TV Show ReviewsJosh Reviews Andor Season One

Josh Reviews Andor Season One

Spoiler-free review of Andor season one: It’s the best Star Wars project produced since Disney purchased Lucasfilm.  (In my mind the only two projects that come close are Rogue One, which Tony Gilroy — the show-runner of Andor — had a strong hand in shaping, and the final four episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, overseen by Dave Filoni.)

Andor’s main character is Cassian Andor, a member of the ensemble of rebellion heroes from the 2016 Star Wars film Rogue One.  The show Andor is set about five years prior to Rogue One (which itself took place mere days before the start of the original Star Wars), and one of the many stories it tells is about how Andor came to join the rebellion and become such a true believer in the cause.

But that is just one minor chord in the symphony of stories depicted in Andor.  The series is epic, telling a variety of stories about a variety of characters living under the thumb of the Empire.  (Andor takes place at the height of the Empire’s power, years before the Rebellion much of a threat.)  The show introduces us to an array of fascinating characters.  Some are suffering under the Empire.  Some are starting to resist, either independently or in the early stages of a larger organization.  And some are cogs in the machine of the Empire’s evil reign, helping to enforce its fascistic rule over the galaxy.

Andor is adult and sophisticated.  The content feels a little less PG than the average Star Wars tale (the first episode opens in a brothel, for instance).  The series is incredibly intense, building to a series of riveting and stressful climaxes (as each multi-episode arc reaches its conclusion).  The characters feel three-dimensional in a way not often seen in Star Wars.  The writing is terrific, just razor sharp.  This is a show that is able to develop characters and backstory with elegant simplicity.  And the actors are, to the last, absolutely spectacular.  There are a few moments of humor to be found, but for the most part, this is a very serious show.  I love it for that.  It’s not “grim and gritty” in a juvenile way.  No, this is sophisticated, high-level storytelling about characters who we care about who are all stuck in tough, mostly unpleasant situations.  It’s fantastic to see storytelling and character-development in the Star Wars universe approached with this level of intention and skill.

This is exactly the type of universe-building that I want to see in Star Wars.  Yes, this show is a prequel, and I usually hate prequels.  But Andor does everything right, so I didn’t care.  It doesn’t FEEL like a prequel because it doesn’t feel small-scale or locked-in, because we’re watching stories to which we already know the ending.  Unlike all the other Star Wars shows, Andor is almost completely without call-backs or references to previous Star Wars stories.  Instead, the show introduces us to new characters, new worlds, new settings and situations.  Other than Andor himself, Mon Mothma is the only major pre-existing character on the show, and the show does so much great stuff with her it’s almost like she’s a brand new character.  It’s wonderful.

The production values are extraordinary.  Star Wars almost always looks great, but some of the recent TV productions have shown their seams.  (The Book of Boba Fett, for example, felt very small-scale and limited, and that awful slow speeder chase on Tatooine in episode three was embarrassing.)  But Andor looks gorgeous.  The series is filled with a variety of different locations, and each one is brought to life with incredible realism.  This was a series that did a lot of shooting on location, and it shows.  There’s a richness and a reality to what we’re seeing on-screen that blew me away.  It elevates the storytelling in remarkable ways.

I am so filled with joy by how incredible Andor season one is!  This show is exactly what I’m always hoping new Star Wars stories will be like.

OK, let’s dig in deeper, shall we?  Beware SPOILERS ahead.

I was very dubious when this show was announced.  I felt that Cassian Andor had a full arc in Rogue One, so what else was there to do with the character?  Tony Gilroy and the Andor team made all the right choices in developing this show.  The title Andor is actually a misnomer, as Andor is just one interesting character in a show chock-full of interesting characters.  This is a show that’s really all about life under the Empire.  This is awesome.  I’ve been saying for years that I thought that the time between Episode III and the original Star Wars was a ripe period for storytelling.  I was disappointed that neither the first season of The Bad Batch nor Obi-Wan Kenobi (both set in this time-period), explored this era with the depth I’d been hoping for.

