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Episode 8 of ‘Andor’ is ‘Andor’-ier Than Ever

In the longest episode of Season 1 so far, ‘Andor’ takes its protagonist to prison, but the show’s best qualities can’t be contained

Disney+/Ringer illustration

“Breathe deep, brother,” a fellow inmate tells Cassian Andor as the captives enter Episode 8’s eponymous prison facility, Narkina 5. “This may be the last fresh air we ever taste.”

Breathing—or being unable to—is a theme on Andor this week. There’s unit manager Kino Loy asking Cassian, “You just takin’ a breather?” when Andor pauses for a split second on the prison assembly line. There’s Cinta, rebuffing Vel’s plea for a little together time by demanding, “You think the Empire stops to catch its breath?” And there’s Bix, expressing her concern about the condition of the newly radicalized but increasingly fragile Maarva: “Your breathing sounds weak.”

Neither Cassian nor the audience has had a lot of time to relax and breathe deep during the events of Andor—not since a soon-to-be-executed corpo examined his already lifeless colleague and told Andor, “He’s not breathing” back in Episode 1. Cassian could have accepted Skeen’s offer at the end of ”The Eye” to “catch our breath, split up the winnings, and walk”—a callback to Andor’s dubious declaration, in Episode 5, “I’m here to win and walk away.” Instead, he shot the turncoat, and his attempt to get away from the war at a beach resort on Niamos went awry when a walk to the store landed him in prison on a six-year sentence (foreshadowing his death on a beach on Scarif).

This is Andor, not Obi-Wan Kenobi or even Rogue One—or, for that matter, Tales of the Jedi, the touching animated miniseries that launched alongside the latest installment of Andor on Wednesday—so all this trouble breathing doesn’t come from a Force grip of the windpipe. It comes from the yoke of the Empire, an invisible but more restrictive choker than Syril’s stiff collars. “The Empire has been choking us so slowly, we’re starting not to notice,” Luthen said last week. Everyone’s noticing now.

Like Cassian’s unjust incarceration, these references to suffocation evoke real-life oppression. Star Wars has always aimed for political allegory—as an explicit response to the Vietnam War and a coincidental commentary on the Iraq War—and that impulse is evident in Andor, from last week’s allusion to PATRIOT Act–aping “surveillance, search, and seizure” legislation, to the ’94 Crime Bill–esque Public Order Resentencing Directive, to the tones of a tut-tutting Trump supporter evinced by the guest at Mon Mothma’s soiree who says, “Palpatine’s frustrating, yes, we agree. Too easily provoked? Yes. Overreactive, but … [he] says what he means.” (How often, I wonder, does Darth Sidious spout big lies from @realSheevPalpatine?)

Like a lot of great art, and most superb science fiction, Andor holds up a mirror (as Cinta does to Vel) and shows us “what [we] need to see.” But Andor’s message isn’t intended only to express a political viewpoint; it’s also supposed to tell a gripping story, and it does. “Narkina 5,” the longest episode of the series so far, is an hour of unrelenting tension. Cassian is in prison, and by the end of the episode, Bix is in custody too, with suffering in her future; the way the door closes as she cringes in her chair echoes a similar shot of Princess Leia awaiting torture in her Death Star detention cell. Andor is adept at depicting the galaxy-wide, society-spanning consequences of the conflict between the Empire and Rebels by illustrating its impact on downtrodden, proletarian characters—something we don’t really see on, say, House of the Dragon—and Andor and Bix are both in their current predicaments (and Maarva is so winded) because of the brave but morally murky Aldhani raid.

