“I don’t need any surprises,” Cassian Andor said in the first scene of his series. But by Episode 4 of Andor, our antihero has left his home on Ferrix, fleeing (or possibly enlisting) with Rebel operative Luthen Rael, who tells him, “It’s been a day of surprises for all of us.”
Despite expressing a preference for predictability, Cassian, as is often the case, wasn’t being entirely truthful. Even as he expressed his aversion to surprises, Cassian was preparing to spring one on the guards who were hounding him. Granted, he did experience some surprises that weren’t welcome: He hadn’t intended to kill two men, provoke a manhunt, and bring corporate security crashing down on his head, as well as the heads of his friends and family. But whether he knew it or not, Cassian did need a surprise that would snap him out of his Ferrix funk, lend purpose to his shiftless life as a small-time thief, and help him utilize his particular set of skills in the way that would do the most damage to the Empire.
The first three episodes of Andor were the best sort of surprise for Star Wars fans—both those who were hoping for a franchise shakeup and those who, like Cassian, may not have known how much they needed one. In addition to eschewing the typical tie-ins to existing Star Wars stories, the three-part premiere offered an expansive, ground-level look at the forgotten figures who help drive the “reckoning” that’s coming for the Empire—not the “royal family” of Star Wars, as showrunner Tony Gilroy has classified the Skywalkers, but the foot soldiers and spies who, for instance, steal the plans for the Death Star so that Luke can blow the thing and go home.
If the opening episodes explained who might make up the Rebels’ rank and file—and why they would be motivated to put their lives on the line—“Aldhani” starts to supply the “how” and “where” of the burgeoning movement. After all, rebellions aren’t built on hope alone; they’re also built on leadership, bravery, and—more mundanely, but just as crucially—cold, hard credits. When you’re watching A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back, there’s little time to wonder who funded that fleet, why the Alliance is limited to two fighters against a Star Destroyer, or how much abandoning bases shrinks the rebellion’s war chest. But as any fan of Star Wars real-time strategy games could tell you, galactic conflicts require resources, ranging from money to manpower to matériel. In focusing on characters in different theaters of the embryonic conflict—some on the battlefield, and some in the Senate—Andor is offering a micro and macro view of how a civil war started, one that makes time for the tip of the spear and the high-profile patricians who are thrusting it.
This week’s installment, the longest and most sweeping so far, inaugurates a new triptych of episodes, written by Dan Gilroy—Tony’s brother, and the writer-director of Nightcrawler—and directed by Susanna White, who’s no stranger to spy stories or Skarsgards. (She directed Andor’s Stellan Skarsgard in the 2016 John le Carré adaptation Our Kind of Traitor, as well as his son Alexander—who’s done a little le Carré himself—in 2008 miniseries Generation Kill.) Those two make a well-matched team to tackle what Gilroy has hinted will be a block of episodes dedicated to covering Cassian’s—sorry, Clem’s—first exposure to organized, violent revolt.
Of course, Cassian doesn’t come close to hogging the whole spotlight, which is crucial to this series’ success—not because Diego Luna doesn’t play the part compellingly, but because Cassian’s arc alone can’t carry Andor, name notwithstanding. We know where he’s headed, and following the backstory bread crumbs dropped in Rogue One isn’t justification enough for a 24-episode deep dive on his life. Based on the structure so far, Gilroy—like Luna—seems well aware that his show must be more than a Cassian origin story. “It’s quite unfair to have the show being called Andor, because it’s about a community,” Luna recently said. “It’s about so many people. It’s an ensemble piece of many characters that are part of this story.”
Much as last week’s three-episode salvo spread the screen time around, this week’s act splits time between Cassian, his new reluctant Rebel companions, and two of the instigators who are playing a different dangerous game by laying the foundations for rebellion from the Empire’s seat of power. In the Gilroys’ hands, the scope of Andor expands even as the series leaves Ferrix, Cassian’s friends and family, and kid Kassa and Kenari behind (for now). Although this script stays in the present, it brings the good guys and the bad guys into sharper relief, transporting us to a previously unseen planet, the Scotland-looking Aldhani, as well as its polar opposite from a geographic perspective, the familiar galactic capital of Coruscant.
The elder Skarsgard’s Luthen Rael, the man who plucked our protagonist out of one sort of obscurity and sent him into another, isn’t interested in keeping Cassian out of trouble. He just wants to channel that trouble toward achieving his own ends—and, ideally, Cassian’s, if the soon-to-be operative of the incipient Alliance wants payback for the Empire’s role in his adoptive dad’s death and his homeworld’s destruction. (Assuming the Empire was really responsible for whatever happened on Kenari; as noted last week, events in that timeline remain murky.) That’s why Luthen wasn’t daunted in Episode 3 when Bix confirmed that Cassian had murdered the men he was wanted for killing. Having blood on his hands just meant he had preclearance for wet work.
