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‘Andor’ Does More (For the ‘Star Wars’ Universe) With Less

Even as it illuminates Cassian’s backstory, the latest ‘Star Wars’ series expands beyond its namesake and avoids the pitfalls of past prequels and spinoffs

Disney+/Ringer illustration

In Episode 5 of Andor, almost everyone ate breakfast, or at least bickered at the breakfast table. Some characters conducted drills, performed inspections, or traipsed across Aldhani, while others waited, worried, and wondered what would happen there. Still others popped pills and did paperwork. Nobody discharged a blaster, and the closest thing to a set piece was one TIE fighter flying by.

Good episode!

Even if I tried to punch up that plot summary, I’d have a hard time making a synopsis of “The Axe Forgets” sound exciting. Admittedly, “exciting” would probably be an overbid; “absorbing” may be more the mot juste. Yet there is something exhilarating about watching creator Tony Gilroy—aided once more by brother and writer Dan Gilroy and director Susanna White—try to stick a square streaming series into a round hole and somehow have it fit perfectly. This week, Andor doubled down on its status as slow-food Star Wars. It’s not the sort of viewing experience that drew most fans to the franchise, but for many, it might be the kind that keeps them there (or brings them back).

“The Axe Forgets” lets its audience steep in the fearful calm before an offensive—not just the small-scale raid on a lightly garrisoned base on a semi-backwater world, but what that strike will signify. Until now, it seems, the incipient Rebellion has stuck to the shadows, stealing tech across scattered systems in such a way that the pattern eludes all but the seemingly space-Adderall-powered Dedra Meero. This operation is an escalation, one that demanded months of planning and revolves around Imperial payroll records—an odd target for common thieves. If the mission succeeds, the organized insurgents’ existence will be harder to hide, and the larger conflict, in Luthen’s words, will “just be starting.”

Andor is just starting, too, but five episodes into the series’ scheduled (pronounced shed-you-ulled, in honor of Andor’s legion of U.K. character actors) 24 installments, the foes and uneasy allies in Cassian’s orbit are even more compelling than the main man. Disney+ centers the series’ titular protagonist in the loglines for each episode, as with this week’s “Cassian must carefully navigate the distrust inherent in being the new member of a secret operation.” But as Luna has said, “It’s quite unfair to have the show being called Andor, because it’s about a community. It’s about so many people. It’s an ensemble piece of many characters that are part of this story.” That wasn’t false humility: Andor’s supporting cast is collectively its star so far.

That’s not to say that Luna and the private, twitchy Cassian aren’t entertaining too; it’s just that they’re known quantities compared to the fresh figures and faces that fill out the rest of the call sheet (or in Mon Mothma’s case, the familiar figure and face who’s gotten scant screen time). The first three live-action Star Wars series were all eponymous: The Mandalorian featured a new character inspired by an old one, while The Book of Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi brought movie actors and characters to Disney’s streaming service. The latter two series’ reliance on icons whose histories and/or futures were constrained by canon made it harder for them to break new ground, and Obi-Wan, especially, was so beholden to preexisting characters that its one new addition, Moses Ingram’s Reva, was an awkward fit. While it was nice to see Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen again, we learned little about Obi-Wan and Darth Vader that we couldn’t have inferred from previous (and subsequent) projects. Constructing stories around big names from the big screen enabled those series to be billed as events, but it made the results seem small.

Andor, by contrast, features fewer fireworks and firefights than its streaming predecessors, but its focus on the micro makes its setting seem almost limitless by highlighting how little we’ve seen of the vast Star Wars universe. Andor is fleshing out Cassian’s backstory more than Rogue One could in the film’s few allusions to its protagonist’s past. (Though like last week’s episode, “The Axe Forgets” forgoes the flashbacks that studded the three-part premiere.) But documenting how the young Cassian became the current Cassian, or exactly how the current Cassian becomes the one we meet in the 2016 movie, isn’t the only hook here, or even the primary one. Gilroy could have called this series Madine or Dodonna or Rieekan or Klivian, if any of those shows could have gotten a green light. The character of Cassian Andor is a delivery system for a more sweeping, specific, largely untold narrative, one that knows there may be millions of stories in the naked cities of Coruscant, Kenari, Ferrix, and Aldhani. Syril Karn can’t quit Cassian’s holographic face, but the series isn’t so fixated on one star that it’s lost sight of the galaxy.

