s perhaps the character who is least served in the season though, and whilst her story is fantastic, she’s the one character I hope gets given more to do in the second season.
Andor features other important characters that weave in and out of the story, such as the inmates in an Imperial prison, several ISB members, Cassian’s mother, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) and his partisans, and a pair of rebels who are the first real, overt queer relationship in the franchise. The series feels alive, the universe lived in and populated. The smaller, recurring characters make the series more fascinating because they’re simple, ordinary people rather than Force wielders, ace pilots, or daring soldiers. Come the end of the season, when you’re waiting for the damn to break, for the spark to ignite, you’re waiting for ordinary people to say ‘no more’ and turn upon the regime that’s trying to kill them.
The final episode of Andor feels more awe inspiring and more inspirational than the vast majority of the franchise because it’s not that far removed from our lives, it’s not something that could never happen. It feels real. It feels personal. Tony Gilroy has crafted a Star Wars story that is going to speak to anyone from a marginalised group, anyone who has experienced oppression, anyone who has seen and gone through abuse of power. Andor puts a lot of reality into this space fantasy franchise, and the result is a story that might be one of the most compelling Star Wars has ever delivered.
The series isn’t just relying on the strong story and amazing acting to impress, as it’s also one of the best looking live-action Star Wars series to date. The Volume, which was used to great effect in The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett is missing here, and instead the series takes us to physical locations. Aldhani is a sprawling place filled with hills and valleys, and our actors trek across them without much digital trickery. Cassian’s home on Ferrix is a large, sprawling town that was made for the show. Even Coruscant, which has predominantly been produced via visual effects, is made up from physical locations that the production team went to, with stark, concrete architecture being enhanced with set extensions to add scale only, rather than to produce the entire thing. Andor feels so much more real and alive than any other Star Wars, because for the most part it actually is.
Andor was a series that some fans complained about when it was first announced, asking why we needed to know about this one character from one film who ends up dead. And whilst the series does give that character more screen time, and does give him more depth, it’s not just about that. Andor gives us a realistic look at life in the Empire, at life under oppression. It shows us that the fight against the Empire wasn’t just a handful of heroes, but thousands of worlds, and millions of people doing whatever they could, whether that be small acts of defiance or a full-scale uprising. Andor makes Star Wars feel real and tries to inspire its audience to try to fight for a better world too, and for that, it deserves huge praise.
Andor is streaming on Disney+.