But now here comes Andor which delivers on exactly what I’d wanted.  I love that, in Andor, the Jedi and the Sith are entirely absent.  The Imperials talk a lot about the Emperor, but he’s never seen or heard from.  Instead, we meet a variety of Imperial characters who show us how the horrific, fascistic rule of the Empire was actually enforced on the ground.  It’s a stunning and effective portrait of the banality of evil.  The human agents of the Empire seen in Andor are far more evil and scary than the Force-wielding Inquisitors were in Obi-Wan Kenobi.  I love all the time the series spends with the ISB (Imperial Security Bureau).  But the most effective example of the Empire’s evil was in the prison Narkina 5 three-parter in episodes 8-10.  This was a heartbreaking and brutally intense storyline that made the evil of the Empire realer to me than in any previous Star Wars story.  It was magnificent.

I loved that this season was twelve episodes, the longest of any live-action Star Wars TV show so far.  (I wish it was longer!!)  I love that the show utilized the storytelling model of the animated Star Wars: The Clone War show, dividing most of the season into three-episode story-arcs.  That was a terrific approach, giving the season a strong rising-and-falling narrative progression.  It’s almost like we got four awesome Andor movies.

There is not a weak link in the season’s structure.  The opening three-parter re-introduced us to Andor, developing his backstory (as an orphan taken from a planet where all the adults had apparently been killed) and his life on Ferrix.  I loved the way this community was brought to life, with the show taking the time to show us all sorts of wonderful little details to flesh out this world, from the awesome bell-ringer to the way the work-people all hung their gloves up outside of their work-area (some sort of dump for old tech).

The second three-parter tells the story of Andor’s first mission with a Rebellion cell, a heist of the Imperial payroll on the planet Aldhani.  I loved this heist story; I loved the new cast of characters introduced as we meet Andor’s team for the mission.  I loved how the world and characters on Aldhani were fleshed out with the same degree of attention and care and depth that the people on Ferrix were.  I quickly fell in love with these new characters, and when many of them met bad ends in episode six, it was painful.  It’s amazing that the show was able to do such a great job developing these characters in just three episodes.  When the heist finally arrives in episode six, it is an extraordinarily tense, white-knuckle affair.

After a stand-alone episode seven, episodes eight through ten were the Narkina 5 prison three-parter, and this was the highlight of the show for me.  I love that for these three episodes, suddenly we were thrown into an entirely new world, which (are you noticing a theme here?) was brought to life with riveting detail and populated with yet another array of remarkably compelling characters.  These three episodes were magnificent, a deep dive into the unending horrors of life under Imperial rule.  And when the prison break finally arrived (as of course I knew it would) in episode ten, it was staggeringly tense and exciting and heartbreaking.

The season concluded with a two-parter which brought most of the show’s main characters back to Ferrix for a series of showdowns.  After the third episode ended, I wasn’t sure if we’d ever return to Ferrix and those characters.  I was sad at the thought that we wouldn’t see most of those characters again, and also excited by the show’s boldness in moving the story in other directions.  In the end, the show succeeded in having it both ways.  I was delighted that we periodically returned to Ferrix to witness the tightening of the Imperial grip there, and by the time the season finale arrived, it felt 100% right to me that the characters and the show were once again focused on Ferrix.

There are so many amazing characters on this show to discuss, I don’t know where to begin.  Let’s start with Diego Luna as Andor himself.  He’s great on the show!  I’d mentioned above that I wasn’t sure there was much more to do with Andor than what we’d already seen in Rogue One.  I’m glad to have been wrong.  I like the mixture between intensity and gentleness that Diego Luna brings to Cassian Andor.  It’s wonderful to meet his mother and his friends; it only intensifies the tragedy that we know how his story is going to end in Rogue One.  This is what prequels are supposed to do, when they work.  Getting to spend time with Andor over the course of these twelve episodes is a slow twisting of the knife of Rogue One.  That is a compliment!  (It’s pretty wild that, by the end of season two, we will have spent far more hours with Cassian Andor than Luke Skywalker…)

For me, the standout character on the show is Stellan Skarsgård as Luthen.  Mr. Skarsgård is magnificent as this rebellion cell leader, with the kahones to be living right under the Empire’s nose on Coruscant itself.  There’s a scene early on in the show in which we see Mr. Skarsgård transform, alone on his ship, from the tough-as-nails resistance leader we’d seen on Ferrix into the character he plays as a wealthy, carefree Coruscanti art dealer.  It is an extraordinary acting master class in just a few seconds.  And when it comes time for Luthen to deliver a bring-down-the-house monologue (to his plant within the ISB) late in the season, it is an incredible moment and a top-tier Star Wars scene.  (And wow, what a beautifully-written speech!!)  I assume that Luthen will be dead by the time season two ends and Rogue One arrives; though I’d also love to discover that he was still alive and operating during the events of the Original Trilogy…

