Thank you Tony Gilroy.
The veteran screenplay writer and filmmaker did what some of us always knew was possible, but plausible? That was an entirely different proposition. Regardless, in doing so, he made the best Star Wars product since the original trilogy and I would dare to say possibly ever.
That product is the show Andor.
The Star Wars battlefield was prepped for Andor
Star Wars has become a much larger and darker world than the vast majority of casual fans probably realize. Oddly enough, huge swathes of its sprawling canon have been delivered via animation — which has morphed into an increasingly potent storytelling collection and, frankly, some amazing ideas, wrapped in the guise of kids' cartoons. But really, as the years went on, these shows seemed to be servicing a much more mature audience while making compromises that were demanded of them due to their supposed target audience. Basically, these animated shows — Clone Wars and Rebels — became Trojan Horses of sorts that ended up delivering the best Star Wars for many years, drastically enhancing George Lucas's prequel trilogy, and setting the franchise on its current trajectory.
All of this was largely the result of Dave Filoni — George Lucas' post-prequels apprentice of sorts — and his team. His animated world has now been transformed into live-action thanks to John Favreau and Filoni's The Mandalorian and its subsequent spinoffs that make up the now so-called 'Mandoverse.' But all that is of a very different flavor than Andor, yet Andor could never have been the amazing triumph it is without them.
Basically, these cartoons were, at their core, war stories that dealt with, at least at times, some very heavy themes. These included the horrors of combat, child soldiers, the rise of tyranny, genocide, fascism, the pointlessness of many armed conflicts, geopolitical hypocrisy, and, eventually, rebellion. While it's amazing just how far these cartoons took these themes, at times, the glazing over of just how serious these issues are and the terrors that come with them wasn't just a bit unsettling, it was a massive missed opportunity. Or maybe better put, an opportunity just out of reach due to the medium in which these narratives were told and to who.
At a handful of points along the way, The Mandalorian has touched on these issues more deeply. Bill Burr's absolutely electric scene with an imperial officer in a cafeteria is absolutely worth a look below, for instance. But The Mandalorian, too, does not exist to contemplate the gray areas of conflict or the moral intricacies of rebellion. At its core, The Mandalorian is a fun, colorful romp. It's a family show. Its blaster bolts can only hit so hard and its dialogue is notoriously minimal and simple. It's made to make us remember why we love the franchise, not to mire us in the terrible things that exist in the world it inhabits.
Obi-Wan Kenobi has also come and gone. A missed opportunity of galactic proportions with bizarre writing and direction choices, downright rickety production values, and incredibly bad pacing. The superb Ewan McGregor's return as Obi-Wan carried the show nearly single-handedly as best he could, along with Hayden Christensen's brief reprise of Darth Vader. There was a payoff, but if any show was ripe for hitting it out of the park, it was this one, and, while entertaining at times, it certainly did not. The Book of Boba Fett, billed with great anticipation as a criminal underworld story, was arguably worse, minus a few highlights. Again, how do you screw that premise up so badly?
By the end of summer 2022, Star Wars fatigue had become a real thing. People were let down by the quality of the content churn. While the masses will undoubtedly stick with Mando and Baby Yoda, it was clear that the bar needed to be raised in order to keep the franchise fresh for streaming, which is critical to Disney's future.
Then finally Andor dropped out of hyperspace in front of our eyes.
A competent, terrifying Empire
While long referred to as a prequel to Rogue One, easily the best film Star Wars Disney has produced, as its premiere came closer, it was clear it would be more than that. Andor was the sleeper out of all the Star Wars streaming endeavors. Its many years of production were largely opaque and it seemed that it would very much be its own experiment. Even production was segregated overseas in the United Kingdom. We knew it would depict the events leading directly into Rogue One over a five-year period, as well as being more mature, and grittier, and would rely far more heavily on practical sets. But beyond that, it was a bit of a mystery.
With a bad case of insomnia, I watched the first two episodes just when they were released together in late September. Late-night viewing like that raises the stakes. It has to be really good to keep you from just cutting it off and catching it the next evening.
