What made 'Andor' so good?
A chat with Tom Scocca of Popula
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This week’s newsletter concerns Andor, the Disney+ Star Wars streaming show that has captured the hearts and imaginations of millions of people demographically similar to me. (Dorks/nerds.) Last week I wrote a bit about the movies that I thought had inspired Andor; this week, I talked with Tom Scocca, editor-in-chief of Popula, about what made Andor stick out, whether or not it was as “radical” show, and where the Star Wars universe goes from here. For those keeping score, Scocca and I had a chat last year about The Running Man; if you like what he has to say, and probably even if you don’t, you will enjoy the excellent publication he edits, Popula.
Now, without further ado: Andor.
How Did Star Wars Get Serious?
A long and semi-fanatical discussion about the thrilling bleakness of Andor.
The last thing anyone expected from 45-year-old space-adventure mega-franchise was that it would have anything new and surprising to say. But not long after Disney added the TV series Andor to the ever-expanding grid of streaming content under its Star Wars menu, a sense of delight, bordering on confusion, began spreading through the weary and aging segment of the Star Wars audience: this show was...good? And interesting??
As mature Star Wars fans encountering a suddenly mature Star Wars product, we—the editors of Popula and of Read Max—felt compelled to talk about this. So we did. At length. Then we asked our old pal Tommy Craggs to read over the resulting work and edit it and—after binge-watching the final five episodes and staying up to catch a dawn flight from Chicago to California—he proceeded to add his own commentary.
Spoilers of various plot points abound. If you haven't watched Andor yet, we recommend skipping this until you do. And we strongly recommend watching Andor!
TOM SCOCCA, FOR POPULA: Good morning! Andor, the latest Star Wars TV series streaming on the Disney+ content-distribution leviathan, just finished its first season, and on behalf of Popula, I wanted to talk it over with you, Max Read of the Read Max newsletter—drawing on your established positions as a passionate Star Wars fan, a fellow connoisseur of dystopian visions, and a taxonomist of genre movies.
Last week, in the course of your drawing up a brief canon of classic movies that anticipated or apparently influenced show-boss Tony Gilroy's vision of Andor, you noted or alluded to two defining features of the show. The second of those was that Andor is a “politically gritty, surprisingly thoughtful Star Wars”—that is, a genuinely not-at-all-ridiculous realization of the presumptively ridiculous idea of a Star Wars for grownups.
The first defining feature, which your newsletter and maybe this conversation are enacting, is that Andor is a Star Wars entry that seems to be catching on by word of mouth. I am pretty sure that the last time a groundswell of public enthusiasm had any role in getting me to see a Star Wars show or movie was the summer of 1977, when I settled my not-yet-six-year-old self into a movie theater seat for the first of what would be literally countless big-screen viewings of Star Wars that year. And back then, there were also a lot of ads for it in my comic books.
I really thought Andor was going to be the one I didn't bother with. I'm not an utter Star Wars completist—I've seen bits and pieces of the computer-animated shows like The Clone Wars and Rebels over my kids' shoulders, with no real desire to watch them all, and I haven't read a Star Wars novel since puberty—and I've been watching the live-action products with full, grim awareness of their irregularly yet inexorably diminishing returns. Solo: A Star Wars Story was two or three ripples of funny lore in a 500-gallon bathtub of tepid water. The Mandalorian was great, a wonderful episodic cowboy/samurai TV serial; Obi-Wan and The Book of Boba Fett were so forgettable it seems impossible I have two different series-watching experiences jammed in the same mental file drawer marked DON'T CARE. And, unavoidably, Episode IX was worse than The Star Wars Holiday Special, just a vile and idiotic abandonment of every idea and principle and mood that made Star Wars worth caring about.
