In the perpetually expanding sea of cynically exploitive franchised media, Andor is a rare treat, one that has something say and is able to say it with with style.
Much has been written of its value elsewhere and so I will focus on just two elements that I found especially compelling: first, a real sense of the show taking place in a lived-in real world, and second, the show having an enemy that feels both scary and capable, a real rarity in the Star Wars franchise.
From the first few scenes something stuck me about Andor. It took until roughly the show’s midpoint for me to put my finger on what it was:
Look at that cheap-ass flood light, cable tied to a rusty, rickety fence. It looks like something you’d buy from Amazon with its cheap big black transformer. To be clear, I’m not suggesting this was the result of the cruel, frugal Disney accountants, but rather a conscious creative decision.
I appreciated the materiality of the shot so much, and it really opened my eyes to similar set dressing and design decisions throughout the rest of the show, all of which create this wonderful vibrant sense of time and place. And look at this shot, with its wet, cruddy floors:
Details like these help create a world that feels real: in the real world, things break! And look cheap and nasty. And in the real world big bureaucracies want to cut costs, especially for things that some senior leadership figure wouldn’t care about. And this attention to detail creates an atmosphere rarely present in Star Wars shows, an atmosphere of wear, tear, of living and breathing. A lot of Star Wars media feels like it’s conducted like a Kabuki drama—seamlessly perfect or with the finer details just abstracted away. I suspect much of this comes down to, historically, the franchise leaning rather heavily on CGI as opposed to practical sets and effects
The sense of a lived-in world is not only created by thoughtful set-dressing, however, and is achieved through careful and methodical characterisation. Take the way the show establishes senator Mon Mothma’s daily routines. She fights with her boorish husband; she despairs at the declining relationship with her daughter; she vainly tries to struggle against the rise of authoritarianism in her senate day job; she wearily attends social function after social function, trapped by covert- *and *overt-surveillance. Both her as a character and the world in which she lives in does not feel one dimensional, but rather something richer and more alive. One gets the sense that when the camera moves on to the show’s other characters, she still continues to breath.
It is only the richness and attention to character and world building that gives rise to the delicious dramatic irony that emerges in the tension between her overt utterly ineffectual official resistance to the Empire (if the Empire could be destroyed by immaculate outfits than I surmise it would have been defeated long ago, alas) and her hidden attempts at bankrolling the rebellion through strategic use of her trust fund and connections. If she was more of a sketch, as sadly the corpo-bootlicker character is (one of the show’s weakest creative decisions sadly), this irony simply wouldn’t be there.
Likewise the show invests effort and care into making Ferrix feel like a real place, filled with real people who live rich lives. This is no small achievement: despite Tatooine being a setting in seemingly every Star Wars media, there is not the faintest proof that it is anything more than the flimsiest and most disposable of setting, something that exists only to advance the plot. Ferrix, on the other hand, is a world of dust and grime and grease and brick. Things feel decayed and then patched up again.
Ferrix is an obvious counterpart to both Coruscant as a whole, and especially the Apple-store interior of the ISB HQ. Many shows I think would have just left it there, but Andor goes deeper than this simple contrast. While Ferrix be dusty, there is beauty there. What is more is that it is a communal beauty: the city is made up of beautiful brickwork, with an abundance of arches naturally framing outlooks.
As if by agreement, everyone is dressed in a palette of ochres, browns, oranges and the dustiest of greens. There is a common architecture that while simple, is not boring: the beautifully ornate gong-tower (oh to live in a town with a gong tower and associated gong master) speaks to a world where even despite the privations of their corpo-masters (and later the empire) there is a sense of commonwealth and pride.
This is contrasted by Coruscant, which feels like the galaxy’s biggest highway-adjacent office park. Yes, there is beauty in the stark brutalist forms we sometimes see, but the real beauty is hidden away in private, guarded spaces, recalling treasure boxes and private gardens. It is not a space where people linger and form connections. It is a place where one is chauffeured around from cloister to cloister, or one scurries around the sub-city where the less privileged are forever banished to. Meetings, then, are planned and intentional and controlled. And so even despite the sterility of the setting here, it still nonetheless feels plausibly real, and indeed, plausibly how the capital of a fascist central government might look like with its contrast in austere public spaces and ornate private spaces.
It is not just setting and sets that make the show feel alive: the show triumphs because it cuts out any space wizard nonsense. There are no magic heroes to save the day. The only heroes the show focuses on are deeply flawed: the titular Andor is an unlikable brute who murders without a second thought; the above mentioned senator struggled in the way many vaguely progressive neo-liberals struggle with the desire to effect change so long as it is not at the expense of one’s wealth and status in society; the world’s most ruthless art dealer is happy to destroy any sense of his humanity if it means winning. These characters are believable and relatable because they live in worlds that feel real. This realness creates the hook for us to connect with.
A sense of a world being real is important because it is so much easier to care about people that feel real (that is, could be real as opposed to are real) and invest in their perpetually relevant struggle – the fight against authoritarianism and the power of the state. The show’s obvious parallels to reality are clear and its timely message of the power of resistance, community and defiance land.
