It wasn’t until the sixth episode of the shape-shifting and genre-curious new “Star Wars” series “Andor” that I figured out what had been nagging at me. The episode, titled “The Eye,” centers on rebel fighters as they plan to infiltrate an imperial base. At the outset of this risky operation, the group splits into two teams. “Safe travels,” the leader of one team says to the other. Safe travels? I thought. What am I watching? Surely that was the moment to drop a “May the Force be with you.” But neither the Force nor the Jedi had been mentioned during the previous episodes. Indeed, the mystical mumbo-jumbo that saturates much of “Star Wars” is entirely absent from this series. There has been no discussion of the Dark Side or the Sith. Thus far, a single lightsabre has been waved.
I made a quick list of other “Star Wars” staples that the creators of “Andor” have eschewed. There are hardly any cute comic-relief characters speaking in bleeps, grunts, or cringey patois. Despite one quirky, lovable robot, the series is notably short on aliens and droids. All the major characters are human, and none hide their face behind a mask à la Darth Vader. (As if to emphasize this human-centeredness, Andy Serkis, who built his career playing the likes of Gollum and King Kong—as well as the ghoulish Supreme Leader Snoke in the most recent “Star Wars” trilogy—gives a striking performance as a prison-inmate leader, without any apparent aid from a bodysuit or C.G.I.) The plot of “Andor,” mercifully, doesn’t hinge on a love story—the only real romance is low-key and lesbian. And there is a decided lack of interest in paternity, which is as essential to much of “Star Wars” as it is to daytime talk shows. I began to wonder whether “Andor” was prestige TV masquerading as a “Star Wars” story.
The narrative says otherwise. “Andor” is a prequel to the 2016 movie “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” which itself was a prequel to the original 1977 “Star Wars” film. “Rogue One” tells of a clandestine mission to acquire the plans for the Death Star—plans that reveal the fatal flaw that Luke Skywalker will exploit to blow up the giant weaponized Wiffle Ball. One of the leaders of that mission is a man named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a scruffy, orphaned thief turned freedom fighter. The present series gives us his backstory—and a whole lot more.
The creator of “Andor” is Tony Gilroy, who co-wrote the screenplay for “Rogue One” and reportedly helped reshoot parts of the movie. Gilroy’s other credits include the ingenious corporate-law thriller “Michael Clayton” and nearly all of the Jason Bourne movies. The writers for the show include Beau Willimon, who scripted much of the political drama “House of Cards,” and Stephen Schiff, a writer and producer on the Cold War spy series “The Americans.” There’s a conspicuous paucity of lasers and hyperspace travel on those résumés. What those productions share is an intense examination of the moral corruption that accompanies the acquisition and maintenance of power, wealth, and influence.
Those themes are central to “Andor,” too, but they take some time to appear. The series opens with a slice of sci-fi noir. On a rainy night in the red-light district of Morlana One, Cassian goes to a brothel looking for his sister, who may have been working there. At the bar, Cassian is taunted by two off-duty security officers; later, he kills them after they try to bully him in the street. In his efforts to evade law enforcement, Cassian draws the interest of Luthen Rael (Stellan Skarsgård), one of the leaders of the nascent rebellion against the Empire, and Rael hires the fugitive to join a unit preparing to infiltrate the imperial base. In the ensuing installments, the show moves from a heist story to a prison-break story to a spy drama to a tale of political intrigue. By the later episodes, the ambitious design becomes clear: Gilroy and his team have set out to dramatize every facet of a broad-based anti-fascist insurgency movement—from recruitment and financing to political infighting and the planning and execution of terrorist attacks—along with the opposing establishment forces.
In “Andor” ’s scope and moral ambiguity, viewers will recognize similarities with such earthbound works as the novels of John le Carré and HBO’s “The Wire.” There are no true heroes here, no Chosen Ones—and that makes for rich characterization. Gilroy and his team summon remarkable performances from the show’s cast. Notable among them are Fiona Shaw, who plays Cassian’s adoptive mother; Genevieve O’Reilly, reprising her “Rogue One” role as Senator Mon Mothma; Kyle Soller as Syril Karn, a frustrated authoritarian apparatchik; and Denise Gough as Dedra Meero, an ambitious and ruthless imperial intelligence official effectively leading the pursuit of Cassian.
That “Andor” accomplishes all this without deploying the iconic tropes of the “Star Wars” universe begins to feel like a critique of the franchise and a rebuke to all the Jar Jar Binkses—Binksen?—and Baby Yodas (yes, Grogu, I know). Is “Andor” a subversion of the broader “Star Wars” enterprise, or is it an indication of the franchise’s versatility and flexibility? The name of the series is itself suggestive of ambivalence: “Andor” equals And/Or. Which is it? Is Gilroy adding to “Star Wars” or offering a grownup alternative to it? Can “Star Wars” have it both ways?
Gilroy, unsurprisingly, thinks so. In an interview with Dave Itzkoff in the Times, he argued that “Star Wars” could be “a host organism for anything, really. . . . We could do a hospital show in ‘Star Wars.’ How many beings exist in that galaxy? All those plumbers and farmers and anesthesiologists, they all have lives. Is it a real place or is it some phony thing? If it’s a real place, we can do real things.”
The trouble with that idea is that many people watch “Star Wars” to escape from the real world of plumbers and anesthesiologists. I count myself among them. I was ten when the first movie came out, and, as with millions of people around the world, “Star Wars” has been a constant presence in my imagination ever since, a comfort and a solace when real life gets unbearable. I’m reluctant to think of most of the “Star Wars” universe as a phony thing. But “Andor” is pushing me there. Ultimately, every fan will have to decide for themselves.
The original “Star Wars” was a child’s idea of rebellion (you get a medal at the end), glossing over the nasty details on which revolutionary movements are built. By contrast, “Andor,” with its refusal of the heroic and its focus on flawed humans working within imperfect systems and networks, feels utterly contemporary and real. Can the masters of this franchise keep those two approaches sequestered? Or will they ultimately infect each other?
There is the finale remaining in this first season and a second season promised—time yet for Gilroy and his writers to bend the story back toward the “Star Wars” mean. I’m thinking in particular of the unwelcome twist that came late in the most recent film, “Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker” (2019), when we were told (spoiler alert) that Rey (Daisy Ridley), the last Jedi, whom we’d thought had risen from humble scavenger roots, is actually the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine. The paternity strikes back! Here’s hoping that there is no such twist coming for Cassian Andor. ♦