We’ve known Mon Mothma the composed, courageous Rebel leader; now we know Mon Mothma the mother of an exasperating teen and wife of a petulant husband who pretends not to know their driver’s name because he knows it gets her goat. While we pity the senator for her unhappy home life, one imagines that her family has reason to resent her; they’ve likely come in second many times to her overriding drive to free the galaxy from Imperial oppression. It’s a worthy cause, but it comes at a cost, as it does for everyone in this series: the Rebels, who’ve spent several months eating roots and sleeping on rocks; Luthen, who lives a double life and lives in fear of being discovered; Lieutenant Gorn, who’s risking his hide as a traitor to the Empire. Some, like Nemik, are motivated by manifestos and high-minded ideals. Others, like Skeen, Gorn, and (soon enough) Andor, are fueled by revenge for lost partners, dead brothers and fathers, and even destroyed stands of centuries-old trees. The Empire doesn’t just subjugate people. It also devastates their surroundings. No one can “win and walk away” from this conflict; the scars stay forever.

At this stage, the Empire hasn’t blown up any planets (though the Death Star’s construction is well underway). But it has, in a sense, already destroyed some, as it’s done on Aldhani by driving the natives away from their homes. The Empire’s misdeeds in Andor are all the more disturbing because of how pedestrian their perpetrators appear, in the absence of the movies’ superpowered villains. Officers on Aldhani don’t Force choke incompetent underlings; they threaten to revisit the schedule for winter furloughs. On Ferrix, a captain pleads for a promotion, acknowledging, “I know it doesn’t come with extra pay.” Supervisors in the Imperial Security Bureau don’t use the dark side to probe people’s minds; they stay late and read reports. Meero, in her way, may be as convinced as Nemik that she’s one of the good guys. The Empire is too sprawling for every individual to be evil, and some simply may not realize that they’re on the wrong side. But it takes willful ignorance not to see the rot at the core—the kind that can cause a xenophobic corporal to casually insult the Aldhani while making small talk with his superior officer. It’s not so large a leap from that dehumanization—or, er, de-Aldhanization—to genocide.

In Star Wars, empires and republics rise and fall on an improbable timescale. As Nemik remarks, “It’s so confusing, isn’t it? So much going wrong, so much to say, and all of it happening so quickly. The pace of oppression outstrips our ability to understand it.” There’s also a lot about Andor we don’t understand. Why were those crew members on the “Republic” ship wearing Separatist insignia, what disaster befell Kenari, and how did Kassa get permanently separated from his sister? What does Syril’s Uncle Harlo do, and how will Karn—whom I watch, whenever he’s on screen, as intently as he stares at Cassian—pick up his quarry’s trail? Which “foundation” did Mon Mothma start, and who’s her new Rebel recruit? Where are Vel and Cinta going when they split off from the rest of their squad? Will Andor devote more time to their relationship than The Rise of Skywalker did to its blink-and-you’d-miss-it same-sex kiss?

For now, I’m content not to know, and to savor the sights I haven’t seen and lines I haven’t heard in live-action Star Wars. Gilroy can get only so much mileage out of being “so un-Star Wars-y,” as Karn actor Kyle Soller called his character’s trip home—an interlude consisting of blue milk, knockoff Cocoa Puffs, and the kind of blows to one’s self-esteem that only a parent can dole out. But in an era of prequel proliferation, the charm of a well-written, beautifully filmed, and novel view of a long-running franchise won’t wear off quickly.

Just as this series doesn’t seem like the same old Star Wars, it doesn’t feel a lot like traditional TV. The Gilroys have more movie credits than small-screen experience, and the elder Gilroy has structured the season more as a sequence of three-act mini-movies than the usual discrete servings with culminations and cliffhangers. Andor might make a better binge than a weekly watch, when it’s all said and done, since some episodes end at almost arbitrary stopping points. “The day before is always hard,” Cassian says. So is the lull that precedes a midseason climax.

Andor does have set pieces; we saw some fierce fighting on Ferrix, and next week will presumably provide more intense action as Vel’s team takes the field. What’s more, the series’ restraint when it comes to dipping into the Star Wars well makes the helpings it does dispense extra thrilling. Forget about Sith lords, Inquisitors, or the Crimson Guard; five episodes in, we still haven’t seen a single stormtrooper. And while a massive space battle makes a whole wing’s worth of TIE fighters look like a cloud of easily swattable gnats, the lone TIE fighter that buzzed the puny, unprotected Rebels in this episode—briefly deafening them with its roar and disturbing the earth in its wake—felt more menacing than a superweapon, putting into perspective how audacious it is to take on the whole Empire.

“By the time you’ve remembered to sit up straight, it’s too late,” Syril’s mother says. “You might as well wear a sign that says, ‘I promise to disappoint you.’” It’s not as if Star Wars characters haven’t squabbled during breakfast before, but Andor’s relatively slow and dense unspooling may have already disappointed some Star Wars fans who expected (and craved) the franchise’s typical pace and tone. For those who’ve responded to its different recipe, though, Andor is delicious even when it’s served plain. And if those who aren’t sold stick with the series, they may discover that a taste for slow-food Star Wars can be acquired. As Nemik knows, a surprise from above is never as shocking as one from below.