There’s a case to be made that, as it stands right now, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is, broadly, the most beloved Star Wars movie of the 21st century. Though it wasn’t immune to the behind-the-scenes tinkering that’s plagued all of these movies (save, interestingly, the divisive high-water mark The Last Jedi), the story of how the crucial Death Star plans came into the hands of the Rebel Alliance turned out to be an older-audience crowd pleaser, downbeat ending and all. With Rogue One, Disney placated the exact fans who grumbled about the colorful silliness of the George Lucas Star Wars prequels by giving them a prequel. Now, Disney+ has commissioned the serious-minded Andor, a fan-service backstory of Diego Luna’s Rogue One character, for viewers who claim to not want fan-service backstory — or at least regard it with suspicion. It’s another prequel for the middle-aged fans who hate the prequels, and most of the sequels, and the cartoons, and most other Star Wars stuff made after 1980 that’s not Rogue One.
That’s not entirely fair, though. Andor also feels like a pivot from the Stagecraft sets, Clone Wars expansion, and pandemic-era minimalism of recent Star Wars TV — a bid to show that the franchise can accommodate more subtlety than Boba Fett riding a rancor. It’s equal parts creative experiment and savvy self-marketing of that experiment: Here are some new corners of the galaxy to explore, on our way to a well-documented destination.
Perhaps because of Cassian Andor’s billion-dollar demise (Rogue One isn’t the highest-grossing Star Wars, but it did alright!), the first episode of Andor lets him play his cards close to his chest. We join him poking around on Morlana One, a “company town” controlled by some sort of corporate entity that’s in bed with the Empire; the place has rent-a-cop-on-a-power-trip vibes. It’s also home to the sleaziest Star Wars location we’ve seen in a minute; if Mos Eisley and Mos Espa are full of dusty dive bars, the club Cassian visits in the opening minutes of the episode is more Red Light District, later described as a brothel. He’s there looking for his sister, who seems to be long gone. But, while in town, he irritates a couple of patrons — and when they attempt to shake him down on his way out, he winds up killing them both: one accidentally, and then the second with cruel pragmatism. There are shades (perhaps too neatly drawn) of his introduction in Rogue One, where he kills a fellow spy for convenience, as if depicting the exact moment he decided he could make himself comfortable with this dirty business.
But Cassian isn’t yet serving the greater good — at least not Rebel Alliance–level greater. He makes his home on Ferrix, making alluded-to deals, fixing up and borrowing starships (presumably on similar missions to track down his sister and whatever else he’s looking for), asking a squat and vaguely Wall-E-esque sidekick droid to lie for him, and generally vexing Bix (Adria Arjona), who seems like some kind of an ex, as he pressures her to call in a contact of hers so he can sell off a valuable piece of equipment.
Cassian is desperate to blow town, realizing that the heat will be on after killing the Empire-affiliated men on Morlana One, though he’s not privy to the dynamics we see: Syril Karn (Kyle Soller) wants this mystery man brought to justice, even though his superior is ready to sweep the incident under the rug to keep things looking right for the Empire. He asks Syril to come up with a story explaining their accidental death. (“Something sad but inspiring, in a mundane sort of way.”) The scene between these two is written by series mastermind Tony Gilroy with a certain elegance missing from some of the first-drafty lines in previous Star Wars series. Unfortunately for Cassian, Syril stays on the case, out of what seems like some fussy adherence to Empire law-and-order ideals.
The episode also begins what will presumably be a series of flashbacks to Cassian’s childhood on the planet Kenari, focusing on his relationship with the sister he seems to be searching for early on. In another bit of restraint, the non-English scenes are un-subtitled, and the episode’s nominal ending — this feels very much of the “slice of an overlong movie” school of TV-making — has the camera pulling slowly and further away from an already-long shot of Cassian’s sister, as Cassian heads out with his fellow forest-children, seemingly to investigate a downed ship on their planet.
There’s plenty of intrigue in this first episode, but the most unexpected, and maybe kind of hilarious, aspect of Gilroy’s grounded/serious take on Star Wars is that it also winds up pretty closely resembling Solo, Rogue One’s sibling Star Wars Story that wasn’t nearly as successful, and basically caused the whole spinoff cottage industry to pivot to TV. Think about it: a charming but stubborn rogue, desperate to gin up enough money to go on the run and escape his hardscrabble surroundings, desperately searching for an important person from his past, involved in the seedy underbelly of this universe, destined to become more closely involved with the struggle between the Empire and the Rebels … we even see a couple of Corellian hounds in this episode! There’s nothing wrong with this — Solo is kind of underrated! — but there’s a grim thematic appropriateness in realizing that, like Cassian, Star Wars can pivot and dodge and try to grow up, but it can’t necessarily outrun itself.
• Is this the first live-action Star Wars to use the nerdy notation “BBY” to identify its place in the bigger timeline? The first episode takes place in “BBY 5,” meaning five years before the Battle of Yavin — the Rebel/Empire dust-up that results in the destruction of the Death Star at the end of A New Hope. This feels like a cheesy thing to canonize onscreen, except Cassian’s whole onscreen history to this point is closely tied to the Battle of Yavin, to the point where “BBY” doubles as a grim countdown to his eventual demise.
• Will Andor be the first Star Wars show that winds up feeling too cool to show us weird aliens and stuff? Whether as a reluctant sop to the nerds or simply Gilroy being a bit more judicious with his nonhuman characters, I appreciated the tall yet somewhat downcast-looking alien dude that a comparably puny human brings along to help muscle Cassian for the money he owes.
• I haven’t really mentioned Diego Luna’s performance so far; 35 minutes, a decent chunk of which he spends offscreen, doesn’t give us much to go on yet. So far, that makes Andor especially reminiscent of Rogue One, which used Luna’s charisma and gravity more than it really created a fully rounded character.
• So, Bix has an unnamed buyer, dealing in various salvages, scraps, and parts. Clearly, they’ve waited for the most prestigious and sober Star Wars series to re-introduce Watto. (I’m kidding, I’m kidding. However, my heartbreak when Watto doesn’t show up will be very real.)
• Some nice patient directing from Toby Haynes just before Cassian’s altercation on Morlana One: The camera stays on Cassian’s face for a full minute and a half as he’s flagged down by offscreen voices, stopped, and harassed, keeping the wayward “employees” out of focus even as they enter the frame, until the run-up to their physical conflict begins in earnest.
• Move over, blue milk: Those blue noodles in a Chinese food-style takeout container look delicious!