The Spark That Lights the Fire: How Andor Rebelled From Star Wars Convention

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The Spark That Lights the Fire: How <i>Andor</i> Rebelled From <i>Star Wars</i> Convention

As the world of Star Wars has grown larger with every successive installment, a fundamental obstacle has materialised. There’s an anxiety that every appearance of the galaxy far, far away needs to be important, feature recognisable characters or variations of ones we’ve already seen, and answer mysteries and set up bridges to other corners of the stars. It’s as if the appeal is not novel space adventures but the connective tissue between already established ones.

This appeared frequently in the prequels, reverse-engineering the badass enforcer Darth Vader into The Most Important Person Who Ever Lived, thus undermining all the fun theatricality of this bassy, clunky robot because now, you see, he is serious and dark and a child murderer and Evil Personified™. This need to bind every story and embolden every character is what leads to the diminishing returns of the spin-offs and the de-aged and recast Skywalker characters because Disney has learned pretty quickly that you can’t make a small story in a world this expensive to make, and it’s impossible to resist capitalising on the hunger of a rabid fanbase.

This is what makes Andor a minor miracle. The prequel-prequel is set in the years leading up to the Galactic Civil War, before a unified rebel alliance has formed to shake the Empire with organised dissidence. The show is named after Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a thinly sketched but compellingly performed rebel agent from Rogue One, detailing how founding rebels got their act together before our beloved characters of Farmer, Monarchist, and Drug Dealer (plus his Dog) swoop in to take all the credit. Andor wisely puts its protagonist at the centre of drastic, meaningful change in the galaxy without making him the keystone of the entire enterprise. Cassian’s actions are loaded with consequences, but at the end of the first season, he is still just some guy.

Let’s trace the rising and falling action of Andor: Cassian travels to a dreary, remote planet to look for his long-lost sister, where he gets into a scuffle with two Corporate Security officers and kills them. Lying low, he returns to his home Ferrix (where no one is particularly happy to see him) to give a piece of stolen Empire hardware to his friend’s rebel contacts. Corporate Security, led by the kiss-ass try-hard Syril Karn (Kyle Soller), arrives in force to make an example out of him, but rebel Luthen Rael (Stellan Skarsgård) convinces him to join him on a mission. They dramatically escape, humiliating Syril and getting him demoted. Cassian then joins a payroll robbery at an Imperial base, which ends up with pretty much everyone dead, the Empire enraged, and more pressure applied on suspected rebel funders on Coruscant (hello, Mon Mothma [Genevieve O’Reilly]).

Imperial tension leads to Cassian being arrested (without the Empire ever knowing their most wanted is apprehended), and he ends up in a punishing labour prison, where he’s pivotal in an uproarious breakout that leads him straight back to Ferrix to confront the Imperial presence in his home. One action grows into another, a greater force responds, and opposing sides are constantly reacting to planned and chance happenings that slowly cohere into a unified mass of rebellion against fascism. At the start of Andor, Cassian was just some unlucky nobody, and while he’s no more cosmically important by the end, his experiences have given him perspective on not only what he’s capable of, but also the larger world of which he’s undeniably a part. After the confounding pace of Obi-Wan Kenobi, it’s refreshing to see a project that’s not interested in being an event film, but in giving structured glimpses into a larger whole.

In terms of theme, character, and dramatic construction, Andor is miles ahead of every other Disney+ offering (I’d restrict that to just Star Wars, but considering its other output, the judgment probably still stands). This has a lot to do with its behind-the-scenes team; the writing and directing staff are all highly experienced film and TV talents, with the most bizarre list of prior credits ever accumulated for a Star Wars project (Michael Clayton? Nightcrawler? The Crown? House of Cards?! The Americans?!). Every character is defined by their position on a spectrum of freedom, with total suffocation and liberation marking each extreme, where power is relative and subtext is rich. Luthen, a rebellion pioneer, is the most free of any of the characters, always moving with decisive purpose, but as his monologue at the end of Episode 10 reveals, devoting himself entirely to this cause has rendered him a husk. As a senator, Mon Mothma has ostensibly the most influence and presence, and yet in every scene she’s tightly wound, distrusting, and asphyxiated by people taking advantage of a vulnerable political position. It’s emboldened by a fractured family life, as her daughter rebels against her authority by committing to the cultural traditions that caused Mothma’s own social imprisonment.

Even our resident fascist in the main cast, Dedra (Denise Gough, who gives the best of an excellent crop of Imperial Officer performances, the one acting job I want to do before I die), works within a system that offers less power than it promises. She wormed her way into the hunt for Cassian and beat other officers to the punch, but Andor reminds us of the restrictive hierarchy of the Empire. In a couple of episodes, she’s accompanied by a lackey (who I assume is an Imperial Intern), who interjects and takes initiative in a cloyingly sycophantic way. Whenever he’s commended by higher-ups, you can see in Dedra’s face the reminder that loyalty only extends to how much you can better your own position—and there will always be people coming up from below. There’s no way to endgame fascist bureaucracy.

Humiliating the Empire is another of Andor’s greatest strengths. It features a great range of Imperial Officers getting the smirks wiped off their faces as they realise they’ve been absolutely rinsed by rebels. These moments never come without the invigorating satisfaction of actually seeing people, well, rebel—something that is never clearer than in Episode 10’s prison break. After three episodes of characters being trapped in a subterranean, electrified labour fortress, the dehumanising subjugation reaches a breaking point, and an electric Andy Serkis leads a charge to escape that grows to the point of being unstoppable. One of the best shots in the new era of Star Wars sums up Andor’s emotional power: As the rioting prisoners charge upwards to freedom, we see a band of guards cowering in fear behind a closed blast door. It’s an overwhelming feeling, articulated much more eloquently in fellow Aldhani conspirator Karis’ rebellion manifesto: “Tyranny requires constant effort. It breaks, it leaks. Authority is brittle. Oppression is the mask of fear.” To put it bluntly: It just feels so good to see the Empire scared.

Like everything in Andor, the show’s highest moments have such an impact because of its structure. The series’ consequential action is emboldened by distinct, three-episode arcs in which characters try to reset in a newly defined environment before being confronted by a new, graver problem of which they have to methodically work their way out. It’s in Cassian escaping Corporate Security, the Aldhani heist, the prison break. It’s a simple rising/falling action framework, but after The Mandalorian’s loose episodic narrative and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s baffling “every episode is one of the original movies’’ (there is literally no way to commit to that and make it work), it’s refreshing to see creatives who know how to make the story pack a punch. It’s also the reason the action feels so thrilling; the writing is delivering on all the careful build-up of tension we’ve seen, and it’s clear that every skirmish will lead to a greater battle against the Empire. Every fight has tension, weight, and purpose.

If there’s one problem to Andor’s closing episodes, it’s how much they tee viewers up for an expansive adventure that needs a good three additional seasons to explore fully, but creator Tony Gilroy has specified there will be only one more. While we’ll have to wait an agonising two years before Cassian is back in the fray, Andor has proven that his fight is much greater than just him. We’ve seen slices of a galaxy in turmoil, one that’s just realised it has a voice, and it’s been a joy to watch its journey to rebellion from just a spark.

Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

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