What Makes a Great Star Wars
Andor, prestige television, and the elements of greatness
Dan Drezner’s thoughts about why Andor is so good prompt some further thoughts. (If you haven’t seen Andor, go ahead and check out, and we’ll be back to normal topics next week—but you really should see Andor.)
Drezner’s case for Andor’s greatness rests on its success in worldbuilding and its embrace of ambiguity, in addition to the sheer grace with which the show is executing showrunner Tony Gilroy’s vision. I agree with all of it. And I think there’s more to be said.
Andor is a great show because
it’s a Star Wars show in which the Jedi are absent but the Force is everywhere.
it’s a drama in which the characters are characters, not archetypes, and nobody is comfortable in what they are
Mon Mothma has to choose
The Force is everywhere
To be a great Star Wars show, a show has to embrace the distinctive elements of the franchise: hyperdrive, multiple species, grand events hinging on a few people, a lived-in universe nonetheless different from our own. And that includes the Force.
That does not sit easily with the maturity and vision for which Drezner writes. The Force, as presented in the early movies (especially Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back), is a sublime and mystical aspect of the universe, as much a reflection of and channel for characters’ moral development as a source of super powers. Eventually, in mainstream canon, this has been washed away—not just by the midichlorians, but also because many successive movies focused on the Jedi to the extent that it was no longer a surprise when the Jedi demonstrated superhuman powers. Compare the prequels, with the Jedi flitting about like Avengers, with Empire Strikes Back, in which Yoda’s lifting a single X-Wing is miraculous.
Part of what makes Gilroy’s vision of Star Wars successful is that he has taken the metaphysical, super-poweredness part of the franchise and stripped it back to how it would be experienced by ordinary people in the universe. That doesn’t mean we see Andor lifting X-Wings. No, the Force is much more subtle—it is present everywhere, but because nobody (yet, one worries) is Force-sensitive, we see it only in terms of how it affects the characters’ souls.
Luthen is literally playing the same role as Sidious
It matters, then, that Luthen dresses like a dark lord of the Sith. Indeed, his aspect is much more like Lord Sidious than any other character in the franchise. He operates in the shadows, uses disguises, and relies on deception and manipulation to knit together a rebel alliance. He is literally playing the same functional role as Sidious in The Phantom Menace: a behind-the-scenes operator coordinating several disparate groups to overthrow the regime, a threat only dimly perceived by the regime. That is not an accident. Like Sidious, Luthen’s tactics represent Dark Side tendencies, and his confession that he has given up on love, kinship, camraderie—this is a confession that he is trying to use evil for the purposes of good. And in the Star Wars universe, this cannot end well.
In that regard, it’s a little puzzling that so many people embrace Luthen’s monologue as vindication of his approach. If Andor is really great, then why should we see Luthen as telling the truth about his own motivations? And why would we think that Gilroy would allow us to see Luthen’s monologue as being read on one level alone? Even if Luthen fully accepts it, it is also the case that he sometimes seems too eager to embrace his role in the shadows, to believe in the necessity of the difficult decisions he is making, to revel in controlling others. To return to Empire:
Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight.
Those dark feelings confront the other characters, leading them into dark places. They kill, sometimes from necessity and sometimes from other motivations. And the rebels themselves include people who do not just do these evils out of pure motivations, as Luthen believes he is doing, but those who do them because they are themselves evil, or close to it, like Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s Arvel Skeen, or because they feel they had their souls ripped from them, like Varada Sethu’s Cinta Kaz.
There is also love in the show. Fiona Shaw’s Maarva Andor loves Cassian; Genevieve O’Reilly’s Mon Mothma loves her daughter, and maybe others. Yet love coexists with other feelings. Mon feels uncomfortable acting secretly, but believes she must do it because she is forced to. The show plays on the fact that she has always been costumed in white to show that she is, in the logic of the show, the purest light side actor around. And even she is tempted by the darker shades.
Yet Mon, like all the characters, cannot call on a green wizard for wisdom. Like us, she must navigate the dark and light side on her own. In that way, the central moral tension of the Star Wars universe remains present—it is just that the fight between dark and light is presented in the way that those of us who do not wield lightsabers must confront it.
Nobody is confident
In the original Star Wars, almost everyone is confident in their roles the entire movie. Leia is a rebel: she is a princess turned guerrilla, and it is the guerrilla rather than the princess that represents her true character. Han is a scoundrel. Chewbacca is loyal. Obi-Wan is a man from a vanished world who knows he will soon depart as well. Tarkin is in charge. Luke knows that he is not where he should be, but does not realize his purpose until the end, and that is why he is the protagonist: he changes by finding his role. All of this fits with the needs of the plot, and it makes sense too because they are all archetypes.
In Andor, hardly anybody knows what they are, and if they think they do they are soon shown they are wrong. Cassian thinks he is trying to find his sister, but the plot contrives to have him do anything but continue his quest. Mon believes she is the conscience of the Senate , but the plot contrives to have her subvert her family and her commitment to democracy. Kino believes he is the responsible trusty of the imperial prison, but discovers that everything is a lie. Syril Karn knows himself to be a true Imperial officer, but he is either a rent-a-cop or a low-level bureaucrat.
