Review: ‘Andor’

Lucasfilm played it safe with its last two live-action Star Wars projects, centering them around two of the franchise’s most well-known characters in Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi. While the responses to those were a mixed bag, the attractiveness of the characters to even the most casual of Star Wars fans can’t be questioned. The same can’t be said, however, of their next live-action project, Andor. A prequel to 2016’s Rogue One, Andor doesn’t have the luxury of banking on a beloved character. Instead, it looks to be an expansive dive into a time that has proven to be fertile ground for storytelling: the early days of the Age of Rebellion.

Andor begins in 5 BBY and immediately immerses the audience into a galaxy where the rapid expansion of the Empire has impacted planets and people in ways that are both eerily familiar but also rarely explored in the Star Wars universe to this level of detail. The 5 BBY setting means the story of Season One of Andor takes place concurrently with the opening of Season One of Star Wars Rebels and with Jyn Erso’s mission to Tamsye Prime on which she was abandoned by Saw Gerrera, an incident that caused a rift between the two as seen in Rogue One. Unsurprisingly, the first four episodes of Andor look and feel like Rogue One while also starting to share the same sense of urgency and impending darkness that effused from many episodes of Rebels. So while the first four episodes explore a time period that isn’t entirely new, they take the audience to brand new places where they meet brand new faces with nary a cameo in sight.

And it is the introduction of new places and new faces that will frustrate an impatient audience while no doubt drawing comparisons to another series that took its time in exposition to build a robust world in which any number of stories could be told: Game of Thrones. Creator Tony Gilroy uses the first four episodes to introduce an impressive roster of new characters that inhabit all sorts of different corners of the grimy, lived-in world already seen in Rogue One. The Game of Thrones parallels seem almost deliberate, from the heavy dose of characters with British accents of some kind or another to the time taken to explore the new characters in moments that don’t seem to steer the plot in any particular direction. Most familiar to GoT fans though will have the feeling that many of the characters seem like they’ll probably be important down the road, though through four episodes it’s not quite clear why…or on what side of things they’ll eventually fall. Imagine never having read the GoT books before watching the series. Without prior knowledge, the audience would never have known what to expect when seeing Ramsay Bolton appear for the first time. Andor puts the entire audience on common ground here, unable to know which of these new characters they’ll come to love or hate.

Of these new characters, Stellan Skarsgård‘s Luthen Rael makes the biggest impact on Cassian and the course of the story. Rael is a major player in the earliest days of a Rebellion that is still coalescing. A man of action who believes the time for talk has long since passed, Rael brings Cassian in on what looks to be one of the Rebellion’s first major moves against the Empire. And while he strives to push Cassian to bigger and better attacks against the Empire, he does so from right under their noses on Coruscant where he puts up appearances as an antiquities dealer. It’s here where his relationship with another major character in the series, Genevieve O’Reilly‘s Mon Mothma, plays out. Rael’s duality as a man willing to get his hands dirty while also working in the gleaming center of the Empire makes him one of the series’ most interesting characters and also places him somewhere firmly between Mothma and Saw Gerrera on the spectrum of Rebel-ism.

The series has been billed as a spy-thriller and the first four episodes serve to gradually ramp up the requisite tension for what promises to be an unnerving final 2/3 of the first season of the series. As Rael’s plan unfolds, Denise Gough’s sharp Imperial Security Bureau Leftenant, Dedra Meero, has already started to track coordinated movements and believes that the Empire should be concerned with what she sees as a growing threat of an organized rebellion. Though Meero’s efforts to dive deeper into the threat are frustratingly shot down by her superiors-and even her equals-at every turn, she’s clearly not ready to give up so readily. Meero, along with Kyle Soller’s overly-ambitious Syril Karn, whose overreaching cost him both his job as a corporate security officer on Ferrix and a great deal of embarrassment, are certainly primed to work as the series’ main antagonists. With the outcome of the story already known to audiences, it remains to be seen how Gilroy and crew make these characters matter, but the answer to that may just be in how they eventually help shape Cassian Andor into the more fully-developed character first met in Rogue One.

To that end, Diego Luna’s efforts in the first four episodes of Andor are noteworthy. It’s no easy feat for Luna to go back and flesh out a character whose death takes up a portion of the screen time dedicated to promoting the series, but Luna does it well. When audiences first meet him in Andor, superficially he’s still the same rough-edged character, willing to pull a trigger to save his own skin. Over the course of the first four episodes, however, it’s clear that Luna is playing a different version of that same man. This version of Andor is scrambling through a life he didn’t choose for himself and is still on the path to becoming the man who, as Rael says, will “give it all at once for something real.” It’s easy to get the sense that after watching two seasons of Andor, Cassian’s death following the Battle of Scariff will hit much harder.

In Andor, Gilroy has put together not only the most ambitious Star Wars streaming series to date, with its willingness to bank on less beloved characters to tell the story of the inciting moment of the Rebellion that changes the galaxy but also the best-looking streaming series as well. From the opening scene, it is immediately clear that this isn’t a Volume-made VFX spectacle. Gilroy’s choices here create a world more akin to Blade Runner than anything, one where the layers of the characters are developed by the layers of the society in which they live and operate. It’s incredible what can be gleaned about the Empire, the growing rebellion, and the way life in this galaxy really plays out in 40 minutes or so. In fact, there’s so much to take in that the series may play better to audiences on a second viewing.

It’s foolish and impossible to judge the quality of a 24-episode story after viewing just one-sixth of it. However, it can be said that through four episodes, Andor dares to do something that immediately stands out among Lucasfilm’s streaming efforts. Without a single major cameo and barely a mention of anything connected to any other projects (a little Scariff here, a little Ryloth there), Andor is a series that is willing to bet on itself. It’s willing to bet that the story it has to tell is one that will add to the overall mythos of the Star Wars universe and is willing to do so on its own merit. And through four episodes, it digs its claws in deeply enough to make sure you’ll come back to see what’s next.

Andor begins streaming on September 21st with a three-episode premiere.

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