Also magnificent on the show: Genevieve O’Reilly as Mon Mothma.  What a story Ms. O’Reilly has as this character!!  Mon Mothma was originally played by Caroline Blakiston for a short but pivotal scene in Return of the Jedi.  Ms. O’Reilly played Mon Mothma in Episode III, but was cut from the film.  She was brought back to play the character in Rogue One and in the animated Star Wars Rebels.  And now here she is again, with a huge role in this series.  It’s not immediately obvious that Mon Mothma would be in a Cassian Andor show, but her inclusion was a brilliant idea, and her storyline on Coruscant was one of my absolute favorite aspects of the show.  It is a pleasure to finally get to explore who Mon Mothma is and what her life was like, living a lie as a Senator under the Empire while also pulling together the strings of what would eventually become the Rebel Alliance.  It is wrenching watching Mon Mothma go through what she experiences on this show (oy, her husband and daughter!!), and Ms. O’Reilly is brilliant.  (The scene in the finale in which Mon Mothma brilliantly picks a fight with her husband in her limo, while playing on the fact that she knows her driver is a spy eavesdropping on her, is incredible.)  Bring on Mothma, the Mon Mothma spin-off show, please!

Then there is Denise Gough as Dedra Meero.  I love how the show utilizes Dedra.  They get us to root for her, because she’s an intelligent, hard-working woman trying to get ahead in an office full of asshole men.  And, of course, then you experience the cognitive dissonance of realizing that you are rooting for the horrible, evil fascist to succeed.  It’s tremendous, a perfect blend of smart plotting and writing with Ms. Gough’s intense, compelling performance.  Her bright eyes command one’s attention when watching her on screen.  As I’d noted before, I love everything on the show dealing with the ISB.  It’s great fun to explore this sub-culture within the Empire.  (We first glimpsed an Imperial in a mysterious white uniform all the way back in the original Star Wars, and then we learned more with the character of Krennic in Rogue One.)

I loved the whole gang on Ferrix: Adria Arjona (Good Omens) is wonderful as Bix.  It’s cool to see her as the smart, brave, early version of a Rebel that we want Andor to become.  And it’s devastating to see what happens to her when she’s captured by the Imperials.  I hope we get a lot more Bix in season two.  Fiona Shaw (Petunia Dursley in the Harry Potter films!!) is spectacular as Maarva Andor.  I love this fierce woman, and seeing her video be the spark that lights the powder keg in the finale was so satisfying.  Joplin Sibtain was great as Andor’s buddy Brasso (I thought for sure he was a goner multiple times), and James McArdle was perfectly jerky as Bix’s boyfriend Timm.  (Weirdly basic name for a Star Wars show!)  Abhin Galeya is great as Salman Paak, the salvage shop owner who gets hung by the Imperials, and Muhannad Bhaier is strong as his son.  And then, of course, there was B2EMO.  I hated his too-on-the-nose name, but I loved everything else about this droid, yet another gloriously lovable and memorable Star Wars droid.  I loved his look, I loved his voice (he’s voiced by Dave Chapman), I loved this droid (and my heart broke seeing him left alone after Maarva’s passing at the end of the season).  (And I love that Brasso agrees to spend the night with the lonely little droid!!  Most Star Wars droids are not treated nearly so well!)

In the Aldhani heist storyline, we got to meet Faye Marsay as Vel (I loved the way the show slowly teased out her “rich girl” background and connection to Mon Mothma) and Varada Sethu as Cinta (who is heroically/tragically more devoted to the Cause than she is to her relationship with Vel).  (It’s nice to see a lesbian relationship in Star Wars, even if it’s just at the edges of the show.)  Alex Lawther is wonderfully heartbreaking as doomed, young, manifesto-writing Karis.  Ebon Moss-Bachrach is great as the tough-minded Arvel Skeen, who immediately butts heads with Andor.  Gershwyn Eustache is solid as former Stormtrooper Taramyn Barcona, as is Sule Rimi as Lieutenant Gorn, the Imperial officer working with the Rebels.  Stanley Townsend is great as Commandant Jayhold Beehaz, who runs the Imperial Garrison on Aldhani.  This character is a great example of what this show, under Tony Gilroy’s supervision, does so well.  He’s only in a few scenes, but he’s so memorable.  All it takes is that one great scene with his wife and son for us to understand exactly what sort of prick this guy is.

