Disney’s “Andor” is Nerd TV at its Finest
Last week, season one of Disney’s “Andor” ended. Earlier this year, I reviewed the “Game of Thrones” prequel “House of the Dragon” (HotD). I also religiously watched “Rings of Power”, a prequel set 1,000 years before the events of “Lord of the Rings.” Nerd TV is my bread and butter. Both “HotD” and “Rings of Power” are great. Disney’s new show, set in the “Star Wars” universe five years before the events of the 2016 film “Rogue One,” follows Cassian Andor. There is no way to compare these three shows objectively, so I won’t. Andor is head and shoulders above the competition.
Watching “HotD” and “Rings of Power” brought me back into a comfortable world I already knew and re-created characters similar to ones I already adore. Andor’s showrunner, creator, and primary writer Tony Gilroy gave us something new and refreshing. He abandoned nostalgia, fan service, or past “Star Wars” projects and pushed the envelope to ultimately create the best “Star Wars” TV show ever (sorry Baby Yoda). Cassian’s 12-episode journey through a series of character-building events transforms a man trying to protect himself into someone willing to sacrifice everything for others.
Gilroy’s creation forces viewers to see the galaxy for what it is — a gritty place where most people live boring, shitty lives and only the luckiest get to be heroes. There are no lightsabers, Skywalkers, Darth Vader hisses, or Millenium Falcon. There are barely any aliens in the whole show. While the events take place on planets that could only exist in “Star Wars,” I want to emphasize that you do not need to know anything (ANYTHING) about “Star Wars” or its lore to enjoy this show. We can all understand its central message of rebellion and how people can unite to overthrow the cruelest and most powerful institutions through struggle and toil.
One thing “Andor” forced me to re-evaluate is my perception of evil in TV shows and movies. Typically when I think about villains, I think about characters like the Joker, Darth Vader, or Joffrey Baratheon — the guy sitting in the volcano lair, laughing maniacally as his plans finally come to fruition. But what motivates those characters? Is that portrayal of evil realistic? No.
A quick historical digression. In 1961, Adolf Eichman, the Nazi in charge of orchestrating the Holocaust, was captured and put on trial in Israel. The Israeli government ensured that the trial would be televised so that citizens (a significant portion of whom were Holocaust survivors) could see this cruel, twisted man get the justice he deserved. Hannah Arendt, a Holocaust survivor, political philosopher, and author, expected Eichman to act like the monster everyone thought he was. Instead, she only saw a bureaucrat who calmly and plainly laid out the logistics of the Holocaust. As she details in her book Eichman in Jerusalem, his evil was not grandiose. It was banal, boring.
“Andor” builds upon this idea. The villains are not almighty, power-hungry, unstoppable forces; they are people with human motivations. Syril Karn and Deedra Meero, the show’s two primary villains, are banal. Meero is introduced as a woman trying to move up the corporate ladder at the Imperial Security Bureau and impress her boss. She is the only woman in a room full of other male supervisors and wants to stand out. Is anything about that desire evil? I would say no. Wanting to impress a boss, teacher, or mentor figure is practical. She will stop at nothing to find the rebels. That is what makes her evil. When Meero orders the torture of Bix Caleen (Cassian’s love interest), she sees it as just gathering evidence; her desire to accomplish the mission has shattered her moral compass, making her a villain.
The architect of the rebellion Luthen Rael, played by Stellan Skarsgård, understands the damming effect this type of evil is having on the galaxy: “The Empire is choking us so slowly we’re starting not to notice.” In the finale, Maarva Carassi Andor, the mother figure in Cassian’s life, highlights this problem in a speech delivered posthumously to the people of their planet Ferrix. “But we were sleeping. I’ve been sleeping. And I’ve been turning away from the truth I wanted not to face. There is a wound that won’t heal at the center of the galaxy.” Maarva urges the people to fight the empire by any means necessary. But how do you create a meaningful rebellion? What does it mean to rebel?
These are questions answered by Rael and it is what makes him a compelling character and the rebellion such a pure and potent idea. It isn’t how cool his first two lessons to Cassian are, “Never carry anything you don’t control” and “Build your exit on your way in”, but his explanation of sacrifice that serves as the high watermark for the show. For episodes three to seven, Rael sacrifices and manipulates others to preserve the rebellion. He is an inherently suspicious guy; we know he has some ‘skin in the game,’ but what does he stand to lose? How far is he willing to go?
During the best speech of the show, and one of the best in “Star Wars” history, Rael is confronted by a spy, Loni Jung, who works a top-level job for the Empire but is feeding information to the rebels. Jung is fearful that he will be discovered and killed. He feels like his life has been neglected. He turns on Rael and asks, “What do you sacrifice?”
“Calm. Kindness. Kinship. Love. I’ve given up all chances of inner peace. I’ve made my mind a sunless space. I share my dreams with ghosts. I wake up every day to an equation I wrote 15 years ago from which there’s only one conclusion: ‘I’m damned for what I do.’” Rael knows the rebellion will take his life, but he doesn’t care. He is fully aware that he will be “condemned to use the tools of [his] enemy to defeat them” and “burn [his] life to make a sunrise that [he] know[s] [he]’ll never see.” It was hard for me to believe this was scripted and written. It is so perfect. The speech ends with Rael shouting that he sacrifices “Everything!” I can still hear that ringing in my ears.
The stakes of that scene feel dramatic because we have spent ten episodes with Rael, getting to watch his behaviors and daily actions. The pacing and screentime is another genius aspect of “Andor.” In most movies and TV shows, characters are plugged into archetypes familiar to the viewer and act accordingly. By giving every character sufficient screen time, they not only create their own archetype, but when the action finally comes, it feels dramatic. Every blaster bolt fired feels like a gut punch. One bomb can be a tragedy. One sentence goes from being a mere fact to a call for action, instantly hyping up the viewer.
So, if you aren’t into “Star Wars” or think Sci-Fi is weird and space operas pointless, I would challenge you to give “Andor” a chance. It is a show that just keeps getting better and better and better; every episode complements the previous one, building up its ideas and themes to create the most meaningful show possible. I didn’t want to believe it was over when the final credits rolled. My only hope is that Disney can learn a lesson from Gilroy and make content designed to do more than provide fan service because “Andor” is a true masterpiece.