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Slip Through Your Fingers: Thoughts on Andor

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[This post was originally published yesterday on my blog.]

Look, I was not expecting this. Two years and more than a dozen shows into the Disney+ experiment, I think we’ve all developed a decent enough sense of what to expect from the television incarnations of the two biggest entertainment franchises on the planet. And for the most part, these shows have been fine. Some fun moments. Some actors who are better than their material. Maybe a hint of a political idea. There was no reason for Andor—a prequel to a prequel whose original premise was already quite dodgy—to be any better.

And then it turned out to be good. Not just good for Star Wars, but just plain good. Best TV of the year good. I have to admit that I went a bit Kübler-Ross about this. First there was Anger—this show is too good to be Star Wars. No way does a story this smart, this thoughtful about the compromises of life under fascism, and the costs of rising up to resist it, exist only as a lead-in to a floppy-haired teenager doing an amusement park ride. Then a bit of Denial—there really isn’t that much explicit Star Wars content here. Then Bargaining—if I squint I can pretend this is just another science fiction story. A bit of fanfic that just happens to use the Star Wars universe as a jumping-off point. But having watched the whole season, and spent some time trying to hold the whole thing in my head, I think I’ve circled around to Acceptance. There is a way in which Andor is so quintessentially Star Wars that it actually raises my estimation of the rest of the franchise. It might be truer to what the first film was trying to do than pretty much everything else that followed.

Set five years before the events of the first Star Wars trilogy—five years, that is, before Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) will give up his life to deliver the Death Star plans to the rebellion—Andor introduces us to its title character as a small-time crook and hustler on the shipbreaking settlement of Ferrix. A run in with corporate security—the empire’s local representatives—unleashes a maelstrom of trouble for Cassian and his community, and puts him on the radar of Luthen Rael (Stellan Skarsgård), the leader of a resistance cell. The rest of the season is spent in tension between Cassian’s desire to run away from his legal troubles, Luthen’s efforts to destabilize the empire’s hold over the galaxy, and the knock-on consequences of both their actions. Other subplots involve Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), who has been secretly bankrolling Luthen’s activities, trying to avoid imperial attention, and up-and-coming Imperial Security Bureau officer Dedra Meero (Denise Gough) deducing Luthen’s existence, and trying to use Cassian to flush him out.

One problem with trying to write about what makes Andor so good is that you can get bogged down in all the things it doesn’t do. A testament, I suppose, to how watered-down and degraded the television landscape—and especially extruded IP products like the Disney+ shows—has become in this supposed age of plenty. For one thing, it is not a delivery system for fanservice, for little hits of recognition that the audience can crow about. The setting at large is of course well-established, and a few familiar names and references make their way in. But for the most part, Andor is concerned with building something new. Even those faces we recognize are seen in a new light. Future rebellion leader Mon Mothma is, at the start of this story, a senator in Coruscant, gliding elegantly through the crowds in official functions, flailing helplessly against “imperial overreach” in the senate, a picture of ineffectual liberalism meant to conceal her resistance ties.

Andor is also not a launchpad for something else, a means of introducing a new villain or teasing a new plot element that will be picked up in a billion-dollar-grossing movie (one advantage, I suppose, of the Star Wars movie division being effectively moribund). By which I mean not just that we know how Cassian’s story ends, but that the season feels complete in itself. Andor has another season coming, for which I’m very grateful, but the story we’ve already gotten has fully made its argument. It could end here and feel completely satisfying.

Most importantly, Andor is not a shapeless trudge through undelineated story that mistakes the freedom of a streaming platform for license not to think about things like story structure and the impact of a single episode. The season is strongly structured—uniquely so, in fact, with three distinct, multi-episode plot arcs and an epilogue. More interestingly, it’s the sort of story that flows from happenstance and yet ends up feeling inevitable. The whole thing kicks off because Cassian can’t help eyeballing a couple of corporate security guards. They hassle him; he, knowing that he’s traveling on false papers and can’t afford to be arrested, attacks them; they end up dead. A single dumb decision determines the course of a whole life, and maybe even the fate of the rebellion.

