Star Wars: Andor – First Impressions

Welcome back to Midlands Generalist, the blog where we talk about currently airing genre TV. That’s our brand now. That’s what happens here. Oh well, at least it sort of motivates me to get stuff out in a timely manner. Anyway, this week we’re talking about Andor, the newest Star Wars streaming series out of DisneyPlus. The two-headed dragon that is Disney’s Marvel and Star Wars streaming shows have been really interesting to compare side-by-side. The MCU streaming shows feel like a natural outgrowth of the movies. They have similar production values, routinely re-use actors and help expand the universe in a way that makes them feel like essential viewing. You might not have gotten as much out of Dr. Strange 2 if you hadn’t seen WandaVision for example. It’s the same trick that the MCU has been playing with all the movies where it seems like they’re more interconnected than they really are. The Star Wars streaming shows are different though. With the “Skywalker Saga” concluded, the shows are now the main thing carrying the franchise. Sure, there are tie-in novels, comics and video games, but if you want traditional live-action Star Wars content, the shows are your only option right now. And for the most part they’ve been solid. The Mandalorian has been fun and while people were pretty cold on The Book of Boba Fett, I enjoyed it in a sort of “The Godfather by way of Dune” thing. Plus, it was a paycheck for hardworking character actors like Temura Morrison and Ming-Na Wen, and I always want more of those. Obi-Wan may have leaned a little too hard on Prequel Nostalgia (which would’ve been a really hard ask even 5 or 6 years ago, but that’s a different essay) but it was fun and Ewan MacGregor seemed to be just so happy to be playing the character again. So how does Andor stack up, three episodes in? Well let’s break it down.

As the name implies, Andor follows titular character Cassian Andor, played by Diego Luna, reprising the role from 2016’s Rogue One. Rogue One is a lot of people’s favorite Star Wars movie from the Disney era, and in many ways it was a predecessor to the DisneyPlus era with its focus on unsung heroes on the periphery of the wider Star Wars universe. Personally, I liked a lot of elements from Rogue One but I always thought it was a bit scattershot in execution. Luckily, Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor was one of the things I really liked. He was a part of the Rebel Alliance, the plucky underdog heroes from the original trilogy, but he was also kind of a cold-hearted bastard. He recruited the protagonist, Jinn Erso, but he was also more than willing to murder her dad if it meant advancing the Rebellion’s cause. He was sort of like if Han Solo and Jason Bourne were the same character. And Luna played him as a man who was clearly haunted by a pretty bleak history. So it makes sense that Disney would give Andor his own origin story. Especially because it helps flesh out the Rebel Alliance as a whole.

Star Wars has always relied on very archetypical storytelling. There’s the Dark Side, the Light Side and factions that represent both of them as political agendas. Usually there’s an Empire and either a Republic or a Rebel Alliance of some kind. Even in the Disney Era we had the Resistance and the First Order. Like I said, it’s all archetypes, good and evil. But of all these entities, the Rebel Alliance has always been the most nebulous, Despite being the good guys in the original trilogy, as well as Rogue One and even Solo: A Star Wars Story, we don’t really know much about the rebels as a political body. We see their apparent origin in episode 3 when one of our heroes, Padme Amidala, teams up with a pair of Republic Senators who have “some concerns” about where the Republic is heading. It’s all very pre-ordained and destined like a lot of things in Star Wars. Like, of course the woman who loved Darth Vader and was the mother to Luke and Leia also helped to found the organization that toppled the Empire. This is Star Wars, of course that happened. Except in the real world, that’s not really how rebellions work. Successful rebellions and revolutions are coalitions formed from a lot of different groups with dissenting opinions and beliefs. You only need to look at historical rebellions like the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, the Meiji Restoration and even our own American Revolution to see how fraught it can be to build and maintain such an organized defiance, even if all the disparate parts have common cause. So it’s really cool to potentially see a show about the messy and often dirty work that goes into building a political entity like the Rebel Alliance. And Cassian Andor, as it turns out might be the perfect lens through which to view that process.

The first three episode of Andor follow a narrative about how Cassian comes to join the Rebel cause, while showing flashbacks to his childhood and how he ended up in his current state. I mentioned in my initial impression of House of the Dragon that I’m a fan of parallel storytelling structures and this was one of those. Both narratives in this trilogy of episodes deal with what Joseph Campbell would’ve called Crossing the Threshold in his Hero’s Journey mono-myth. If that sounds familiar, George Lucas basically used Campbell’s most famous text, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, as a big book of ideas when writing the original Star Wars trilogy. What’s interesting though is how Cassian’s story feels like a dark parody of the more traditional hero’s journey that Luke, Anakin and Rey embark on in their stories.