So now here on the taxi-top ad boards were the promotions for Disney's latest squeezings from the battered cloaca of Lucasfilm's golden goose: a spinoff of a single character from the already-a-spinoff movie Rogue One, this new one necessarily done as a prequel because that character [spoiler alert] got killed along with everyone else at the end of Rogue One. I did not care about seeing the story of Cassian Andor get backfilled with that same pedantic thoroughness Disney brought to the task of showing us where the notch in the front of the Millennium Falcon came from, and I couldn't really imagine who would. What fans was this particular piece of fan service even supposed to be servicing?
Then the series started, and I kept seeing people whose opinions I respected saying, as you put it, that Andor was "absolutely worth watching even if the idea of more Star Wars content in your life is absolutely repulsive." That it was shockingly good, in a way unlike anything else in the entire content-galaxy. We started watching and...it was. It was harrowingly good. It was completely faithful to the idea of Star Wars while ruthlessly asserting its own tone and style and stakes and values. After the incestuous and hopelessly narrow space-wizard antics of the Skywalker/Palpatine family had collapsed the Main Sequence in on itself into a neutron star of sententiousness and ridiculousness, here was a sprawling 10-plus hours of Star Wars content in which not one person ever utters the words "The Force."
How? What? Where did this new hope come from? Did a new and better galaxy somehow arise out of the turn-of-the-century cinematic vision of Halogencore?
MAX READ, FOR READ MAX: I think the place to start here might be with how the creation of new Star Wars content works in the Disney Era. Since Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012 (and with it the right to the Star Wars universe), the franchise has been overseen by Grand Moff Kathleen Kennedy. To the extent that Kennedy's stewardship of the company has been marked by anything besides relentless expansion, it's been extreme narrative conservatism—to the point of removing directors in the middle of projects, if not actively campaigning against them in the press, if she feels as though their product is too distant from what Star Wars fan expect. In practice what this means is that promising directors with individual sensibilities are often replaced on shoots by safe Hollywood hands; directors who are lucky enough to complete a film might find their work not only ignored but specifically countermanded in subsequent editions, as happened to Rian Johnson, plot and character developments in whose The Last Jedi were contradicted and overwritten by its sequel, The Rise of Skywalker.
I bring this inside baseball–sounding stuff up because I think it's actually important to understanding the Star Wars franchise in 2022. Disney-era Star Wars properties tend to be near-unintelligible on a narrative level unless you are familiar not just with the broader Star Wars canon, but also with the ongoing saga of the studio, the outspoken fandoms, the directors and actors, and the "direction" of the Star Wars properties. The Rise of Skywalker, to take the most egregious example, was basically incoherent unless you understood that the actual point of its existence was to rebuke Rian Johnson for having dared make an interesting Star Wars movie; as such it was not so much a movie, much less the long-awaited, thrilling conclusion to a beloved science fiction series, as it was 2.5-hour "brand guidelines" document regarding a particularly important I.P. asset. I think this is where the pedantry you refer to in the new franchise installments comes from—an extreme conservatism around what aspects of the universe can be messed with or explained, for fear of losing the extremely captive audience to disinterest, or, worse, nerd rage.
It seems to me that Tony Gilroy, Andor's showrunner, has managed to avoid that conservatism by making a show that declines to engage with the Star Wars "canon" at all.1 He's talked about trying to create a show that even people who've never seen Star Wars can appreciate, and maybe he's succeeded in doing so—lord knows I'm too close to the material to tell—but to me what really separates Andor from other recent Star Wars products is that you don't need to know anything about the business of the Star Wars franchise to enjoy it. It's not particularly interested in adding to the main Star Wars canon (let alone subverting or restoring it); it doesn't seem to want to Say Something about what Star Wars is, or should be. And insofar as you can watch it without thinking about Star Wars-qua-Star Wars, or how certain online factions might react (or not react) to the show, or understanding it as, like, a strategic move in creating a content empire to rival Marvel, it actually feels…like a Star Wars show, instead of like a corporate memo.