Later, Cassian, having played a role in an audacious raid on an imperial payroll vault, leaves Luthen’s organization with his payout and tries to reinvent himself as an affluent tourist. But the empire’s panicked response to the raid is to crack down on anything resembling civil disobedience, so Cassian ends up being arrested for essentially nothing and sent to an imperial factory prison. His experiences and escape from there are what bring him back into Luthen’s orbit, and to the point of committing fully to the rebellion. It’s elegant and gripping, and like nothing that anything else on TV is even trying to do.

Another pitfall in trying to talk about what makes this show so good is that you can get lost in the specifics, missing the whole for the details. There is, to begin with, the show’s worldbuilding, which is rich and textured. Ferrix is full of idiosyncratic touches, such as the bell-ringer who marks time and the beginning and end of work shifts, or the funerary practice in which the dead’s ashes are made into bricks and placed into the city’s walls. In the prison where Cassian is held, the clean white halls and gamified work shifts producing widgets of unknown purpose are underpinned by a horrible system of control, an electrified floor. The planet Aldhani, where the payroll vault heist occurs, has a local population who arrive, every three years, to celebrate a celestial event called The Eye, under whose cover the team make their escape.

Far from being mere local color, however, these worldbuilding details are a response to, and are changed by, the presence of the empire. One of the things Andor is interested in is how people live under fascism, and how fascism changes environments—natural, built, and social. When Cassian escapes the prison, he meets some locals who tell him that it has poisoned their waters and killed off the local sealife. The imperial presence on Aldhani has been steadfastly discouraging the locals from making the pilgrimage to see The Eye, preferring to keep them in the cities where they can work in its factories. This has so far been achieved through soft persuasion and manipulation—an oily imperial officer explains that he has placed “comfort stations” along the pilgrimage route to peel off travelers—but in the wake of the raid, new imperial restrictions on local customs probably mean the pilgrimage will be forbidden. And though most viewers of Andor will fall in love with Ferrix and its tight-knit, protective community, what the first season charts is its destruction. When an attempt to arrest Cassian for the murder of the security guards results in mass civil disobedience, the corporate authority is disbanded and the empire steps in to administer the planet directly, eliminating the small buffer of freedom the locals still had. The season ends with a riot that erupts in response to the excesses of this administration, but the consequence of that moment of triumph will no doubt be the elimination of Ferrix’s traditions and community, if not its actual people.

At the other end of the scale, Andor shows us how people live whose existence and self-image are tied up in the empire. Mon Mothma’s fellow elites live lives of such luxury and privilege that the empire’s curtailment of civil rights, and the suffering it causes, are mere abstractions to them. They complain that liberals like Mon are boring scolds, and prefer the company of “fun” fascists and autocrats. Dedra is a rare female presence in the mostly-male halls of the ISB, girlbossing her way towards greater authority as she puts together the pattern of Luthen’s activities, only occasionally stopping to note that most of her intelligence was gleaned through torture. And unbeknownst to him, Cassian accumulates a nemesis, corporate security inspector Syril Karn (Kyle Soller), who throws around words like “justice” and “right” and is appalled by the corruption of his superiors, without ever stopping to consider that this is the system working exactly as it was designed.

It’s easy to get distracted by how well each of these character and worldbuilding elements are carried off—by the excellence of both the writing and the performances, by how much personality is imbued in each character’s dialogue, by references to things like the Troubles or the British Empire—and miss what they’re coming together to create. What Andor is ultimately about is radicalization—of individuals, yes, but also of communities, systems, and even autocracies.

One idea the show returns to is how power behaves when it has no checks on it. How it creates its own logic, and how it lashes out in response to challenges to its authority. Dedra keeps complaining that the response to incidents like Aldhani—greater restrictions on civil liberties, increased sentencing for anti-imperial speech—is counterproductive and undermines her efforts to carry out effective intelligence work. What she keeps being told—and what she repeatedly ignores, eventually to her own detriment—is that an autocratic system’s need to assert itself is often more important, and tends to outweigh, rational considerations such as the need to quickly and effectively eliminate threats. A system like the empire would prefer to ostentatiously immiserate millions than quietly identify one rebel mastermind.