See, the Hero’s Journey, as Campbell outlined it, is the classic Chosen One or Destined journey path. A regular person (who is always a man in the original text because Campbell himself was grossly sexist) discovers they have a special destiny and, after refusing an initial call to adventure, embarks on a journey that tests them. On this journey they have a mentor figure, they embark on a Road of Trials, there’s usually an underworld of some type, a meeting with a Goddess and other stuff. By the end, the hero has attained what Campbell calls Apotheosis and is the Master of Two Worlds, usually the physical one and some hypothetical spiritual or psychological realm. In Star Wars, Luke, and Rey leave their desert home worlds and become Jedi who save the universe through Space Taoism, basically. In a lot of ways, the first three episodes of Andor follow a similar trajectory but with some darker implications. In both cases, Cassian doesn’t really make a conscious decision to cross the threshold and begin his adventure. In the present, he kills a pair of Imperial rent-a-cops while searching for his lost sister. The ensuing investigation means that he is forced to escape the planet with a mysterious figure named Luthen Rael played by Stellan Skarsgard. Skarsgard is great in this role, which recalls a lot of Boris Shcherbina, his character from the HBO Docu-drama Chernobyl. Though he’s playing a senior agent of the burgeoning Rebel Alliance in Andor and not a political officer of the KGB, Skarsgard is still really good at carrying himself with the same unflappable professionalism underscored by a sense of ruthlessness. He’s no Obi-Wan Kenobi, but his banter with Luna’s Andor establishes a mentor/mentee relationship early on. Even in their first meeting he’s offering him lessons, though instead of “use the force Luke,” they take the form of more…let’s just call it “practical knowledge.”

The flashbacks tell a parallel story of Cassian’s childhood as part of a primitive tribe on a jungle world called Kenari. I’m sort of on the fence about how this part of the show is being portrayed. The creators made the decision to have Cassian, and the other tribal children he’s living with speak in an untranslated sci-fi language (even the subtitles just say “speaking in Kenari”). That, combined with them using primitive weapons like blowguns, and dabbing their faces with war paint is a little bit awkward. Especially because Luna is an actor of Mexican descent and actually went out of his way to request that his character be from Yavin IV, a planet shown in the original episode IV. He wanted his character to be from the part of the universe that was shot in Central America. I don’ think the creators are aping any one particular tribal culture, but there’s a lot of vaguely Pre-Columbian influences in their look and mannerism. They might be hedging their bets because it’s sort of implied that this is a Neverland/Beyond Thunderdome sort of situation. None of the people in Cassian’s tribe seem to be much older than young adulthood and there are the remains of a substantial mining operation on the planet of Kenari, which raises questions about how the children got there and ended up in their current state. Interestingly, this sequence of flashbacks ends in the third episode when a curious Cassian is essentially kidnapped by a pair of scavengers who believe they’re doing this for his own good. So in both stories, we have Cassian not so much making a conscious choice to leave his world behind, and instead being forcibly dragged into new adversities by an ostensible mentor. Which is a fascinating origin story for a character who, despite ostensibly being a good guy, will go on to have a troubled history in the Rebellion. In essence, Cassian isn’t being set up to be a hero. He’s being set up to become an asset.

Because we already know where Cassian’s story ends. He doesn’t attain an enlightened apotheosis or cross a returning threshold. He dies on the planet of Scariff when the Empire obliterates it at the end of Rogue One (spoilers for a six year old movie I guess). I don’t know how much of these parallels to more traditional Star Wars storytelling are intentional on the part of the screenwriters. I’d like to think they’re being deliberate. So far one of the best parts of the DisneyPlus streaming series has been a willingness to focus on characters and factions that the movies have largely ignored. Bounty hunters, crime bosses and the working-class members of a galaxy far, far, away have added a sense of depth to the on-screen universe. You could even argue that this was the case from the very beginning. Luke Skywalker isn’t a military man, or an astronaut like his pulp serial ancestors. He’s a kid stuck on a farm. Andor is no different. The first three episodes take in a town that’s coded as a working class company-owned place where citizens work in shifts to break down starships for spare parts. Set design and costumes deliberately ape the aesthetic of coal mining towns in the rural places of the Appalachian Mountains. I really love that the antagonists in these first three episodes aren’t actually the Empire, or at least not directly. The series opens with Cassian killing a pair of Pre-Mor Authority law enforcement agents in a back alley skirmish. Pre-Mor is apparently a paramilitary law enforcement contractor in service to the Empire. Instead of the iconic black and white armor of the stormtroopers, Pre-Mor wear orange and purple jumpsuits. My favorite scene across the first three episodes comes in our introduction to Syril Karn, played by Kyle Soller, who is immediately established to be the Javert to Cassian’s Jean Valjean. In the scene, Syril is demanding that the deaths of two officers being investigated while his chief waves him off. He observes that the men were in a sector they weren’t supposed to be, doing things they weren’t sanctioned to do and they probably just happened to pick a fight with the wrong person. He advises Syril to draft up an accident report and make it look like the cops died “being helpful.” Syril obviously doesn’t do that and embarks on his own adventure to capture Andor. Here we see the two sides of the Empire in Star Wars, equal parts tyrannical and corrupt, even at this petty level of authority. It’s nothing new. Corrupt law enforcement has been part of the sci-fi genre since William Gibson ushered in the creation of the Cyberpunk genre, but this new addition makes sense in the context of Star Wars and helps flesh out the universe.

