It’s rare for Star Wars projects to end up feeling like stronger, more interesting stories for hewing close to the tentpole movies that came before them. But that’s very much the case with Andor, Disney Plus’ new prequel series that keenly understands and expands upon everything that made Rogue One such a standout part of the franchise.
Rogue One, director Gareth Edwards’ harrowing, shell-shocked, but ultimately optimistic story about the small group of freedom fighters who won the Rebel Alliance’s first victory against the Galactic Empire, was unlike any other Star Wars story when it debuted in 2016. As part of a franchise that — at the time — felt increasingly incapable of escaping the gravitational pull of its nostalgia-logged core mythology and its players, Rogue One was a sophisticated and hard-edged reminder that there’s always been so much more to Star Wars than the Skywalker saga. Andor, from Rogue One writer-turned-showrunner Tony Gilroy, doesn’t at all stray too far from the tone, scale, or frankness about the human costs of warring with fascists that defined the film it’s building up to.
Set largely just a few years before the events of Rogue One, Andor tells the origin story of its namesake, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a charming, world-weary thief who becomes a vital member of the Rebel Alliance right as the resistance is first beginning to come into existence. Though the Galactic Empire’s larger ambitions and its connections to the dark side of the Force aren’t widely known as Andor opens, Cassian, like countless other ordinary people living during the era, knows from personal experience just how profoundly destructive and cruel their overlords can be. That knowledge is why Cassian and so many of the other salvager-cum-mechanics eking out meager lives on the desert planet Ferrix are willing to keep their heads down in hopes of seeming too insignificant and defeated to draw the Empire’s attention.
But Cassian’s traumatic history with the Empire from an earlier period, which Andor explores in flashbacks throughout its first season, is also why he has no issue with murdering a couple of the Empire’s low-level goons when they step to him incorrectly one evening at a seedy brothel — a split-second decision with unimaginably far-reaching consequences.
While the Cassian of Rogue One was a seasoned enough spy and revolutionary who understood how shooting first and asking questions later could come back to bite him in the ass ten-fold, Andor’s Cassian is a man still learning the importance of always thinking a few steps ahead. It’s a lesson Cassian’s loved ones like his adoptive mother Maarva (Fiona Shaw) and their emotionally codependent droid B2EMO (Dave Chapman) have tried to impress upon him more times than either of them can recall. But it isn’t until Maarva, B2EMO, and Cassian’s longtime flame Bix (Adria Arjona) all put themselves directly in harm’s way to protect him that their words start to echo back to him in ways Andor uses to illustrate some of the harsher realities of their universe.
Knowing what a Death Star is makes seeing its creation that much more horrific
Andor doesn’t exactly spell out what’s going on as it introduces relatively low-level Empire bureaucrats Syril Karn (Kyle Soller) and Dedra Meero (Denise Gough) and starts detailing how their commitment to their jobs makes them dangerous people. But we, as an audience, are meant to know about the Empire’s top-secret, resource-intensive project to build one of the largest weapons in its arsenal because knowing what a Death Star is makes seeing the details of its organizational genesis that much more horrific.
In stark contrast to Disney’s other Star Wars shows that have tended to feel like miniaturized bursts of storytelling intended to evoke the films’ grand space-operatic qualities, Andor’s a ground-level story about how its protagonists react and persevere as they learn more about what’s happening around them. Rather than merely building to bigger, flashier moments in Star Wars history, Andor’s far more interested in exploring the context in which those events happened and unpacking how they affected the people living through them.
It’s because Andor’s first season spends a large chunk of time in the past with a younger Cassian, showing you just how much of his life the Empire destroyed, that the adult Cassian makes for such a compelling and sympathetic protagonist. Again, Andor’s Cassian isn’t yet a man moving through the world with years of experience going toe-to-toe with the countless, often nameless faces whose sheer numbers and commitment to the Empire’s cause are what make the entire enterprise so formidable. But there’s a rawness and calculated ferocity to Luna’s performance here that works exceptionally well with Andor’s framing of Cassian as a man in the midst of a crucible that helped him become a legend.
The same is also true of Stellan Skarsgård’s Luthen Rael and Genevieve O’Reilly’s Mon Mothma, two dynamic members of the Resistance who wear a number of guises, both literal and metaphorical, as they navigate an increasingly treacherous political landscape. People are sometimes quick to write off Star Wars’ forays into political minutiae. But Andor’s discussions about the long-term implications of certain trade deals and how votes are moving through the Senate work to remind you of how much of the capital “E” evil in this franchise was designed to be imperceptible to elites and those born into relative economic stability.
Andor’s first season starts off strong on its own merit with a trio of episodes directed by Toby Hanes. But what’s most promising about the series as a whole is how Gilroy and the rest of the show’s creative team seem to have a solid idea of how they want to evolve and transform Cassian in the buildup to season 2, which leads right into the events of Rogue One. There’s something deeply comforting in knowing that Andor’s already intentionally moving toward a specific end zone and that its journey along the way is meant to make that ultimate destination all the more satisfying. It’s a somewhat new approach for Star Wars, especially in the era of its live-action TV spinoff series, but it’s almost certain to work in Andor’s favor as the series unfolds.
Andor also stars Forest Whitaker, Anton Lesser, Kathryn Hunter, Robert Emms, and Ebon Moss-Bachrach. The show hits Disney Plus on September 21st.