Take away the annoying kids and over-reliance on CGI, add an expansive story and showrunner with real writing chops: the result is Andor, a Star Wars show that is doing everything right, writes Catherine McGregor.
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The latest addition to the torrent of small-screen Star Wars content, Andor tells the story of Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) from the time of his recruitment into the Rebel Alliance up to the events depicted in the movie Rogue One. That’s a span of around five years, according to Star Wars lore, and the Andor series is planned as two 12-episode seasons, the first screening now on Disney+.
So. Another month, another new piece of Star Wars IP. What makes Andor different, and remarkable, is the man behind the show, lauded screenwriter and sometimes-director Tony Gilroy. He’s the guy who wrote the Bourne movies, and the stellar George Clooney flick Michael Clayton, and was the co-writer of Rogue One. With that sort of pedigree you’d be safe in expecting Andor to be a bit more ambitious than, say, The Book of Boba Fett, the stale Mandalorian spinoff that came and went with barely a ripple earlier this year.
Here’s the moment when I knew I was all-in on this show (it comes around 10 minutes in so it isn’t too much of a spoiler): Andor straight-up executes a guy in cold blood, a guy who, until a bullet goes through his forehead, was begging for his life. OK, he kind of had it coming, but still: that’s not the sort of thing we’re used to seeing from a Star Wars hero. It’s clear from the jump that this show isn’t going to be overly concerned with getting a PG13 rating or selling admittedly cute merch.
Those killings (Andor actually kills two guys) are the inciting incident for everything that is to come, though Gilroy isn’t in any hurry to rush us into the story. Stuff happens – a security force is dispatched to apprehend Andor; a mysterious stranger arrives to acquire some valuable stolen property – but the focus in the early episodes is exploring the universe of the story. It’s one revealed to us in small, beautifully observed moments and in conversations written not just to move the plot from A to B, but to build lived-in, fleshed-out characters inhabiting a rich and fascinating world.
That’s all screenwriting 101, sure, but wow does it make a difference when you’re in the hands of a master like Gilroy. It’s there in the world-weary security commander spitballing a cover story for a couple of inconvenient murders – “something sad but inspiring in a mundane sort of way”. In young striver Kyril Sarn (Kyle Soller), embarrassed into admitting he’s modified his uniform with “pockets, piping and some light tailoring”. Or in Luthen Rael (Stellan Skarsgård)’s seatmate grumbling about declining standards of public transport on the planet Ferrix: “We should be charging them!”
These are characters who talk like real people talk, and they’re brought to life by actors who can really act. Gilroy shot the series in England, and the cast is packed to the gills with talent, from heavy hitters like Skarsgård and Fiona Shaw (Killing Eve), to “hey, it’s that guy” types like Anton Lesser and Rupert Vanisttart (both ex-Game of Thrones) and The Bear’s Ebon Moss-Bachrach, to left-field choices like Scottish actor Alex Ferns, formerly of long-running soap Eastenders, who has a scene-stealing role as the puffed-up, power tripping Sgt Kostek.
The care that’s gone into Andor is obvious in every scene, not just in the performances but also the music (by Succession’s Nicholas Britell), the shooting style – on real sets and locations, unlike the CGI-heavy Mandalorian and Boba Fett – and the exquisitely detailed production design by Luke Hull, whose biggest previous job was on the HBO series Chernobyl.
If you can’t tell already, I loved this show. But the pacing can get some getting used to: if you go in expecting an action sequence and a cliff-hanger each week you’re going to be disappointed. The season is structured as a series of three-episode arcs, and many episodes draw to a downbeat close as the story-within-a-story builds to an ultimately action-packed resolution.
It’s already become trite to call this “Star Wars for grown-ups” but that’s exactly what it feels like. The brilliant thing about Andor is that its more mature approach doesn’t come at the expense of humour, or shootouts, or general Star Wars weirdness. It’s all still there, but with so much more besides. Andor is not just a great Star Wars show. Andor is great, full stop.