The refrain regarding Andor appears to amount to an assurance that it’s really good because it’s nothing like Star Wars. This fom Star Wars fans. Which is another way of saying it’s really quite mature, grown-up, and avoids cheap gimmicks, nostalgia, fan-servicing, fan-baiting and all the elements that have besmirched the Kathleen Kennedy-led Lucasfilm to date. What it’s really saying, though, is that Andor is very well written, and thus, at first blush, comes out of the pack as the best release with Star Wars in the title since The Empire Strikes Back. If it stumbles when it comes to attempting a charismatic title character, well, that condition was the least of Rogue One’s problems.
Foremost of which was that it was really rather dull. When it wasn’t being cheaply “boosted” with the aforementioned fan-servicing, via reshoots (ninja Vader etc). Which ironically came courtesy of this show’s mastermind Tony Gilroy. Sure, Rogue One looked very nice, and it had a memorable robot – any Star Wars property, including this one, can get that bit right, even if, per Solo, that robot is an abomination – but it was populated by inexcusably bland characters, unforgiveable when the picture is predicated on their inevitable demises. Because it means, when they buy the farm, you shrug and move on.
So why of all things make a show about the (second) lead Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, the Mexican Paul McCartney)? It smacked of wanton desperation. The main movie series had floundered, expiring in a mire of nonsensical non-plotting and woke garbage, the spin-off movies (of which Rogue One was a – financially – successful first stab, despite its problems) had stalled, and The Mandalorian-verse, after a promising start, was looking suddenly tenuous thanks to the dumpster fire of The Book of Boba Fett. And the less said about Obi-Wan Kenobi, the better. It seems appropriate, perhaps, that something relatively inconspicuous, with little in the way of fanfare or expectations – and perhaps little in the way of Kennedy breathing down its neck – should be the one to break the defective mould and come out with a clean bill of health. Rather like the MCU and Werewolf by Night.
Of course, this is Disney, so it probably helped sweeten the pill that Andor at least nominally subscribed to their woke doctrine, what with a Latino lead and a couple of prominent lesbian terrorists on the Rebellion’s payroll. That and the ill-fated Nemik (Alex Lawther) was evidently at very least bi-curious. So take that JJ, with your mealy-mouthed fleeting glimpse of a gay Resistance twosome in The Rise of Skywalker. Andor is fully with the programme.
Of course, none of those individuals are terribly interesting, but that isn’t what’s important about them, is it? Fortunately, unlike Rogue One, the show does make up the shortfall with some terribly interesting types, mostly in the Imperial team. There are two shining beacons on the Alliance side, however. Stellan Skarsgård ought really to have been the lead, since his debonair dealer by day, Rebel mastermind by night Luthen Rael is far and away the most engaging in their ranks. More importantly, the actor’s skilled enough that he can even make the somewhat lumpen “what I have sacrificed” speech to Lieutenant Gorn (Sule Rimi) in 10: One Way Out seem halfway palatable. He’s also given possibly the most purely enjoyable “hero” moment in the first season, when he effortlessly brushes off an Imperial tractor beam and jumps to lightspeed (11: Daughter of Ferrix).
The other is the put-upon Mon Mothma, expertly moderated by Genevieve O’Reilly. O’Reilly’s been playing Mon for seventeen years now, a character of arbitrary importance in Return of the Jedi (as in, Caroline Blakiston was little more than a glorified exposition machine). So finally, after almost forty years, Mothma comes good. The delicate subterfuge of masking her every action, from her louche husband (I have to admit, I was half expecting a reveal that Alastair Mackenzie’s Perrin Fertha was an even better player than his wife, and also a rebel) to typically teenage daughter Leida (Bronte Carmichael), is seen to exert a palpable strain, one Gilroy charts with the deftness of a Le Carré spy novel.
