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‘Andor’ Episode 9 Breakdown: The Empire Is Scarier Without Sith Lords and Superweapons

By avoiding Darth Vader, the Death Star, and the dark side of the Force, ‘Andor’ has foregrounded the disturbing banality of the Empire’s evil

Disney Plus/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

The ninth episode of Andor opens on Imperial Security Bureau supervisor Dedra Meero, who turns to face the camera as if revealing her true self for the first time. At the start of the series, Dedra was a semi-sympathetic figure, despite her Imperial parking pass: a hypercompetent woman in a male-dominated and prejudiced department; a big-picture person in a forest of regulations and red tape; a driven alarm-raiser in a sea of complacent, self-important pencil-pushers and drowsy flunkies. It was possible to see her as more misguided than malicious, a candidate for the good kind of face turn after an epiphany about being the baddy. Here, however, her mask of decorum is removed, though the expression we see is still coldly composed. She cracks her neck and trains her dead-eyed gaze on captive Bix Caleen, who awaits whatever ordeal is in store. “You’re ISB, aren’t you?” Bix asks. “Worst of the worst.” Dedra doesn’t deny it. “You seem to enjoy this,” Bix continues. Dedra doesn’t deny that either. Her words say she prefers a conversation to a torture session. Her hungry smile says otherwise.

In 1961, the author, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt traveled to Israel to cover the trial of former SS official Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Nazis’ so-called “Final Solution.” In her dispatches for The New Yorker, which were later collected and expanded into a book, Arendt portrayed Eichmann as an almost run-of-the-mill monster—someone whose motivations and mien scarcely seemed monstrous at all. “Eichmann was not lago and not Macbeth,” Arendt wrote, “and nothing would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III ‘to prove a villain.’ Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all.”

Arendt found this seemingly unremarkable, balding bureaucrat more unsettling than an outwardly malevolent man—a defiant or deranged defendant who clearly looked the part of a war criminal and mass murderer. “The trouble with Eichmann,” she opined, “was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

Many sources have subsequently disputed and refuted Arendt’s characterization of Eichmann as ignorant or undesirous of the horrors he perpetrated. But regardless of whether it truly applied in Eichmann’s case, the phrase she coined to describe him and his ilk—the “banality of evil”—retains its capacity to disturb. An obviously unhinged villain can be identified and avoided or vanquished, even slain. But if villains look like everyone else—or, even worse, if anyone can become a villain, given the right (or wrong) circumstances—evil can never really be rooted out. It can, at best, be kept at bay, only to resurface—rebranded, perhaps, from the Empire to the First Order—the second society’s guard slips.

The Star Wars franchise has long alluded to Nazi terminology, iconography, and history, from its “stormtroopers” to its officers’ uniforms to its Riefenstahl-ian rallies to its chancellor turned tyrant who declares himself Emperor. From the first scene of the first film, the Third Reich–esque Galactic Empire was always evil. But there was nothing “normal” about it: It was evil in an exaggerated, unambiguous way, one coded for kids who were watching George Lucas’s largely lighthearted tribute to Flash Gordon serials.

Darth Vader was huge, helmeted, and armored, distinguished by a booming voice, sinister breathing, and a penchant for Force-choking. Emperor Palpatine was cloaked, hooded, and disfigured, prone to cackling and shooting lightning from his fingertips. The sneering, foul-smelling Grand Moff Tarkin, the most superficially civil and non-superpowered of the Empire’s prominent evildoers, could and did destroy a planet with a moon-sized superweapon. The overtness of the threat the Empire posed to the protagonists made it seem, in a sense, less threatening to us. In a real world without Sith lords, Death Stars, and the dark side of the Force, a kid could watch Star Wars and imagine themself safe.

The Empire of Andor is different. Darth Vader and the Death Star are somewhere off-screen—the former unmentioned, the latter also unacknowledged aside from a stray reference to Scarif. The Emperor is remote and voiceless, the unseen spider at the center of a galaxy-wide web. The villains of Andor’s Empire—the strands of the trap Palpatine has constructed to ensnare thousands of worlds—look more like Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann: bureaucratic careerists, ineffectual functionaries, and competent cogs who at first could be confused for the occupants of a cube farm or Zoom room near you. The actual machinery of the Empire’s oppression makes cameos, at most—a few TIE fighters, some scattered stormtroopers, a briefly glimpsed Star Destroyer. But what Arendt called the “intricate bureaucratic setup of the Nazi machinery of destruction”—that insidious side of the Empire is never far from view.

