clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘Andor’ Triple Premiere Recap: All Lone Wolf and No Cub

Tony Gilroy’s prequel to a prequel is an unlikely candidate to break the mold, but the ground-level look at life in the galaxy is making ‘Star Wars’ feel fresh

Disney Plus/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

A man walks into a bar. He’s a hard man who knows how to handle himself; he had to grow up early. His emotions and expressions are inscrutable. A victim of galactic turmoil, he lost his home and his parents at an early age. As an adult, he’s in exile from a world that the Empire destroyed. He’s searching for someone, and maybe he’s searching for something. He doesn’t care much for manners, and after entering the bar, it doesn’t take him long to run afoul of the patrons. He quickly claims a life in a way that suggests that this isn’t his first kill.

I could be describing the first scene of the premiere of either The Mandalorian or Andor. Here’s the difference: In The Mandalorian, the bar is just a bar. In Andor, the bar is in a brothel.

That’s not the only difference between the introductions to Disney’s formative and most successful Star Wars series and to its latest bid for streaming supremacy, but it’s a significant one. As tone-setting scenes go, Andor’s opening—in which Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor stalks through a red-light district en route to a high-priced bordello—doesn’t take long to telegraph that we’re not in Nevarro or Mos Espa anymore. The first shots—from director Toby Haynes’s lens and from Cassian’s blaster—double as shots across the bow of anyone who wanted more of the same sort of Star Wars story. When the Security Inspection Team’s chief inspector says, “They were in a brothel, which we’re not supposed to have,” he could have been a Disney exec sending notes on the script.

The milieu of Morlana One’s euphemistically labeled “Leisure Zone,” where the brothel isn’t supposed to be, feels and looks less like Star Wars than Blade Runner 2049. That’s the first of several signs that this series is set to deliver a much-needed shock to the Star Wars system and teach a 45-year-old franchise new tricks. As its first three episodes (which premiered on Disney+ on Wednesday) make clear, Andor is the rarest commodity in franchise storytelling based on high-profile IP: something new under the sun. Not the twin suns, either—you won’t find Tatooine here.

Andor arrives at a time when genre fandom is drowning in prequels, products of the pressure to milk recognizable brands for all they’re worth. Strange New Worlds, House of the Dragon, and The Rings of Power, whatever their virtues, aren’t intended to reinvent Star Trek, Game of Thrones, and Lord of the Rings, respectively. If anything, they traffic in tradition. Judged purely by its premise, rather than its results, Andor seems designed to do the same. It’s a prequel to a prequel, about a character and a movement whose fates are frozen in carbonite. As with Obi-Wan Kenobi, which suffered from how hemmed in it was by prequels and sequels, we know how most aspects of this story end: We’re aware that the incipient Rebellion will beat the bad guys, and that Cassian, a character created for Rogue One, won’t survive to see its triumph. That makes Andor an unlikely candidate to break the mold and make Star Wars feel fresh.

Star Wars doesn’t have to feel fresh to feel fun. Fortunately, Andor does both. Much of the pre-release hype for the series centered on its ambition to be Star Warsfor adults”—a grounded, darker, and more mature vision of this galaxy than we’ve seen on screen. It delivers on that goal from the get-go. Unlike Mando, Cassian kills in cold blood as well as in self-defense. (Just as Andor does when we meet him in Rogue One.) And though the new show has its comedic moments, the cast doesn’t include comedians—another aspect that sets it apart from The Mandalorian’s opening act, which worked in Horatio Sanz and Brian Posehn.

Maybe the most obvious difference, though, is that unlike The Mandalorian’s premiere, Andor doesn’t try to seduce viewers with Star Wars signifiers such as an iconic bounty hunter’s helmet, stormtroopers, or alien and droid designs borrowed from the original trilogy (let alone a miniature Yoda). The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett were ways for Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni to play with live-action versions of the action figures they—and much of the audience—grew up with. Andor is showrunner and writer Tony Gilroy getting to create his own action figures from scratch.

