Over the past few months, TV felt like a two-horse race. The Rings of Power and House of the Dragon, two big-budget prequels with high fantasy elements and higher stakes for their streaming services, debuted within days of each other; the resulting dichotomy was too much for critics, including myself, to resist. But pitting one show against the other created something of a false choice. Not only did the narrative erase any potential overlap among fans—it also overshadowed another contender, one with its own implications for what it takes to keep a franchise fresh.
No Star Wars series is ever a true underdog, but the Rogue One prequel Andor arrived on Disney+ in late September with less relative hype than the most expensive show ever made, or the follow-up to one of the most popular. Over the ensuing months, Andor has been able to exceed expectations, in part because those expectations weren’t set at world domination. Under the guidance of creator Tony Gilroy, Andor has achieved what its fantasy peers have so far struggled to accomplish: expanding the literal and tonal range of an already sprawling story, imbuing the far fringes of its mythology with meaning despite a predetermined outcome.
Like Obi-Wan Kenobi, this summer’s six-episode series, Andor takes place in the gap between Star Wars’ first two trilogies. Unlike Obi-Wan Kenobi, Andor’s namesake is neither a Jedi nor an especially iconic character in the core Skywalker saga. Diego Luna’s mercenary will (spoiler alert!) die stealing the plans for the Death Star, making him little more than a footnote to Luke’s eventual hero’s journey. That tenuous link makes Cassian Andor an unlikely subject for an origin story, but in Gilroy’s hands, this ancillary quality becomes an asset. On both sides of the Rebellion, Andor is a show that refutes individual exceptionalism. Instead, it embraces the seeming mundanity of middle management: the corporate contractors who do the Empire’s dirty work; the bureaucrats who staff its administrative state; the bankers who handle the money it takes to fund an insurgency.
This is new territory for Star Wars, and Andor matches it with a new style. As a writer-director, Gilroy specializes in movies like Michael Clayton and The Bourne Legacy: morally ambiguous dramas aimed at adults, but with a thriller’s economy and pace. The same sensibility suffuses Andor, which finds many shades of gray between Star Wars’ traditional light and dark. Its villains have wives, children, and nagging parents; its heroes display an occasional indifference to human suffering in pursuit of their cause. The effect isn’t to obfuscate right and wrong, but to illustrate the banality of evil and the zealotry of revolution. Everybody is trying to make it through the day. Nobody deals in absolutes, let alone uses the Force.
One could accuse Andor of running the playbook for a standard-issue gritty reboot, using signifiers like violence and pessimism as clichéd in their way as evil wizards and noble freedom fighters. The show’s credits are, in fact, a who’s who of modern prestige and the cynical bent that comes with it: the writers include Beau Willimon of House of Cards and Stephen Schiff of The Americans, who was originally set to serve as showrunner before Gilroy stepped in; the score was composed by Nicholas Britell, who won an Emmy for his work on HBO’s Succession. But Andor is never grim for grim’s sake. Its tone is in keeping with its ideas about the everyday feel of life under totalitarian control—and makes it utterly distinct from any Star Wars we’ve seen before.
By his own admission, Gilroy was not a Star Wars fanatic before he oversaw reshoots on Rogue One, his entry point into the Lucasfilm machine. “I wasn’t in awe of it,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. So he felt free to “bring my thing,” putting his own stamp on the material rather than straining to recreate someone else’s success. For Andor, Gilroy hired production designer Luke Hull, who he described as “non-Star Wars in every way,” and otherwise urged his collaborators not to “change their attitude.” Gilroy wanted them to bend Star Wars to their own talents, rather than adapt to fit their preconceived notion of Star Wars.
Star Wars, at the moment, could do with some change. After the stumble of Solo, Disney backed off its promise to release a new Star Wars film every year. There hasn’t been a new feature since The Rise of Skywalker in 2019, a film that firmly retracted the promise made by Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi: that anyone could wield the Force, and by extension, be a hero. Blinded by fan backlash, the executives at Lucasfilm failed to see this innovation for the gift that it was. Offered an open door to explore infinite paths for what Star Wars could be, gun-shy suits slammed it shut. On TV, shows like The Mandalorian and Obi-Wan Kenobi invoke Luke, Leia, Yoda, and other standbys to diminishing returns; the brain trust is reportedly paralyzed as to where to go next at the multiplex, though a project from Watchmen’s Damon Lindelof recently hired a director.
Andor may not reopen the question of who can or can’t become a Jedi, but it does embrace the implications of looking beyond a small handful of protagonists. Even its name is something of a misnomer. Especially after the first three episodes, the show doesn’t belong just to Cassian Andor; it’s about a whole constellation of seemingly minor figures whose lives prove worth examining, from a politician’s covert operations to an Imperial inspector whose acumen we can’t help but respect. This democratic instinct makes Andor a success on its own terms, but one with easily applicable lessons for its franchise. It’s not that all of Star Wars should suddenly turn itself into a realist drama. It’s that, if handled properly, Star Wars could take any form it wants, with any kind of person in the lead. The original movies are already an odd jumble of genres, a unique cocktail that’s key to its appeal: vague mysticism and military tactics; dry diplomacy and Freudian subtext. Add in a galactic scope and there are any number of threads to tease out and cultivate.
The problems Andor solves are hardly unique to Star Wars. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has many virtues, but accommodating distinctive visions is not among them. Unsurprisingly, the blockbuster TV shows following in the MCU’s footsteps have shown signs of the same problem. Before House of the Dragon, HBO made a pilot for another Thrones spinoff, tentatively titled Bloodmoon, with much less basis in author George R.R. Martin’s writing. According to an executive, Bloodmoon was “different,” “unique,” and “sophisticated”—and ultimately rejected in favor of a story much closer to the Thrones we recognize, making its shortcomings in comparison all the easier to point out. The Rings of Power, too, shaped itself into a rough facsimile of J.R.R. Tolkien’s original text, making the plot’s much slower momentum especially stark.
To be fair, Andor could afford to take more risks than these other shows. As one Star Wars series among several, it carries far less responsibility than establishing a brand-new phase of a deeply entrenched fandom. And for all its creative accomplishments, Andor is reportedly the least-watched of the live-action Star Wars shows so far, trailing The Book of Boba Fett as well as The Mandalorian and Obi-Wan Kenobi; it’s possible it won’t be perceived as an example to follow. At the same time, it makes sense that Andor would attract less immediate attention than projects with flashier hooks. It’s attempting something with less instant gratification and more potential long-term reward: building out a new wing of the Star Wars IP palace, and attracting a new or at least different kind of audience. The galaxy, like Westeros or Middle-earth, is a big place. There’s more than enough room to spread out.