“I’m offering you everything you want, all at once,” Luthen says early in Episode 4, giving the hard sell to his new recruit. “To put a real stick in the eye of the Empire, and get paid for it.” But Cassian isn’t picking up what Luthen’s laying down. He dismissively lumps together the various insurrectionist groups that Luthen might be aligned with, seemingly conflating current factions with those of his youth—a sign that as much as he may resent the Empire, he’s not very plugged into politics. “Alliance, Sep, guerilla, Partisan Front,” Cassian says. (Shouts to Saw Gerrera.) “One of them.”
Luthen, unfazed, answers, “Isn’t it all the same?” It’s a revealing response, suggesting that if Luthen had been in the Rebel base when Jyn Erso asked Alliance leadership, “You’re all rebels, aren’t you?” in Rogue One, he would’ve said yes. Recall Mon Mothma’s answer: “Yes, but Saw Gerrera is an extremist.” Granted, that exchange occurs several years later, but Luthen doesn’t seem to be in the business of turning away enemies of his enemies based on their tactics—desperate times call for Cassian Andor. As Migs Mayfeld told Mando, “We’re all the same. Everybody’s got their lines they don’t cross until things get messy. As far as I’m concerned, if you can make it through your day and still sleep at night, you’re doin’ better than most.”
If Luthen’s a Migs and Mon Mothma’s a Mando, the two may not see eye to eye for long after their fledgling group gets off the ground. Luthen and Andor don’t see things the same way either: They both agree the blocs are the same, but in Cassian’s mind, it’s because they’re “all useless.” Luthen, alluding to Cassian’s small-time crookery, scornfully says, “Better to spit in their food and steal their trinkets.” Andor retorts, “It’s better to live. Better to eat, sleep, do what you want.” Where have we heard that before? Well, likely countless times, in any number of military movies. But the same sentiment has surfaced in Star Wars, too. As Han Solo once said, “What good’s a reward if you ain’t around to use it?”
Cassian, like Han, will eventually get to a point when he’ll risk—and lose—his life for a cause he believes in, not just for a reward. Another link between Cassian and Solo: Both spent time on Mimban, a mining planet where the Empire warred with a local resistance group about five years before Andor. That’s where Han—who’d been expelled from the Imperial Academy and busted down to ground combat—met Chewbacca and Tobias Beckett and deserted to start his smuggling career in Solo: A Star Wars Story. Andor was there too—to hear him tell it, fighting on the opposite side for two years and barely living to tell the tale.
Cassian doesn’t know it, but he’s trying to bullshit a bigger bullshitter than he is. Luthen, whose Andor dossier must be thick, knows that Cassian served as a cook on Mimban and survived only because he deserted too. If we can trust Andor’s assertion that he was 16 on Mimban, then that would line up perfectly with the character’s pre-Andor canonical birth date of 26 years before the Battle of Yavin—which would make him six years younger than Han, and 21 years old when this series starts. (If you say so, Lucasfilm; Luna looks younger than 42, sure, but not half his age.)
“I said I know you,” Luthen says, trying to seal the deal with another stellar Stellan monologue. “I know the outside. I know what people tell me when I ask. The rest, I imagine. I imagine your hate. I imagine that no matter what you tell me or tell yourself, you’ll ultimately die fighting these bastards.” (Luthen’s vision of the future is as spot-on as his grasp of the past.) “So what I’m asking is this: Wouldn’t you rather give it all at once to something real than carve off useless pieces till there’s nothing left?” (That last line could have been the kicker from the “manifesto” Gilroy sent to Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy when he first tried to talk her into green-lighting this show.)
Five years before this scene, Andor was a cook who cut and ran to save his hide. Five years after this scene, he’ll be a dedicated convert who’ll stand his ground and give his life. Halfway between the two Cassians in time, he’s also a blend of both versions when it comes to his courage and principles. He’ll take something “of real value” from the Empire—the quarterly payroll for the entire Imperial sector—but not for free. It’s going to take 200,000 credits, and a down payment of Luthen’s lucky Kyber crystal from Kuat—an ancient relic of resistance against Rakatan invaders. (After the Easter egg desert of episodes 1 through 3, the Gilroys—or whoever’s helping them swap out placeholder text for canonically correct proper nouns—are finally throwing old-lore-loving Star Wars fans a few bones here: The Rakatans, a bunch of bad dudes, were a conquering race first featured in Knights of the Old Republic, a game that has a halting remake on the way.)
