When Diego Luna's Cassian Andor made his first appearance in Rogue One: Star Wars Story and shot an ally dead to make his way out of a sticky situation, it was clear that he was a different type of Star Wars character. Not only was he doing something that would normally get you branded as a villain in the world of Star Wars, but he also did it because he was a Rebel.
Disney+'s Andor seems to be garnering the lowest streaming numbers of a Star Wars series, but, in this humble critic's opinion, it is by far the best of the bunch. The acting and production is excellent on its own, but what stands out the most is the show's maturity. Many have been arguing that Andor feels more adult because it has Sex (it doesn’t really), but I'd argue that Andor feels more adult than your typical Star Wars or even Disney+ fare because of the way it portrays the way it portrays the many different realities of fascism and the realities of rebellion.
As someone who has considered the Disney+ shows mildly enjoyable to boring, I did not go in to Andor with particularly high hopes. But it only took the first couple episodes to grab me. The turning point, for me, was an understated scene in which fanatic Syril Karn (Kyle Soller) brings the case of two dead Pre-Mor Authority security officers to his superior, and the superior not only guesses exactly what happened but also orders Karn to dismiss the case. I was delighted. Not only was an Imperial officer being shown as smart, but he was also being shown as practical.
The live action depiction of Star Wars has never been particularly nuanced in its portrayal of evil or the empire. Villains are usually bad for the sake of being bad, to garner endless power, or to laugh as worlds burn. But one thing that really stands out about Andor is its portrayal of the Imperials as mostly reasonable and intelligent people. Evil doesn't always look like Force strangling your opponents or laughing gleefully as millions die. Sometimes, it looks like people in an office making decisions that will lead to the oppression and death of others. Oftentimes, evil is practical, pedestrian even.
"Oftentimes, evil is practical, pedestrian even."
Sure, there's a character or two that is over the top (shout out to you, Syril Karn), but that's not a huge deviation from real life. There are over-the-top people in real life, but not all evil comes from fanatics, and evil is rarely one note (and it isn't all about tragic backstories either!). In Andor, we see the menacing reality behind evil, especially systemic evil, and the nuances and sinister elements that go into the extremes of fascism that we see appear in the Star Wars universe.
We see the many different ways that fascism can affect people, from Mon Mothma's relatively sheltered life as a wealthy senator, to Cassian's bleak home planet, to the Empire's treatment of indigenous peoples, to the even more exploitative prison system. And we also see how the Empire manages to maintain itself through fear and 'lawfulness,' through cracking down on dissenters, and through general apathy. This comes across particularly well in the contrast between Mon Mothma's senate scenes, where people simply find her a bore, and Cassian's experience in the prison, when prisoners corner him for news on an important prison measure, and he replies that people outside aren't talking about it at all.
That portrayal of societal apathy, especially when it comes from those least effected by the Empire is also contrasted by the rise of the Rebel Alliance and the understanding that the reason why Empire cracks down so much on dissenters is because communal action changes things. The terrible reality is paired with a solution, though a solution still laden with complications.
Because fascism is portrayed as created and run by actual people, we don’t get a cowboy story where everyone you shoot happens to conveniently be either a faceless bad guy or someone so awful that there's no moral confusion around their being killed. The camera doesn't cut away after the shot.
We cheer at seeing a bomb go off and Cassian escaping, but then we see people that the bomb injured, and we see the previously one note fanatic cop genuinely mourn his killed coworkers. While there is never any questioning of whether or not the Empire is really bad or not, Andor recognizes that a blaster shot isn't just a flash of light across the screen. A blaster shot is also a body falling to the ground. It's also someone dying. And when you're right, that doesn't mean that you're not killing people. It doesn't wipe away blood and gore.
In Andor, we are not presented with a neat narrative where every good action leads to only good consequences. The same action that inspires regular people to rise up can also lead to even more brutal prison treatment. Though it is comforting to believe that you're in the right and everything you do will always be right, and the other people are wrong and all worthy of death, that is rarely the truth in life. Similarly, it's also easy (though a different type of easy) to think that everything is equally bad, and we can't do anything about evil at all— (shoutout to that over-simplistic 'your side is also just as bad' moment in The Last Jedi). What Andor presents is not a sort of 'the good guys are just as bad as the bad guys' kind of grey, but a realistic grey where there is good and bad, but there is no clear or comfortable.
"Andor doesn't present towering symbols of the light against the dark, but stories about people who maintain the system of evil and the people who rise up against it, and all that entails, even the difficult parts."
At the end of the day, the reason why Andor seems more real than other Star Wars is that it doesn't try to explain everything away into easily processed versions of good and bad. It looks at evil as dangerous but also human-made. And it looks at rebellion also as human-made and sometimes terrible (though obviously necessary). Andor doesn't present towering symbols of the light against the dark, but stories about people who maintain the system of evil and the people who rise up against it, and all that entails, even the difficult parts. It refuses to look away from the ugliness of conflict, and it refuses to explain it away, and in this way, it feels like the most honest story that Star Wars has told about imperialism so far.
Andor airs Wednesdays on Disney+ now through its season finale on November 23.