Halfway through "Andor" and I've gotta say...
...this thing is a beautiful travesty so far.
Boy howdy, has Disney proven just how badly they destroyed what they hold.
Of late I’ve been toying with a segment for the Stack and the channel, wherein I examine movies/shows that tie-in with popular properties, but sucked in their execution. Star Wars. Transformers. Marvel. This is largely a writing exercise where I brainstorm how to take terrible scripts and turn them into something people might actually want to watch. I got a decent response out of my piece on The Book of Boba Fett over on DP dot com and that has occasioned the urge.
Well, since my wife and I canceled Disney+ (for the second time…we picked it back up for the kids, and for Mando S2), but we still have it through the end of May, I decided I’d watch Andor. Lots of people I trust said it was unique and different to the rest of the Star Wars shows, mainly because it was good and smart, and I’ve got to say that so far, they’re dead-on. This isn’t a show that I’ll be correcting.
What exactly does this show have going for it? Let me count the ways.
Cassian Andor is a nothing-character who’s been given an interesting story.
For a guy who was introduced in Rogue One as a scrappy bandit on a mission to steal the Death Star plans, Cassian was a throwaway character in a long gallery of throwaway characters. There were a few facts established about him in that movie and that was it. As Disney looked at ways to further milk the chapped udders of the Star Wars cow, they somehow decided he was a viable focal character.
Yet with competent writing, they’ve made him one worth following. From being abducted as a child, imprisoned as a teen, and falling into a hard life as an adult criminal, he’s still got a code, he’s capable of caring for people, but he’s also world-weary and quick to distrust. You hope for a good outcome for him, even though you know he eventually dies in a city-wrecking explosion. That’s just what great writing does, and this show has it.
The Empire is actually smart this time, not powerful-but-stupid.
Good hell, this point is refreshing. The officers in charge of investigating crimes in the Empire are intelligent, cunning, and thrifty with scattered resources. As one woman in particular starts to suspect the Rebellion is behind a string of disconnected attacks, she starts looking for ways to expose it all. Another man disobeys an order from his superior to bring a criminal to justice.
Showing Imperial characters like this doesn’t cast “morally gray” light onto their actions, it just casts depth onto what they do, making them more compelling and more challenging as villains.
And that, in turn, elevates the protagonists. After all, how proud can you really be when you beat a bad guy who’s just a moron?
The nascent Rebellion struggles to coalesce, mainly because nobody can trust each other.
There’s a string of episodes on a planet called Aldhani where Cassian gets thrown into a group of rebels on a heist mission with a tightening time window. They don’t have a lot of reason to trust each other, and the pressure of the mission is getting to them. They each start to crack in little ways, yet they also manage to patch each other up with careful revelations.
I thought this was a valuable psychological insight into the early days of the Rebellion—who formed it, and how, and why, and who joined up. The Empire is bad, but most people were comfortable in it, and so it would only be the broken and downtrodden to fight against it, and those ones come from a wide array of backgrounds and situations.
A man who lost his brother to Imperial eminent domain. A woman whose whole family were slaughtered by stormtroopers. An ex-stormtrooper who got out and turned coat on the Empire. A writer and idealist who believes in the purity of the cause. How do they figure out where they overlap, and how do they each come to trust each other? That’s what this show is about. It takes its time getting there, but it does this because it’s smart and thorough. That’s a refreshing change of pace for this franchise.
There’s a lot of skill in the worldbuilding, especially with the native Dhani people.
Star Wars is built on a galaxy of worlds that are all dominated by monotopography. While the planet of Aldhani is more or less Space Scotland with Mongolian inhabitants, the lore of their world plays heavily into the heist plot of the middle of the season. Natives distrust the Empire because it took their sacred valley for hydroelectric power. (We’ve seen this happen in other shows, like S2 of Mando.)
Yet the Dhani people make a pilgrimage to the valley for a tri-annual cosmic event. Costumes, singing, dancing, etc. Whenever they were on screen, I thought of what all must have gone into their creation in the writer’s room—costumes, language, song, dance, all of it. Good effort, wonderful execution. I like it.
Luthen’s gang on Aldhani is a template for diversity without resorting to DiVerSiTy
One of the many valid complaints against The Rings of Power was how it broke any sense of accuracy as far as the racial makeup of different regions—especially considering how Tolkien’s world had a reason for everything, like why people from one area might all look the same. Star Wars kind of does the same thing, but you can get away with it by saying “Well, maybe a planet can be multiracial but monocultural because it was colonized and then all the colonists gelled together into one thing.” Sure, fine, not worried about that.
I’m talking more about the Aldhani heist team. They were all different races—couple of white guys, couple of black dudes, a Latino, an Indian, and a grumpy white chick in charge. Both the women were in a relationship (but they didn’t kiss because ya gotta have the show air in China and Saudi Arabia, lol). Disney has a top-down mandate to diversify the cast of their stuff to hell and back, and in this instance, they did it without A) drawing attention to it, or B) having it be the only thing about the crew.
This isn’t hard, but Hollywood largely refuses to do it.
The dialogue is really good. Crisp and smooth and flows logically.
Not gonna clip any examples or anything, just generally this is all well-done. The most powerful moment so far was when Luthen comes to recruit Cassian and he says “Don’t you want to fight these bastards for real?”
But the discussions been Skeen and Cassian, or Cassian and Nemik on Aldhani, all of those were meaningful in showing how the characters view the world, how they guard themselves, but how they also try to mesh with each other. Dialogue can be one of the hardest parts of writing, so when it’s really good, it stands out.
At the end of every episode I’m very tempted to hit play on the next one. This in and of itself is an increasingly rare thing whenever I sit down to watch a show. So kudos. They are nailing it with this one, which probably means season 2 is gonna suck, haha.
So why the in the actual hell haven’t the other shows been like this? Mando took a nose dive in S3, almost like it was intentionally sabotaged. Boba Fett was trash, and I refuse to watch Kenobi, I’ve heard what happens in it. Andor was justly derided as “excess content about a dead character that nobody asked for.”
And yet showrunner Tony Gilroy came in with a Level Ten Effort to make this thing good, smart, compelling, and tense, even if it starts off with a slow burn. There are stakes, there are consequences, there are hard decisions between bad and worse choices. It’s gritty without being gritty for gritty’s sake (although one fat guy did drop an S-bomb, which sucked. Star Wars isn’t a sweary show.)
Wasted potential is a travesty, and the sin is compounded with Disney Star Wars because it walks hand-in-hand with a damaged legacy. Look, Star Wars was invented 46 years ago in 1977, but most of its existing canon has been created in the last 8 years, under the Empire of the Mouse. And most of THAT has been streaming shows. And most of THAT has been dog crap.
The tragedy of Andor is that so far (and I’m saying this after six episodes, keep in mind) we see very clearly that it didn’t have to be this way. All they had to do was try, care, and get it right. Outside of Jon Favreau, nobody else at Lucasfilm is doing that.
And that includes Dave Filoni.
I hope the show ends well, because it has started off light years ahead of its predecessors.