Directed by: Toby Haynes, Susanna White, Benjamin Caron
Distributed by: Disney+
Written by Anna Harrison
A year after “The Force Awakens” reignited a “Star Wars” fervor that never went out, “Rogue One” arrived on our screens. You can debate about the first act and the extensive reshoots all you want, but it did something miraculous for the “Star Wars” universe: it didn’t choose a side. Even George Lucas’s more morally murky prequels, which show the hypocrisy of the Jedi and ineffectiveness of the Republic, are defined by the Light Side and the Dark Side; “Rogue One,” on the other hand, introduces one of its ostensibly “good” heroes by having him shoot an informant who was on the edge of becoming a liability.
This Rebel was Cassian Andor, played by Diego Luna, and he, like the other protagonists of “Rogue One,” met his demise at the end of the film; when the prequel “Andor” was announced in 2017, it was met with skepticism, and as Disney quickly pivoted away from riskier moves like “Rogue One” following the (silly) backlash against “The Last Jedi” and the disappointing box office of “Solo” (released just after “Avengers: Infinity War,” so Disney has no one to blame but itself) and subsequently started playing it safe with duds like “The Book of Boba Fett” and “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” any lingering excitement around “Andor”—and “Star Wars” itself—quickly faded.
What a pleasant surprise, then, when “Andor” turns out not only to be the best “Star Wars” show by a longshot, but one of the best shows this year. Yet is it really much of a shock, considering the pedigree behind the camera? With the “Bourne” series scribe Tony Gilroy (who is credited as co-writer on “Rogue One” and is responsible for salvaging the film after issues with director Gareth Edwards) serving as showrunner, his brother Dan of “Nightcrawler” fame and “House of Cards” showrunner Beau Wilson in the writers’ room, “The Crown” cinematographer Adriano Goldman, “Chernobyl” production designer Luke Hull, and “Succession” composer Nicholas Britell all contributing to “Andor,” the result is a “Star Wars” production that actually feels like it has the enormous budget it does.
And, most importantly, it contains no mention of Jedis, the Force, or the Skywalkers, and no one goes to goddamn Tatooine. “Andor” is thankfully unbeholden to the greater “Star Wars” mythos, and it simply uses those sci-fi trappings to tell its story, and even the characters plucked from previous installments—such as the superb Genevieve O’Reilly as Mon Mothma—serve a greater purpose than just easter eggs.
When we meet Cassian in “Rogue One,” he is ensconced deeply within the Rebellion and fully committed to the cause. The Cassian we meet in “Andor” is decidedly not: he is instead an aimless wanderer, though—as in “Rogue One”—he ends up murdering someone (well, two someones this time) in his first scene. (That’s how you know “Andor” is good.) These men, unfortunately for Cassian, were employed by a corporation in turn employed by the Empire, and even more unfortunately, this act catches the attention of Syril Karn (Kyle Soller), a man who takes duty to his employer and to his Emperor very, very seriously.
Syril and those like him are the reason “Andor” works so well. This is not about the capital-E Evil of the Sith, but the more banal, mundane variety of evil of the cogs in the machine. Syril is a fanatic, but he doesn’t espouse fascist talking points every day—he has ambition and drive in a system that works best when you tear people down on your way up and which rewards you for upholding its tyrannical ways. Syril devotes himself to the Empire with unnerving enthusiasm, and this means he hunts down Cassian with a frightening single-mindedness. He is frightening precisely because he doesn’t have the usual hallmarks of evil in “Star Wars.” For the first time, every facet of the Empire feels like a threat, not just the Emperor at its head: from lowly Syril to up-and-comer Dedra Meero (Denise Gough), the Empire seeps into every aspect of life in the galaxy. They don’t need Darth Vader to be frightening this time around—just ruthless, brutal efficiency.
But, of course, this is about a rebellion—or at least the beginnings of one. There’s no ragtag group of heroes who save the day, only discontent that ferments from the ground up. Cassian isn’t even much of a leader yet, for that belongs to Stellan Skarsgård’s Luthen, one of the most interesting “Star Wars” characters in the whole canon (helped by one of the best performances in the saga), but no matter how disconnected he wants to be, the brutality of the Empire eventually reaches him. Each character in the sprawling ensemble has been affected by it, but Gilroy smartly focuses the action on Ferrix, Cassian’s home (sort of) planet. There are no Jedis to save the day here, just people trying their best to get by—and to be free.
“Star Wars” has always been political, but “Andor” takes it to a new level in such an organic way that it puts everything else to shame. A three-episode arc set in a prison has to be one of the most rousing things put to screen lately, and how can a show that pits Stellan Skarsgård against Forest Whitaker and just lets them talk be bad? To put it simply, “Andor” is superb. Even technically, it surpasses all of the other “Star Wars” shows, largely by forgoing excessive use of the Volume, the LED screen used for “The Mandalorian” and “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” in favor of real sets and practical effects; its writing can soar so high that you briefly forget you are watching “Star Wars,” a series known for its clunky lines; the directors wring powerful performances from perfectly cast actors. In other words, it eschews all the hallmarks of “Star Wars,” and in doing so, makes me excited for the franchise again. Help me, Tony Gilroy, you’re my only hope.