Star Wars will not be the same again. The new Star Wars show, Andor, has changed it forever. There is no going back to the simplistic notions of light and dark, while conveniently ignoring the everyday struggle of people living under a technocratic fascist empire.
What showrunner Tony Gilroy and his writers have achieved is nothing short of a pop-culture coup and a benchmark for world building. They took a popular franchise with a deep legacy and lore, and successfully transformed it into something far, far better than what it was.
Getting the political tone right
An epic clash between liberty and dictatorship presents a great political setting. Yet, politics has remained a mere window-dressing for the PG-13 CGI spectacle that Star Wars has always been. The only exceptions to this are the shockingly-brutal children’s cartoon series, Clone Wars and the gritty Rogue One (2016) that introduced the character Cassian Andor played by Diego Luna. However, despite better-written characters and a more realistic depiction of the complexity of war, those two titles never really explored the underlying ideology that led to war and oppression in the galaxy far, far away.
Andor makes it clear from the first scene of the first episode itself that it won’t be charting the usual safe course across the galaxy. Set in a company town on a planet ruled by a corporation, we see Cassian walking into the red-light district of the town and getting into trouble with two company guards eager to abuse their policing power for some good ol’ bullying. This ends with Cassian accidentally killing one of them and then murdering the other without much hesitance to avoid witnesses. Gilroy expertly sets the tone for what is to come.
Adding to grit and realism
Shot entirely on real locations and sets, the makers of Andor have deviated from recent Star Wars shows like The Mandalorian and Obi Wan Kenobi (and movies like The Batman) that were shot in The Volume, a huge soundstage made out of large LED video walls used to create highly photorealistic set backgrounds
Capitalism with mass murder
Muckraker and activist Upton Sinclair described fascism as “capitalism plus murder.”
The show pulls no punches in building a world where corporate entities rule and police entire planets to their liking, and workers are treated as nothing more than a pair of gloves to be exploited.
Meanwhile, prisoners are slave labourers in multi-level prison factory complexes designed to keep them “on program,” which is gamified to increase competition between the workers, by rewarding greater productivity with flavoursome food and punishing lower output with mass electrocution. It is a dystopian nightmare straight out of philosopher Michel Foucault’s concept of ‘disciplinary institutions’ and social theorist Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’, an institution designed to keep discipline through ‘unequal gaze’ — the constant fear of observation, even if there is none.
Likewise is the running theme of colonialism; native tribes and species are treated with contempt, and then evicted (or worse) by an oppressive state for resource extraction and infrastructure development, while their cultural artefacts have high value among citizens back in the galaxy capital. All these motifs are disturbingly familiar and clearly referring to the world around us.
It is also a glimpse into the realistic human (or alien) cost of maintaining a military-industrial complex that gave birth to gigantic superweapons like the Death Star and other tools of mass oppression.
While Star Wars has always offered a collection of fascinating characters, very few of these characters come across as real, partly because none of them show any signs of mental exhaustion or trauma of living under a dictatorship. Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo come across as adventurers, rather than actual rebels who are being hunted constantly and having to fight every single day to survive.
Apart from getting the larger picture of the empire right, in Andor, Gilroy and his writers brilliantly portray how politics become personal for people living in a fascist state, and how surveillance, or the fear of it, wears people down.
All the characters, as actor Varada Sethu describes in her interview with The Hindu, feel lived-in, despite the viewers only getting a glimpse of their background or past. From the fierce rebel Cinta Kaz (Varada) who despises the Empire with a murderous rage to the idealist Senator Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) on the verge of a breakdown after being forced to make a horrible family decision for the rebellion, there is an incredible emotional depth to each and every character, something that was missing in most of the other Star Wars titles.
For the first time, rebelling against an authoritarian state feels like an extremely grave thing to do. Andor drills home the point that being a militant rebel is not an adventure, but a deeply violent and traumatic experience that might force you to destroy your own morality and be ruthless in pursuit of your goals, best exemplified by Stellan Skarsgård’s cold-blooded rebel leader and spymaster, Luthen Rael.