The first three episodes of Andor are a very slow burn, but things begin to pick up in the third episode. I can totally see why Disney decided to release this trio of episodes how they did, because it would’ve been a drag waiting for three weeks before something exciting happened. But the pacing speaks to the showrunners’ confidence in the story they want to tell. And so far it’s really strong. My only concern is that this series is allowed to remain its own animal. Let me put it like this. I really like The Mandalorian. It’s basically the classic Lone Wolf and Cup manga but with two of the most popular and iconic Star Wars characters in the starring roles. But I also think the show got less interesting when it was tied into the larger Star Wars metaplot. Like, I know I’m in the minority on this one, but I really don’t like that they introduced Luke Skywalker into the mix. Don’t get me wrong. Mark Hamill is great and he deserves all the accolades as usual. But adding Luke, and other fan favorites like Ashoka Tano into the narrative made the Star Wars universe feel small, and even more like the only people who matter are the ones with the laser swords. Andor is a prequel and we’ll definitely some characters from prior entries. Genevieve O’Reiley and Forrest Whitaker have both already been confirmed as coming back to the roles of Mon Mothma and Saw Gerrera respectively but those make sense. They were in Rogue One, and both characters play a role in the founding of the Alliance. What I’m saying is at this point, I think Star Wars works best as a universe instead of a linear narrative and I hope that Andor is allowed to be its own thing instead of being subsumed into the greater Skywalker saga.

Star Wars is always going to be weird to talk about in this day and age. Few modern properties have the same cultural impact as George Lucas’s weird hybrid of Kurosawa Samurai films and Buck Rodgers pulp sci-fi serial. And that was before this massive franchise was integrated into the even more massive Disney Entertainment Conglomerate. Even at its best, we have to remember that at this point, Star Wars exists as another valuable IP in the unfolding landscape of Modern Media, defined as it is by who has the most popular and recognizable brand names. Andor looks like its going to be a great show, but it’s also going to be another vertically integrated slice of the Disney brand. Like, let’s be clear. The only real reason that Disney is probably focusing on smaller scale Star Wars stories is because they haven’t figured out how make them profitable in China the same way that the Marvel films are. But I don’t want to hold those things against Andor or even really Star Wars as a brand. Here’s a slightly different example. I love trashy science fiction and fantasy novels. I’m especially a fan of the publishing company Black Library, which is itself owned by the British game company Games Workshop. The Black Library is the publishing arm that produces all of the tie-in literature for Games Workshop’s franchises, namely Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. Those novels, the genre equivalent of old-fashioned pot boilers, are my literary comfort food. Even then, by the standards of actual junk food genre media, reading these over a battered secondhand paperback with a watercolor painting of elves on the cover is like going to a Chili’s instead of the Mom and Pop roadside diner. Even by nerd standards, these should be pretty disposable pieces, is what I’m saying. And yet, they’re what I listen to on my drive home from work or when I can’t be bothered to enjoy something more complex. I also admire those creators who can take these stories, literally created with the intent of selling the audience on buying overpriced plastic army men (that don’t even have the courtesy of being assembled or painted) and telling actual compelling narratives in these worlds. I would recommend books like Horus Rising, The Infinite and Divine, Assassinorum: Kingmaker and a bunch of others to people as just good sci-fi in their own right. But that’s another essay. Yeah it’s all just marketing, but it’s still damn good storytelling when its done right. I feel the same way about Star Wars. Yeah, it’s just another arm of the Disney juggernaut, but good media is still good media. So for the moment I’m excited to see where the creators of Andor take this story. I also hope its allowed to remain its own distinct narrative and that it doesn’t get lost in the wider expanse of a galaxy far, far away.

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