My sense is that a lot of the writers and directors who've taken a stab at creating Star Wars stuff in the Disney Era have looked at the original trilogy and thought, "What makes Star Wars good is its timeless mythical story, so I'm going to deepen or destabilize or recreate that timeless myth." Gilroy, I think, looked at the original trilogy and thought, "What makes Star Wars good is that George Lucas was aping a bunch of great movies, in a cool space setting, so I'm also going to ape a different bunch of great movies, in the same cool space setting." And funny enough, by taking Battle of Algiers and Army of Shadows as his touchstones, rather than Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back, he's managed to create something that both feels like Star Wars at its very core—war movies in space!—while also sidestepping the increasing tedium of the canon and the associated corporate-cultural wrestling match.
Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself here. Do you have other theories about why the show succeeds where so many other attempts at doing something like this have failed? I'm also interested—it's maybe obvious that Star Wars for grownups would appeal to grownups. But did your kids watch it? Did they like it? Or is this the Michael Clayton of the Star Wars universe in an audience sense, too?
POPULA: I put some of these demographic questions to the test yesterday by cursorily searching Amazon for Andor action figures, and finding hardly anything. Then I checked Lego, where they do have a midrange Ambush on Ferrix set.
My kids did watch it. The younger one, the 11-year-old, is the more avid adventure-story fan; his first exposure to the Galaxy Far, Far Away was at age 2, as he made delighted zap! pew! noises all through the original cinematic versions of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, right up till the moment Vader cut off Luke's hand, at which point he burst into tears, shouted "THIS MOVIE IS GARBAGE!" and fled the room. Here, he was confounded, at first, by the way that whole episodes of Andor would go by without any big action sequences being set off. By the end, though, he was pretty well invested in the domestic tensions of Mon Mothma's unhappy marriage.
And he wasn't wrong about the rarity of the action. Gilroy spent the whole series deliberately defying the standard whiz-bang pacing of Star Wars—stretching (and then, in the final payoff, compressing) the expected timetable of everything, to produce a persistent, unnerving tension. The preparations for the rebel heist on Aldhani went on and on, past one episode boundary after another, as new eddies of doubt and mistrust formed among the unhappy would-be bandits and the viewer got sucked into the anxious desire to just get on with the thing. The prison sequence...had anyone in the history of Star Wars ever before been locked up without making a dashing escape within 10 minutes of runtime? But Cassian Andor got himself thrown into an Imperial prison and was straight-up imprisoned there, for weeks of story-time and hours of viewing, barefoot in a weirdly stiff and slick-looking jumpsuit, doing forced labor under a mechanized, almost impenetrable system of surveillance and control. It's a prison! It's built to keep you from getting out! Even if you're a space hero!
And that, I think, was what made Andor so great and so relentless. Gilroy seemed interested, above all, in the question of what it would actually be like to live under, or within, a Galactic Empire, day after day: the material and moral experience—the bureaucracy and logistics (even the erotics)—that would go with an interplanetary system of domination. Cassian Andor joins the little rebel band on Aldhani not to disarm the latest iteration of an Imperial superweapon, in a race against destruction, but to steal an Imperial payroll shipment in a brief window when they can semi-safely get off-planet with it. All those stormtroopers and tunic-wearing officers need to get paid. Their payments need to be delivered, in stacks and wheels of Imperial credit-tokens, as dangerously heavy physical cargo. (The rebels need to get paid, too, and for that the elegant Senator Mon Mothma needs to find a crooked yet trustable accountant.)
Hence Gilroy's devotion to the story of the character I found most memorable: Syril Karn, Cassian Andor's shadow double. If Cassian's peril and suffering are there to show us how death-defying rebels are made, Syril devoutly hopes to answer the counter-question of where all those translucent-skinned, tight-wound Imperial officers come from. He starts off as a junior officer in a security force doing contract work for the Empire, decked out in a blue tunic personally retailored to look more imposing, and proceeds, after a failed attempt to apprehend Andor, to spiral even downward from there. Choking on ambition and the desire for revenge, smothered by his domineering gargoyle of a mother, Syril bumbles his way back toward the heart of the story, though almost no one else wants him there.
