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Saturday, December 2, 2023

Andor: Season 1 Review

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The following is a spoiler-free review of Season 1 of Andor. All 12 episodes are now available to stream on Disney+.


Andor is Star Wars like you’ve never seen it before. This ground-level view of a burgeoning resistance movement is a fantastic thriller that snakes through corridors of Imperial power and the homes of the innocents they bring suffering to. It’s slow-burn at times, shouting rarely but loudly, with memorable action sequences made even more impactful by the tangible stakes birthed in its quieter but equally engrossing episodes. It’s one of the very best TV shows of the year and as good as Star Wars has been in a long, long time.

Set five years before the events of Rogue One, Andor charts the journey of Cassian Andor from nomad to rebel who very much finds a cause. Along that path, the series consistently surprises with the mature themes it tackles and the emotional depth it explores – making it a true breath of fresh air when it comes to Star Wars-set drama. There are no Jedi or lightsabers here, and arguably it’s barely a Star Wars show that just happens to star members of the film it's building up to. But in truth, this is why I love it so much more than anything I’ve seen in that universe recently.

It sets itself apart by raising issues such as apartheid and class warfare. It doesn’t just flutter its eyelashes at them either, but instead explores them beyond the surface-level reading. Of course, it’s not a groundbreaking look into subjects that plague our world, nor does it offer up solutions as to how we can fix society, but it does thrust them forward more prominently than any other Star Wars project has done before, and for that, it deserves to be praised.

Creator Tony Gilroy is a modern master of the espionage thriller, with his work on the original Bourne trilogy and Michael Clayton some of the best examples of the genre. Andor successfully melds the high-stakes action of the former with the smartly written script of the latter, resulting in a masterful blend of tension and release. The series isn’t afraid to spend entire episodes slowly loading the gun before firing in spectacular fashion when the time is right. Some may find the pace plodding at times, but it’s that setup that makes the flurries of violence all the more exciting – actually constructing a full-fledged narrative with defined characters and conversations that feel like humans naturally interacting and rather than coming across like walking-talking plot devices there to transport you to the next low-stakes fight scene.

Scripts have never been of this high a standard at any point in Star Wars history.


Scripts have never been of this high a standard at any point in Star Wars history, and with rose-tinted glasses removed there’s a genuine argument that it’s never been as good as this in general. Andor isn’t just a brilliantly made Star Wars show, it’s a brilliantly made TV show full stop thanks to the lofty ambitions and clinical execution of each of its 12 episodes. The confidence it exudes by trusting the audience to be smart enough to understand the steadily boiling nature of its intertwining plot pay off to hugely satisfying effect by the end of its stunning finale. It’s a series of towering highs made all the more dizzying by meticulously constructed, dialogue-heavy scenes that preface them. These quieter pockets work so well thanks to the layered, thoughtful writing on show throughout, and the nuanced, often powerful performances from each member of the cast.

Weirdly for the star of the show, Diego Luna is almost the unsung hero of Andor. He’s the glue that holds the series together – crucial in driving the plot forwards at all times, but often letting others take centre stage in big moments. The subtle but highly effective acting he regularly produces from a single look on his face often tells us more about Cassian than his words. Luna does a fantastic job displaying genuine character development in tangible ways, whether it be through more confident actions or the way he interacts with his many different cast mates.

D23: Andor Trailer

Headlining that stellar supporting cast is Stellan Skarsgård who plays the deliciously mysterious Luthen. He’s a character with incredible depth who, just when you think you’ve drilled deep enough into understanding, throws another curve ball your way. He loves to play in the grey areas of the galaxy, and Skarsgård does a phenomenal job conveying Luthen’s complex motivations, stooping over others in a scene whether through whispered threats or spine-tingling monologues. No actor feels out of place in Andor, each pitching their A-Game, from Adria Arjona who brings warmth and loyalty to the role of Bix, to Fiona Shaw who stars in some of the series’ most impactful scenes. Then there are the actors who come into the show for extended cameos and end up stealing scene after scene, like Alex Lawther’s impassioned Nemik or Andy Serkis’ powerful turn as Kino Loy.

Any story is only as good as its villains though and in Dedra Meero and Syril Karn, Andor has two very different but very effective ones. The former, played brilliantly by Denise Gough, is a force of nature and a reflection of the very worst sensibilities of the Empire. A snarling face ready to spit vocal venom at any who challenge her, she has very few redeeming qualities, making her the perfect villain to root against. Syril is a very different sort of presence. A slimy, almost desperate sort of figure searching for recognition from the world in all the wrong places. Kyle Soller is excellent in the role, hiding a stalking threat behind Karn’s steely eyes and a thin mask of fascism. Andor gets us deeper within the Empire’s walls than ever before, frequently exposing us to just how evil they can be. It’s a refreshing peek behind the clinically white Imperial curtain, letting us see more reflections of our world than we’d be keen to admit, therefore granting us a more personal connection to the atrocities being committed and evoking a greater emotional response.

Andor doesn’t only create engaging new characters, but also successfully develops existing ones. Playing the proxy for the audience for stretches of Andor is Mon Mothma – someone advocating for positive change in the world but often finding herself drowned out by the shouts of the oppressors. This is thanks largely to the humanity that Genevieve O’Reilly brings to the role. Her scenes in the heart of Imperial-controlled Coruscant add an almost Game of Thrones-like edge of political intrigue to proceedings as she attempts to play people off of one another while remaining undetected as a rebel sympathiser.

For long stretches, Andor presents itself as a political thriller, with walks and talks through Imperial halls and back alley deals taking place on more than one occasion, but that doesn’t mean it lacks action. Its cadence allows for multiple episodes of delicate setup to take place, but never drifts thanks to the snappy script and eye-catching performances. When it chooses to click into next gear though, it never disappoints. Highlights include exciting street battles, heists, and prison breaks – each a wonderfully choreographed sequence with genuinely tangible stakes at play.

It never once looks cheap and has some of the most gorgeously shot Star Wars scenes ever put on camera, as well as claustrophobic handheld sections that get you right into the action. The range of styles on display is exciting with each designed to fit the style of thriller each act of the series is tapping into. Standout episodes directed by Susanna White, Toby Haynes, and Benjamin Caron each come with their own unique look but are all held to a high standard by showrunner Tony Gilroy, whose espionage thriller fingerprints leave a mark on every frame. When combined with Nicholas Britell’s astounding score, it creates something truly special. His stirring strings soundtracking the series’ more paranoid pockets as well as the pulsing percussion does its explosive moments. It’s an extra slathering of class on top of a show already layered with so much quality.

Verdict

Andor is one of the very best things ever to come out of the Star Wars universe. It’s a masterfully constructed political and espionage thriller unafraid to tackle real-world issues and challenge the oppressive nature of bureaucracy. It’s Jason Bourne and Michael Clayton stood side-by-side wearing Stormtrooper armour. Tony Gilroy’s vision has been brought to life brilliantly thanks to top-tier talent both in front and behind the camera, with each line of thoughtfully written dialogue delivered and captured in a believable way, despite taking place in a galaxy far, far away. A slightly slow start may put some off at first, but once it hits its stride it never once looks back and develops into something you cannot afford to miss. Star Wars has never looked like this before, and perhaps, it’s never looked better.

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