Virtually every character is trapped in a prison of some sort: Syril Karn, beholden to his obsession with Cassian and enclosed in his stiffly starched outfits and his claustrophobic cubicle, where he stares at Severance-style computer screens. (Star Wars, it seems, will always be bound by a 1970s design aesthetic when it comes to technology, no matter how anachronistic its rudimentary displays appear.) The equally buttoned-up and buttoned-down Dedra, always on guard against rivals within and rebels without, whose idea of downtime is drugging herself so she can read reports and rack up ISB overtime hours. Vel and Cinta, whose duty keeps them as separated as George and Michael Bluth in an Arrested Development prison scene. Mon Mothma, who has to hide her intentions and feelings from not only her political opponents, but her husband. “I just can’t imagine living here, Mon,” Tay told her in Episode 7, as they strolled amid latticework that looked like a cage. “Like this … no escape. Just this glimpse of what it’s like here, what you have to do. It can be challenging.” (At least the floors aren’t electrified.) Even the less scrupulous Luthen, who lives in fear beneath his own protective facade, and the completely uncompromising Saw Gerrera, who’s living his truth but, relatedly, “hiding in cold caves.”

So yes, Andor may mention in passing on a news broadcast, as it did last week, that “134 Aldhani residents have been taken into custody under suspicion of abetting the terrorists.” But it’s not just telling us that crackdowns and cultural erasure are occurring; it’s showing us the full ramifications, for innocent bystanders and not-so-innocent leads alike.

Andor is unstinting in its attention to the nitty-gritty of its protagonists’ predicaments. Compare Andor’s extended prison sequences to the franchise’s previous live-action portrayals of incarceration and servitude, such as the Death Star detention block in Episode IV, the spice mines of Kessel in Solo, police headquarters on Canto Bight in The Last Jedi, or the correctional transport in The Mandalorian. Those were unpleasant places for our heroes to visit and disrupt, not to stay in and suffer. Cassian, presumably, will also escape somehow—one imagines that this three-episode arc, directed by British TV veteran Toby Haynes and written by Beau Willimon (House of Cards), will culminate in a prison break, as “The Eye” paid off in a heist. But although this prison is situated on a watery moon—like Nur, home of the Fortress Inquisitorius—its panopticon shape and the whirlpools that surround it suggest that it’s not a place one can easily swim to, as Cal Kestis and Obi-Wan do on Nur in Jedi: Fallen Order and Obi-Wan Kenobi, respectively.

Life on Narkina 5 really looks like hell, from the THX 1138–style nondescript decor and lack of privacy to the constant threat of physical punishment and the insidious way in which avoiding that punishment pits the prisoners against each other and spurs them to make more widgets for the Empire. (One of the more disturbing aspects of Andor’s depiction of fascism is its many mundane reminders that evil isn’t limited to Sith Lords, as well as the way the Empire deputizes people to do its bidding and turn on each other without lifting a finger itself—see Syril, Kino, and the late Timm.) The capriciousness of sentencing only adds to the misery: How can you count down the days when the number of days might suddenly double, through no doing of your own? It’s terrible to contemplate the monotony and dehumanization Cassian has already endured when we see him 30 shifts into his term—shifts, not days, the latter of which must have little meaning on Narkina 5. After one episode, it’s all too understandable why someone would choose to escape (in a sense) through one fatal surge of electricity rather than countless lesser shocks. Rebellions are built on hope, and Narkina 5 is where hope is lost.

It’s also easy to grasp how the prison operates. We know roughly how it’s laid out and how order is maintained, and because the series takes the time to give us our bearings, we can closely observe and probe for vulnerabilities as Andor does—and, perhaps, despair of ever finding one. As Luthen declares about the Rebellion, “Vulnerability is inevitable.” Narkina 5 must not be impregnable either, but this episode made finding a weak spot seem daunting enough that Andor’s deliverance, whenever it comes, will have high stakes. The challenge posed by escape stems partly from the fact that—even more so than Rogue OneAndor rehabilitates the Empire’s rank and file, making troopers and soldiers seem more competent and intimidating than the bumbling bad marksmen other Star Wars series mock. (The squabbling, careerist higher-ups are often another matter; in addition to eschewing direct deposit, the Empire evidently doesn’t fingerprint prisoners, which means that “Keef Girgo”—not to be confused with Greef Karga—still hasn’t been ID’d as Andor.) Cassian, quite appropriately, looks scared.