The fairly devastating joke behind this is that Syril is yet another archetypal galactic nobody, yearning to be wrapped up in a Joseph Campbell myth that will reveal his heroic greatness and purpose. But instead of a wise Jedi to guide him, he has the dimwitted and vicious Sgt. Linus Mosk, an instinctively fascist brute who envisions Syril as a superior figure, to whom he can properly submit in the hierarchy, so that he may properly inflict pain on the people below. And above Syril, in turn—the Leia of this arrangement—is Lieutenant ("leftenant," in the Imperial accent) Dedra Meero, a sleek and paranoid blonde climber in the Imperial Security Bureau, who represents everything Syril frantically, fumblingly desires.
Here is where it's good to remember that, in the 1977 Star Wars, what Luke was originally whining to Uncle Owen about—his single, motivating dream—was his desire to get off Tatooine and go to the Academy. The Imperial Academy, that is. With a more permissive uncle, or at least one who needed less help on the moisture farm, Luke Skywalker could have been wearing a black helmet and flight suit, the most gifted killer in a TIE fighter swarm.
Whose fate did you find most compelling in all of this? And how did it adjust your understanding of this galaxy we've all inhabited for so long?
READ MAX: It's hard to beat Karn for compelling, who as you say has a lot of Skywalker in him—not just Luke at his grasping whiniest, but Anakin in all his dead-eyed, resentful entitlement. (I think Karn, in his limited defense, is actually smarter than either father or son Skywalker.) Part of me wants to say Cassian Andor, even though, given this is a prequel, his fate is the only one we can be sure of: I suppose really I just want to say some kind words about Diego Luna, who I think is quite good at making compelling a character who is the center of the show but often has little to do but observe. (In terms of the business side of what makes Andor good, I think it probably speaks well of Luna that he was willing to step back to that extent on a show that bears his character's name.)
But let me pick the other Imperial the show follows, Dedra Meero. If Karn and his family show us the social order for a particular, heretofore unseen fraction of the empire's political base—striving professionals in the urban core, for whom the empire seems to represent order and opportunity—Meero gives us a small window into the workings of the actual Imperial bureaucracy. Meero is the villain of the story, but only about 20 percent of her time is spent actually chasing Andor or rebel mastermind Luthen; most of what we see her do is attempt to jockey for influence and marshal resources to pursue projects that will advance her career. In other words, she is the first person I've seen in the Star Wars universe who has an office job.2 (Her navigation of the Imperial bureaucracy, by the way, reminds me of Keiron Gillen's great Darth Vader comic series, set between Star Wars and Empire, in which Vader himself tries to recover his standing within the Imperial firmament after the humiliation of Yavin IV. I don't know if it's canon anymore, but I highly recommend it.)
What I like about this conceit is how far removed the official world of Meero and the ISB are shown to be from the occult world of the Jedi and the Sith that suffuses the movie trilogies. To the extent the Emperor is important to Meero or her supervisor Major Partagaz, it's never as a powerful god-priest, but as the subject of a great deal of "managing up." His beliefs about the Force, if they're even aware of them, are irrelevant to their day-to-day jobs of rooting out resistance cells and stamping out local rebellions; all that magic bullshit is ultimately not what gets them to show up for work every morning. It reminds me that, historically speaking, it's quite normal for dictators to have insane esoteric belief systems about their power and destiny, and also quite normal for those beliefs to be more or less ignored by the bureaucracies that carry out the work of maintaining power. Of course, as far as George Lucas is concerned, the insane esoteric belief system of the dictator in question is 100 percent true, and is in fact the prime mover of all events.
