There’s a scene in the tenth episode of Disney+’s Andor where Luthen Rael (played immaculately by Stellen Skarsgård), an accelerationist revolutionary living in an eternal game of 5D chess, is asked to explain what he’s sacrificed for the rebellion. “Calm. Kindness, kinship. Love,” he begins. “I’ve given up all chance at inner peace, I’ve made my mind a sunless space. I share my dreams with ghosts. I wake up every day to an equation I wrote 15 years ago from which there’s only one conclusion: I’m damned for what I do.”
It is an affecting moment of inner conflict reaching a boiling point in a show that is filled with people, places, and politics that are on the brink. It is also Andor’s thesis statement, and a glove thrown at the feet of the world’s biggest franchise, its often toxic fandom and the megacorp which now steers it.
Andor is the prequel series to 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, focussing on the radicalisation of one of that film's heroes, Cassian Andor, played with a steely fierceness by Diego Luna. The show – which airs its season one finale this week – depicts the birth of the Rebellion, the reach of the Empire and the multitudes of lives, systems, and forces (no pun intended) that leads people to either embrace or resist totalitarian fascism.
The feeling you get as a long time Star Wars fan watching Andor is: how in the Syfo-Diaz heck did they get away with this? It is a miracle of a show that makes its own Kessel Run in 12 parsecs: an impossible feat, that seems like a contradiction of the cultural landscape that it and we exist in. With its deep and complex meditations on characters, ideas, and (truly a first for Star Wars) narrative, Andor is Star Wars for adults, a stark departure from the past two decades plus of Star Wars for man-children.
It seems moronic to have to say “Star Wars has always been political”, as all art is – particularly Star Wars – but years of writing about the franchise online has taught me that sometimes it's worth spelling out the moronic for the kinds of fans who write up early-Republic Jedi Masters power tier lists and google “Aayla Secura feet pics”.
Lucas’s Star Wars was the blending of many things, from early sci-fi serials like Flash Gordon, to Leni Riefenstahl, vintage cars, WW2 dogfight newsreels, and Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. But Lucas was always a political filmmaker driven by a keen sense of injustice and anti-war activism. The original trilogy's Vietnam allegory was never subtle (nor was it meant to be!), just as the commentary on the War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq in the prequels were meant to explode in audience faces like an errant podracer hitting the commentary box.
Lucas’s fables of ragtag radicalised rebels and grand liberal empires slipping steadily into fascism presented as high-fantasy space opera is one of the most overlooked and misunderstood acts of cultural activism ever committed. Star Wars’ tragedy, of course, is that it exists as one of the icons of Hollywood hyper-capitalism and the hell that that system drags into its gravity well. But like the Death Star, the radical politics of Lucas’s films were built into the machine, a vulnerable exhaust pipe just waiting for some wildcard rebels to come along and exploit.
And in Andor, it looks like they finally have. The series is the first mainline Star Wars project to examine the banality of the Dark Side. In Andor, the Empire creeks under the weight of a swathe of corporate cops, privatised prisons, narcissistic technocrats and party line-towing zealots, creaking clunkily yet destructively through the lives of ordinary people ground down by work, worry, and woe.
This is the first time in a longtime that a Star Wars world has felt lived in. The show’s use of real sets as opposed to the use of “The Volume” – the virtual greenscreen replacement that The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, and Obi-Wan Kenobi were shot on – gives everything a tactility and a weight that proves essential to selling us on the idea that these characters are eating, sleeping, and fucking in their humdrum little lives when we are not watching.
By making Star Wars feel grounded, procedural and matter of fact, we can feel the slow humming poison of fascism as it consumes these characters’ lives. We get a sense of the growing friction that comes with the Empire’s intrusion into people’s communities and personal spheres, and what people's limit for, and tolerance of, such violence is.
“They’re so proud of themselves,” says Cassian Andor, “so fat and satisfied.” And you find yourself nodding, you feel that tingle of anger yourself, because you know the exact type of prick he’s talking about, the ones seeping into your life little by little every day; and in your gut, too, is the rumbling of a breaking point.
This is a deft trick to pull off in Star Wars, Disney’s Star Wars especially. The sequel trilogy, beginning with JJ Abrams’s The Force Awakens, had a wishy-washy liberalism (and even both-sidism at times) that was only buoyed by the cucked focus-grouped aesthetic and narrative choices of those films. Rogue One, the film of which Andor is a spin-off, had the hint of Andor’s drive, but studio meddling and, again, a seemingly purposeful level of indecision on what it was commenting on made it ultimately unsatisfying.
Disney head Bob Iger infamously told The Hollywood Reporter that Rogue One, a film about a terrorist cell plotting to blow up what is essentially a government WMD, isn’t “in any way a political film. There are no political statements in it at all.”
The sequel trilogy, Rogue One, Solo and, determinedly, the other mainline Disney shows have all chugged greedily on the souring blue milk of fandom and nostalgia. Fandom and nostalgia are the comfort Porgs of the reactionary and the numb, of course. If anything fosters the symptoms of the type of tyranny that Andor is working overtime to make us weary of, it’s them.
Andor’s greatest weakness – its undoing – might be that it is part of the Star Wars universe. Like Luthen Rael, Andor shares its dreams with ghosts. It too must wake up to an equation written years ago from which there’s only one conclusion: I’m damned for what I do. George Lucas must have woken up in cold sweats from dreams about Jar Jar Binks and monotone debates about trade tariffs knowing that following his vision would be the end of him and this thing he’d spent a lifetime fighting for. Andor, similarly, is caught between the expectation and brand.
But like prisoners in its Narkina 5 mega-prison, Andor has realised that there’s truly only “one way out”. And it's charging at it, full tilt.