Luthen seems to see himself as part of a lineage of tyranny resisters that dates back many millennia; the current oppressors go by different names, but the fight for freedom persists. If Cassian could be turned, he would become a powerful ally, but for now he’s still a mercenary. As such, he won’t be welcomed into the fold by the more committed commandos on the ground who can’t see the big picture like Luthen can—and who haven’t stalked Cassian like Luthen has.
If anyone has a file on Andor that might rival Luthen’s, it’s the foes we meet next in a scene set on Coruscant: the Imperial Security Bureau. The ISB—essentially the space Gestapo—dates back to the beginning of Star Wars on screen. That distinguished, if severe-looking officer who’s sitting next to Admiral Conan Antonio “Haughty” Motti (nickname mine)—the guy who gets autoerotically a-Sith-xiated by Darth Vader—in the Death Star conference room in A New Hope is Colonel Wullf Yularen. Yularen’s snow-white hair matches his snow-white uniform, which marks him as a member of the ISB (not that anyone knew that in 1977; the ISB’s existence and dress code were explained later).
The Bureau’s history in Star Wars literature and animation is extensive—most notably, Rebels antagonist turned ally Alexsandr Kallus was an ISB agent before becoming a double agent and defecting—but it hasn’t gotten much love in live action. (Though in the aforementioned Mandalorian episode, Mayfeld mentions that the base he and Mando set out to infiltrate was set up by ex-ISB personnel.) Thus, Andor may do for the ISB what Obi-Wan Kenobi did for another Imperial agency, the Inquisitorius. By which I mean “make it more visible to mainstream Star Wars fans,” not “make people impatient because they want to watch Darth Vader instead.”
The ISB belongs to a bureaucracy that’s bloated enough to govern a galaxy. Along with its smaller sister service, the CIA-esque Imperial Intelligence—which counts Rogue One’s Orson Krennic among its members—the ISB operates under the umbrella of the Commission for the Preservation of the New Order (COMPNOR), which imposes Emperor Palpatine’s power and ideology throughout the vast Imperial infrastructure that colonized the corpse of the decaying Republic. According to the ambitiously titled 2015 book Star Wars: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know, the ISB consists of several subdivisions, which specialize in a myriad of methods for detecting and eradicating internal and external threats.
Last week, we were exposed to the inner workings of the Security Inspection and Enforcement teams of Preox-Morlana, a corporate conglomerate that oversees the Free Trade sector as an “independent affiliate” of the Empire. That was the bush leagues; this is the big leagues, the sort of shipshape, finely tuned, terrifying operation that Syril Karn must be imagining himself as a fit for when he’s tending to his uniform’s pockets and piping. The complacent Pre-Mor Authority was ill-equipped to capture Cassian, let alone root out Rebel activity, but Luthen and his fellow revolutionaries don’t want to be on the ISB’s bad side.
About the only thing the Pre-Mor Security Inspection team and the ISB have in common—aside from intra-office squabbles and turf wars—is an authority figure played by an English character actor who spent several seasons on Game of Thrones. Unlike last week’s chief inspector Hyne (Rupert Vansittart, a.k.a. Lord Yohn Royce), the ISB’s Major Partagaz (Anton Lesser, known to Ringer readers as “not even a maester” Qyburn) isn’t marking time until retirement. Moreover, his monologue game is as strong as Skarsgard’s.
“Security is an illusion,” he lectures a rapt audience of ISB supervisors. “You want security, call the navy, launch a regiment of troopers. We are healthcare providers. We treat sickness, we identify symptoms, we locate germs whether they arise from within or have come from the outside. The longer we wait to identify a disorder, the harder it is to treat the disease.” (As my colleague Chris Ryan observed on The Watch, Partagaz appears to have cribbed his PowerPoint slides from Ed Norton in the Gilroy brothers’ The Bourne Legacy, who commands a meeting room with a similar metaphor: “We’re here talking about a serious infection, and all we’re trying to do is determine how far it’s spread so that we know how much we have to cut to save the patient.”) From Partagaz’s perspective, Luthen and those in league with him are a dangerous disorder in the New Order.
In addition to Partagaz, we meet two prominent underlings, Blevin and Dedra Meero (Denise Gough). The more established Blevin oversees six sectors, including the one in which Cassian and Luthen have lately been running circles around the local law. Meero, a recent arrival from the ISB’s more freewheeling enforcement arm, controls two, but she’s aiming to climb quickly. She sees Cassian’s case—and the Starpath unit he stole, which she argues gives her jurisdiction—as a springboard to career advancement.