Earlier this summer, Disney debuted a Star Wars–themed bar of its own, a real-life cantina called Hyperspace Lounge aboard the Disney Wish cruise ship. In a preview of the experience published last year, concept designer Nick Snyder teased the Star Wars scenes that would play on screens inside the establishment, saying, “There are just hundreds of Easter eggs in these things. We literally have every toy [spacecraft] that Lucasfilm has ever created.” The message seems to be that the way for adults to do Star Wars is to immerse themselves in a corpus of existing Star Wars stories, drinking “Skywalker Sparkling” ($50 per glass) while ensuring that not a single memberberry will wither on the vine.

Andor lives at the opposite extreme of the Star Wars reference spectrum. There are so few callbacks to preexisting Star Wars in the first three episodes of Andor that the cottage industry of Star Wars Easter egg aggregation may have to call off the hunt. It’s not just that there are no Jedi, no Sith Lords, no stormtroopers, and no bounty hunters. It’s that there’s barely any of the Star Wars wallpaper we expect to see in the backgrounds of these stories: the familiar starships, aliens, animals, and droids that reward fans for paying attention, make people point at the screen, and assure the audience that it’s in the right place. Those sights are so scarce in this series that the glimpse of a bantha figurine on Cassian’s night table, or a gonk droid or kubaz in a crowd, made me do a double-take.

Andor is distinguished as much by the absence of such Star Wars markers as by the presence of a pleasure den. This series doesn’t devote itself to killing the past; instead, it doesn’t think about the past at all. That’s not to say that Andor doesn’t look like Star Wars; it absolutely seems situated within the same universe as other Star Wars series and movies. So far, though, its personal piece of that property is roped off from the rest. Now we know why Luna still hasn’t had a chance to discover the texture of Jabba.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind when a show steeped in Star Wars’ past uses the bantha as bait to pull people in. The Mandalorian rules. It is, in a sense, a series made for me, and for fans like me who pick up on and care about deep cuts and crossovers with Filoni’s animated series. I’m the same guy who’s done deep dives into every episode of both Favs/Filoni shows, complete with Easter egg exegeses. Even so, it’s incredibly liberating for a lifer like me not to keep my eyes peeled for creatures from Rebels, droids from the ’70s, or Kowakian monkey-lizards roasting on spits. I imagine it might also feel freeing for viewers who aren’t as into the Outer Rim of mainstream Star Wars not to worry that they may be missing out.

Andor is denser and less lighthearted than other Disney+ series—though it’s far from humorless—but its blank-slate spirit makes it as accessible to Star Wars neophytes (and as likely to create converts) as anything made during the Disney era. As Gilroy told Collider, “Our show is designed so that this could be your entry point into Star Wars.” Or as he put it to Variety, in language that only a studio exec could love, “In a really abundant way, we’re creating a lot of IP.” (More stuff to spin off!) He also promoted its appeal to Star Wars veterans who might be in the market for a series that travels in a “completely different lane than what they’ve had before.” This is Star Wars with the serial number filed off—just as effective, but much tougher to trace.

In 2018, Dune director Denis Villeneuve said, “What is dangerous with Star Wars right now is it’s become its own vocabulary.” Gilroy is the guy to coin a new lexicon—not because he loves Star Wars so much, but because he doesn’t. “I’ve never been interested in Star Wars,” he said in 2018, reminiscing about his reshoot/rewrite work on Rogue One. “So I had no reverence for it whatsoever.” Favreau, Filoni, and most other Star Wars storytellers come to the franchise from a place of love. That’s often an asset, but it also leads to a lot of recycling and resistance to change; as Ahsoka once said to Din Djarin, “[Grogu’s] attachment to you makes him vulnerable to his fears.” Gilroy never got attached to Star Wars, and so, he said, he was “unafraid” to tamper with it.

In other words, Cassian won’t be bumping into Ponda Baba and Dr. Evazan purely for the fan service, as he did in Rogue One; Gilroy has repeatedly promised that any encounters with preexisting characters (such as Saw Gerrera and Mon Mothma) will be pure “protein,” not empty calories. Nor is Cassian likely to shepherd any cute creatures, like Mando with Grogu, Obi-Wan with Leia, or the Bad Batch with Omega. Andor is all lone wolf and no cub. Even if this wolf has the face of a friend.

