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Andor: how a Star Wars deep cut became a top TV show

by John Paul
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Andor is the least-anticipated Star Wars and Marvel spinoff to roll off Disney+’s assembly line. The series serves as a prologue to the prequel, telling the backstory of Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a captain in the Rebel Alliance first seen in the 2016 wartime heist thriller Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Very old spoiler alert: Andor and his comrades died in a bittersweet blaze of glory while stealing the plans to the Death Star in Rogue One, set just before George Lucas’s original Star Wars films.

Lucasfilm brought in Tony Gilroy, writer, and director of the Oscar-nominated films Michael Clayton and the Bourne series, to save Rogue One from its reshoots. According to reports, Gilroy was the one who suggested that killing off the main characters would be the most effective and satisfactory way to wrap up the film. With Gilroy at the helm as Andor’s showrunner, expect a dark, daring take on storytelling in which no one is safe, and no price is too high.

Cassian is introduced to us as a bright, scrappy, but ultimately self-centered young criminal. His troubled past and his healthy antipathy for the Empire make him an ideal recruit for the Rebel leader Luthen (a wonderfully two-faced Stellan Skarsgrård).

Andor is not just the greatest of Star Wars’ television schedule but also one of the most engaging shows of 2022. Thanks to Gilroy’s steady upping of the ante week after week with a clarity of vision. Andor presents a creative and altogether new perspective on living under an authoritarian system, which is especially welcome after 45 years of movies about an intergenerational civil war between space fascists and resistance fighters.

We witness the economic subjugation of a people, the growth of a surveillance state, and the brutal policing that helps sustain a massive prison industrial complex. We meet the workers and collaborators who drive the Imperial government. Every worker has a significant role, from an aspiring supervisor in the Imperial Security Bureau (Denise Gough) to a rank-and-file corporate security grunt (Kyle Soller) whose on-the-job zealotry is rooted in the minor tyrannies of his home life.

These middle and lower-ranking Imperials are driven by ambition, self-preservation, and deep-seated resentments; they are no longer passive bystanders waiting to be squeezed out by Darth Vader. They become more terrible because their menace is more nuanced, subtle, and human than any planet-destroying laser or gleeful Sith Lord.

Other forms of revolt not seen in earlier Star Wars films, such as disillusioned former Imperial officers defecting to the rebel side and acts of spontaneous communal solidarity, are also present. There are also some who appear to be part of the galaxy’s affluent elite—like Senator Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) and Luthen—while actually funding and organizing the underground rebellion. In a show-stopping monologue reminiscent of Rutger Hauer’s last scene in Blade Runner, Luthen declares, I’ve given up all chance at inner peace; I made my mind a sunless space.

The episodes in which Andor spends time with a covert group of rebels hiding out in the mountains of the planet Aldhani are among the series’ most powerful. If it weren’t for the occasional Tie fighter zooming overhead, you might think they were filming in the Scottish Highlands in the 16th century.

Nemik (Alex Lawther), a technical genius who also works to raise political awareness, is one such person. “It’s so confusing, isn’t it? So much going wrong, so much to say, and all of it happening so quickly,”

While outlining the Rebel manifesto he’s been developing, he reveals this information to Andor. “The pace of oppression outstrips our ability to understand it – that is the real trick of the Imperial thought machine. It’s easier to hide behind 40 atrocities than a single incident.”

Symbolic of several fascist governments on Earth, these scenes give Star Wars’ good-vs-evil conflict more depth. They also make short works of the ponderous dialogue found in similar television shows (The Rings of Power) and feature films (The Rise of Skywalker).

The second part of the season, when the fugitive Andor is locked up in a gigantic floating labor jail, features a career-best performance from Andy Serkis and is the show’s highlight. These 5,000 human inmates keep themselves in check through a combination of fear of punishment, hope for eventual release, and competitive quotas that atomize the workforce into ever-smaller units, unable to comprehend their own collective might, and the sleek, bright lighting of this Alcatraz-in-space, which has relatively few guns and guards and becomes a scale model for the galaxy.

Gilroy’s writing staff, which includes Beau Willimon (House of Cards) and his brother Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), allows the tension to build over several episodes, much like the Aldhani storyline. Once the breaking point is reached, it makes for 40 minutes of spectacular television. It is possibly the most anti-establishment thing to happen out of the House of Mouse since Christian Bale sang about solidarity and scab-bashing in the 1992 kids’ musical Newsies.

Whether you liked The Mandalorian or Obi-Wan Kenobi, Disney’s past live-action Star Wars TV ventures felt like watching lifelong fans play with their action figures in a sandpit. Some of their most memorable moments have come from subtly incorporating fan-favorite characters and Easter eggs while skirting the established canon of a galaxy far away. Examples include a younger version of Mark Hamill and a rematch between Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen.

But it appears that Gilroy doesn’t give a hoot about his predecessors. Rather, he has zeroed in on the human drama, eye-popping set pieces, and precise scripting. Ultimately, it offers Star Wars its first truly great television moment and gives Cassian’s final destination a sense of historical significance.

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