Episode 1: The Spoils of Empire
It is a time of growing oppression. Ordinary people, without the heft of a famous name or the gifts of the midi-chlorians and a Jedi guardian, must make a choice: Join the GALACTIC EMPIRE and accept a comfortable life of regimentation, obedience to orders, and acceptance of the official line or — something else.
Young CASSIAN ANDOR, an unknown scion of lost cargo cult on a half-forgotten world, has chosen something else. A life on the fringe, in the shadows, leaving as few traces of himself as possible and carefully watching each step. His search for his sister continues on the leased planets of PREOX-MORANA CORPORATE ZONE.
During his investigation, matters go awry. The hunter becomes the hunted. Now one man, increasingly caught in a web of what might be called “imperial entanglements” faces a choice, both for himself and his lost sister, that will alter the future of an entire galaxy . . .
Disney has taken the George Lucas’s Star Wars franchise and turned it into something of a well-run buffet. Whatever you are hungry for, the House of Mouse is willing to supply in seemingly limitless quantities. Screen-filling popcorn entertainment that reminds you of the original trilogy? There’s the Disney Abrams/Johnson/Abrams cycle, which dug up the original three movies, sewed them together, and attempted to jolt them to life with John Williams music. Deeper genre drilldowns? Rogue One (military action/adventure) and Han Solo (good-natured caper/chase with lively characters executing heists) offer that. More Skywalker action? Here’s Obi-Wan. Even Boba Fett, a tour-de-force of art design who mostly stood around looking menacing until his pratfall ending in the Sarlacc Pit has his own chafing dish at the buffet with The Book of Boba Fett. There’s much more to come. Grab a clean plate.
So far, my favorite dish has been Rogue One. Best if you go into this review knowing that I’m prejudiced in favor of this character, admirably played by Diego Luna. There’s only one spoiler, and I’ve already mentioned it — Andor’s search for his lost sister. As it comes up in the first five minutes of the first episode, I consider the mention a venal sin.
To paraphrase Lincoln, Andor is of the Rogue One people, by the Rogue One people, for the Rogue One people. If you disliked Rogue One, I suspect you’ll feel the same about Andor.
But for those not steeped in Star Wars, I’ll just say if you liked the callbacks to World War Two action movies in the original series, you’ll enjoy this flavor of Star Wars. It’s Alistar MacLean-style knife-edge adventure, albeit with blasters, droids, and the scream of ion engines. It’s Dan Abnett’s Warhammer stories of Inquisitor Ravenor with stormtroopers marching on the polished obsidian floors of Imperial installations. It’s The Wire with space travel, or a funhouse mirror of Breaking Bad, with a criminal being forced by circumstance to choose the side of the righteous.
The opening episodes of Andor follow the story of a man flitting back and forth between a meager but Empire-free life and carrying out a series of schemes, thefts, trades, and impersonations in his quest to find his younger sister. We know he’ll rise. In Rogue One he’s a captain in the Rebel Alliance in their intelligence service. This series is the story of how he became a rebel, even before it was a true rebellion. He’s the same man in this: watchful, reserved, poker-faced, unwilling to share anything but the bare minimum about himself. Yet even in the first episode of the series, he’s being noticed as a talent. Someone important is interested in meeting him.
Okay, I’m a sucker for competence porn, and Cassian is competent. In a Howard Hawks movie, he’d be a man John Wayne would describe with the two words that constitute the highest praise in the Hawksian screenwriting vocabulary: he’s good. He puts me in mind of another piece of my favorite movie dialogue, Mickey Rourke’s speech penned by Lawrence Kasdan in Body Heat:
Are you ready to hear something? I want you to see if this sounds familiar: any time you try a decent crime, you got fifty ways you’re gonna fuck up. If you think of twenty-five of them, then you’re a genius – and you ain’t no genius.
Cassian is the kind of guy who’ll think of thirty-five. No matter how dicey the predicament, he manages to stay inside his opponent’s OODA loop (OODA is an acronym for Observe-Orient-Decide-Attack, fighter-pilot jargon that had a brief flare-up of interest in the business world thanks to a TED talk or something, my memory grows hazy as the years advance). Whether it’s a gun to his head or a creditor trying to muscle him about his debts, Cassian has the ability to assess a situation quickly and then make his play and turn the tables on his opponent, very much in the style of the Alistair MacLean heroes of my teenage reading I mentioned above.
I loved the setting, a callback to the Corporate Sector Authority first introduced in the old Han Solo At Star’s End novel, before anyone thought to call it the “Expanded Universe” or argue about what was canon or not. I’ve read people calling it “gritty,” but these days that’s a shorthand for “all these characters are mostly awful” which does a disservice to the Andor milieu. I found everyone at least somewhat likeable. Maybe the world for it is “realist.” The first major scene takes place in a classy brothel in an imaginative red-light district of the corporate-licensed world. Okay, it’s not Deadwood but spicy stuff for Disney.
The subdued humor keeps with the tone of Rogue One. An earthy laugh here and there, some bleak grins, and very well-done cynical chuckles. I imagine the conversation at Lucasfilm going something like this:
KATHLEEN KENNEDY (producer): The consensus is the scripts for season one could use a little more humor.
DIEGO LUNA (exec producer): Really? I suppose I can see that.
KATHLEEN KENNEDY: Who do you suggest for a humor pass?
TONY GILROY (creator and head writer): Werner Herzog.
DIEGO LUNA: Perfect.
Andor fills your home screen with impressive production values. Unlike the other Star Wars television titles that rely on the actors moving through CGI environments, Andor built a major set the old-fashioned way and spruced up real-life locations to fit the art direction. It shows. Costumes are innovative and help tell the story (I loved the wall of heavy work gloves at the mine). I put on my best pair of Audio Technica cans so I could appreciate the quality of the sound design. And the score. The excellent music is by Nicholas Britell, a rising talent in the field. I hope there’s an album one day.
To call myself a critic I have to criticize something. Here’s mine: I didn’t like the flashbacks to Cassian’s childhood. I think the story they tell is strong, startling, and original enough to have that be the first episode. Yes, huge risk, probably more than Disney would care to take: a planet with some castaways on it speaking to each other in an untranslated language for thirty-eight minutes but it would have pricked up some ears and write in an unmistakeably sized font that Andor isn’t just another Star War.
Maybe I can start a movement for a “Knight cut.”
E.E. Knight is an author of sf and fantasy novels who enjoys movies, music, and gaming. He lives in Oak Park, IL with his family.