In an interview this month, creator Tony Gilroy teased some inciting event that forces Cassian to choose sides. “There’s a pivotal moment where he can no longer pretend that he’s completely unaffected by the Empire anymore,” Gilroy said. “He can no longer pretend that he’s gonna be a mercenary. He can no longer have one foot in and one foot out.” That comment seemed to bode ill for Maarva, Bix, or both, and maybe it still does. But what Andor is already going through seems like reason enough to enlist. “Oppression breeds rebellion,” Luthen says, and Cassian is certainly feeling the weight of the Empire’s heel.

While Andor is isolated, other characters are connecting for the first time, linking the series’ disparate story strands. Syril’s cereal-eating may be at an end, as his incessant records requests about Cassian bring him to Dedra’s attention and set up a riveting scene between the two one-track-minded investigators. (“Can one ever be too aggressive in preserving order?” Karn asks. Luthen is banking on it.) Although they haven’t teamed up yet, Karn will likely keep laboring to make himself useful to the supervisor. Meanwhile, Vel and Cinta spy on Bix and may be in position to rescue her—or, for that matter, eliminate her to protect Luthen’s secrecy. (We know now that Kleya wasn’t freelancing when she sent Vel after Andor: Luthen cosigned that assignment, though we don’t know for sure that he wants Andor dead. If he does, Cassian may be safer in prison.) Finally, Meero meets Bix. The cast is coming together.

Slowly but surely, so is the ensemble of Rogue One. In prison, Andor meets Melshi, who’ll also die on Scarif as part of the ragtag Rogue One crew. (We don’t know what machine Narkina 5’s prisoners are building cogs for, but would it shock anyone if Andor and Melshi were assembling pieces of the Death Star, which will one day destroy them and whose destruction, in turn, they will help bring about?) And on a new planet named Segra Milo, Luthen tries and fails to find common cause with Gerrera, whose presence in Rebel circles always spurs debate about tactics and ethics. (As it happens, this is right around the time that Saw abandons Jyn Erso to protect his Partisans.)

Relative to his Rogue One appearance, Gerrera looks less machine now than man. We don’t need Bor Gullet to know the truth about his stance: “I am the only one with clarity of purpose,” he declares, questioning who Luthen is and what he wants. The fact that he consents to meet with Luthen at all—and that Luthen seeks his assistance—speaks to the philosophical divide between Luthen and Mon, who’s no fan of Saw. But Luthen’s conversation with Saw highlights the lack of trust and coordination across Rebel cells, despite their common enemy; Saw is unswayed by Luthen’s case for unity, and Luthen won’t confide in Gerrera about his own role in the Aldhani raid, even though Saw would likely approve more than Mon did. As Major Partagaz noted in Episode 4, the ISB’s mission statement doesn’t truly describe what it does. Nor is the Rebellion always what it says on the label. Maybe Luke Skywalker can keep his nose clean when he comes along later, but his antecedents have to get down and dirty to get off the ground. Thus, the language of Andor’s good guys and bad guys sometimes sounds a lot alike: “Systems either change or die,” Partagaz said last week, mirroring Luthen’s comment that his network “grows or it dies.”

Speaking of death: We know where Cassian, Saw, and Mon are when Rogue One begins and ends. The fate of Luthen, a seemingly crucial instigator of resistance who appears nowhere else in the Star Wars canon, is one of Andor’s main mysteries. The fact that he’s on the ISB’s radar as “Axis”—which isn’t far from “Fulcrum,” a common codename for early Rebel agents—and that he sloppily associated himself with Cassian and Bix (both of whom are in enemy hands), doesn’t seem like an auspicious sign. “Everything says something,” Syril’s mom said last week, which also applies to almost every line and image in Andor.

It’s a treat to see Stellan Skarsgard’s and Forest Whitaker’s characters spar; Whitaker reprises the role of Saw with his usual slightly unhinged energy, which is one of this episode’s (and series’) many acting attractions. Andy Serkis—who played the sequel trilogy’s Supreme Leader Snoke, with some CGI assistance—returns to Star Wars as Loy, this time looking like himself. While it’s always nice to see Serkis outside the motion-capture suit, I would have welcomed a prominent nonhuman character; with apologies to Vetch and Dr. Quadpaw, Andor has doubled down on the franchise’s longstanding anthropocentrism.