This points to a tension between Andor, with its focus on the daily cruelties and indignities of Imperial rule, and the original trilogy, with its galactic-mythic scope. I found myself wondering fairly often about the gap between Lucas's conception of the Empire as Pure Cosmic Evil and Gilroy's attempts to provide a material account of its workings, or to understand the states of moral abeyance that some committed radicals enter to advance their liberatory projects. As you've been saying, one aspect of the show that makes it so much more compelling than other recent forays into the Star Wars material is that Gilroy basically just ignores the existence of the Force. I'm not very interested in knowing what Luthen thinks of the Force. But I am, I guess, interested to know what the Force thinks of Luthen: Is he on the Dark Side? The Light Side?
I have to go pick up my kid at daycare, so I'm going to stop this answer here. But I think this line of questioning leads us to the politics of the show, which is something I'm invested in. It's easy to overstate the radicalism of something that you literally have to pay The Walt Disney Company to watch. But I also don't want to dismiss what seems to me to be an attempt to move beyond the generic anti-authoritarianism of the original Star Wars trilogy into, well, a specific anti-authoritarianism, if not anything more sophisticated than that. What do you make of Andor's account of the empire and the rebellion, and what about its politics? Is the show "radical"? "Left-wing," even?
POPULA: The politics of Star Wars have been tricky for its makers to wrangle ever since George Lucas first sent his little allegory about the anti-imperialist bravery of the Viet Cong out into the American mass-entertainment market, only to see within a decade its name attached to Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. But Andor has some definite ideas about politics, and about good and evil, which still bear the stamp of Lucas' original cornball mythology.
What Gilroy shows the audience, as the story moves back and forth between the chilly, office-politicking drones of the ISB and the ever more desperate foes of the Empire, is that the Rebellion is essentially being created by the Empire. Not in the silly, over-plotted manner of The Phantom Menace, with its puppet-master emperor-to-be pretextually summoning clashing forces to generate a galaxy-destabilizing crisis, but as a fundamental aspect of how empire functions.
On the more obvious level, we get the simple proposition that repression inevitably breeds resistance. This is what Luthen schemes about, as he ruthlessly lines up ever more eggs to be broken to make the omelet of freedom: each act of rebellion, he knows, will provoke the Empire to crack down more cruelly, which will turn more people against the Empire. He is out to heighten the contradictions, to make the Empire show how monstrous it truly is, even if doing so requires monstrous measures of his own. And the Empire responds exactly as he expects it to.
But as Lt. Meero goes about her work, another, more dizzying, realization sets in: The Imperial security forces are, for all intents and purposes, busy with the task of generating a rebellion—that is, the Rebellion—themselves. The incentives and goals of Meero's chosen career demand that the isolated reports of resistance or destruction add up to a real plot, that she connect the dots of individual incidents into an organized threat worthy of the ISB's existence.
As authority manufactures the justifications for its authority, Cassian Andor is the raw material trapped on the production line. The event that sets the story in motion is his killing of two corporate security guards, after they pick a fight with him in a dark street outside a bar. The lazy and cynical security boss, to Syril Karn's shock and disgust, wants to write it off as a meaningless brawl, the fault of his own drunken goons—which is exactly, factually, all it was. But Karn sees it as a blow against the authority of the Empire, sets out to punish it as such on his own, and sets off a more serious incident in the process.
As he fights and flees from situation to situation, Andor inscribes himself more and more boldly in the dossier of rebellion—trying to sell stolen Imperial military hardware in a botched deal, then joining the Aldhani raid as a mercenary. He gets accidentally nabbed in a punitive sweep of tourists and sent to join the Empire's prison labor force, where he and his fellow inmates realize their only alternative to being worked to death is to stage an uprising, wrecking the prison in the process. Presumably, when this makes it into Lt. Meero's files, it will look like one more deliberate act of infiltration and sabotage by a hardened agent of the Rebellion. And by the end of the finale, Andor will have no choice but to be just that.