This is, of course, what Luthen is counting on. His goal is to radicalize the empire and trigger, in response, the radicalization of the people it oppresses. To be clear, there’s a lot to argue with in this scheme—people will no doubt rush to declare Andor a “realistic” version of the Star Wars story, but let’s not pretend that “if things get bad enough, people will rise up” is not, in its own way, as simplistic as “use the Force, Luke”. But the emotional logic of the show flows from this idea. Everyone in it—Cassian, Mon Mothma, the community of Ferrix—is buffeted by the vicious cycle of the empire and its enemies. The more the empire reacts to attacks against it, the more people are forced into a greater commitment to the rebellion, and the more reactions occur.

At the center of it all is Cassian, who, at first glance, feels like a poor fit for this sort of story. He is, by his nature, a passive, reactive person. His greatest skill is his ability to stand back and observe, whether he’s figuring out a mechanical system, or what makes people tick. He’s extremely competent—quick-thinking, good with his hands, cool under pressure, comfortable with violence—but also directionless, and prone to destructive action because he has no outlet for his anger. He’s the perfect operative, but he needs someone to deploy him.

In another story that would be the cue for a mentor figure to step in and give the young hero direction. But when Luthen tries to do this, he’s met with suspicion and refusal. Cassian hates the empire, for specific acts such as the judicial murder of his adoptive father, and for the arrogance with which it imposes itself on his and his neighbors’ lives. But he’s also deeply cynical about the possibility of resistance, repeatedly stating that the empire is too big to care about individual acts against it, and that the various rebel factions are too disparate and prone to infighting to mount a meaningful challenge to it. He would rather collect his pay for the Aldhani job and move on with his life than sign up to what he sees as a doomed cause. He needs to be radicalized—through his experiences in the prison, by getting to know his teammates on the Aldhani raid and their reasons for joining the rebellion, and by witnessing the suffering of his friends on Ferrix—before he can commit to the cause.

Again, some people will call this a more realistic take on the hero’s journey, but to me it feels like a dark mirror of the same story we were told forty-five years ago. There are, in fact, a lot of similarities between Cassian and Luke. They’re both orphans. They’ve both been adopted by loving parents whom they lose to the empire. They’re both approached by mentor figures who see something special in them. And they both refuse the call. But what Andor is saying is that everyone refuses the call, because the call is terrifying. The call means giving up everything that is good and comfortable in your life. It might mean giving up your life itself. Most people would prefer to make their compromises with power and eke out a good life under its system of oppression—as Luke says, “I hate the empire, but there’s nothing I can do”.

What Andor is doing, then, is translating the hero’s journey that, as we’ve been told for years, lies at the heart of Star Wars, into the terms of a radicalization story. It’s asking what it takes to bring someone to the point where they’re willing answer the call. Especially when they know that they’re not the hero of the story, and have no guarantee of being vaulted into a realm of specialness and guaranteed survival. It asks that question not just about Cassian but about all the people around him. One of the most moving throughlines in the season belongs to Cassian’s mother Maarva (Fiona Shaw), who has spent decades tolerating the empire’s power over her, even after it killed her husband. In a twist of irony, it’s the attack on Aldhani that inspires her to rebel, and though she’s too old and isolated to do anything of substance, it’s her dying benediction that spurs the people of Ferrix to rise up. 

For her as well as for Cassian, the choice on offer isn’t whether to embrace heroism, but whether they can live with inaction. Luthen’s recruitment spiel doesn’t pretend that the life he’s offering Cassian will be a long or happy one: “wouldn’t you rather give it all at once for something real, than carve a few useless pieces till there’s nothing left?” We know that Cassian is ready to join the rebellion when he repeats this logic to his fellow prisoner Kino Loy (Andy Serkis, in what might be his best live-action performance), while trying to convince him to lead a prisoner uprising: “I would rather die trying to take them down than giving them what they want”. 

Andor is about imagining how people, alone and en masse, tip over into rebellion. It’s still probably a prettier picture than the real thing—the people of Ferrix, for example, get quite a bit further with their attack on the empire than is quite believeable. But again, the point here isn’t realism so much as emotional logic, a story that knows what it’s about and what it’s trying to say. And what that is, as it turns out, is something that was in Star Wars all the way at the beginning. As Princess Leia once said, “the more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers”. Andor show us what that process of slipping through looks like—terrifying, exhilarating, chaotic, and at least for a moment, liberating.

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