Andor is the Best Star Wars Anything Since 1983
With the season finale having just dropped, viewers are now able to see what the show has been building to this whole time, and it is satisfying, exciting, and inspiring television.
Some audiences may have had a big adjustment to make when they first tuned in to check out the newest Star Wars story, as it’s not much like anything that has come before. It does not kick off with a gigantic space battle and iconic figures storming onto ships. Andor starts on people trying not to be noticed, in dark, out-of-the-way places where the bad guys are mundane and the good guys are unidentifiable. Where previous Star Wars films presented the hot war, Andor gives us the simmering Cold War side.
For viewers whose TV habits have been shaped by shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, there are no steady bursts of gore, “sexposition”, or high-drama cliffhangers catering to an ADHD entertainment brain. Andor asks the audience to put down their phones and watch with full attention, looking at micro-expressions on the actors’ faces, reading between the lines of scenes for what’s not being said. It’s a story of a different kind for the Star Wars world, and a welcome one in the wake of stories where characters angry-shout their way through all their lines. Or where contradicting what’s been established for the audience is what passes for clever writing.
The star of Andor is Nicholas Britell, the composer of the main title (which evolves over each title card for each episode), as well as the one doing most of the heavy emotional lifting in scenes where this ensemble cast has to keep their emotions reeled in. Various episodes have strong performances by a lot of the cast, from Stellan Skarsgård as “Luthen” to Genevieve O’Riley as “Mon Mothma” to “Cassian Andor” himself, Diego Luna. But all of them have to lead very interior lives here, as they’re all caught up in systems of oppression and a big part of the show is seeing that. Fortunately, we have Britell to give them themes and underscore their frustrations every step of the way. He’s the first Star Wars composer to not imitate John Williams but to do the same thing in a gorgeously-evolved way. The finale is worth watching through the credits for Britell’s first fully-formed Andor theme alone!
Andor is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It’s The Americans. It’s The Sympathizer. There are a hundred moments of Show-Don’t-Tell in every episode, letting you see all the thoughts in the characters’ heads, all the tension building for the options they’re weighing, knowing that one bad choice will start the snowball that leads to their deaths… this is frankly a series that’s far more intricate and subtle than anything Star Wars fans have ever gotten. There are no grandiose speeches, no opera in this space story, no magical farmboy to come along and save the day…
In Andor, if you want salvation, you’ll have to claw and weasel and connive for every inch of it. A whole storyline about tracing inventory sheets of warehouse parts. A whole subplot about how to get funding for arms, and then how to transport those arms to actual guerillas. These are the bones of a revolution. This is the viscera that pulls together a galaxy of desperate, everyday people to finally say “no more”. No petty family drama, no laser swords, and no magical forest creatures. I mean, I love old Star Wars, but there are strong elements of pitching it to a child’s understanding of what fighting an evil empire is. From the very beginning, long before teddy bears, the movies were simplistic. That’s part of the charm, but also part of what makes them easy for adults to roll their eyes at.
Andor is a war story for our modern times, and that means we as viewers generally have a more complicated understanding of what war is. For all its fairytale trappings, the old Star Wars trilogy was heavily-informed by World War II. That was the backdrop for the adventure tale, just moved to space. This <ahem> Alliance of allies comes together to fight an oppressive bureaucracy that is about conformity and rigidity. Aside from uniform similarities and the use of literal Sturmtruppen, you have a guy with a samurai helmet answering to an Emperor, a unifying symbol like a rearranged swastika, and a huge turning-point ship battle like Midway, but with space trench warfare involved. It’s a distillation of WWII.
But Andor is informed by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, by wars of occupation and “displays of force”. As an American, it pains me to say it, but it’s clear that the Empire was a stand-in for the Germans in the past… now: it’s us. We are the ones with surveillance on normal citizens, the ones with an unjust prison system, with out-of-control military manufacturing, with a political system so entrenched in deal-making that even a good politician has to dabble in corruption to get anything done. The US are the ones responding to “disrespecting the law” with such overwhelming acts of violence and oppression that we just make 10x more enemies. We call them criminals. We call them terrorists. But how many just want to live free?
When I say Andor is the “best Star Wars since the original trilogy”, that’s not to say that everyone will love it equally. Or should. If you grew up with those movies, there’s a certain moment or two in The Mandalorian that will give you all the feels. If you grew up with the prequels, seeing Obi Wan have a proper face-off with Darth Vader might have given you goose bumps. And who didn’t tear up when Harrison Ford said “Chewie, we’re home.” in The Force Awakens?! Star Wars connects with people and hits them differently, in deeply personal ways. It’s a long-form, interactive tale with highs and lows, many of them within the same film. Andor has a lot less of that, is a lot more of a steady build, with peaks along the way. But it is an amazing ride.
I just love the guts that this series has. It says “haven’t you had enough of the Fantasy? What if we dropped that element entirely and showed you the Star Wars universe without it?” To take Star Wars and tell stories of espionage, of intrigue, to try a thriller and a drama rather than something accessible to a 6-year old? That takes chutzpah. It’s far trickier and far braver than tapping into familiar characters and stories, pumping them full of high drama and special effects. This is the grounded Star Wars series for adults that I’ve literally been waiting my entire adult life for, and I just hope more people discover it. It’s truly a thrilling payoff.