Amid all the action—and with Andor’s dialogue, “action” doesn’t really require blasters to be fired—”Narkina 5” makes time for some minor, welcome tidbits of backstory. Cinta seems to hint at Vel’s history (and question her stomach for the fight) when she references “a rich girl running away from her family.” (Which might also describe the origins of the Waif, Faye Marsay’s character on Game of Thrones.) The putdown—the kind that comes out unbidden at times in real relationships—smacks of Andor’s to Jyn in Rogue One: “We don’t all have the luxury of deciding when and where we want to care about something.” Then there’s the revelation that Mon Mothma married the perpetually flirting, Epicurean, Empire-apologist Perrin at age 15, even before she became a senator at 16; Tay would have been the better match, but back then, we learn, Perrin was “the academy firebrand.” (People change, which is one argument against getting hitched at 15.)

It’s reassuring that Mon didn’t give her heart to Perrin when he was like this. As I explained last week on House of R, though, Mothma is an establishment figure who was born into power and privilege and steered toward a mate; the path laid out for her didn’t include armed insurgency. Now both the government and the marriage she devoted herself to are in tatters, and she’s struggling to reinvent herself both professionally and personally. Hence her clashes with Luthen (and, perhaps, her sparks with Tay).

Every week, Andor gives me more reasons to praise it. Yet it seems that the series isn’t as popular as the live-action Star Wars series that preceded it; the series has lagged behind The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, and Obi-Wan Kenobi in both Nielsen ratings and audience demand (though not by as much in the demand department as was initially reported). Some of that shortfall can probably be traced to going head-to-head with House of the Dragon, The Rings of Power, and She-Hulk. But unless and until we learn that the audience swelled after those rivals’ runs finished, the early returns will dismay me, for multiple reasons.

First, I’d prefer for the maximum number of fans to draw the same sustenance from the series that I am. Second, I want Lucasfilm to make more out-of-the-box Star Wars. Whether it’s a huge hit or merely a mild audience, Andor will run for two seasons, with the second running right into Rogue One the way Rogue One ran into Episode IV. But how Andor does could have an outsize impact on the course the saga takes. With the caveat that interest in Andor could have a long tail, as word of mouth, year-end buzz, and award consideration drive viewers to it, the series is something of an experiment, one that Lucasfilm had to be talked into. The outcome of that experiment could dictate future development. As an advocate—before the debut of the extremely cinematic Andor, at least—for mixing in Star Wars movies with the onslaught of Star Wars shows, I can cross my fingers that the rumored Damon Lindelof movie might fit that bill. But it’s all too easy to imagine the stewards of Star Wars deciding that while the critical acclaim for Andor was welcome, what matters most is audience size and subscriptions, and that the best way to drive those is to pump out projects named after more prominent legacy characters.

If you’re going to let people enjoy things, you have to let them dislike things, too. When I watch “Narkina 5,” I understand why a fan of previous Star Wars stuff might bounce off Andor. Heck, I wasn’t sold on the series’ premise; not until the trailer did my interest skyrocket. “Narkina 5,” like most episodes of Andor, is great TV, but it’s also a harrowing one; in its bleakness and devotion to detail, this may be the Andor-iest Andor episode yet. Lately, the series has been largely humorless, too. Early episodes sprinkled in occasional levity, but conditions are “all different now,” as Luthen says, and maybe humor can’t coexist easily with misery and revolt. I reject the suggestion that Star Wars fans should expect to turn off their brains before boarding the ride, but it’s true that historically, live-action Star Wars hasn’t been quite so serious, so dense, and so cut off from the Force. Fans of the franchise haven’t been taught to expect this from Star Wars, and those in the market for a series such as this may not know to find it on Disney+.

I hope they do discover it, though, and that the holdouts give it every chance to change their minds. On Narkina 5, work crews that fare well win taste with their food, and the top table earns full-on flavor. With Andor, TV viewers who long for taste and flavor from their IP entertainment are winners every week.