Kyle Soller is terrific as Syril Karn, the hateful incel who causes so much trouble over the course of the series.  What a great villain.  I kept wondering throughout the show whether or not he was on an arc of redemption.  Not so far; though I can’t wait to see where his story goes in season two.  I adored Kathryn Hunter’s performance as his agonizingly nudgy mother.  I could watch the two of them arguing at the table while Syril eats breakfast cereal forever.  Rupert Vansittart is fantastic in his brief appearances as Syril’s Pre-Mor boss Chief Hyne, whose wise counsel Syril immediately ignores, leading to so much trouble.  Alex Ferns is wonderfully despicable as Pre-Mor Sergeant Linus Mosk, who is eager to head to Ferrix to knock heads.

Speaking of despicable, there’s Alastair Mackenzie as Mon Mothma’s husband Perrin Fertha.  He’s so immediately unlikable that I spent a lot of the season wondering if he was an Imperial spying on Mon Mothma.  What we gradually discover is even worse: he’s just a jerk that Mon Mothma was married off to at a very young age.  Bronte Carmichael is wonderfully hateful as Mothma’s spoiled, mean daughter Leida.  Ben Miles is great as Mon Mothma’s childhood friend Tay Kolma.  I kept thinking that the show was building towards Mon Mothma’s daughter causing trouble because she’d think that Tay and her mother were having an affair.  I still wonder if that might happen in season two.

On the ISB side of things, I loved every second that Anton Lesser (Qyburn from Game of Thrones!) was own-screen as Dedra’s boss, Major Partagaz.  I loved this fast-talking, arrogant Imperial.  In the Star Wars Prequels I hated that we had to sit through meeting after meeting… but here, every ISB meeting scene we got was thrilling.  I could watch a whole ISB spin-off show!  Again, brave to Tony Gilroy and his team for their sharp writing.  Jacob James Beswick is great as Heert, Dedra’s assistant.  (I love the moment in which he speaks up at an ISB staff-meeting and we see that, although he’s been helpfully supportive of Dedra throughout the show, he’s still an Imperial jerk and he’s willing to throw her under the bus in order to get ahead.)  It’s also great fun to briefly get to see Malcolm Sinclair as Colonel Wullf Yularen, the head of the ISB.  We first met this character in the original Star Wars (he’s the dude wearing the white uniform in the Death Star meetings) and he was developed as a friendly Rebellion starship captain in the animated Clone Wars series.  It’s been established that Yularen went on to head the ISB under the Empire, so it’s a super-cool piece of connection to see him here.

I can’t believe I’ve written so many words so far about Andor and I’m only now coming to Andy Serkis’ performance as Kino Loy, the floor manager on the Narkina 5 prison.  Mr. Serkis’ character might have been my favorite character on the show.  It’s an astounding, incredible performance by the great Mr. Serkis, who reminds us again and again and again that he’s not just a brilliant mo-cap performer, but that he’s a world-class actor.  What a great character, what great writing, what great acting.  I loved every second Mr. Serkis was on-screen.  He’s immediately attention-grabbing; his intensity is compelling, and I was instantly wondering who this guy was and what his deal was.  The show quickly allows us to learn more.  Was there a more triumphant, fist-bumping moment on TV this year than Mr. Serkis’ dramatic line reading of “never more than twelve” at the end of episode nine???  Amazing.  (Mr. Serkis played Supreme Leader Snoke in the Star Wars sequel films; I’m so glad they were willing to bring him back to play another character.)  And was there a more emotionally wrenching moment than Kino’s realization that he can’t swim away at the end of the prison break, and how the rush of the crowd pushes Andor away from him?  That we never actually saw what happened to Kino was perfectly tragic.  Amazing.

