Police and Thieves: On Tony Gilroy’s “Andor”
By Aaron BadyDecember 8, 2022
The adolescent intensity of its self-regard is one reason you can mostly bracket off the franchise’s politics. When Lucas first made A New Hope, he claimed to have been thinking about Vietnam, and he described the movie — which he notably made instead of Apocalypse Now — as “a large technological empire going after a small group of freedom fighters.” And there’s no doubt that the geopolitics of his day seeped in: empires were falling in the 1960s and ’70s, and (just as the prequels would imply that George W. Bush did 9/11) a simplistic decolonial vibe suffuses the proceedings. Tatooine was filmed in the recently independent Tunisian town of Tataouine, after all, and the Galactic Empire has a British accent for a reason. But movies absorb their zeitgeist like sponges, which is a very different thing than saying that they have a coherent politics. These ones don’t: A New Hope is about controlling your phallus (“Luke, at that speed will you be able to pull out in time?”) and — after you orgasmically blow up the Death Star — getting a medal pinned on your chest by your sister-mother-wife. Empire Strikes Back has a more complex set of womb and castration anxieties — and introduces the theme of killing/supplanting your father — and the Ewoks of Return of the Jedi are the Việt Cộng only through the lens of Western self-regard. The Việt Cộng fought the Americans because the former were anticolonial communists, a popular peasant insurgency against imperialism (and not particularly “small”). The Ewoks fight the stormtroopers with rocks and spears because they like Leia and because the plot needs them to.
Andor is different. Described as the grown-up star war, Star Wars at its most mature, and the one that isn’t really a star war at all, it is an adult show, and not just because Bix and Timm have sex in episode two. Do you even remember that that happened? Imagine, someone not only had sex in a star war, but it was also so normal as to be forgettable. A New Hope is about sex the way adolescence is, a tapestry of anticipation, selfish longing, and the certainty that this structurally absent thing will transform your life (transform everything). But you have to be an adult to know that sex is just one part of love, and often not transformative at all. And for all his MacGuffinesque centrality to the plot, Andor is neither a narcissistic projection of his creator nor a stand-in for the audience. If Luke Skywalker was a mirror for his creator and his audience, wearing his heart on his sleeve, Cassian Andor is an opacity at the center of the plot, adopting a variety of names and faces, persistently denying any desire beyond escape. It’s a show about many things, but one of them is about not being the center of the universe, and the question of how to live in the world if you know that’s the case. The one thing an adolescent doesn’t know is that they will die, and Andor is a show made about a dead man, who died in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. And so, it’s a show about everything that will live after he dies.
This is probably the part in any essay about Star Wars where the writer waxes nostalgic about how old they were when their dad took them to see Empire Strikes Back, about the toys they played with as a kid, or about the way it made them feel when they saw Leia in that golden bikini. I’m going to tell you, instead, that Andor premiered when my twins were four months old, and that might be why “sex is less important than the thing that survives after you die” is the most dad sentiment I’ve ever committed to words. And yet it probably matters that George Lucas was in his childless twenties when he made A New Hope, and that his nostalgia was as focused on his youth as it was when he made American Graffiti. It probably matters just as much that Tony Gilroy is a 66-year-old father of two.
Let’s start at the beginning. What have our heroes been doing before their plots begin? Luke Skywalker (described in the script as “a farm boy with heroic aspirations who looks much younger than his eighteen years”) begins his story staring up into the sky, mentally pleasuring himself with the fantasy of doing what his father did, what his older and cooler male friend has done: becoming a pilot that shoots things and blows them up. Since he both wants to go to the Imperial Academy — where you become a stormtrooper — and he also wants to join the Rebel Alliance, it’s clear that “politics” is not what motivates him. It’s all just a hot-rodding means of leaving his family and getting out of town, in some vague sense of following in his pilot father’s footsteps.
Andor begins, by contrast, the moment our protagonist goes into a brothel, looking for something other than sex: he is there to find his sister, and however happenstance this cause and effect may be, his murderous tussle with the “corpos” is a function of that choice, which sets in motion the rest of the show. But before he goes to a brothel and looks for something other than sex, before the show begins, what has he spent his life doing? In Rogue One, Andor claims to have been fighting the Empire since he was six, but the main thing we learn about his life before he became a show is that he has been having a bunch of sex. His ex, Bix, instantly assumes that the mark on his face was given him by a “jealous husband,” and Maarva throws a running tally of “all your women” — “Femmi, Karla, Sondreen […] some names I don’t even know!” — in his face, along with the complaint that he’s always out “ruining [his] health and reputation with friends of low character.” This is Cassian Andor, when he’s not the protagonist of a star war. Even his tragic backstory on Kenari — which he apparently likes to tell his lovers, to Maarva’s annoyance — is a mini-drama of having the hots for an older girl and losing his shit when she’s killed. And after the Aldhani heist, when he’s flush with cash and tries to leave the Rebellion, what does he do, and where does he go? Into the arms of some nameless woman on Miami planet.
