This post contains spoilers for the entire first season of Andor, which is streaming now on Disney+.
A lot of memorable things happen in the Andor Season One finale. Marva (Fiona Shaw) digitally rises from the dead, as her impassioned, pre-recorded funeral speech inspires the people of Ferrix to rise up against their Imperial oppressors. The riot that ensues is, like so much of Andor, visceral and tactile in a way that very little of Star Wars has been since the original trilogy. At one point, disgraced ex-security guard Syril (Kyle Soller) rescues Imperial investigator Dedra (Denise Gough) from the rioters, and the terror and shock on her face is gutting, even though she is working on behalf of all that was monstrous a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
There are small grace notes for so many characters: the hulking Brasso (Joplin Sibtain) bashing Imperial soldiers with the brick that was literally built out of Marva’s remains, or Ferrix’s anonymous but exuberant anvil ringer kicking a Stormtrooper out of his sacred bell tower. Even far away from Ferrix, we see double agent Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) grapple with the decision to engage her teenage daughter to the son of a gangster in order to secure the funds she needs to keep growing the Rebellion.
One person who does not do or experience anything hugely notable in the finale? That would be Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) himself. The title character spends much of the episode hiding and watching as old friends like Brasso fight on behalf of him and his late mother. Eventually, he uses the riot as cover to liberate Bix (Adria Arjona) from the imprisonment and torture ordered by Dedra and her team, and he ends the season by offering to join forces with Rebel spymaster Luthen (Stellan Skarsgård). Mostly, though, he is a passive observer to the finale’s most significant and emotionally satisfying moments.
In other words, the episode is Andor Season One in microcosm. It is a classic example of a donut show: full of sweet deliciousness along the edges, but with a hole in the center. The characters surrounding Cassian are vivid and charismatic. The world-building by Tony Gilroy and his collaborators is stunning. And the series’ portrait of how the Rebellion was built on sacrifices, compromises, and atrocities is more thoughtful and harrowing than the other live-action Star Wars shows combined. The season’s 10th episode, focusing on a prison break, is among the most exciting and potent hours of television of 2022.
But the show is not called Rise of the Rebellion, nor Syril Karn: Mall Cop, nor Don’t Mess with the Luthen. It is called Andor, and it purports to tell the story of how Cassian Andor evolved from a cynical loner, interested in nothing but self-preservation, into the unwavering Rebel agent whom Gilroy introduced in Rogue One. And it’s here that the show named for him continually fell down.
There is, perhaps, a hero’s journey story to be told about Cassian abandoning his survival instincts in favor of more noble pursuits. Andor just doesn’t tell it very well, and certainly not enough to justify a dozen episodes of it. Luna does everything he can to bring this gradual journey to life. You can see his expressions change over the course of the season, see the look in his eyes go from suspicious to hopeful. But it’s never dramatized in a particularly interesting way beyond his performance, and Gilroy and company oddly skip over various steps. In the first episode of the prison arc, for instance, we see that Cassian recognizes the need to escape from this place at the earliest possible opportunity.
But the next installment picks up after he has already made friends with the other inmates and begun plotting with several of them to attempt a mass breakout, rather than slipping out on his own. This is, in many ways, the most crucial moment in his own story: Cassian not only recognizing that he can’t survive alone, but that it is important that he try to help others. And it occurs in between episodes! Even when we do get some of the connective tissue, it still doesn’t feel like enough of a story to play out at this length.
The blandness of Cassian was at its most frustrating in the series’ largely shapeless early episodes. We are gradually introduced to colorful supporting players like Syril and Luthen, but for the most part, we are just following Cassian as he tries to avoid Imperial notice, and keeps thinking about his tragic but relatively hazy backstory, which even the show ultimately lost interest in. (Remember when this all started because Cassian was looking for his sister?)
As the ensemble expanded and episodes spent more time with Luthen, Mon Mothma, and prison trustee Kino Loy (Andy Serkis), the generic, half-sketched nature of Cassian’s arc became less of an issue. So much else was working in terms of character, theme, and even structure(*) that the series could afford to carry him. And yet the better the rest of the show got, the more Cassian stood out as the component that was working the least — whose story was too simplistic on a series that was otherwise marinating in complexity.
(*) Gilroy largely treated each three-episode bloc as its own phase of the story. It’s an improvement over all the streaming shows that try to treat an entire season as an incredibly long movie, but the execution of the idea was rough in those early episodes. By the second half of the season, though, individual installments managed to function far better on their own. The prison break is part of a larger serialized story, but it also takes place within a goddamn episode of television, with its own beginning, middle, and end. It is not a coincidence that this was the season’s peak.
My goodness, though, was everything else on absolute rails. Somehow, working within the confines of an enormous franchise largely built on action sequences(*) and toy-friendly characters(**), Gilroy and company did the thing that science-fiction was designed to do. Andor uses this fantastical setting in service of sociological arguments relevant to the world we live in. Never was this more palpable than in the moral tug-of-war between Luthen and Mon Mothma. Both believe that the Empire is an abomination that must be defeated, but they disagree wildly on how to go about that. As a politician who served in the final days of the Republic, Mon Mothma believes there are still rules and aspects of civility that should carry the day, even in a revolution, while Luthen argues that the only way to beat the Empire is to become just as cold and calculating as their enemies. Never is this better articulated than in a spectacular monologue, credited to House of Cards creator Beau Willimon, where Luthen admits, “I burn my decency for someone else’s future. I burn my life, to make a sunrise that I know I’ll never see.”
(*) It could do splendid action, too, when it wanted — not just in the prison break, but in last week’s episode where Luthen’s little ship took on a giant Imperial vessel and a squadron of TIE fighters.
(**) Though there will definitely be some sensitive fans who would rush out to buy a toy version of Marva’s anxious, stuttering cinnamon roll of a droid, the aptly-named B2EMO.
In spending so much time on the Empire side of things, Andor also does an excellent job dramatizing how bureaucracy can normalize evil, and how people like Dedra and Syril can convince themselves that they are the heroes of the story, rather than aiding and abetting atrocity. And it provides wonderful showcases for so many of its actors. In the space of only three episodes, Serkis makes Kino Loy into a fully human figure whose cruel fate — after he and Cassian successfully free all the prisoners, Kino realizes that the only way out is through the water… if only he could swim — hits as hard as if we had been watching him for years.
(One could argue, though, that Serkis is too good, in that the prison arc feels like it is much more about Kino than it is about Cassian.)
By the finale, the show was executing at such a high level that the riot sequence was riveting, even though it demanded more memory of and/or emotional investment in various minor Ferrix characters than was fair given how long it’s been since many of them appeared prominently. And while Cassian doesn’t do a lot, he also isn’t completely incidental to things, as the public memorial for Marva is only allowed because Dedra is using it to try to trap him.
The good news is that, by ending the season on Cassian enlisting in the Rebellion as a true believer rather than a mercenary, Andor has now largely moved past the the one part of the machine that wasn’t humming along at top efficiency. Gilroy has said that the plan for the second and final season is to take multiple leaps forward in time to cover various events in the four years from the end of this season to Rogue One. Cassian has had his consciousness raised, and if he’s not exactly the man we met in the film, he’s close enough that the series may not have to lean on him as heavily, at least on an emotional level.
Like Luthen, we know that Andor the man will burn his life to make a sunrise he’ll never see, and perhaps Gilroy can find more dramatic resonance out of our knowledge of that next season. But even if not, Andor the TV show has become so good that it can overcome the way that its hero doesn’t burn nearly as brightly as everyone around him.