I was glued to what I was seeing. Stunned by it, really. The opening was so raw and the production quality was so good, I knew this could be the 'chosen one' we have long been waiting for — Star Wars not for kids. A true war story in space that focused on plot development and character building, instead of selling the next batch of toys. And above all else, a show that could do the very dark overtones outlined but glossed over by decades of Star Wars content justice. It was a big ask, especially considering this is a Disney show — not exactly a situation that screams 'let's take a big risk on disrupting a core all-ages property!' — that would run on its family-focused streaming service.
Over the next two episodes, the show took its time. It carefully set all the pieces into motion. Gone were the absolutely minimal dialogue and Western/samurai film worship of Favreau and Filoni's creations, this show was dialogue driven. There were no real standout action sequences, which was absolutely refreshing in an age of clumsy over-the-top action overriding plot by default, especially when it comes to marquee sci-fi tentpoles. In its place was absolutely astonishing world-building and a sense of being grounded like no other Star Wars vehicle had delivered prior.
I really can't fathom how anyone would be bored with the first two episodes, although some say they were, but by the end of episode three, the entire show erupted. What you felt in the first two episodes, the investment in the characters, plot, and immersion — it wasn't just a fluke. Andor was going to be like nothing else before it. Not just in Star Wars, but to a certain degree, in the genre as a whole. But this franchise, with its lavish sandbox of hundreds of hours of television and movies to play in, absolutely turbocharged the entire concept.
In other words, instead of a deeply convoluted canon being a set of shackles, Gilroy and his team treated it like how a sculptor treats the block of granite they are given to form — accentuate the positives, mask the negatives, and make it your own. The story came first but blending it all perfectly into the Star Wars universe and its convoluted timeline certainly wasn't a far second.
Above all else, Andor strips away the uneven coats of whitewashing the realities of, war, fascism, and totalitarianism that Star Wars has laid down over the years in order for it to be family accessible and sell loads of merchandise. This is the Nazis in space at the peak of their excess and hubris. Lives mean absolutely nothing to them. It is a racist, diabolical, panoptic regime that has kept those on top well-fed and those on the bottom descending deeper and deeper toward hell.
What's most important is that these imperials are not bumbling idiots who can never do anything right. Stormtroopers can hit their targets with relative ease and deadly results. The sound of a screeching Tie Fighter is something to run and hide from, not cannon fodder for rebel X-Wings. The imperial bureaucracy is massive, self-absorbed, focused on reports and grand metrics, not results, and is a hindrance to its own success, but the sheer size of it all is overwhelming.
This is a real EMPIRE and it's terrifying and serious.
In fact, you don't even see a stormtrooper or imperial soldier until later into the season, with an incredible take on corporate security with big-time colonial overtones taking center stage earlier on. But, you feel the Empire, it hangs over everything. These are not people you want showing up on your planet.
All this changes the stakes. The rebels are not fighting a super weapon or just sheer combat mass, they are also fighting a very competent foe that can wipe you from the galaxy without a thought. This is so refreshing and it allows science fiction to do what it has always done best — reflect on our past and our potential future with more clarity than doing so while weighed down with the maelstrom of real-life politics and terrestrial considerations.
Adding color to the gray areas of war
With its more mature, grounded setup, Andor also brings great fidelity to the gray area in which war occurs. History is often portrayed in black and white, but the truth surrounding conflict is far more complex and, frankly, at times, troubling. A terrorist can be revered later as a freedom fighter depending on who writes the history and what filters the account of one's acts are seen through. Battlefield decisions, including those born out of espionage, can be just as deadly to an ally as an enemy when the absolute necessity to succeed in the long run trumps all other factors. Andor examines this gray zone in great detail and the writers know what they are talking about. This is done so well that you really may not even notice it occurring at times, but it is the meditation on these issues that acts as a silver thread that often binds the narrative together. It's not just what will you sacrifice, but who will you sacrifice for the cause.
Amazing stuff here.