In short, if A New Hope imbues the Rebellion with libido, Andor’s journey towards Rogue One begins when Andor looks for something other than sex. The corpos become hostile because he refuses to be a bro in the brothel with them: they initially welcome him with a homosocial bonhomie, but he rebuffs them and leaves. They resent him for that reason, and they hassle him for that reason, and he kills them and becomes a Rebel and steals the plans for the Death Star and, by extension, saves the galaxy, all for that reason.
More importantly, perhaps, none of this is Cassian Andor’s destiny. He is a clear Luke parallel in more than a few structural ways: orphaned by the Empire, endowed with a missing sister, and mentored by an older man who brings him into the Rebellion. But when he does, finally, get plugged into Luthen’s revolutionary cell, he is precisely not there because he has something no one else has. He is there for “critical redundancy,” because, in a rebellion, a lot of rebels are going to get killed, and because no one is special and unique, you need more rebels to replace them when they are. If Luke Skywalker’s family made him special, it was his patriarchal heritage that made him of interest to the Emperor, his destiny to join or supplant or kill his father. But Andor is only of interest to the Empire because Dedra thinks he’s the key to finding Axis; Andor himself is so insignificant that when they really start looking for him, they don’t even realize that they already have him.
Instead, family, for Andor, turns out to be the people you’ll come back for: his sister, Maarva, and Bix. It is made, not inherited. And if Andor is a star war “for adults,” I think this is what it means to say that. Growing up means putting sex in perspective, understanding it not as a narcissistic apotheosis devoutly to be wished (by a teenaged virgin masturbating to the idea of rebellion), but as just one of the glues that binds families together, forever. What, after all, is Bix to Andor? Their relationship is something permanent, something transcendent, even though the sex that began it is long over. Family will do, as a term; even sister, if we want (since there is nothing more Star Wars than being a little messy about sex with your sister). But family is the loyalty that makes people your family: you make it, and only then does it make you. It is, in that way, a lot like a revolution.
Let’s ask that question, then: is this show “revolutionary”? Andor’s disinterest in sex lets us clarify what this show isn’t, but that framing only gets us so far. The absence of John Williams is key to pinning down what makes this show feel so un–Star Warsy, but so is the presence of Nicholas Britell’s score. So, if this isn’t a star war structured by narcissism and libidinal fantasy, what kind of Grown-Up Show is it? Is it, for example, about The Revolution? Does it have politics? Has Disney made “political art”?
Sure? I guess? The original trilogy sublimated and refracted and projected an adolescent stew of mixed feelings about the Vietnam War, technology, and American empire onto science fictionalized tropes — the Empire! the Force! the Rebellion! — and Gilroy has been clear in a variety of interviews that Andor is a stitched-together collection of historical struggles and rebellions, remixed and recontextualized:
I don’t want to go through and quote chapter and verse, but this is the Russian Revolution. This is the Montagnard. This is something interesting that happened in the Haitian Revolution. This is the ANC. Oh, this is the Irgun Building in Palestine. This is the Continental Congress. This goes all the way … I mean, you could drop a needle in the last, I don’t know what is recorded history, 3,000 years, legitimate recorded, I mean, slavery, oppression, colonialism, bad behavior, betrayal, heroism, I mean, it’s a continuum.
On some level, this historical consciousness — or this kind of archival promiscuity — makes for good, grounded storytelling. What, in another interview, Gilroy calls being a “drive-by historian” makes the show’s world-building feel robust and textured. When the original three films tended toward the archetypical, they became aggressively antihistorical and antirealist, from the vagueness of “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” to an almost if-a-tree-fell-in-a-forest-and-Skywalker-didn’t-hear-it lack of object permanence. This works if you’re making movies that aim for Jungian myth, which he was. But it means that everything onscreen explains itself completely and makes sense in and of itself, and nothing offscreen exists. And if you ask too many questions, the dream falls apart.