In Meero’s perceptive eyes, the theft and skirmish on Ferrix are “part of an organized effort to steal proprietary Imperial equipment in anticipation of an organized rebellion,” resembling a trio of recent cases that “begin to suggest a pattern” of “coordinated activity across sectors.” However, she’s going on gut instinct, rather than the “vetted and verified information” her superior prefers. When she overreaches and Blevin bristles, Partagaz puts her in her place, referencing a “high bar” for her performance that may be “unfair” but is “senseless to ignore.” Meero is supposed to be more “tucked away,” Partagaz says. “That’s why you’re here. That’s why we’re bringing in officers like you.” One would assume he means women. Something tells me the Empire doesn’t have an equivalent of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Meero is, perhaps, a more competent Karn, though the two seem to be kindred spirits: true believers in their missions whose coworkers can’t measure up to their standards. Speaking of Syril: He’s out of a job, as Blevin fulfills the chief inspector’s worst fears by putting the Morlana system under “permanent Imperial authority.” (I guess that’s what you get for not quiet quitting.) Karn goes home to his mother, who greets him with a slap and a hug, more or less mirroring Maarva’s mixed emotions when Cassian comes home a wanted man. (Kids, right? You give them your whole heart, and they turn out to be either murderers or incapable of catching murderers.) Kyle Soller, who plays Karn, called Karn’s trip home “so un–Star Wars–y,” which is erasure of the heartwarming scene in which Anakin returns to Tatooine to visit his mom and, while he’s in the neighborhood, slaughter the Tuskens who tortured her.
It’s not quite clear how Andor will handle the dual adversaries it’s set up so far: Meero, a cog in a massive machine who’s backed up by the full faith and credit of the ISB, and Karn, a lone actor bolstered by the most powerful force in the galaxy, a mother’s tough love. Karn seemed to fixate on Cassian as he studied the holo of his face in Episode 2, and having a blaster held to the back of his head in Episode 3 can’t have improved his opinion of the slippery Kenari native. Perhaps he’ll pursue Cassian solo, driven by a desire for revenge or to get back in the Empire’s good graces, even as Meero tries to triangulate high-level Rebel activity and convince the ISB’s master of whisperers that she’s not hearing things. However the rest of the season splits time between the baddies, the ISB’s introduction raised the stakes of the series as “Aldhani” elevated the Empire and rebellion from remote entities to concrete realities. (It also allowed for a few references to existing Star Wars locations, including Ryloth, Sev Tok, the Abrion sector, and Arvala-6—next door to Arvala-7, where Mando met Grogu—as well as an ominous reference to “an increase in construction shipments going to Scarif,” where the Death Star’s construction will be completed and Andor will die.)
Fortunately, the good guys have a Game of Thrones actor too: Faye Marsay, who plays Vel Sartha, the leader of an overstretched Rebel cell that’s been training for five months for a raid on the Imperial armory at Aldhani. Even after Luthen talks her into taking on an unknown merc three days before go time—acknowledging that the new rental is “disposable” even as Cassian considers stealing Luthen’s ship—she greets Cassian more or less like the Waif does when Arya Stark tries to join the Faceless Men: “You, who walk in here with a coin you never earned, whose value you do not respect. Who are you?”
Cassian doesn’t claim to be “no one,” but he does use an alias, “Clem,” in honor of his late father—another echo of the first scene of the series, in which the brothel hostess tells Andor, “Nobody here gives their real name.” Then again, Cassian was already using a fake ID, one that said he was from Fest. And unless “Kassa” (as his friends on Kenari called him) was a nickname, he may have been using an assumed name all along. The Gilroys aren’t making Cheers here. “He can pilot. He can shoot. He can lie,” Luthen says. Factor in confidence, confirmed kills, and fluency in at least four languages, and Cassian’s got a great Rebel spy starter kit.
Aldhani is an occupied planet that’s “close to nothing and not very far away from everything,” which would place it much closer to the bright center of the universe than Tatooine. It’s much more verdant, too. If it looks like the Highlands, that’s because it appears to be Perthshire. Andor didn’t just go all in on Scottish accents; it bought stock in Scottish countryside too. (Look, ma, no Volume.) Based on Nemik’s fragile, handcrafted diorama—it tells us all we need to know about these Rebels that rain ruins the glue they used to construct a not-to-scale model of their target—the garrison they’re readying to raid looks a lot like Cruachan Dam, another Andor filming location.
