The latest Star Wars TV show, Andor, just concluded its first season with the episode “Rix Road”, and on the whole the series left Star Wars fans divided. Some applauded how it took a different approach to Star Wars, which was more serious and grounded. Others dismissed the show because of its deliberately slow pace and lack of typical Star Wars action and tropes. Regardless, it is clear that Andor tells a different kind of a Star Wars story, which is an unusual risk for Lucasfilm and Disney, but the effort largely pays off.
Diego Luna reprises his role of the title character, Cassian Andor, who was introduced as a shady Rebel agent in the film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. This series shows us his back story which takes place several years before the film, and chronicles the events that turned him into a Rebel against the evil Galactic Empire.
Andor establishes immediately in the opening moments of the first episode “Kassa” that it is different from the typical Star Wars story by setting it in a brothel on a distant world. Andor visits the brothel in trying to search for his long-lost sister. Flashbacks in the early episodes show that Andor was part of a primitive tribe of humans on a backward planet and ran afoul of the Republic (the galactic government before the Empire) before being adopted by a visiting scavenger named Maarva (Fiona Shaw). This act of kindness separated him from his sister and his quest to find her as an adult gets him into trouble with local authorities. This in turn attracts the attention of the Empire, who has begun to tighten its grip on its subject worlds and systems.
Back on his adopted homeworld of Ferrix, Andor stays one step ahead of authorities. He is soon forced to flee Ferrix and work for a group of Rebels by taking on an off-world assignment to steal an imperial payroll on the planet Aldhani. Along the way, Andor meets many people who help change his outlook on life and see beyond his own selfish needs. At the same time, the audience sees through the people Andor interacts with, that life under the Empire is reaching a critical point as a legitimate opposition to the Empire rises.
These interactions between characters, many of whom never meet one another, are a true highlight for the show as is the acting from the many actors. Stellan Skarsgård gives a triumphant performance as Luthen, a morally compromised Rebel agent who recruits Andor and is all too willing to let others, including Andor, do his dirty work. In the best episode of the season, called “One Way Out”, Luthen gives a terrific speech about the choices we make and how they trap us. Andy Serkis appears in a few episodes as Kino, a floor manager in an imperial prison and supervises Andor, who was unjustly imprisoned there for hard labor. Andor encourages Kino to question their grim existence in the prison and to foment a prison break. The episode “One Way Out” where these two and other prisoners defy authorities and break out was one of the most thrilling and intense moments in Star Wars.
The series has about four story arcs that start off calmly and deliberately takes time to come to a conclusion. During the arcs, the series introduces fascinating characters, while developing other characters established earlier in the show. For instance, Andor follows a parallel journey of Syrill Karn (Kyle Soller), a low-level inspector who is obsessed with tracking down Andor. His actions do not endear him with the bureaucratic Empire, but he has a dogged determination to find his prey just like Inspector Javert in Les Miserables.
But a criticism about the show is that many sub plots and character arcs are introduced, but many of them are not concluded by the time of the final episode.
The many complaints from some Star Wars fans that Andor is too slow are a legitimate gripe. But the payoffs for the arcs are brilliant and intense, such as with “One Way Out”, “Rix Road” and “The Eye”. The tension was very gripping as Andor and his Rebel colleagues pulled off the heist on the depository in “The Eye” or when the prison break is about to happen. By the time the tension is broken by many action scenes, such as when Andor and Luthen escape Ferrix, or when Andor commandeers an imperial ship after the heist, well, these moments were so cathartic.
It is true the show’s pace can be slow at times, but the pay off was well worth the patience it took to watch the episodes.
Perhaps the reason for the complaints about the show is that many times it does not feel like it takes place in the Star Wars universe and that is probably its greatest strength. None of the characters about the Force; for the most part we rarely see signs of the Empire in the early episodes; and the typical Star Wars blaster fights and space battles are rare.
Life in these worlds seems harsh and gritty as we see the Empire’s demoralizing effect on them. In fact, the pilot episode “Kassa” seemed like a cyberpunk show that took place in a seedy futuristic city. Occasionally, curse words are spoken, and it is quite clear during some scenes that characters had sex or relieved themselves. Characters deal with morally ambiguous situations, such as Mon Mothma’s (Genevieve O’Reilly) machinations to fund the growing rebellion in secret, or with Luthen allowing fellow Rebels to fall into imperial traps or being willing to kill Andor in order to protect the larger rebellion against the Empire.
So, yes, Andor is more mature and adult oriented than the typical Star Wars story. It and its showrunners like Tony Gilroy must be commended for going in a different direction. That is because by trying to be a different Star Wars story, Andor has proven that Star Wars can be a rich and complex universe.