Released: September 21 - November 23, 2022
MPAA Rating: TV-14
EE Critic Score: 10/10
Andor is a Star Wars television series following the life of the titular Cassian Andor, a character first introduced in the film Rogue One, as he transitions from a lonely, amoral drifter into a dedicated agent of the Rebel cause. The series was first announced alongside The Mandalorian as Star Wars content to be made for the then-in-the-works streaming service Disney+. The show stars Diego Luna in the title role alongside Genevieve O’Reilly, Stellan Skarsgård, Andy Serkis, Kyle Soller, Denise Gough, and Faye Murray, among others, and was headed up by Rogue One and Bourne series writer Tony Gilroy, who brought a strong emphasis on storytelling and a gritty, wartime feel to the show. Rogue One found lot of dedicated fans within the larger Star Wars community, and they should find a lot of what they loved about that film here in this show.
So far, each of the Star Wars television shows has had its own distinct feel to them. The Mandalorian was very much a television show, episodic in nature. The Book of Boba Fett was also episodic but flashier and goofier, like a Star Wars comic brought to life. Obi-Wan Kenobi felt like a film stretched into six parts. Andor feels like it has the most in common with Star Wars books, especially the sort written by James Luceno and Alexander Freed. It’s more interested in exploring its characters and world than in action; there are action scenes, good ones, exciting ones, but there are no showdowns, no big battles, and no lightsaber duels. In fact, this is likely the first Star Wars screen project since maybe the Ewok films not to feature someone igniting a lightsaber; even Solo had Maule phone a lightsaber in at the end. (I say “likely” because I’ve never actually seen the Ewok films. I do know that the Holiday Special featured a lightsaber-like microphone that Marty Balin sang into, but that doesn’t quite count.)
In several ways, Andor is the best Star Wars has ever been. Star Wars dialogue typically has been, to put it kindly, rooted in a sort of old stage-play style, more about delivering memorable, thematic lines than seeming like what someone would actually say in a given situation. While a lot of that has been conscious stylistic choice rather than obliviously bad writing, the weird, soliloquizing dialogue of Star Wars has led to a lot of weird, stiff performances from a lot of very find actors. Dialogue in Andor, by contrast, is a lot less flowery. There are plenty of memorable lines, and several good, dramatic monologues, but when two characters are talking, they seem to be genuinely speaking to each other, not to the audience. And it’s a good thing that Andor’s dialogue is so good because there’s a lot of it. This is a very talky show, but I never got bored of the conversations. Some of that is script quality, and some of it is the acting. Sure, the main cast like Diego Luna and Genevieve O’Reilly, and established stars like Stellan Skarsgård, Forrest Whitaker, and Andy Serkis all turn in good performances, but so does everybody else, really. The cast is rounded out by a bunch of working British TV actors, pretty much all of whom I didn’t know but whom U.K. viewers will probably recognize from some other show. A lot of effort was spent, by both writers and actors, to make each performance work, no matter how small, and that effort really paid off.
Andor was structured quite differently than previous Star Wars Disney+ shows. It has a multilateral plot, rather than keeping with the perspective of a single main character. It’s also quite decompressed; at 12 episodes, the season was half again as long as a season of The Mandalorian and twice as long as Obi-Wan Kenobi. Where those shows had something new and exciting happen in each episode, Andor works in setup-payoff arcs, going a few episodes without a big action sequence, then having a lot of action all at once. This setup works, generally, but I do think that kids, who’ve generally always been a part of Star Wars’ target audience, might find the show too slow. That’s another way Andor resembles Star Wars books: neither spend much effort trying to appeal to tweens.
Cassian’s story in this season has a prologue, two distinct chapters, and an epilogue. Looking back at the prologue, which comprises the first three episodes, I’d say it was for the best that they were released all in one block. While they accurately set the tone for the rest of the series, so little of serious consequence happens in them that I’m not sure that many audiences would have stuck with the show had they been released over three weeks. Honestly, I think the prologue should have been cut down to two episodes regardless. The flashback scenes of Kassa on Kenari, while interesting to watch initially, don’t build toward any sort of payoff later. In hindsight, they also work against the show’s theme. The whole point of Cassian’s character here is that he represents the Galactic everyman who finally decides to do something about the Empire besides complain and try to keep his head down. The less interesting he is to start with, the better. Andor should have been just a random sketchy guy. Go ahead and make his parents Separatists, that a neat enough backstory, and hardly a unique one among the people at the edges of the Empire. Adding him growing up in some sort of Lord of the Flies-esque society of unattended children muddies things too much, especially considering that nothing about that experience leads to anything later in the story. The show would have been better had the Kenari stuff been cut and the three episodes made into two.