Cassian’s new comrades aren’t any happier to have him forced on them than Vel was; “It’s a bit late for surprises,” says Skeen, who like Cassian is in the wrong line of work if he prioritizes predictability. But Skeen, Nemik, Taramyn, Cinta, Vel, and now Cassian are counting on the predictability of a meteor-shower-esque atmospheric effect, and the pilgrimage of the displaced Aldhanis who’ll congregate to see it, to aid their escape in a slow, stolen freighter from the garrison’s complement of TIE fighters—assuming their man on the inside, Lieutenant Gorn, can get them past the 40-man regiment stationed at the base (and the “Imperial engineer arriving from Coruscant,” whose impending presence has ramped up patrols).
We’ll have to wait a week or two for the outcome of Cassian’s compressed training regimen, but the most intriguing tease in ”Aldhani” takes place back on Coruscant, right under the ISB’s nose. Andor doesn’t know anything about Luthen’s life, but we learn a lot in short order: After Luthen drops off Andor, we see him don the disguise that he hopes others will regard as the real Rael: not the no-nonsense old hand who calmly sizes up intense standoffs and assesses which way they’ll go, but a gregarious fop with a wig, bracelets, rings, and an all-purple ensemble that Hef might have worn to the grotto. In one of the episode’s most memorable moments (and a fine bit of stagecraft by Skarsgard), we see him get into character by adopting the trappings of his alter ego, an antiquities dealer to Coruscanti blue bloods; it’s not just his wardrobe that transforms, but his whole manner. This solitary scene hammers home what it takes to take on the Empire: This is a lonely life, in which there’s little time to let down one’s guard and drop the artifice even when one is alone.
Luthen’s cover career—which in less dystopian times may have been his vocation, judging by his fondness for ancient accessories—both allows him to travel to remote locales and gives him an excuse to meet with movers and shakers away from prying eyes and ears. In “Aldhani,” he arranges a rendezvous with Mon Mothma, the foundational Alliance leader played by Genevieve O’Reilly, who reprises her previous portrayals of the Chandrilan senator in Revenge of the Sith and Rogue One.
“This is a place where time stands still,” Luthen says ostentatiously of his store, within earshot of Mon Mothma’s new driver. “It’s hard being surrounded by this much history and not be humbled by the insignificance of our daily anxieties.” Yet these two are burdened by deep worries. Mon Mothma is being watched so closely that she feels “under siege,” and she’s unable to move money freely. “I have many mouths to feed,” Luthen says, suggesting that his team on Aldhani may be but one of his squads in the field. “I can only forage for so long.” Mon Mothma proposes bringing a new collaborator into their confidence—presumably someone we know, though one would think the Organas would already be in the circle of trust. Luthen grudgingly agrees.
In the character’s past live-action appearances dating back to Return of the Jedi, Mon Mothma has graced the screen for mere seconds at a time, always presiding over some stressful strategy session or state function. Andor, for the first time, allows us to follow her home, where we learn that her interior decorator shares a preference for white with her wardrobe designer. Mon Mothma and her husband Perrin, it seems, are the Star Wars equivalent of a gender-swapped George and Kellyanne Conway. A former military man who wants to party hearty with his old army chum, Perrin has invited some of his wife’s political opponents to dinner—including a couple of key advisers to the Emperor, Ars Dangor and Sly Moore, who are complicit in an atrocity Mon Mothma decries in Rebels—making this the most uncomfortable formal meal since the Dowager dined with some lower-class silent-film actors in Downton Abbey: A New Era. (Throw in passing references scattered throughout the episode to Utapau, Ghorman, Eufornis Major, Hosnian Prime, and Plexis—not to mention the many, many goodies in Luthen’s collection, which appears to include Jedi and Sith holocrons; a Jedi temple key stone; a Kel Dor breathing mask and a Wookiee helmet; Sith Stalker armor and Mandalorian armor; and a Kalikori—and the Gilroys really relaxed their “pretend no other Star Wars stories exist” stance from Week 1.)
“Must everything be boring and sad?” hubby pouts, when his wife objects to the “fun” friends on his guest list. One gets the sense that Mr. Mothma, the first gentleman of Chandrila, would sooner turn his wife in than join her in sedition, compounding the pressure she faces not to show any cracks in her composed facade.
“Let’s get to it,” Cassian says when he’s asked if he’s in all the way. In “Aldhani,” Andor gives its audience several reasons to take the same plunge as its protagonist. The Alliance, such as it is, is poised on the precipice; “This has to be a win,” Luthen tells Vel. After the ups and downs of The Book of Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi, Lucasfilm could have said the same about this series. Four episodes in, Andor still appears primed to deliver a victory.