When George Lucas first started envisioning the story of Star Wars, he researched kids’ films to understand “how myths work,” he told The Atlantic in 1979. He seemingly wanted to build a sci-fi fairy tale, the kind with dichotomies—good versus evil, right versus wrong, light versus dark—that children could easily grasp. The heroes would be obviously gracious, self-sacrificing, and resourceful; the villains would be mean, ruthless, and destructive. The resulting blockbusters about the epic clash between the noble Jedi and the abhorrent Sith offered wholesome entertainment. And it all began with the idea to make “a real gee-whiz movie,” as Lucas put it.
The Disney+ prequel series Andor, which debuts Wednesday with three episodes, exists unmistakably in the Star Wars universe—but it’s not at all “gee-whiz.” Although the story traverses some of the same distant planets and star systems as the films, many scenes take place in dingy hideouts or rusty warehouses, or inside the homes of those trying to avoid persecution by the militaristic Empire. There are alien species and droids aplenty, but no Jedi or Sith Lords (or merchandise-friendly Baby Yoda types) appear in the first batch of episodes screened for review. The series observes a familiar setting from an unfamiliar ground level: Most characters are trying to save their own skin, not the entire galaxy. A show that’s more concerned with portraying life under an oppressive system than with inspiring awe, Andor is an unusually mature entry in the Star Wars franchise. It’s a confident and sophisticated drama that asks for—and rewards—a grown-up kind of patience.
That ethos is noticeable from the get-go. The titular protagonist isn’t on a typical hero’s journey; if anything, he hasn’t yet set his moral compass, a task that can take a lot longer than, say, completing the Kessel Run aboard the Millennium Falcon. The prequel charts the evolution of Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna) from an unmoored cynic to the rebel captain viewers met in the 2016 film Rogue One, but the origin story isn’t just standard fan service. Unlike the main characters of Disney+’s other Star Wars shows, Cassian is not a stoic loner or an ambitious leader. His home world was destroyed by the Empire, leaving him flitting across the galaxy, dependent on a network of similarly disenfranchised friends to survive. His circumstances are tragic but common, which makes him unexceptional and, as one character says, “disposable.” Although Cassian is angry at the Empire, he has long since accepted that he does not have the power to do much about his loss; his goal is to survive, which sometimes means committing crimes or exacting violence to make ends meet. This Star Wars project examines how a person’s needs, fears, and wants can be molded into a taste for revolution—or submission—depending on the (lowercase-f) forces at play. Those who have seen Rogue One know that Cassian’s days are numbered. Andor, as a result, depicts how an ordinary, disillusioned character can undergo a political awakening in just a few short years. It looks at what shapes our sense of right and wrong, and where the line Lucas drew so boldly between light and dark, good and evil, actually rests.
Such psychological dilemmas are the specialty of Tony Gilroy, the series creator and showrunner. Gilroy co-wrote Rogue One and reportedly contributed to the brutal ending, which killed off all the protagonists. But it’s the non–Star Wars–related entries in his résumé—including the Bourne films and his Oscar-nominated script for Michael Clayton—that Andor evokes the most. The series operates like a spy thriller, with characters communicating in code and obfuscating their identities while figuring out who they can trust. The violence is grittier, less lightsaber-dependent: The first 10 minutes of the pilot include a character’s accidental death and the cold-blooded murder of another at gunpoint. The first three episodes feel like one long film—not in the bloated manner that has irked critics and showrunners alike, but in a way that uses the medium’s format to ramp up further tension. The most tantalizing dialogue dissects moral quandaries; a scene in which a character verbally shreds Cassian’s life philosophy left me reeling. And the antagonists feel like real-world villains, driven more by ego, workplace politics, and a misguided sense of duty than by a cartoonish pursuit of evil.
Still, Andor is not so different from the rest of the franchise that it risks alienating longtime fans. The trademark Star Wars thrills remain intact in the form of inventive set pieces—the third episode features a sequence as gripping as any X-wing dogfight or Sarlacc encounter—and vividly drawn supporting characters, who lend the show a lived-in feel. Luna continues to have fantastic screen presence as Cassian, imbuing him with a naivete that is gone by the time Rogue One begins.
Andor may take place years before the Rebel Alliance is fully formed, but like the faction Cassian eventually works for, the series enjoys breaking rules. It’s unconcerned with following the established tone of the big-screen movies. It can be downbeat and slow-burning in its pace. In the four episodes I’ve screened, war looms only in the far distance. But the show seems to hum with dread for what’s to come—not for the battles that will break out or the blood that will be shed, but for Cassian’s transformation, little by little, into exactly what the Empire feared someone like him would be: a threat. Andor understands that Cassian’s story is not a straightforward march to martyrdom; it’s uneven, twisted by those more powerful than him. He’s caught in a cycle of violence that yields more violence. This tale perhaps does not fit cleanly into Lucas’s “gee-whiz” mold. But after so many films and television shows set in the same galaxy far, far away, Andor manages to carve out a new path to understanding that galaxy’s complicated moral stakes.