I don’t know how else to say it about Andor: It is just flabbergasting to hear genuinely adult ideas and witness genuinely adult character dynamics in a Star Wars project. Rogue One is an antecedent of course, and I think some of the very early scenes in the original Star Wars — Luke arguing with his aunt and uncle, concerns about work and the harvest, politics as a threatening but distant cloud — have a similar vibe. But to see it on this scale, consistently, is just amazing.
Now, I totally get if it’s not for you. It might not be the kind of Star Wars you want. You might simply be sick of Star Wars in general or post-Lucas Disney Star Wars in particular. But man, get a load of this dialogue from this week’s episode:
“It’s so confusing, isn’t it? So much going on, so much to say, and all of it happening so quickly. The pace of oppression outstrips our ability to understand it, and that is the real trick of the Imperial thought machine. It’s easier to hide behind 40 atrocities than a single incident.”
My dudes, come on. Come on. Does this sound like a reality we’re familiar with or what?
(And yes, I understand the irony of an oppressive corporate entity like Disney presenting us with a ferociously anti-oppression message like that. But Too Old to Die Young and The Underground Railroad, respectively perhaps the most ferociously, brutally anti-cop and anti-racist works of art I’ve ever seen, were both funded by Jeff Bezos. Ooh, baby baby, it’s a wild world.)
Anyway, that political wisdom comes from the mouth of Nemik (Alex Lawther), the young true believer and would-be manifesto writer who’s part of the nascent rebel group to which our hero, Cassian “Clem” Andor, now belongs. The episode tracks the team as they make their final preparations for their raid on an Imperial garrison storing the payroll for an entire sector. Elsewhere, fired corporate cop Syril Karn sits miserably in his mother’s house as she berates him for his failure and touts her ability to get him a new job via one Uncle Harlo, an act of flagrant nepotism which to Karn is just a further humiliation.
On Coruscant, secret Rebel leader and Imperial senator Mon Mothma has tense, loveless spats with her husband and daughter; they resent her for always being absent even when she’s present, so to speak, and she resents them for failing to see anything bigger than themselves. Meanwhile, Luthen Rael waits nervously for news of the raid, worried that Andor and/or the team leader Vel could be traced back to him if things go wrong.
And Imperial Security Bureau officer Dedra Meero works with a colleague to uncover a “random” assortment of thefts of Imperial equipment across the galaxy — “too random to be random,” as her coworker puts it — that lend credence to her theory of an organized rebellion against the Empire…if only anyone will listen.
I always find myself racing through the plot in these recaps because as engrossing as it is — seriously, a whole episode of “calm before the storm” prep for a major attack is always going to sit well with me — it’s the little interpersonal moments and surprisingly, even stunningly sharp dialogue that elevate this show not just above its Star Wars counterparts, but to the top of the drama heap. Like, seriously, let me just list them in order…
Syril Karn’s mother pours his cereal for him, instantly infantilizing him as they discuss his future, a practiced power move by an experienced player in the game of making your kid feel like shit.
A shirtless Skeen (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, already a dirtbag sex symbol) talks about his prison tattoos with fellow ex-con Andor. “The axe forgets,” he says, giving the episode its title, “but the tree remembers.” A wonderful way to describe the burning embers of revenge.
Mon Mothma is supposed to take her daughter someplace together, but her daughter insists on letting her off the hook, so to speak. She’s so sick of being neglected by her mom, whose mind is always elsewhere, that she rejects any overtures to mend the fence. This is some Meadow/Carmela Soprano shit.
Nemik’s manifesto, his revolutionary ideology described above…I mean, come on, my dudes. Come on.
When a TIE fighter flies low over the rebel camp, which has been disguised as a shepherd’s pen, it demonstrates the callousness of the Imperials. And the rebels cover their ears to block the noise — a minor detail that does so much to root the moment in understandable, relatable physical sensations.
Lieutenant Gorn (Sule Rimi), an Imperial officer who has secretly joined the Rebellion, has to grin and bear it while one of his underlings expresses flagrantly racist sentiments about how bad their local prisoners smell. This casual dehumanization of captive populations is straight out of the Ron DeSantis/Greg Abbott playbook — and, of course, the playbook of certain other regimes before it.
When ISB officer Dedra Meero works late with her colleague, she tries to send him home because she knows he’s been working long hours, and she feels bad about it. A few minutes later, determined to keep on working herself, she takes what appears to be the Star Wars equivalent of speed. Speed! In a Star Wars show!
The Imperials working under Lieutenant Gorn are reluctant to say so at first, but eventually they come out with it: They’re hesitant to assign their own underlings a boring work duty the following night because of a sky phenomenon called “the Eye” that’s one of the few perks of being assigned to this backwater. Even Imperials occasionally want to take a break from oppression to see something beautiful happen. They’re human after all.
Rebel leader Vel and young team member Cinta (Varada Sethu) are subtly but clearly implied to be a romantic item. This being a major Disney franchise, “implied” may be all we wind up getting — can’t risk angering the Republicans or the People’s Republic of China after all! — but it’s there if you’re looking.
Mon Mothma’s husband cattily notes that she has started some kind of foundation without telling him. “Didn’t think you’d be interested,” she says. “Why is that?” he replies. “It’s charitable.” Fucking ouch.
Forced to apologize to Andor by Vel over picking a fight earlier in the day — a fight which revealed Andor’s mercenary status to the group — Skeen reveals his own origin story, which centers on the suicide (!!!) of his brother after the Empire seized and flooded his centuries-old farm. “I always hated the Empire,” Skeen says. “I don’t know what to call how I feel now.” That is simply amazing writing about the depths of hatred we can feel for those who have wronged us. It’s Boardwalk Empire in outer space.
And finally there’s Luthen Rael, the hardass Rebel smuggler and recruiter, anxiously fidgeting with his HAM radio or whatever it is, needing to be calmed down by his own assistant. Anxiety gets to us all.
From start to finish, top to bottom, this episode of Andor is home to more sophisticated ideas about rebellion, empire, and relationships than you’ll find in almost any show, let alone those set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Showrunner Tony Gilroy, writer Dan Gilroy, director Susanna White, and the whole understated cast have basically crushed my expectations. I’m literally sitting here shaking my head. Star Wars stuff doesn’t need to be this good, and yet here we are.
Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) writes about TV for Rolling Stone, Vulture, The New York Times, and anyplace that will have him, really. He and his family live on Long Island.