Indeed, Gilroy et al take some delight in depicting a band of righteous rebels engaging in subversive acts of terrorist funding and money laundering in order to fight the good fight against the system (albeit investigation into Mon Mothma’s transactions seems to have been curtailed by a calculated remark about hubby’s gambling habits). Not for nothing have some compared the show to Blake’s 7, although that, crucially, had a several charismatic actors in its rebel ensemble (if not so much its title character). That series, of course, saw the lead character accused child molestation in the opening episode. At least Blake didn’t do it. This one has Mon Mothma considering embracing the Chandrilan elite tradition of pairing off barely adolescent offspring, just so as to hide her guarded financial movements.
Indeed, the utilitarian approach on the part of the rebels is the operating principle throughout, couched in making it clear just how bad it’s going to get/is by provoking the Empire (a similar case may be made for attempting to wake up sleepers currently), attempting to kill the guy vital to your heist so as to preserve the identity of the big rebel cheese, or knowingly sacrificing a team leading an offensive so as to preserve a more valuable source. Cue Luthen’s rather over-ornate speech on tactics (“I’m condemned to use the tools of my enemy to defeat them…”)
On the Imperial side, the memorable performances and characters are noticeably stronger across the board. Kyle Soller’s Syril Karn is the most curious, cursed with deep insecurities – heavily implied to stem from his diminutive but overbearing mother – and a concomitant need to overcome them through the embrace of ruthlessly totalitarian control. Unfortunately for him, however, those deep insecurities mean no one’s really interested in what he thinks, and completely uninterested in recognising his truth worth, less still rewarding his endeavours to prove it. There’s nothing he’d like more than to join the Imperial ranks. Instead, he’s busted out of his security inspector position and stuck working for his uncle, while developing a somewhat creepy obsession with Denise Gough’s Imperial Security Bureau supervisor Dedra Meero.
One thing Gilroy is absolutely dedicated in exploring here is the wheels of bureaucracy that run the Empire. Syril chafes at such restrictions, preventing him from rising to his rightful status. Dedra meanwhile must resort to subterfuge in order to get anyone to listen to her hunches, which she knows are right; Gough’s is easily the most compelling character in the show, and it’s an interesting tack from Gilroy. This is the Elisabeth Moss Mad Men part, give or take, as Dedra is unstoppable once she wins the ear of Major Partagaz (Anton Lesser, just great).
The series IS slow. The first three episodes are at best mildly engaging, but nothing to suggest this is going to be a winner. The flashbacks to Cassian’s childhood are de rigueur but superfluous. Most of the characters on Ferrix are less than essential (the entirely anonymous Adria Arjona as Bix) or a hive of clichés (Fiona Shaw, always reliable, as mum Maarva). B2EMO, a stuttering droid with dependency issues, is an exception, while Alex Ferns is amusing as Pre-Mor Sergeant Mosk, whom Syril sees as a kindred spirit in terms of mutual desire for order and an iron fist.
But it’s the Imperial infrastructure that keeps this moving, as even when we reach Aldhani (episode four) we’re encumbered with Rebels planning the payroll heist before the main event. The series hits its stride around 6: The Eye, but I found it was at its most gripping with Cassian’s arbitrary incarceration (8-10), a THX1138-influenced nightmare of endless claustrophobic servitude (we learn that, even when the prisoners are released, they are immediately fed back into the system somewhere else). Obviously, such an impregnable facility as Narkina 5’s would be constructed outside of safe swimming distance to the shore, but the concept of it is otherwise all-too convincing.
I probably could have done with mum’s rousing holo speech in the finale, but the escalating mayhem is well shot (all the series directors, Toby Haynes, Susanna White and Benjamin Caron, do fine work), and despite knowing where this all leads, I’m left interested to see what happens in Season 2. Which is what’s most important. Gilroy is unable to make his lead protagonist a winner, because you can’t work miracles with an inherently indifferent actor. He has otherwise proved that the Star Wars universe does have stories to tell, though, and they needn’t be based on obvious – and immediately abused and sullied – building blocks of much-loved characters or tropes. With his ability to make hay this way, perhaps he can be tempted back when he’s done with Andor. How about a show concerning a stormtrooper, but one who doesn’t switch sides within five minutes of conditioning?