Admittedly, to this point I’ve been talking more about what Andor isn’t than what Andor is. The first three episodes, all of which were helmed by Haynes and written by Gilroy—a three-episodes-per-director structure that the rest of the two-season, 24-episode series will stick to—find Cassian on the verge of taking his first step into a larger world, in the present and the past. In the main timeline, which takes place five years before Rogue One and Episode IV, Cassian is a ne’er-do-well making money however he can on a company planet called Ferrix. (In the illustrious tradition of Better Call Saul, Luna is playing a five-years-younger version of his Rogue One character even though he’s six years older than he was when he made the movie; it’s about as convincing as it was when Jonathan Banks and Giancarlo Esposito tried it, though it matters more here because Cassian is seemingly supposed to be young.) He has a criminal record—insurrection, destruction of Imperial property, and assault on an Imperial soldier—a penchant for petty theft, and no apparent prospects, though the ladies seem to like him because he’s a scoundrel.

On the same night his adoptive mother, Maarva (Fiona Shaw), frets that he’ll get himself into trouble he can’t talk himself out of, he attracts the wrong type of attention from two corporate security guards as he’s searching for his sister at the brothel on a nearby planet. When they try to shake him down, he feigns surrender, lures them close, and fights back—but his resistance goes wrong when he accidentally kills one of the men with a surprisingly lethal backward headbutt. The other begs for mercy, but Cassian kills him too, this time intentionally. This is the moment that marks the end of his old life.

Cassian, we quickly learn, is a liar. He lies to the guards, he lies to Maarva about where he was, and he asks his best friends—endearingly run-down and disconsolate droid B2EMO (a George Lucas–level on-the-nose name) and scrapyard laborer Brasso—to lie on his behalf. “You look like a wreck,” Brasso says with some fondness. “Make yourself useful.” Would stealing the plans for the Death Star do?

At this point, the Rebellion barely exists, and Cassian lacks a cause. But he has the skills of a spy: the confidence and slick tongue of a con man, the ability to blend in and observe his surroundings, a facility for flying, technology, and tools and, under the shiftless and disaffected façade, the anger of a future true believer. “Tell me now,” he yells at the second guard after the tables turn. “Tell me what to do! Let’s hear it, boss!” He’s ready to be the one holding the blaster, not the one having it held to his head.

In the brothel, one of the soon-to-die guards sees Cassian’s scowl and says, “That is a hard look for a little thing like you.” In the scenes from the past, which are interspersed throughout the three episodes and presumably set sometime during the Clone Wars, we discover that Cassian had a hard look when he was a lot littler than Luna. Kid Cassian—then called Kassa—lives on Kenari with a band of other children and teens, including Kassa’s younger sister. Like the Yellowjackets post-plane crash, they live off the land, apparently without adult aid. One day, a ship goes streaking across the sky and crashes in the distance. The kids decide to explore the crash site, and Kassa insists on painting his face and joining the foraging party, leaving his sister behind. We don’t know what happened to this group’s parents, but en route to the wreckage, Kassa spares a long look at a derelict facility—an abandoned, deep depression in the ground. Perhaps this is where whatever it was went down.

In the present, Cassian makes plans to escape. On top of his other untruths, he’s been holding out on his old flame and current black-market conduit, Bix. (To be fair, she’s also been skimming from him.) He has a big-ticket item to sell, an untraceable, mint-in-box NS-9 Starpath unit that he stole from the Empire. Bix (played by Adria Arjona) has a contact off world who buys her secret stock, and as a favor for Cassian, she summons him so Cassian can get paid and depart before the fuzz catches up with him. But her concern for Cassian raises the hackles on her assistant/slam piece, Timm, who’s not happy with their one-night-out-a-week, keeping-it-casual deal. Jealous of Cassian’s connection to Bix, and suspicious of her mysterious errand-running, Timm rats out his perceived rival to the authorities, who are looking for a Kenari native. Unfortunately for Cassian, Bix must have mentioned to Timm during pillow talk that Cassian’s ID from Fest is a fake.