The ninth installment of Andor—directed and written, like last week’s and next week’s, by Toby Haynes and Beau Willimon, respectively—makes clear that “Enter the bureaucrats” can be as chilling a line as “You may fire when ready.” As usual, the episode is awash with the Empire’s deceptive signifiers of civilization: starched uniforms, spotless conference rooms, orderly lines. This week, though, the show exposes the rotten, routine barbarity beneath the veneer of normality. The Emperor’s minions aren’t just following orders; they’re going above and beyond in their desire to do harm. They aren’t willfully blind to the crimes committed in the name of crushing revolt; they’re well aware of what’s happening, and enjoying it. These are monsters, every one. That they’re seemingly mundane monsters only makes them more pernicious, more frightening, and more difficult to defeat. Evil is scarier without Sith or superweapons.

The first 15 minutes or so of Episode 9 alternates between Bix being interrogated and tortured, and Cassian slaving in the Imperial prison assembly line on Narkina 5, with Bix’s screams blending (via a sort of sonic match cut) with the whirring of the drill Cassian and his crew are using to assemble Imperial parts. (This sequence also pays homage to Episode IV—but whereas A New Hope cuts away from Leia’s interrogation before it begins, Andor doesn’t shy away from Bix’s torment.) Both Bix and Cassian are captives suffering from cruel and unusual punishment, though their cages and trials vary.

Bix’s suffering comes courtesy of Dedra and her friendly-looking sidekick Dr. Gorst, who makes The Mandalorian’s Dr. Pershing look like a stickler for the Hippocratic oath. In an extended monologue, the smiling, pleasant-seeming Gorst—who chuckles as he fastens her restraints—recounts the genocide of the Dizonites, a sentient species that opposed the Imperial presence on their Outer Rim moon. As the Imperials slaughtered them, they recorded the Dizonites’ dying cries—a “choral, agonized, pleading” that the invaders discovered would subject anyone who heard it to extreme distress. Unlike the Alderaanians, the Dizonites’ cries of terror weren’t suddenly silenced. Silence would be a minor mercy. Instead, their anguish was preserved for posterity and modified, layered, and adjusted, in order to induce an unending echo of cries from the Empire’s other enemies.

The cries of the Dizonite children were particularly potent, and thus the Empire fine-tuned them into a torture device, administered via a headset that leaves no bruises but breaks down resistance and scrambles the brain. When Bix begins to listen, the score goes quiet, as if to convey that no earthly sound could capture the horror of what she hears. Not only does Dedra have no qualms about this so-called “interview system,” she relishes it. There’s no need for her to be present as Gorst gets to work, but she wants to watch, even after seeing what the system did to Salman Paak. Speaking of Paak, Dedra acquiesces quickly when another officer, who exhibits the same casual cruelty, says, “I’d like to hang him. What’s left of him, anyway. Make sure they know who’s in charge.” In another demonstration of how irredeemable Dedra is, she refrains from torturing Maarva not because she’s worried about the older woman’s welfare, but because she wants to preserve her best bait for hooking Cassian.

Cassian, standing on a surface that could kill him at any moment, plots a prison revolt. A natural leader, he’s started to take charge and encourage other inmates, both in compensating for Ulaf’s lapses at the table and in probing the prison for vulnerabilities. He files away at a pipe in the wall, keeps a head count of guards, and choreographs the perfect time to attack. At the end of the episode, in a twist worthy of Soylent Green, Cassian and a reluctantly convinced Kino learn that escape is imperative: The ominous power outage that spurred frantic signing between bridges marked the execution of 100 men on Level 2 who’d accidentally learned that at least some prisoners who’ve served their sentences are simply transferred to other parts of the prison. As with Dedra’s darkness, the true nature of Narkina 5 has been laid bare. And now that this knowledge has spread, no one can be allowed to leave.