What makes someone a hero? Luna is anxious, exhausted, watchful. (One inescapable continuity error in the universe is that he now has the older, haggard face that should have belonged to the grim, ready-to-die commando/spy he played in Rogue One.) Luna's Andor didn't sign up for this—not in the Han Solo, scoundrel-with-a-heart-of-gold sense of being too freewheeling for a noble crusade, but in the sense that there's no way to exist outside the Empire. You define yourself with it or you define yourself against it.
I read this as "left-wing," naturally, because I see the work of liberation as, well, that of liberating people. In the final clash on Ferrix, though, it was hard to look at the civilians hurling themselves against the shields of the Imperial riot troops without seeing the imagery of Jan. 6 lurking there, too.3 The uprisings around the George Floyd protests gave us those sorts of pictures first, of course, but the fascists felt the urge to be part of that spectacle, too, and they managed to create their own occasion for it. Everyone wants to be the good guys, even the bad guys.
This is all a long way from the reanimated, personal malice of Emperor Palpatine, isn't it? How is Star Wars going to live up to this, now? And is it an accident that all the best Star Wars properties take place in and around the timeline of the original trilogy?
READ MAX: I'm glad you brought up Reagan and January 6, because I tend to think that the question of "the politics" intended or inhering in a given television show (or movie, or whatever) is equally a question of how the show will be used. It's hard, at this point, a decade into the use of a symbol of liberation extracted out of an explicit trans allegory as a byword for right-wing radicalization, not to be suspicious of claims about the liberatory potential of radical messages at the heart of mass-culture products, no matter how well-intentioned or explicitly present. I have no doubt that some right-wingers will see themselves and their causes in the Ferrix revolt—just as a network of dedicated anti-feminists reappropriated The Matrix's "red pill"—and will probably attempt to make use of some of Andor's symbols and imagery in propaganda.
What I can say in Andor's defense is that reappropriation will be relatively difficult. Where the original Star Wars falls back on archetypes that are easily transposed onto any particular politics (and where The Matrix's gnosticism can be fit to any kind of "free thinking" at all), Andor is insistent on showing us specific victims of the empire: working stiffs living under the thumb of increasingly cruel security forces on Ferrix, indigenous herders displaced for resource extraction on Aldhani, forgotten prisoners producing war machinery in labor camps on Narkina 5. I think it takes a lot more work to appropriate this vision of the rebellion for a missile-defense initiative, or to use it as an allegory for ideological misogyny. Substacker freaks will, I'm sure, write stupid shit like, "Democrats/SJWs are Dedra Meero, because they are trying to shut down my right to tweet about race science." But my guess is that it will be a lot less convincing.4
At the same time, the success of this specificity—of Gilroy's suggestion, implicit though it might be, of an Imperial political economy reliant on labor exploitation, resource extraction, and carceral discipline—made me a little disappointed by the snippet we hear in the final episode of the manifesto written by Karis Nemik, a young revolutionary and philosopher Andor meets on Aldhani. It's a finely wrought piece of writing about authority and resistance—and all of it true, as it goes—but to me, the central contention that "freedom is a pure idea" felt frustratingly vague and ambiguous coming from a show that was otherwise intent on showing the particulars of Imperial oppression. To be fair, Nemik, as Gilroy is eager is to show us, is just one minor philosopher of a splintered resistance with no coordination and certainly no ideological unity or coherence, and his is a much more sophisticated account of rebellion than anything that appears in the original trilogy, but I'm not sure it's any less easily adaptable.
(I feel to some extent like I should defend George Lucas from my implicit charge that his universe had no political economy before Gilroy. After all, to his eternal credit, the very first seconds of The Phantom Menace—the most intensely anticipated blockbuster sequel ever made—force the viewer to read the immortal bit of historical materialist exposition: "Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.")