Of course, Cassian isn’t the only character introduced in these first episodes. There’s also his mother, Maarva, who plays a small but key role in the season’s story. And there’s also Syril Karn, who serves as the main antagonist for the first arc. Karn is a sort of dark, gritty reboot of Barney Fife: a fastidious lawman whose ambitions outstrip both his ability and, often, what situations call for. He is the most interesting character in the show, though he was given much less to do after the prologue. He is, on paper, the model Imperial subject: committed to order, unwilling to turn a blind eye to corruption, and constantly seeking to better himself. But these characteristics get him in trouble with the actual Empire. A lot of people were thinking Syril would end up joining the Rebellion in the end; I didn’t think so, given how much he seems to genuinely be against any unlawfulness. But I also don’t think he’s the Imperial die-hard he pretends to be to Meera either. Not by the end of this season, anyway.
One thing I really found interesting was the way the show kept Karn’s hands clean; I think maybe that’s why so many thought he would join the franchise good guys, because he’s not a bad guy. He’s after Cassian as a part of an entirely legitimate murder investigation, which he pursues despite warnings that doing so could expose wrongdoing in his own organization. While those around him are shown doing heinous things (the other corporate guards roughing up Bix and panickedly shooting Tem, Meero torturing people) Karn is never part of any of that. He comes off as someone lacking in judgment and not lacking in ego but genuinely trying to do the right thing throughout the series. The tragedy of his character is that all that determinedness and integrity and weird sort of heroism is wasted in service to the Empire, which, despite its stated ideals, is not actually a thing that rewards people like Karn.
The Aldhani heist storyline is the most classic Star Wars part of the show, while also establishing the ways the show differs from Star Wars entries before it. It is the story of a small band of Rebels striking against the Empire, winning, and, in doing so, showing that the Empire can be defeated and inspiring hope in others. In this way, it’s much the same story as A New Hope. These episodes are also the point in the show when a lot more of the familiar sights and sounds of Star Wars start showing up: The elephantine roar of a TIE fighter, the gleaming white of stormtrooper armor, the spires of Coruscant, not to mention the shop full of Easter eggs Luthen runs. But there’s still a tonal difference. Andor is not a story filled with adventure, but a story filled with peril. In the arc’s finale episode, action scenes aren’t exciting, they’re terrifying, a sign that the Rebel’s plan is failing and that they’re all in danger of being killed. While the Death Star trench run had its fair share of casualties, you never got the impression that the movie would end with Yavin 4 blowing up. There was no guarantee that the Aldhani heist would succeed. In “A Running Commentary”, I mentioned that “The Eye” would have made an effective season finale, but the fact that it came mid-way through the season did add that bit of uncertainty.
For Cassian’s story, this Aldhani heist serves as the point in which he first is exposed to the Rebellion. It is not, interestingly, the point that he joins the Rebellion; that comes later after he makes a personal commitment to bring down the Empire.
But before we move on with Cassian’s story, I’d like to talk about Mon Mothma’s. She is introduced to the show at the same time as the Aldhani crew. Now, Mon Mothma is probably the second-most-underexplored character in Star Wars, behind Dooku (who, in fairness, got some attention himself in Tales of the Jedi at the same time Mothma was being featured in Andor). I was excited to see how she started the Rebel alliance, uniting different cells under a single banner. That’s not what I got to see. Mon Mothma is there, but she isn’t a Rebel leader, not yet. She’s involved, but leadership is really held by Luthen Rael. Luthen is the one making command decisions and coordinating activity between different Rebel factions. He isn’t just doing this on Mothma’s behalf, either; she’s largely unaware of what he’s doing and doesn’t always approve of his actions. He seems to be the ranking Rebel in this series. Mon Mothma is merely one of his assets, specifically his source of funding.
Luthen is a very different sort of person than Mon. I can’t see her filling the same role in Cassian’s story. And I really liked Luthen as a character in general. I’m not really upset that Mothma had a different role than I expected, but I am a bit upset that her story felt so tangential to everything else. Granted, a lot of the show was only somewhat connected to anything else in the show, but it stood out as semi-irrelevant feeling while I watched the show week-to-week. It’s fine for what it is. This was the best look we’ve had of how the Republic Senate transitioned into the Imperial Senate, and it’s also and effective counterpoint to Cassian’s story in that, while Cassian has little to lose by the end of the season, Mothma has quite a lot. Not only a position of power but also her family. Genevieve O’Reilly puts in a good performance. The viewer really feels the stress her character is under, and worries along with her that the ISB might storm into the room at any moment. But, by the end, all of Mothma’s scenes feel, if anything, like set up for a second season where she gets more actively involved in leading the Rebellion.