The examination of rebellion is also extremely complex. Andor presents a highly fragmented and unaffiliated set of factions that are the seeds of the Rebel Alliance. It begins to delve into how challenging realizing a collective effort is when you are basically dealing with outlaws, killers, and ideologues that have their own agendas. And agendas may just be the most fascinating part of the show's narrative on rebellion.
The biggest takeaway is that basically everyone is fighting their own rebellion. Every single character has their own path to getting to such an extreme point. This chaotic individualism so beautifully portrayed is another reminder of just how challenging it is to build an alliance, especially one that has to remain largely clandestine even as it grows and morphs into something far larger and threatening. Regardless, Andor is a reminder that we are all fighting our own battles one way or another — nobody's war is the same.
The absent force
Maybe the biggest difference in this Star Wars offering, at least at its most basic level, is that there are no Jedi to be found. No force. No light sabers. This reality provides the same perspective as 99.99% of the fictional characters living in George Lucas's galaxy from long ago and far away. Once again, it's very grounded and removed from the more fantasy elements of Star Wars, which is an amazing feat for a Star Wars show. It turns out that you don't have to rely on those old staples that the franchise established itself on to make an awesome Star Wars story. In fact, not being shackled to those elements opens up a whole new set of possibilities.
The truth is, when the original trilogy wrapped, the force was still a very mysterious thing. Fast forward four decades, two other trilogies and a ton of television, as well as other media, and the force is now a commodity. So breaking away from it is actually exciting as it can't be used as a writing crutch when needed. These are regular people, not supernatural ones, with real problems. And there is still plenty of force in the franchise if you want your fix.
This grounded feeling is also reinforced by the absolutely incredible production design that is its own star of sorts. Andor looks, sounds, and feels incredible and it is totally Star Wars. The sets are largely real, not predominantly projections and green screens. Worlds are not just play sets for life-sized action figures, they are lived-in and highly detailed. Coruscant, the city-covered planet-capital of the Empire, has never looked better or more tangible. They brought in a strong brutalist flare that works so well and ends the cartoonish nature of how it has been shown many times before.
Yet there is no world-building as rich as the blue-collar planet of Ferrix. They built a good part of the fictional city shown for the production. Apparently, the set covered many acres and it shows. But it's not just the incredible sets that bring Ferrix to life. Strongly influenced by coal mining and other grimy industrial towns of decades past, over the 12-episode run, this polluted, brick-covered, worn-out city that seems at first like a terrible place to be, slowly emerges as a very unique locale with a proud culture and strong community bonds. We are talking next-level world-building here. Tiring to even think about what went into every detail to result in such a complete concept that translates perfectly on camera and scales with the complex storyline.
There are other massive highlights in this category, one, in particular, that may eclipse them all. I don't want to give anything away, but if you liked Squid Game, you will love one of the show's four multi-episode arcs. Once again, the level of production design and pure creativity intermixed with hard logic put into building entirely unique worlds with their own set of rules was just bewildering to behold.
Let's talk about the acting. It isn't just good, Andor features some of the most compelling and engrossing performances I have seen on television.
No, really. This is a huge deal for this franchise that has suffered chronically from uneven performances that are bogged down by shoddy dialogue.
The pairing of exceptionally well-written scripts, absolute clarity with their purpose and trajectory, with fantastic actors, many of which are pulled from the West End, not Hollywood casting roles, had explosive results.
Every player is good. There isn't one weak link. We are talking about amazingly consistent casting here. But there are a few standouts that are just supernatural. Stellan Skarsgård plays one of the greatest Star Wars characters of all time — the chameleon of a man Luthen Rael.
You need to see this. It's a spectacle that is totally captivating. One of his scenes, in particular, a very small and nuanced moment in time, is now one of my favorite performance scenes of any kind, ever. He has a monologue (one of a number of incredible monologues in this show) that will also go down as one of the best in the history of science fiction.
He is a very mysterious man that embodies the gray. The dark flowing murk that lies at the center of armed conflict. The space between good and bad that often inhabits both extremes briefly.
If you need one reason to watch this show, it's his performance.