Andor isn’t like that, to put it mildly; from the gloves on the wall to the ill-fated Kreegyr mission to a variety of vertiginous vistas of imperial vastness, the show fills its world with stuff that evokes all that is beyond the camera’s ability to show. We never know why, exactly, the people of Ferrix do the things they do — for example, why they bang on pipes to warn about cops, why they bake their dead into blocks, or why that dude banging the anvil in the tower is called the “Time Grappler.” But while the original Star Wars films made toys—objects to be played with and reimagined as you please — Andor builds the feeling of a precise and historical society, one with depth and consistency. This feeling is partially a function of Lucas’s archive: if he stole from old movies and action serials, Gilroy steals much more realistic, historical material, and inherits that structure of reality from it. As a result, things like Bix’s smuggling scheme make sense, in ways Han Solo’s nonsense about parsecs flagrantly didn’t; Luthen and Mothma’s OPSEC and maneuvering sums of money are subtle and logical, and their guerrillas bicker and squabble over everything, like real ones. In A New Hope, the Rebel Alliance tended to just sort of have a secret moon base somewhere, filled with ships they acquired somehow, with a chain of command that worked invisibly.
This is all good and realistic storytelling. But does it mean anything? The Aldhani heist is lifted from an episode in the life of young Stalin, and Nemik is, in some sense, meant to be a “young Trotsky.” But does basing science fiction on real world events reflect back on the real world in any meaningful way? Or does it just strip them of context and turn them into blank, congenial abstractions (the way Lucas turned the National Liberation Front for South Vietnam into teddy bears with spears)? One might venture to ask, after all, just how continuous the last 3,000 years of “slavery, oppression, colonialism, bad behavior, betrayal, heroism” really are, and whether the Irgun, Continental Congress, Montagnard, and Bolsheviks have as much in common as Gilroy seems to suggest? One might even suggest that the things they precisely don’t have in common — specific attitudes towards capitalism and race, for example — might actually be somewhat important things. After all, weren’t the Irgun and the Continental Congress fighting to build the kinds of racist settler regimes that the Haitian revolutionaries and the ANC were fighting against? The Bolsheviks understood “revolution” in quite a bit more specific way than “shoot the bad guys,” and the Montagnard are as peculiar and specific a group of guerrillas for Gilroy to focus on as the Irgun are.
We should dig a bit deeper, then. Andor begins with a parable about how all cops are bastards and ends with a glorious brick-smashing and bomb-throwing riot. But if the Star Wars universe has cops and fascists — and if it knows that the thing good people do is fight them — does it know that the reason is race and capitalism? Andor is twice described as “a human with dark features” — by a police supervisor speculating as to why the corpos hassled him — but does Star Wars believe that Dark Featured Lives Matter? If Luthen is a Lenin figure, does he believe that the Empire is the highest stage of capitalism?
These are better questions than “is this show political?” For one thing, a kind of racial capitalism is threaded throughout the Empire as we see it in Andor: Narkina 5 and Kenari are clearly sacrifice zones, with racially marked inhabitants, while the Empire has a genocidal contempt for Aldhani’s pastoral highland residents, damming their sacred river and forcing them into “an Enterprise Zone [with] factories, new towns, Imperial housing.” While Skeen is not racially marked (as far as we know), the Imperial prefect that floods his brother’s pepper trees just reinforces the sense that the Empire is a destructively modernizing capitalist entity that steals people’s means of production: Preox-Morlana is the kind of corporate entity nestled into the imperial system that will be familiar to historians of European empire and American privatization alike. Finally, the show takes great care to demonstrate that Imperial prisons are productive complexes, factories for slave labor, and that when law enforcement is mandated to round up specific quotas of workers to fill them — Imperial Security Bureau CompStat appears to be mostly about maximizing detentions, and Dedra’s “numbers from Sev Tok” are reported to be good — the point is to clarify what the “order” was that Darth Vader proposed to bring to the galaxy in Empire Strikes Back.