That the law is after Andor at all is a testament to the tenacity of ambitious and despised deputy inspector Syril Karn (Kyle Soller, who steals at least some of the spotlight). One of the series’ inspired decisions is to leave the Alliance and Empire out of the action early on. We know we’re eventually going to get to the eve of galactic civil war, but we start with smaller stakes. These security contractors control the Free Trade Sector as the Empire’s local lackeys, but discipline is loose, competence is scarce, and motivation is missing. The chief inspector decides not to inspect what happened to Cassian’s victims too closely: Ruling their deaths an accident is the safer route, the one that will keep their crime stats solid and the Empire out of their hair. He orders his deputy to sweep the incident under the rug, but Karn wants to be in the big leagues: He applies spit and polish, stands ramrod straight, and spruces up his uniform with pieces of flair. (“Pockets, piping … and some light tailoring,” he confesses under questioning.) In his head, he’s no doubt fitting himself for the chief inspector’s duds, and ideally an Imperial officer’s uniform.

“Don’t put your feet on my desk in my absence,” the chief inspector warns Karn, but his deputy does more than that. He launches a full investigation, which eventually leads to his quarry. Karn stares at a holo of Cassian’s face with the intensity of Javert contemplating Jean Valjean; this crook could be his ticket to power and privilege. Karn is exacting and committed, with the capacity to be cruel, but he’s also inexperienced, by-the-book, and hopeless at inspirational speeches. Nor does he see that folks on Ferrix “have their own way of doing things,” which doesn’t include warm feelings for the Corporate Tactical Forces. In Sergeant Linus Mosk, however, he meets a right-hand man who sees him as a means of restoring order and getting to play soldier. “There’s fomenting out there, sir,” Mosk warns. “Pockets of fomenting.” He isn’t wrong. (Speaking of Mosk: Never before has a Star Wars series so aggressively harnessed the firepower of fully armed and operational British and Scottish accents.)

Back on Kenari, the kids find the ship’s crew, covered in the residue of a noxious yellow gas. Although they all appear to be dead, one survivor comes to and blasts the head girl before he’s felled by the blow guns of the Yellowjackets. All of the kids turn back, carrying their fallen leader—except for Cassian, who makes a fist and enters the fallen ship, as fearless as Rey on Jakku. Inside, he releases his rage by destroying instruments, until he’s interrupted by three other scavengers: Maarva, a male companion, and B2EMO, who’s looking a lot shinier than he will on Ferrix. Another ship is approaching, so for Cassian’s safety, Maarva sedates him and brings him to her ship, separating him from his sister.*

*A few aspects of Cassian’s Kenari origin story are still unclear. The downed ship’s crew members seem to be wearing a uniform with a Separatist insignia, yet Maarva says the kids killed a Republic officer, and that Kassa will be in danger when the Republic frigate arrives. Which side was the crashed ship on? Moreover, what happened to Kenari, and when? In the present timeline, we learn that the planet was abandoned after [an] Imperial mining disaster,” that “everyone died,” and that the planet is prohibited and “considered toxic.” That could explain the deserted facility and the absence of the kids’ parents, but if the disaster occurred when Kassa was a kid, wouldn’t it have predated the Empire? Is a greater disaster still to come, or is the Empire acting as if it’s always existed? Or is the mining disaster a cover story for something else?

On Ferrix, Bix’s buyer turns out to be in the market for more than stolen equipment; he’s hoping to hire the thief. Luthen Rael (played by Stellan Skarsgård) is a Rebel leader, and he sees something in Cassian. As with Anakin meeting Qui-Gon, Luke meeting R2 (and via hologram, Leia), Rey meeting Finn, and Mando meeting Grogu, Cassian’s encounter with Luthen is the springboard that will vault him away from his hardscrabble life and kick off his hero’s journey.

Luthen has studied his target. He knows that the Empire killed Cassian’s father—presumably Maarva’s companion, who became Cassian’s adoptive dad—and hung him in the square. “Don’t you want to fight these bastards for real?” he asks. Before Cassian can fight the Empire, he and Luthen have to fight their way off of Ferrix, with assistance from the community (whose haunting, low-tech alarms aren’t just “bluff and bluster”). Perhaps ill-advisedly, Andor leaves Karn alive, but most of Karn and Mosk’s men don’t make it. “That’s what a reckoning sounds like,” Maarva says to her corporate captors. “You want it to stop, but it just keeps coming.” The Emperor doesn’t foresee it, but it’s coming for him too. (Sadly, the reckoning arrives first for Timm, who tries to make up for his treachery in a futile attempt to free the far more capable Bix. We’ll miss you, man.)