The second full chapter of Cassian’s story is the Narkina 5 arc. This is the best part of the show. The world of the Narkina 5 labor camp was flawlessly realized, from both a production design and a storytelling standpoint. I found it really clever that Cassian is imprisoned for no good reason, rather than for the actual, talk-of-the-Empire crime he’d just committed. It both makes Cassian’s (and the other prisoners’) plight more sympathetic and shows the Empire in both of its core aspects: powerful and overtaxed. The prison guards can, through superior technology, kill anyone or everyone in the prison with a push of a button. But, if they lose that technology, there aren’t enough of them to keep control of the prison. Their ruthless, totalitarian regulation of the prisoners’ lives is possible because of the Empire’s vast power but necessary because that power is fragile, and the Imperials know it. Narkina 5 is the Tarkin Doctrine in miniature: “rule through fear of force, rather than through force itself”, with the fact that rule through force itself is beyond the Empire’s capability left unstated. The prison revolt is the Rebellion in miniature: recognizing that the Empire can be defeated, exploit their weakness, disable their superweapon, and they won’t be able to put up much more of a fight.
Narkina 5 is where Cassian finally becomes a Rebel. Yes, he’s part of a Rebel mission right before that, and he apparently sat on the opposite side of the lines as Han Solo at Mimban before that, but his end goal was always to escape his trouble, ideally along with his mother. Following Narkina 5, Cassian wants to bring down the Empire. He’s seen that the Empire is more than its politics, more than just aggressive hegemony; even those loyal to the Empire are mostly doomed. Cassian doesn’t yet know about the Death Star he and his fellow prisoners helped build, but he understands that the Empire is willing to kill innocent, cooperative people en masse to preserve its control. It’s not a matter of just staying out of trouble; the Empire is trouble. Cassian sees that the only way he, or anyone else, can live at peace is to first get rid of the Empire.
This all leads directly into the epilogue of the show, wherein Cassian re-unites with Luthen and commits to the Rebel cause. These episodes are okay, but, as with the prologue, the epilogue could have been an episode shorter. A lot of scenes feel drawn out and padded. The season finale felt quite underwhelming compared to the finale episodes of the two chapters. Maarva’s funeral has a good speech, but I can’t say I found the ensuing clash between the Imperials and the people of Ferrix especially interesting viewing. After several episodes of fresh, inventive storytelling, the epilogue came off a bit stale: the obligatory big battle at the end. Cassian is barely involved, having cleverly anticipated that both factions seeking to kill him would be waiting for him to stroll down the main street and having thus gone around the back to do his business.
The other big thing we see happen in the epilogue as we lead into the next season is the uniting of Syril Karn with the other series main antagonist, ISB Inspector Deedra Meero. She was the more straightforward Imperial villain. On paper she’s not much more interesting or memorable than a lot of other, similar characters (such as quite a few Rebels villains) but Denise Gough put in such a strong performance in her scenes that she made up for it. Contrasting Karn, Meero is a lot more openly evil and cruel; the show doesn’t keep her hands clean. But she’s like Karn in her willingness to buck the system for the good of the Empire. That’s why she brings Karn in for further questioning after everyone else has dismissed him, and that’s why Karn gloms onto her the way he does; she’s the first person to take him seriously. After Karn gives her the details she wants, Meero tries to dismiss him, but he sticks around and eventually saves her on Ferrix. Her assistant isn’t so lucky, which means she has a job opening to fill. I expect Season 2 will see Meeero and Karn teamed up officially.