Resisting the Empire isn’t easy: Visions of courageous defiance are dashed by shots of Bix’s slumped body and slack face, by Dedra’s recounting of the valuable intel extracted from Cassian’s ex, and by the fate of unit 25. But capitulating to the Empire isn’t a way out, either. Dedra concedes that she wouldn’t believe anything her captive could tell her; whether Bix lies or tells the truth, she’s going to get tortured. And as much as Kino tries to talk himself and others into believing that the Empire plays by the rules—which Cassian and Saw Gerrera know isn’t true—the prisoners on Narkina 5 can’t earn their freedom just by staying “on program.” Even if they don’t lose hope and seek oblivion by electrified floor, or get worked to death like Ulaf, they’ll find their sentences extended or restarted.

As Melshi said in Episode 8, “You’re here ’til they don’t want you.” And the only reason they wouldn’t want you is if you’re too downtrodden to work. “I can’t help him,” Rhasiv the med tech tells Kino as he prepares to euthanize Ulaf. “I can’t help anyone.” Rhasiv doesn’t want to know the name of the dying man, and neither do his captors; the prisoners’ identities are erased and dismissed (as are those of the Aldhani, whom the Empire’s bigoted bigwigs see as subhuman). The inmates’ humanity is valued in only one way: It makes them cheaper than droids.

“Another week like this,” Rhasiv says, “and you’ll be begging for what he’s getting.” Another episode like this, and Andor’s audience might be begging for deliverance also. All of this adversity makes for absorbing viewing, but it’s the opposite of the escapist entertainment Star Wars is known for. If none of the characters can escape their plights, Andor seems to be saying, then those watching them shouldn’t receive a reprieve either. (“The Empire doesn’t rest,” Vel observes—another nod to Cinta—and neither does Andor’s audience, until the credits roll.) There aren’t a lot of laughs in Andor these days, and it seems like a long time since we saw the highlands of Aldhani. Almost every recent scene is serious and set indoors, in some enclosed, confining, often antiseptic setting; there may not be doors on these cells, but they’re still restrictive. Mon Mothma lives in luxury, but even she is said (and shown) to be “trapped” and “boxed in.”

Yet in spite of all the hardship the series subjects its protagonists to, Andor isn’t a tough hang or a joyless slog. There’s just too much artistry to savor in the script and on the screen. Take Cassian’s litany as he sits in the cell across from Kino, explaining that “Nobody’s listening!” (the title of this episode) because “they don’t need to care.” We’ve heard him say as much before—in Episode 3, when he tells Luthen, “They don’t even think about us,” and in Episode 6, when he tells Nemik, “You mean nothing to them.” All of which makes it more resonant now when Andor asks in Rogue One, “Do you think anybody is listening?” and Jyn Erso says, “I do.”

While we’re tracking characters’ repurposed sentiments, take note of Vel repurposing Cinta’s admonishment from last week when she reminds Mon Mothma, “The Rebellion comes first. We take what’s left.” Oh, right, Vel: She’s Mon’s cousin, which explains Cinta’s gibe about her being a “rich girl running away from her family.” Mon knows Vel is working with Luthen, but Vel refuses to say how. She does manage to land a direct hit on an unsuspecting Perrin—“All the good ones are taken,” she sarcastically remarks, making Mon smile. (“An unsuspecting Perrin” applies to a lot of topics: Mon’s husband doesn’t suspect that Vel’s “gone political,” or that Vel’s romantic interests don’t tend toward men.) But such smiles are rare for the Chandrilan leader. At work, Mon gets shouted down by opposing senators, who heckle and boo her and yell, “Long live the Empire!” (What is this, the House of Commons?) At home, her daughter reproachfully pouts that her dad “lets me do anything I want.”

Throw in the risk of the Empire uncovering her financial legerdemain—which will force her to seek assistance from Davo Sculdun, a wealthy thug—and it tracks that she’s questioning the actions Luthen has prodded her to take. If Christian scriptures say the son of God wondered why his father had forsaken him and asked if the cup of crucifixion could pass from him, why shouldn’t the mother of the Rebellion in Star Wars say, “I’m starting to think we’re in over our heads,” or wonder, “What have we done, Vel?” Her doubt only makes her more human—and by extension, more inspiring.