The other thing that makes Andor succeed is that, for arguably the first time in the franchise’s history (well, ignoring the impossibly voluminous expanded universe of content of which I am only tangentially aware) the Empire is chillingly frightening and effective. Past Star Wars outings have never really managed to show the Empire as both evil and capable. In failing to show the Empire as truly evil – as truly evil as it is obviously intended – past efforts have failed to make the text a true mediation on the dangers of racism. Andor does better.
A simple but nonetheless instructive example of this is that in Andor stormtroopers have learnt how to aim and can actually hit things now! I was almost shocked when, in one scene, a trooper pulled off a tricky shot. This small detail instantly recharacterizes the stormtroopers from bumbling idiots to something matching the threat implicit in their sinister armour. I don’t want to belabour this point, but it is such a telling example of how Andor gets its depiction of the evil Empire right.
We see the Empire succeeding: at devising and executing strategies to advance it interests. It doesn’t always win (and thank goodness for that, because nothing robs a story of any interest than an omnipotent foe) but crucially, it always feels like it could succeed and that makes for some truly thrilling content. We are familiar enough with—and indeed live in a world completely shaped by—real world empire, so we know its general shape and behaviour. So when we see the Empire in Andor acting in a way that feels relatable, the show is able to tap into the real life horror that empires represent.
In one episode we see the Empire’s frightening ability – it takes over control of Ferrix with such frightening and practiced competence. I cannot help but think of the immortal words of Bison (played with such panache by the sadly departed Raul Julia):
For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. For me, it was Tuesday.
The imperial forces claim the most prominent building in the town – the hotel – as their base of operations and proceed to set about making their presence and authority felt. This only works—i.e. we only fear the terror of this—because Ferrix itself feels like a real place. If Ferrix was some two-dimensional Tatooine-type place, I’d imagine not caring a wit. Instead, I found myself walking around where I live and wondering where the Empire might make their base of operations should they decide to break out of my television and invade, and even moreso, reflecting on the long shadow that would cast on my daily life.
There is depth to the depiction of how the Empire is evil: yes they are evil because they have virtually unchecked power, endless resources, and the will to use the latter to achieve more of the former. Fairly standard bad guy stuff so far. The depth comes in Andor showing the banal ways the Empire is evil, ways that make them, in fact, far more terrifying a foe (in that it more closely mimics the way real world systems are evil). Case in point: Andor is randomly arrested for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, his protestations of innocence becoming the absurd proof of his guilt. His trial – and one feels bad even calling it that – is a farce, albeit one that sadly exists in our world: minimum sentencing forces judges to merely be the rubber stamps of the executive branch. Seemingly in the course of a few hours Andor is arrested without cause, forced through a show trial, and already en route to prison, where he’ll spend the next six years in hard labour. It is breathtaking in its cruelty, its denial of any sort of rights or natural justice, and in its utter heartless efficiency. In many ways it is so chilling because there isn’t any sort of individualized evil intent, it is instead a evil of a large, complex bureaucracy that has its goals centered around advancing power, rather than any sort of human care or protection. It isn’t a stretch of imagination or interpretation to see how this mirrors how real world government, companies and systems operate and thus carries a real dramatic sting that a more simplistic depiction of the Empire would completely miss.
As a brief aside: The prison that Andor himself briefly ends up a fascist’s wet dream: centralised and depersonalised control, order maintained at the constant threat of death, and productivity unto death. I cannot help but think there are people out there that would, sadly, take inspiration from this dark, dark place. One cannot help but draw a connection to modern workplaces, who spy on their workers screens and record key strokes; or who attempt to use gamification as another lever for squeezing every last drop of productivity out of their workers.
What the show manages to pull off, here, is nothing short of commendable: as anyone who has sat through a history class knows, empires never (and indeed, cannot) last. The show tackles this as a theme, the contradictory natural law that those who most try to cling to power end up creating the circumstances for their inevitable loss of power. The show acknowledges this—and essentially has Luthen explain this principle to camera—even while creating the dramatic stakes for the Empire to dig down on their ratbastardry. Given the febrile political conditions in places like the United States are the obvious real life parallels to what we see on screen. I, among many others, was obviously struck by the irony that a show with real anti-fascist and anti-establishment tendencies was produced under the aegis of the archly conservative Disney corporation. Someone on Discord pointed out this impeccable comment on an Andor youtube essay: 1As a disclaimer, I have not yet watched this essay as I wanted to reflect more on my own feelings before diving into the rich soup of Andor think pieces.
Fiction that fails to feel real (even, or indeed, especially if it is otherwise fantastical) doesn’t interest me. I’ve always believed that the best way to learn about the world we live in is via fiction. Likewise, fiction that pulls its punches with weak antagonists feels pretty dull and moreso unlikely to tell us anything interesting about the world or our lives. Andor has created a rich, believable world where it can tell its story about the dangers of fascism, state power and the enduring need for community, resistance and bravery. For this it is easily the most compelling story set in the Star Wars franchise bar none.2I’ve got to level with you. I like season 1 of the Mandalorian more as it is a simpler, cleaner story with more likable characters. I nonetheless acknowledge that Andor is a stronger work.
- 1As a disclaimer, I have not yet watched this essay as I wanted to reflect more on my own feelings before diving into the rich soup of Andor think pieces.
- 2I’ve got to level with you. I like season 1 of the Mandalorian more as it is a simpler, cleaner story with more likable characters. I nonetheless acknowledge that Andor is a stronger work.