Next is Denise Gough as Imperial Security Bureau Supervisor Dedra Meero. Wow. Just wow. A villain that was written so slyly that your entire perspective of her and her story spins on a dime, without a gimmick. She is the space Nazi you love to hate and can't seem to get enough of. A mesmerizing performance from a very unique actor with a very special kind of delivery. The tiniest instances of expression are calculated. It is a perfect storm of incredible writing, great direction, and an actor who can just deliver absolute stunners in every scene she is in.
Let me make this clear, hers is not a girl power story. She is the best fascist for the job and she is absolutely fucking terrifying.
Andy Serkis as Kino Loy. I don't want to spoil anything here. He plays a very special role in this thrill ride. But it is Andy Serkis with his own body and face, not him playing a CGI character via motion capture. And that in itself is a gift to us all. He is an incredible actor with an extreme stage presence. He steals the scenes he is in. He feels 100% real. Once again, this is a very dynamic performance and he earned every second of it.
Genevieve O'Reilly returns as Mon Mothma, the galactic senator eventually turned rebel alliance kingpin. She played this role in Rogue One and actually had a deleted scene nearly two decades ago in the prequels. She delivers such a performance. Her predicament is entirely different than her compatriots, yet, also very similar. She is trapped in a gilded cage with massive pressure bearing down on her. You can feel it, it translates through the performance to you.
The tough part here is everyone is great. Diego Luna carries us with him on this crazy ride flawlessly, but that's no surprise. And he is the center of the show, but also very much a vehicle for others to shine. Kyle Soller's batshit boy scout Syril Karn is freakishly intense. Andor's tough-as-nails mother, played by Fiona Shaw, is also a killer performance. Couldn't be any better. Even the bit characters are incredible. Every little player sends it, down to the tiniest detail. No role is too small to shine in this show. Lots of faces from Chernobyl here; this is an A-team cast across the board. No fillers.
Andor is a revolution because of evolution
Finally, I want to discuss how Andor feels. It hits on all levels and is edited so well that when the characters feel physically trapped or the subject of impending doom, you actually feel that way too. It's visceral.
This is not hyperbole. This is very hard to pull off in cinema and especially on the small screen. It all has to work to be more than the sum of its parts to make this sensation a reality. Andor does this exceptionally well and in different ways at different times. From internal conflict to external conflict, the pressure is there, it's palpable. And yes, it's remarkable.
So, I think you can tell I liked this show. And yes, I am a Star Wars fan, but one that has been let down by the last two series and the rinse-repeat formula that is beginning to really dominate the TV side of the franchise. Not only did Andor shatter this cycle, but it also changed the game entirely. It elevated the franchise in every conceivable way.
Star Wars has the luxury of being able to evolve into many things, and that includes telling very serious war stories that take their time and don't pack in the nostalgia, super kid sidekicks, laser swords, or sorcerers. But this is only possible due to the ground laid before it that leveraged those elements. All the work done prior, all the canon put into play, allowed this new facet of the franchise to shine so brilliantly and to address some of the glaring shortcomings of what came before it, while also respecting all the good that came from those installments, as well.
Honestly, I really have no notes to give. This was a marvel of vision and execution. The excruciating care and level of detail that went into every shot and piece of dialogue just bleed through onto the screen. It's also amazing that this even happened. Bravo to Lucas Film and Disney for funding this and risking one of their most prized pieces of intellectual property on something very ambitious and different. It is a feather in their cap and hopefully reinforces the appetite for more risks in the future.
Maybe the biggest opportunity lies in Andor being a great show for Star Wars super-fans as well as for those who outright dislike Star Wars. The show's high quality and unique tone could bring a lot of new folks into the franchise that had long rejected it.
Bottom-line, for me, Andor isn't just the best Star Wars in years, it is the best Star Wars ever made. And it would have been nowhere near as rich or enjoyable if it had not made the leap it did by jumping off the shoulders of all that came before it.
Thank you to all that made it happen.
Rogoway's reviews rating:
9.0 out of 9.0 Gs
Andor is streaming on Disney+ and season two, which will lead directly into Rogue One, just started production.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com