In a touching montage of timelines at the end of Episode 3, past Maarva lifts off with Kassa as Cassian leaves with Luthen; past Maarva smiles to have gained (OK, kidnapped) a son as present Maarva weeps to have lost him. As we watch multiple Cassians confront their future, an exchange between Cassian and Luthen looms large. “They’re so proud of themselves, they don’t even care,” Cassian says about the Empire, his words drenched in disdain and resentment. “They’re so fat and satisfied, they can’t imagine … that someone like me would ever get inside their house, walk their floors, spit in their food, take their gear.”

In the next five years, that gear is going to get a good deal more valuable, as Andor levels up from a Starpath unit to a superweapon. Luthen, who builds his exits on the way in, can already envision the endgame. “These days will end, Cassian Andor,” Skarsgård guarantees in his gravelly voice. “The way they laugh, the way they push through a crowd. The sound of that voice telling you to stop, to go, to move. Telling you to die. Rings in the ear, doesn’t it? … But they’ll think about us soon enough. Soon enough, they’ll have something else to listen to.” Karn could learn from Luthen’s oratory.

Aesthetically, there’s plenty to appreciate in Andor’s three-part premiere. (Which was either an attempt to wrest attention from its fantasy competitors, or a concession to the lack of a real climax to the first two episodes.) The supporting cast is universally strong, the world looks suitably lived-in, and the synths and drums in Nicholas Britell’s score lend drama to the proceedings. And despite the overriding darkness, the dialogue lightens up at times, from the large, lumbering Vetch’s, “He said all I needed to do was stand here,” to Mosk’s “Well said, sir. Inspiring.”

We already know that despite his crimes, Cassian will “leave it better than [he] found it”—the “Cassian way,” as an acquaintance says sarcastically in the premiere. I don’t know if I need to see each step of his transformation, but I’m here for the minor moments that most Star Wars series and movies might omit. B2EMO gets a golden shower from a feral Ferrix hog hound. Timm guiltily accepts the first Star Wars booty call. Work gloves hang on the wall instead of trooper helmets on spikes, and laborers have a cold one when their day is done. Most memorably of all, a worker proudly rings in the dawn and the dusk by pounding a bell high above the city. He takes care with his craft, holding and hitting just so; to him, this task matters as much as levitation or lightsaber practice does to a Jedi, and Andor affords it the same respect. This offers lingering glimpses of social strata that Star Wars often overlooks—the kind you can’t see in the few seconds it takes Obi-Wan to clock out of the sand-sushi assembly line on his way to be a hero.

These are the functionaries and factory workers who make the galaxy go ’round while somewhere, the Skywalkers and Palpatines are trying to rescue or conquer it. Even amid the upheaval, most people are punching timecards, going along to get along, trying to make ends meet. The kids on Kenari are akin to the natives on the mining planet of Morak, the ones Mando and Migs Mayfeld drive by in The Mandalorian’s second season. There they’re a blur; here they’re in focus. One gets the sense that if Andor were set on Cloud City, it would be about Bespin security, the Tibanna gas miners, the ugnaughts, and the droid that said “E chu ta,” not Lando and Lobot.

Andor will offer the most complete live-action look yet at how the groundwork was laid for the Empire’s undoing, and odds are it will soon start exploring the larger political picture. But its early episodes’ somewhat meandering, ground-level look at a small slice of the galaxy makes a strong first impression. “I don’t think Rogue really is a Star Wars movie in many ways,” Gilroy said a few years ago. Andor isn’t really a Star Wars series—not quite the kind we know. But maybe it’s broadening the definition of what we think a Star Wars series is, by following Cassian’s playbook: Just walk in like you belong. “I came looking for something more, and I think I’ve found it,” Luthen tells the future Rebel. Three episodes in, viewers of Andor can say the same.