In short, it’s an achievement that Andor’s Empire functions so much like the ways empires in our own history have: by extracting labor from marginalized populations, using violent terror to enforce a “peace” that is premised on that structural marginalization, and creating a vast and gaping class hierarchy that depends on its perpetuation. This hierarchy, it’s worth noting, also includes wealthy and patriotic liberals. Not everyone in this world is a scrounging laborer or a stormtrooper; a lot of people, Andor suggests, are at cocktail parties discussing the Emperor’s new “throw everybody in jail forever” law, and suggesting that maybe, just maybe, it might be going just a bit too far. And as much as the wretched of the earth might wish otherwise — as when Andor’s fellow prisoners pepper him with questions about what people are saying about the Empire’s new draconian laws — the most damning thing about the Empire is that most Imperial subjects are just blithely going about their lives, trying not to think about it. Andor even goes a long way towards clarifying that the fascist front line is not made of stormtroopers and a scary seven-foot-tall black robot invading from the outside, but the cops whom you suddenly realize have been here all the time. The darkness is at the center, as Maarva declares: “I’ve been turning away from the truth I wanted not to face. […] We let it grow.” And though the difference between the Good Republic and the Bad Empire has been the thrust of the Edward Gibbon–shaped cosmology of the franchise since the beginning — as central as the polarity between the Light and the Dark sides of the Force — it’s worth noting that, when Kenari is declared toxic and abandoned, it isn’t the Empire that sends the soldiers who kill Cassian Andor’s first love and (as Clem warns) are about to come back and indiscriminately kill everyone. This is decades earlier, and the Empire hasn’t happened yet. It’s a Republic frigate. One reason for Andor’s cynicism, then, might be that he doesn’t have the comforting illusion that the Republic was as good as the Empire is bad.
And yet … “Empire is bad” is no great insight. The bad guys tailor their uniforms like Nazis and also commit genocides, constantly; their evil is too self-evident to be interesting. And the idea that the seeds of the Empire were sown in the corruption of the Republic was one of the themes that Lucas bungled in the prequels, decades ago. Dedra and Syril might be subtle portraits of how fascist ideologues think and feel — and maybe even fuck, if their final meet-ick in the riot is any indication of where things are going — but is there actually anything new here? Are we challenged? We can DiCaprio-meme our way through the show, identifying the originals for all the elements of the stitched-together pastiche that our drive-by historian has assembled, and it’s certainly pleasurable to do so. But do we actually learn anything from any of that excited recognition? Does this show, to put it bluntly, raise consciousness?
If it does, I would assert that it does so by portraying revolution as anything but self-evident. As our hero journeys towards discovering himself as a rebel, the show offers a variety of models for what that looks like, and they don’t really align. There’s the politician who funnels funds through a foundation — while urging a paralyzing caution and moderation — and there’s the factionalist zealot, whose refusal to compromise makes him schismatic and paranoid. There’s the labor boss, forced to an undesired militancy by circumstance (and a forgotten-but-recovered loyalty to his workers), and there’s the reactive and angry victim, whose thirst for revenge turns too easily to selfishness. There’s the true believer, whose manifesto extols the purity and idealism of freedom and whose optimistic belief in its universal spontaneity brings him a beatific joy (and faith in even his most cynical comrades), and there’s the puppetmaster who has gone over to the Dark side, sacrificing allies like pawns, heightening the contradictions, and using the tools of his enemy against them. Finally, and in some ways most importantly, there’s the figure of organic community, the social conscience who calls for action by appealing to the rooted particularity of her people, who calls a society structured by economics to become a community united by culture.
Which of these is the right one? Not only does Andor abstain from choosing: the story is about how its protagonist pinballs between them all, how he is the slate onto which some version of them all is imprinted. The question the show asks is how we get to the character we see in Rogue One, a Rebel who will die for the cause. Not a hero who journeys, not a chosen one, not a prince: a regular person who does what he can and gives what he must, whose sacrifice will turn out to have been necessary and sufficient. What does it take to produce such a person? What makes them what they are, and how did they get there?
The answer the show gives is dialectical, emerging historically through contradiction and conflict, all of them together but none of them alone. Nemik is wrong about Skeen, for example, blinded by his optimism, but the Rix Road riot proves him right about the spontaneity of resistance. Kino Loy would never have stood with those below him while he still thought he had something to gain from those above him, and yet without his power to organize, the prison riot couldn’t have happened. Luthen and Mon Mothma clash over ends and means, but could he have launched his raid on Aldhani without her principled support? As horrified as she is that provoking Imperial reaction is part of his plan, could she ever have accomplished anything at all without him? Maarva’s riot takes Luthen as much by surprise as it takes Dedra, but it was his raid on Aldhani in the first place that inspired her to political consciousness. And while Cassian Andor begins his journey when he’s struck by a cop, it takes all of the above to make him a rebel.
Aaron Bady is a writer in Oakland.
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