I'm quibbling, I know. I have a hard time imagining Disney letting through a Marxist rebel philosopher castigating in the specific the Empire's regime of capitalist accumulation and class war; and, as we've said, Andor is working within a universe where materialism is literally incorrect, anyway. (I think? Maybe midichlorians suggest that the Force has a material basis.) More importantly, Nemik's manifesto does get at precisely what you say above: the process by which authority breeds its own justification, and also the tools and networks of its own resistance. I don't think this is a "generic" anti-authoritarianism, and I don't think it's any small thing for it to appear on a Disney+ streaming show.
For those reasons and more, I doubt that "quasi-realistic political economy Star Wars shows" will become a staple of the Disney+ lineup. And that's good—it's a beloved science fiction property mainly for young people; there's no reason to make it uniformly gritty and politically trenchant; grownups can watch Army of Shadows on the Criterion. But the success of a show that's more interested in confronting the daily experiences and political mechanisms of the universe Lucas left behind than it is in recapitulating the myth of the original trilogy suggests to me that it's an accident, or more precisely a failure of imagination, that the best Star Wars stuff is set around the timeline of the original trilogy. If Andor gives us the Star Wars Battle of Algiers, why couldn't the sequels have given us Star Wars The Third Man, set in a divided post-Imperial Coruscant? Or a Star Wars Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, tracking the personal lives of post-revolution subjects of the New Republic? I mean, I know the answer is that "people want to see lightsaber fights," but somewhere between the tedium of J.J. Abrams and these jokes there has to be a middle ground. Perhaps the way Star Wars lives up to this is by finding more stories along the lines of Andor—by which I mean not just stories of fringe planets and characters but stories that give us a sense of how the Star Wars universe actually works for most people.5
Or maybe we give Andor two more seasons and say "that's enough" and wrap up the whole Star Wars shop. I wouldn't be opposed to that; if it keeps up its quality I think the show would make a good bookend to the saga of the whole franchise. What about you? If you're Kathleen Kennedy, what are you soliciting and greenlighting? Is Andor showing us there's more blood in the Star Wars stone or suggesting that the franchise has reached the end of its possibilities?
POPULA: It's far, far easier to imagine a plucky, ragtag band of rebels blowing up a Death Star than it is to imagine Disney ever letting go of Star Wars. I always thought of myself, biographically, as the definitive Star Wars audience—my friends and I spent three years of our young lives, in the agonizing wait between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, arguing over Obi-Wan and Vader's conflicting accounts of Luke's paternity—but the galaxy has long since expanded beyond my ken. There are shows on the Disney+ Star Wars page I'd never heard of till I went looking for Andor: From my kids, I sort of knew about the existence of The Bad Batch and Star Wars: Visions, but Tales of the Jedi? The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special?
Here we come back to the question of what a "grownup Star Wars" can even mean. With apologies to the fanboys grunting their disappointment that The Book of Boba Fett wasn't built around gory R-rated cauterized-brain spatter, Andor feels like the outer limit of the concept. Unnerving suspense, overt despair, bureaucratic infighting, implicit sex—this has to be about as mature as things can get in the realm of laser swords.
Still, The Mandalorian showed there can also be life in a show that simply manages to be grownup enough. Before the densely imagined political economy of Andor, there was Werner Herzog and his shabby, grimy-armored band of remnant stormtroopers: an instant, electrifying sign that galactic history had kept happening despite the conclusive-seeming victory dances at the end of Episode VI.
The galaxy doesn't have to be unremittingly grim to feel real and worthwhile. It just has to be expansive and inhabited. Give me the long-scheduled Rangers of the New Republic, but make it a workplace sitcom, Barney Miller with weary, sardonic X-wing pilots drifting in and out of their station house. Or give me space Fame with aspiring Twi'lek dancers and Ortolan jizz-wailers. Or cantina Cheers.
It all reminds me of the feeling, elsewhere in the Disney intellectual-property regime, I got watching Ms. Marvel. It was as if the Marvel Cinematic Universe had cut a deal with the show's creative team: go ahead and make a big-budget sitcom about a Pakistani-American teenager in Jersey City, just make sure each episode adds another five or 10 minutes of superhero business. Until about two-thirds of the way through the series, when the amount of mystical zap-fighting reached a tipping point, it even kind of worked.