I loved that they brought back Duncan Pow as Ruescott Melshi.  (He’s the guy who escapes Narkina 5 with Andor.)  I didn’t even realize it until reading online after episode 10 that Melshi had a small roll in Rogue One.  (He perishes on Scariff, along with Andor.)  Now THAT is the type of subtle connection that I love to see.  It’s not an obvious fan-pleasing reference; it’s a cool piece of world-building and connective tissue.  Sticking with the Narkina 5 gang, Christopher Fairbank was terrific as poor, old Ulaf, and Adrian Rawlins (James Potter in the Harry Potter films!) was also note-perfect in his brief appearance as the medic Rhasiv.

Elizabeth Dulau is great as Kleya, Luthen’s assistant in the antiques shop on Coruscant.  I love how brilliant and focused she is — more so even than Luthen, at times!  I loved her confrontation with a panicky Fell in episode eleven.

What a show this is!  What an incredible array of characters!

Other thoughts:

  • It’s interesting that the show opened with Andor’s looking for his sister, who we met in flashbacks.  But then she was completely dropped.  I assume she’ll come into play in the second season?
  • (Aside: I listen to the terrific Star Wars podcast The Bad Batch, hosted by Devin & Derek Faraci, and in their recap of the first episode, one of the hosts shared a very funny internet joke from that opening scene in the brothel, which was basically “bad news, nerds: sex is now canon in Star Wars.”  That made me laugh a lot.)
  • I was a little confused about the timing of the flashbacks to Andor’s youth on the planet where all the adults were missing/killed.  They mention Republic gunships at one point, but I also think they say that the planet suffered an Imperial mining accident.  So I wasn’t sure where in the timeline those scenes were set; in the later days of the Republic or the early days of the Empire?  (Were the dead people on the crashed ship that Andor and the other kids found Separatists? But the tech inside the ship looked Imperial… so I am confused.)
  • I loved that the security officer villains in the early going of the season weren’t Stormtroopers.  It was cool to see the show explore how the Empire utilized private security firms to enforce their vision of “order” across the galaxy.  It’s only when the Pre-Mor group screws things up, and the ISB takes an interest, that Stormtroopers get involved.
  • And when the actual Stormtroopers get involved, it’s nice that they feel dangerous in a way they haven’t for quite some time in Star Wars.  There are many examples in this show of how they made the Empire scary again.  I loved the moment, early in the Aldhani three-parter, in which the Rebel cell is walking through the mountains and a Tie Fighter buzzes them.  Suddenly a single Tie Fighter is scary again!!  That was very cool.
  • I loved getting to actually see the Senate (from the Prequels) during the Imperial era.  I loved seeing Mon Mothma and others on their floating Senate pods.  I want more of this!  (We know that the Senate — which we saw so much of during the Prequels — was active all the way until the first Star Wars movie, in which Tarkin says that the Emperor has dissolved the Senate “and the last vestige of the old Republic has been swept away”.  I’d love to explore even more about what was happening in the Senate during this time, who was doing what, what the Senators felt about what was happening, etc.)
  • I loved the design of the Narkina 5 prison.  I loved the stark white interiors (intentionally reminiscent, I’m sure, of the oppressive world of George Lucas’ film THX 1138).  I loved all the details about how the prison was run by just a few guards, with mostly other prisoners serving as overseers, and with the constant threat of electrocution from the floors used to keep the prisoners in-line.  I loved that the exterior of the prison looked sort of like the Imperial sigil.  Great stuff.
  • How awesome was Luthen’s ship — with some sort of lightsaber weapons attached to the exterior?!!  Amazing!
  • There’s not too much spaceship action on this show, but when it comes, it’s awesome.  I loved the sequence of Andor and the gang’s escape through “the Eye” at the end of the Aldhani heist, and Luthen’s brief encounter with (and escape from) an Imperial ship was terrific.
  • On a show that is 1) a prequel to Rogue One and 2) all about the early days of various Rebel cells, I was delighted that they brought back Forest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera.  We get two incredible, tense scenes between Saw and Luthen that were highlights of the show for me.  I’m also glad Saw’s weird-looking alien henchman was back (and I loved that Luthen called him “tubes”!!)

OK, I could write about this show forever.  Andor was everything I want a new Star Wars story to be.  It fit beautifully into the pre-established universe, but at the same time it told new stories with (mostly) new characters, on new planets and in new situations.  It was sophisticated and adult, with rich, nuanced characters.  The writing was sharp and visually it was gorgeous.  I cannot ask for anything more.  (Except for them to not make us wait until 2024 for season two!!!  Aaaargh!!!!)

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