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I Can’t Fucking Believe How Good ‘Andor’ Is

Image via Lucasfilm

My general enthusiasm for Star Wars material, or any IP-driven piece of entertainment for that matter, could not be lower. I am sick of this crap. I don’t want to see it anymore. I tell you this now so that you will believe me when I say the following: Andor, the latest Star Wars spinoff to clog Disney’s streaming library, is not only the best Star Wars story since the original trilogy, but the best television show that I’ve seen all year.

The show takes place years before the events of Rogue One, and follows Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) on his journey into rebellion. In Rogue One, Andor is a hardened rebel spy, a soldier for the cause who heroically gives his life at the end of the movie in order to transfer the Death Star plans to his allies. But at the start of Andor, he is a common thief living on a far-flung planet called Ferrix, just doing what he can to survive.

Sound familiar? The hero’s journey, from anonymous nobody into savior of the galaxy, is the atomic unit of every Star Wars story. However, where so many of the post-trilogy entires into the canon have stumbled is in their inability to complicate or add anything new to that journey. Anakin Skywalker’s story becomes Luke Skywalker’s story becomes Rey Palpatine’s (god, what a dumb idea that was) story. The faces of the enemies and heroes and supporting characters change, but the roles they inhabit remain static. What you’re eventually left with is the same story, told over and over again.

Andor is good for a lot of reasons, but none more so than its willingness to turn away from the old formula while still presenting a classic Star Wars narrative. The tried-and-true beats are all there—Andor gets plucked from obscurity by an important and powerful man, gets tossed into a high-stakes conflict he doesn’t initially care about or understand, and eventually finds within himself the potential to be a hero—but everything that happens within that framework upends the old clichés. Andor doesn’t get drafted into the conflict between the empire and the rebels by doing anything brave or heroic, but by murdering two corporate security guards who hassled him on his way home from a bar. He gets recruited by a ruthless rebel spy named Luthen (Stellan Skarsgård), who offers him mercenary work as a way out. His first mission for the rebellion is a heist, undertaken alongside a crew of people whom he doesn’t trust and who do not trust him. Almost all of them die; Andor kills one of them himself. Afterwards, Luthen instructs the two other surviving operatives from the heist to find and kill Andor.

It’s a nasty little galaxy that show runner Tony Gilroy and his writers construct through the first half of the season, but there was a moment at the end of the sixth episode where I feared that they were going to lose their stomach for it. After the heist, one of the other surviving members of the crew (before she was instructed to kill him), forces Andor to take with him the political manifesto that one of their fallen comrades, a young and optimistic true believer in the revolutionary cause, had been writing. Andor resists at first, but then he takes it, and I dreaded what the start of the next episode might look like. I could see the montage of Andor reading the manifesto in various cantinas, remembering how much he liked the kid who wrote it, and then returning to Luthen to declare that his political awakening was complete and that he was ready to become a rebel.

None of that happens. Andor never reads the manifesto, at least not on screen. He goes to hide out in some resort town and blows his cut from the heist on drugs before getting arrested and slapped with a six-year stint at a penal colony on trumped-up charges. That’s where he spends the next three episodes.

What storytelling decisions like these leave us with is the first Star Wars story in which the characters feel like products of the galaxy they live in, rather than the other way around. For as much as Star Wars wants to be about unlikely heroes, hope, and collective action, in the end they are mostly about special and powerful people reshaping the galaxy as they see fit. The people who matter are the ones with the proper lineage, magical powers, and the ability to alter the course of history for no other reason than the fact that they were fated to do so.

Nowhere does Andor‘s commitment to making its characters actually live in and experience the universe in which the story takes place pay off more than in its depiction of the empire. Not since Darth Vader first choked a guy out in an imperial conference room have the bad guys in any Star Wars story been as scary as they are in Andor. That’s because there are no Sith lords here, or theatrical generals ordering the destruction of entire planets. In place of those old archetypes are villains who, just like the show’s heroes, are nothing more than people trying to live the life that has been dealt to them by forces beyond their control. The most menacing of these characters is Dedra Meero (Denise Gough), an analyst for the ISB (think the CIA, but in space) on the imperial capital of Coruscant. She chills the blood every time she’s on screen, not because she’s a raving psychopath or an ideologue, but because she’s a striver. She’s a bureaucrat, one small cog in a galaxy-spanning imperial machine, who is willing to stab her colleagues in the back and torture innocent people for no other reason than satisfying her own career ambitions. She doesn’t believe in anything; she’s just trying to succeed on the terms that have been laid out for her by the system she lives in.

What really makes all of this sing, though, is Gilroy. The man just knows how to put a tense, propulsive story on the screen, one riven with memorable characters and lines of dialogue that stick in the brain. You could pluck any 90-minute chunk of action from this show and find yourself holding a great heist film, prison-break movie, or espionage picture. The conclusion of the most recent episode features Luthen delivering a monologue that wouldn’t have been out of place in any prestigious cinematic thriller. J.J. Abrams could be granted with eternal life and never come up with lines as hard as, “I’ve made my mind a sunless space. I share my dreams with ghosts … I burn my life to make a sunrise that I know I’ll never see.”

I imagine that attempting to tell a new and exciting story in the Star Wars universe is like trying to cross a minefield on stilts. There’s basically no chance that things are going to end well (just ask Rian Johnson), and it seems as though the best that any writer or director, especially one as accomplished and respected as Gilroy, can hope for is that they will produce something that can be described as “pretty good, for a Star Wars thing, at least.” The bar is on the floor for a reason, and raising it didn’t really seem like an option to me. Ten episodes of Andor later, it’s higher than it has been since 1983.

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