As much as it seems that Andor has received universal praise from Star Wars fans and television critics alike, I have seen a faction of critics complain that the show essentially ignores the core struggle of Star Wars, that between the Light and Dark Sides of the Force. The Jedi and the Sith are never mentioned directly. The Rebellion shown here is not the sort shown in Rebels: friends of the defeated Jedi, along with a few Jedi who remain. That was more Bail Organa’s thing. There are hints that Luthen either was a Jedi or knew the Jedi (the kyber crystal he gives Cassian, his lightsaber-like walking stick) but these are all just hints. The Force itself I don’t recall being mentioned at any point. Doesn’t that mean that Andor is missing one of the things that make Star Wars Star Wars? I don’t think so. The circumstances are different, in that no one in Andor wields the Force, but the themes of light vs. dark are the same. That conflict is abstracted into a political struggle. To walk in the Light is, ultimately, to give up control, while the Dark path promises domination over reality in ways that might be “considered unnatural”. The Sith seek to bend the Force to their will, but this endeavor, once undertaken, can never be given up on and will eventually destroy a person, physically and spiritually. Sidious’s word “unnatural” is echoed in Nemik’s manifesto. The Empire’s totalitarian authority is unnatural. Sidious’s quest for immortality left his spirit in a rotting corpse hanging on a hook. Likewise, his Empire’s quest for permanent peace and unity left it in a constant state of war with its own people, either the hot war of open rebellion or the cold war of police states and internal espionage. By nature, people will not always be at peace. They may not always wish to kill each other, but people will have differing ideals and perspectives which will lead to disagreement and conflict. By making the mere presence of such conflict a critical policy failure, the Empire makes every person into a threat. The conflict of Star Wars is between those who can deal with disappointment and discomfort, and move on from it, and those who cannot. That’s as true in Andor as in the rest of the franchise.
I can’t say any of the Disney+ Star Wars shows have ever looked bad, but I still noticed how good Andor looked in comparison. Coruscant especially looked great. Ferrix had a really memorable look, and the Scottish highlands were gorgeously shot as Aldhani. Narkina 5’s sets were a neat take on a labor camp, even if the prison barracks did look somewhat embarassingly like the cabins in Disney World’s Galactic Starcruiser hotel thing. Andor’s producers deliberately avoided too much use of the Volume, which was core to previous Disney+ Star Wars shows. Now, I’m still really impressed by the Volume; it’s the greatest sound stage ever made, and it has enabled a lot of my favorite scenes in Star Wars to be made on a TV budget. But it’s still just a sound stage. It still restricts all the action to a certain patch of an otherwise expansive-looking environment. The actual on-location shots bring production value to Andor that was missing in Obi-Wan Kenobi especially.
Scenes of space flight and the droids in the series were film-quality. So were the costumes for alien characters, what few there were. I get that it makes sense for most of the characters in this story to be Human, but the fact that Human characters are a lot cheaper and easier to portray in live action I’m sure informed the decision of what sort of story to tell here. I’m not complaining; it’s a good use of the budget. But I did notice.
Speaking of getting good use of the budget, this show was surprisingly effects-light for Star Wars. The cycles of buildup-payoff for the show’s storylines don’t just generate tension, it also means we only get a real action setpiece sequence every three episodes or so. In-between that it’s mostly just people talking or walking around, not free to make considering how nice it looks but cheaper to do than, say, The Mandalorian’s thrill-a-week format.
While I can remember the main theme, I have sort of the same complaint about the music here as I did about the music in Obi-Wan Kenobi; Star Wars has a lot of its worth in its lush score, and neither this show nor that one seemed to appreciate that. Granted, it’s more understandable here, in a rather low-key show where a big, expressive score would feel out-of-place, but I still missed the usual Star Wars sound in a few scenes.
Recommendation & Rating
I hope it’s clear at this point that I greatly enjoyed this show. If you liked Rogue One, then you’ve probably already seen it, but even if you didn’t much like Rogue One I’d still recommend Andor, which is quite a bit better. People burnt out on Star Wars TV will appreciate the smart, multipolar storytelling and general lack of fan service. The only people I wouldn’t recommend this to would be children, who I think might not get much out of it. I’m eagerly awaiting the second season. (Though, I’m not sure what that will be about. This season was about how Cassian became the character we saw in Rogue One. Hopefully Season 2 will be the same thing for Mon Mothma. Also, we’ve been promised K-2SO.)
I don’t want every future Star Wars TV show to be like Andor. I like lightsabers, and the Force, and eager, white-had heroes, and things kids get excited about, and aliens. But I do want every future Star Wars TV show to have the same level of effort for excellence that Andor had. I don’t think I’ll be as accepting of another Book of Boba Fett as I was of the first one. Andor is the present high water mark for Star Wars television, arguably for Star Wars generally, so I award the first season…
10/10 — Superior quality. Shows great artistic merit and exceeds the reviewer’s expectations. Sets new standard for excellence in its field or genre. Recommended to all with the greatest conviction.