As Mon experiences a crisis of faith, Syril Karn has his faith reaffirmed, though he has a weird way of saying so. When he isn’t at work, he waits outside the ISB building, hoping he’ll see Dedra. “Just being in your presence, I’ve realized that life is worth living,” he says after finally accosting her, unblinkingly holding her eyes. “I realized that if nothing else, there was justice and beauty in the galaxy, and if I just kept going, perhaps my deranged belief that there was something better fated for me in the future was a dream worth clinging to.” Also worth clinging to: Dedra’s arm. Grasping her, he tells her intently, “I want what you want. I sense it. I know it.”

Dedra rebuffs him, but like us, she’s drawn to him too; at this point, it’s tough to decide whether Dedra/Syril or Mon/Tay is Andor’s OTP. (Just kidding: It’s Vel/Cinta.) Will we ever see Syril erotically feed Dedra space cereal, or complain because his mom walked in on him in bed with his interrogator-with-benefits? (Given the choice, Syril might introduce his overbearing mother to the Dizonites, as an alternative to drowning her out by slurping blue milk from his bowl.)

Romantic possibilities aside, Syril remains one of the series’ most intriguing, specific, and confounding characters: a zealot who yearns to stand out in a customized uniform and aspires to serve an Empire that imposes conformity; a capable investigator who nearly caught Cassian and is now reduced to catching his mom snooping in his room. Three-quarters of the way through this season, Karn’s arc is unclear. Will he be further radicalized, or redeemed? Will he keep pursuing Cassian, or eventually ally with him? If he’s merely an aimless, lonely young man who found an identity in the Empire, then had he been born somewhere else or to someone else, could he have channeled his passion and desire for purpose in a different direction, and written Rebel manifestos like Nemik (whose intuitive conviction about Cassian mirrored Syril’s about Dedra)?

“Can one ever be too aggressive in preserving order?” Syril asked Dedra last week. We now know how she’d answer—but Syril may yet learn that Dedra and her colleagues aren’t as just and beautiful as he believes them to be. The painfully lingering looks we get at the Empire’s atrocities in this series make it even more menacing than the cartoonishly tyrannical, supernaturally powerful force we first met. When Vel tells Mon that they’re “fighting against the dark,” she doesn’t mean the dark side of the Force; she means the dark side of our souls. “Man produces evil as a bee produces honey,” World War II veteran (and Star Wars fan) William Golding once wrote. In Andor, the Empire’s figurative worker bees have been busy enough that to overcome their evil, the Rebels have to play dirty too. When it comes to degrees of darkness, though, the Dizonites beat Bor Gullet.

This grounded, adult-oriented, and arguably even-eviler Empire also makes Cassian’s suicide mission in Rogue One—and, for that matter, the Alliance’s actions throughout the original trilogy—more meaningful. We knew that the good guys were preventing planets from being blown up, but it’s hard to visualize destruction on that scale: If you zoom out far enough to see all of Alderaan explode, you don’t see any individual Alderaanians die. Now we know, though, that when the Empire falls, it means that the prisoners on Narkina 5—or other hellish facilities like it—will be liberated. It means that innocent civilians on Niamos and Ferrix may be free to walk down the street, and that the Aldhani can return to their sacred valley. And it means that no one else will have to listen to dying Dizonites. That’s tangible.

“The very worst thing you can do right now is bore me,” Dedra tells Bix before the latter’s listening session starts. Inducing boredom is also one of the worst things a TV show can do to its audience. Andor wouldn’t dare: It may be bleak, but it’s never boring, at least in my mind. Even so, these characters’ current plights can’t last forever. “How many guards are on each level?” Andor asks Kino again at the end of Episode 9. This time, Kino confides in him: “Never more than 12.” It’s a testament to Andor’s writing that such a simple line, at the end of a somewhat static episode, hits home like a proton torpedo in the Death Star’s exhaust port.

There aren’t more than 12 episodes in a season of Andor, either. “Time is not unlimited,” Tay tells Mon, and the same could be said of Season 1, which has three episodes to go. The next one will presumably bring a Papillon-style prison break, and further developments in the ISB’s search for Cassian and Luthen: The Empire is at last a step ahead of the Rebels, having captured a pilot who spilled the beans about Anto Kreegyr’s plans to attack the Imperial power station at Spellhaus. Soon enough, the blasters will fire, and the TIEs will fly. But even when Andor keeps it low key, as it has for the past couple of weeks, I’m as caught in its net as Bix is in Dedra’s. The show has made me a captive audience—and unlike Dr. Gorst’s “patients,” I’m happy to listen along.