In recent years there have been a number of “gritty reboots” of 80s and 90s television shows. The most prominent of which is probably Bel-Air, which reimagines the sitcom, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, as a drama and delves into topics like racial tensions in a more serious way than the original.
There’s always a danger when a beloved series does this that the audience hates the new direction. Taking something light-hearted and turning to the camera and saying “no, this is serious” breaks the spell, takes us out of the fantasy world that it created in the first place.
Star Wars has often had quite the opposite problem. The main theme of Star Wars is rebellion against an evil empire. And when I say “evil” I don’t mean it in a soft way. Darth Vader* is a capricious murderer who – we would find out later – killed children. The Death Star is used to commit genocide against Alderaan. The imperial troops are called “stormtroopers” – intentionally naming them similar to Nazi shock troops that brought Hitler to power in the 1930s. These are not light-hearted themes.
And yet, when Lucas was in charge, there were stretches where the movies would devolve into downright slapstick comedy. None more “jarring” than Jar Jar Binks in the Phantom Menace and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. Lucas reportedly put these characters in because he wanted to make his movies appeal to children and I can understand at least the impulse to break up some of the darkness in his films with moments of levity.
Even the grittiest of Star Wars films, Rogue One, has some comic relief, though it takes the form of sarcasm and black humor. But nevertheless that humor is there and it’s needed. 120 minutes of grim reality, with the Empire killing off all our favorite characters one by one would be hard for anyone to sit through.
But Rogue One still remains the outlier in terms of Star Wars films. In the vast majority of the franchise, the good guys win in the end, evil is vanquished time and again and the main characters all get to hug and celebrate their victory. But in Rogue One, spoiler alert, all the good characters die.
Rogue One was a brave piece of storytelling. While most of the Star Wars films are focused on wizards with laser swords, Rogue One intentionally left most of them out of the picture and instead focused on the sacrifices of soldiers, the ones who smuggled out the plans for the Death Star, providing the crucial piece of information Luke Skywalker needed in order to heroically win the first movie. It took one of the most beloved and iconic films in history and asked the question: what about the average people in the rebellion? It was like the Saving Private Ryan of Star Wars films.
And now the same producers have gone a step further, doubling down on the original concept, and asking “what makes people join a rebellion and be willing to sacrifice their lives for that cause?” And answers that question in the most incredible way possible.
I’m hesitant to give too much away about the series for those who haven’t watched it. So, if you want to remain entirely spoiler-free then I recommend you stop reading now and start watching. If you don’t mind a few spoilers, then keep going and I promise not to give away any of the big reveals.
The series focuses on Cassian Andor who was the the leader of the assault on Scarif to retrieve the Death Star plans which was the central plot of Rogue One. But this is Andor before he’s a true believer, before he’s joined the Rebel Alliance. Here he’s a scrapper and a thief, involved in an inter-galactic black market trade in Imperial parts. Played by the wonderful Diego Luna, his main motivations seem to be self interest and love for his mother and ex-girlfriend.
While offworld searching for clues to the whereabouts of his missing sister, he draws the attention of some Imperial rent-a-cops. The consequences of what happens in that interaction propel Andor from one event to the next, first drawing in the ambitious true believer Syril Karn (played by Kyle Soller) and when his scheme fails, the evil eye of Dedra Meero (played by Denise Gough) an officer in the Imperial Security Bureau.
The first season’s 12 episode arc unfolds as a series of stories, each section directed and written by a different set of show runners. This works wonderfully as a device, because it ensures cohesion across each section.
In the first three episodes we are introduced to Cassian and his family and given a taste of what life is like living in the Empire, where vast intelligence resources can find a person no matter how far flung their planet of residence. The reach of totalitarianism has to be all-encompassing, because it has to have complete control, or it will collapse. I’ve heard from a number of friends that they stopped watching after the first or second episode and if you’re one of them, I implore you to go back and pick it up again. I too was put off by a bit of a slow start but it builds to episode three nicely and then explodes in a great hour reminiscent of the best Bond film.
The next four episodes take a strange turn and put Cassian into what could be derisively called a “heist film”. Again, this seems to have put people off the series but the heist itself is not really the point. It’s a central piece of action around which Cassian’s character is developed. Here he meets true believers in the Rebel Alliance, people who are willing to put their lives on the line for freedom.
Throughout the series we are slowly introduced to the horrors of Empire and through its metaphor the dangers of totalitarianism. And no single section drives that point home quite like episodes 8 through 10. Cassian had escaped the heist and was living in luxury on a resort planet. He is wrongly arrested for sedition and sentenced to 6 years of hard labor. And when you take the technological advancements of the Empire and add in their unrestrained cruelty you get a truly harrowing prison.
Michel Foucault couldn’t have envisioned a more perfect prison designed to erase humanity. The floors are electrified. If anyone gets out of line they are reduced to a quivering mass. Entire wards can be massacred with a flip of a switch. Prisoners are pitted against one another in a competition to build parts for the Empire: winners get more gruel, losers get electrocuted torture.
This is the prison of the totalitarian techno state. People are worked to death, their sentences extended capriciously, and they are subjected to non-stop brutality and fear. All in service of the state.
The prison is also a metaphor for how everyone is trapped. Some of the characters are in prison, others are trapped in their role as a spy or spymaster, others trapped by unloving and controlling parents, some trapped in gilded cages on Coruscant. The one thing that they all have in common is that the only escape from the empire is victory or death. It sets up the dilemma for Cassian in a perfect way. He almost has no choice but to fight the empire.
And yet, Andor does have a choice, he could escape with enough money to last the rest of his life, or he could take up arms against the state which oppresses him and everyone else. We already know what he chooses because we have seen Rogue One, but that’s where the writers and directors of the series excel, gifting us a final two episodes that will have even the most cynical consumer of streaming services left feeling like they got their money’s worth.
As a Star Wars show, Andor works on every level for me. It’s a good story, it tells an unknown history, it doesn’t rely on space wizards and laser swords to resolve plots, and it does so with minimal straying from cannon. But the best part is that Andor works as a metaphorical antidote to modernity. Every week it feels like we are all sliding further closer to totalitarianism and toward the destruction of our planet and more and more we are going to face a choice.
*I have never understood people (usually white men) who admire Darth Vader. Wearing a Darth Vader tee shirt is weird but there are people who put little vinyl stickers on their cars where they are Darth Vader and their children are stormtroopers.