What does Andor Believe?

9 February 2023, 0930 EST

According to conventional wisdom, Disney’s Andor is the best Star Wars narrative in years. Political scientists seem to agree. Dan Drezner speaks for many when he writes that the show’s “writing is stellar,” its “locations are great,” and its “visuals” are “arresting.” “But,” he argues, “there’s a deeper, simpler reason” why Andor succeeds so well: it is “the first Star Wars property… intended for grown-ups.” 

Andor takes place after Revenge of the Sith and before Rogue One, when the Galactic Empire is tightening its grip throughout the galaxy. The show’s story is deeply political — it depicts the emergence of the rebellion against the Empire — and its creative team does a good job with the politics of imperialism and the challenges that an increasingly repressive regime poses to collective action

The incipient rebellion tries to provoke imperial overreach and promote radicalization. Careerist imperial bureaucrats try to disrupt emerging networks of rebellion. Civilians often get caught in the crossfire.

Andor‘s showrunner, Tony Gilroy, explicitly draws on the history of uprisings against oppressive regimes. “There are things all the way through the show,” he explained in an interview, “and 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, Palestine. This is the Continental Congress.” 

I think that Andor deserves much of its praise. But as a long-time Star Wars fan, I do think that the show suffers from a fundamental tension: it wants to do “grown-up,” morally ambiguous politics in a universe where all things are shaped by the metaphysical machinations of The Force.

The central axis of the Star Wars is a struggle between good and evil — the “light” and “dark” side of The Force. One of the things that makes Andor so compelling is its careful portrayal of how a truly evil political system functions.

The viewer becomes well-acquainted with the Empire’s “bureaucracy of domination.”

The central axis of the Star Wars is a struggle between good and evil

The Empire’s corporate security contractors attract many employees eager to abuse the minimal authority entrusted to them. Officers of the Imperial Security Bureau authorize any violence necessary to establish “order” and win bureaucratic turf wars. Prisoners become disposable cogs in an imperial machine that extracts as much labor from them as possible. Imperial scientists ensure that no suffering goes to waste; the distorted cries of massacred alien children are used to torture multiple characters.

Star Wars is far less clear about what makes for a “good” political system. The most we get in Andor is a manifesto written by a “true believer” in the nascent rebellion, Karis Nemik, who argues that the Empire is stripping people of their “elemental rights” to freedom, independence, and justice.  While Nemik pitches his manifesto to Cassian — who is, at that point in the story, calling himself “Clem” — their compatriot Arvel Skeen interrupts: “I’d like to hear what Clem believes.” All Cassian can say is that, “I know what I’m against. Everything else will have to wait.” 

Nemik’s manifesto, from which we hear an excerpt in the season finale, has freedom at its core:

Freedom is a pure idea. It occurs spontaneously and without instruction. …The Empire’s need for control is so desperate because it’s so unnatural. Tyranny requires constant effort. It breaks. It leaks. Authority is brittle. Oppression is the mask of fear.

We don’t know if Nemik aims for the restoration of the Galactic Republic, something less centralized, or an even more radical break with the past. It is one thing to yearn for “freedom,” another to design political institutions that genuinely protect it.

Saw Gerrera claims to be the only revolutionary with “clarity of purpose.” Gerrera first appeared in The Clone Wars television series, where he led an anti-Separatist insurgency alongside his sister, Steela.

In Andor, he voices opposition to “neo-Republicans,” “human cultists,” “sectorists,” and “galaxy partitionists” —whatever these mean — but his politics are treated as less important than his military tactics. 

Gerrera is an extremist. He commits brutal acts of violence. For him, the ends justify the means. In Rogue One, Gerrera uses his final words to encourage the protagonist, Jyn Erso: “Save the Rebellion! Save the dream!” Gerrera’s political dream, however, remains ambiguous.

Two others in Andor might offer us a vision of a good political system — Mon Mothma, a senator from Chandrila, and Luthen Rael, who orchestrates much of the emerging rebellion while fronting as a dealer of rare artifacts. 

Rael, like Gerrera, is defined by a particular approach to resistance—one that, in a dangerous move in the moral universe of Star Wars, seeks “to use the tools of my enemy to defeat them.” His political ends are anti-Imperial but otherwise unclear.

Even if our heroes could agree on what they want, however, it’s not entirely clear that it would actually matter.

Mothma, who presents as a mildly irritating advocate of imperial restraint while surreptitiously trying to establish a network of anti-imperial allies, has a more well-developed neo-Republican vision. Mothma will eventually become a central figure in the original trilogy’s Rebel Alliance—that is, the Alliance to Restore the Republic—but it is not clear why restoration should suffice. 

As Paul Musgrave notes, the choices demanded of Mothma make her a compelling presence. Yet her neo-Republicanism offers only the unimaginative nostalgia for a broken system that Padmé Amidala offered in the prequel trilogy and The Clone Wars series

Emperor (formerly Chancellor) Sheev Palpatine was able to subvert the Republic from within partly because it had become ineffectual and corrupt. Mothma, Amidala, and their few allies in the Senate offer no serious rethinking of a system that consistently failed its citizens, served the interests of the rich and powerful, and deployed the equivalent of a slave army against its foes.

Even if our heroes could agree on what they want, however, it’s not entirely clear that it would actually matter.

The Force has a will of its own. That will tends toward metaphysical good. In Star Wars, the universe really has a moral arc. This leaves Andor with a problem. Are Nemik, Andor, and the others fomenting rebellion simply instruments of the Force?

Such questions — including whether the Jedi and Sith themselves are ultimately used by the very Force they seem to wield — have made an appearance in The Last Jedi, multiple Clone Wars arcs, and in some media retconned as “legends” after Disney’s acquisition of the franchise. None of them have provided much in the way of answers.

Given the need to tell stories about heroes and villains making choices, those running the franchise are unlikely to resolve the matter in favor of a strongly deterministic view. But the role of The Force in Star Wars undermines stories that portray moral ambiguity — and limits any lessons that viewers might draw for real-world political and ethical dilemmas.

Perhaps it is simply too difficult to articulate a positive vision of galactic politics in a series meant for twelve-year-olds. The sequel trilogy’s quick dismissal of the New Republic may underscore the problem. It is easy enough to oppose galactic tyranny; it is more difficult to present a vision for what a just political system looks like. It’s also good for business if everyone can see themselves in the “good guys”.

All this matters for more than the viewing experience. Regardless of how realistic it is, fiction can inform reality or serve as a teaching tool in moderation. From Andor’s dehumanizing prison system on Narkina 5 to the working-class solidarity on Ferrix, the show’s goods and evils invite us to hold a mirror to our own political systems. I hope the second (and final) season gives us more goods to contemplate alongside the evils.