What will Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe even signify to young viewers, when nothing exists outside Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Will the Fast & Furious franchise become an avant-garde alternative? How will anyone ever hatch another golden goose, under these conditions?
READ MAX: Yeah, I don't have high hopes that Disney will see the societal-cultural advantages to ending all Star Wars properties after the final season of Andor, and while I will probably watch Star Wars Sopranos (depicting the decaying criminal empire of the Hutt grandchildren) and Star Wars White Lotus (first season set in Cloud City, of course), I find the prospect of even extremely well-made "Star Wars for adults" as the future of all entertainment pretty depressing. I liked a lot of The Mandalorian, which ambled along charmingly as an episodic space Western, but did it need to be a Star Wars show for any reason other than to secure a budget and a place in Disney's schedule? "Just make a cool old-fashioned story set in the Star Wars universe" is good advice for creators, but at some point you have to wonder why you can't just make cool old-fashioned stories in whatever universe you want.
The answer, obviously, is rooted in the political economy of our world—in the need for consistent returns to shareholders, in protectionist intellectual-property laws, in business models built around the flow of content to streaming platforms. And I'm not sure Andor, for all its radicalism, has much to say about that. How do you respond to an intelligent, political show whose success bolsters what is more or less actually An Evil Empire? Karis Nemik says "even the smallest act of insurrection pushes our lines forward." Well, my small act of insurrection is to watch Disney+ with my friend Katie's login. I guess that makes me a rebel.
POPULA: Oh, yeah, I'm on a borrowed login too.
Tommy Craggs: Don't forget that Tony Gilroy did an eleventh-hour Robert Towne salvage job on the script for Rogue One. Because of the specific narrative ground it had to travel, the movie, set in the space between the prequels and sequels, was allowed to romp around a lot of the unused parts of the Star Wars universe, well clear of all that neurotic intracanonical cross-referencing. It was free not to be dorky! I think in retrospect we can appreciate the ways that Rogue One was the ideal terrain from which to stage an insurgency against the whole franchise. (Star Wars movies and TV shows are nothing if not a good allegory about the making of Star Wars movies and TV shows!)
Tommy: I don't see 1/6 here so much as Battle of Algiers, especially its famous bombing sequence, which is where you the viewer are inducted, almost unwittingly, into the grim consequentialism of anticolonial insurgency. At the very moment the movie permits you to see the French settlers as human beings, it demands as well that you see their slaughter as an awful necessity. Andor's version of this is showing a handful of Ferrix innocents who have been maimed by a bomb thrown by one of their own, but the show never gives you any cue to doubt the justness of the act.
Tommy: If you're correct, and I think you might be, it will surely have at least something to do with the fact that Andor is a remarkably sophisticated portrait of a popular front. Crucially it is not the liberal fantasy of a popular front--the one in which radicals lay down their supposedly childish ideals and allow savvy pragmatism to carry the day, nudging history along its appointed course toward justice (aka Spielberg's Lincoln). Nor is it an idealized version in which all differences melt away in the universal solvent of solidarity. Andor's popular front comprises committed radicals and fellow travelers and self-interested scoundrels who are forced by events to become one or the other; it also includes squirmy liberals like Mon Mothma who haven't totally disabused themselves of their hope to "save the Empire from the Emperor." The first season of the show is, in a way, an account of how the coalition comes together, on the fly, almost despite itself, out of some mix of ideals and self-interest and an awakened ethic of care, how it changes people and is itself changed in turn. The touchpoint here is the popular front of the New Deal era, still a potent cultural memory that resists any rightward appropriation.
Tommy: The Finn character introduced in The Force Awakens was pointing in this direction, and for a brief moment I really thought we were going to get a fascinating portrait of how normies become stormtroopers and how stormtroopers rationalize their stormtrooping, and then...fart noise.