Almost everyone in the story, in other words, is discovering who they are. In particular, the characters we know will end up in the rebellion have to learn what it means to rebel—not just oppose, not just dissent, not just privately wish for things to change, but to act in concert. By the same token, the imperials are learning what it means to rule, rather than mark time in a world in which everyone has already submitted.
The rebellion is producing the Empire just as the Empire is producing the rebellion.
In fact, it seems clear that this is not a universe in which, at the beginning, the Empire is quite as evil as it will become. It’s bad, but it becomes noticeably worse over time in reaction to resistance. The rebellion is producing the Empire just as the Empire is producing the rebellion. (Incidentally, true to the original film’s roots as a kinda-sorta anti-Vietnam War statement, Imperial security-speak is full of War on Terror-era Americanisms.)
This works not just in the show but in the universe itself. We know that the emperor is a Sith Lord, but the galaxy doesn’t; they know only that the Jedi turned on democracy and tried to kill Chancellor Palpatine after a massive, destructive civil war. The Empire’s promise of order, in light of these events, must have come as a relief. Only the most idealistic and the most driven (and the most brutalized) choose rebellion over a degree of submission. Indeed, opportunities to rebel are few at the beginning: the Empire rules indirectly, through the corporations, and it is only as the corporations begin to falter that they are replaced and that opportunities for sporadic resistance emerge.
The universe itself, then, does not understand itself to be the universe of Star Wars. It is a post-war universe adjusting to new, grim realities and undergoing its own changes. But it believes itself to be fundamentally at peace—whether grudgingly or happily.
Mon Mothma’s choice
The discourse around Andor has mostly focused on Stellan Skarsgård’s performance and the character of Luthen. Skarsgård is so good, and the script gives him such centrality and, indeed, the best Star Wars monologue, that this is understandable. Yet the show really is full of fantastic characters and actors, and without them Skarsgård would be like Liam Neeson in The Phantom Menace: a fine performance in a rather mediocre show.
Among the excellent performances animating fine characters is Denise Gough’s Dedra Meero. Meero is a skilled climber in the imperial security bureaucracy. She would be right at home in Zero Dark Thirty just as she is capable of fending for herself in the male-dominated world of the Empire. Yet she also has to deal with the fact that she clearly has to prove herself even more than everyone else in the room—and that anything she does represents a greater risk than it would be for her colleagues, most of whom are comparatively dull and unimaginative. There’s a fine moment when a subordinate of hers chimes in during a briefing with a bold (and apparently accurate) suggestion before she can answer the question he has stolen. One realizes that she also worries that she will be outclassed if he outshines her even for a moment. She must be in control not only because that is her job but because without total control she will be at risk.
All she has is herself and her own conscience—and a world of men who want something from her: attention, wealth, influence, and, eventually, her daughter.
Mon Mothma faces the same risks only magnified. Unlike Meero, she has to navigate two lives, not just one—a public and a private. Luthen, of course, does the same, but Luthen does so from the shadows, and with apparently little to lose (not least because he thinks he has already lost his soul). Mon, by contrast, faces a far more challenging high-wire act. She must maintain public opposition to the Empire without drawing any suspicion to the fact that she is, indeed, an opponent of the Empire. And she must do this knowing that she has everything to lose: wealth, power, and a family. Luthen’s monologue, in this light, is bravado: Mon does not get a monologue because Mon has nobody she can trust fully, especially not her husband. Nobody is in her debt, and nobody is in her power. All she has is herself and her own conscience—and a world of men who want something from her: attention, wealth, influence, and, eventually, her daughter.
For Mon, learning to rebel is enormously difficult. People born to wealth and privilege may decide to rebel, but usually as a fad (like her niece, Vel, who is playing at rebellion more directly). Mon’s rebellion involves class treason (the wealthy, it is clear, have done well out of the Empire), actual treason (since she is arming those who strike against the Empire while she is a senator), and a betrayal of her family (since she has not only generically endangered them but is contemplating using her daughter to advance her interests). All that Luthen boasts of sacrificing are things that Mon still has to lose.
What’s more, Genevieve O’Reilly must play this character knowing that Mon is always in disguise. Skarsgård can use the changing wigs and costumes to tell the audience and the other characters who he is in any scene. Mon must always appear to be the same person: Senator Mon Mothma of Chandrila. Yet she must also inhabit the roles of wife, mother, politician, and rebel, usually in some combinations. (Note that Luthen gets to physically separate his rebellion from his “normal” life, while Mon has to undertake her rebellion at the margins of cocktail parties where she is also working as a legislator on overt measures to tame the Empire.)
The tragedy of Mon Mothma is that she is learning that she cannot be all things to all people because she must give up some of those commitments to accomplish her goals. Like Cassian, Mon still has people to lose, but unlike Cassian she is not being coerced into rebellion: she is choosing to walk away from a comfortable life where she could be safe.
That story, as much as or more than Luthen’s, makes Andor great. In a way, it’s a deviation from the prestige television recipe of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad. Midlife crises hit differently when you’re not allowed to walk out of your commitments. Mon, however, wants to—and one gets the sense that this is the first time, perhaps, that she is making a free choice about her life. That story, although not as immediately obvious as Luthen’s or Andor’s, becomes more obviously the driving force of the series as one contemplates it.