Since the critically acclaimed first season of “The Mandalorian'' debuted on Disney Plus in late 2019, succeeding Star Wars shows have fallen into a familiar pattern — overindulgent cameos, mediocre writing and artificial sets. I assumed showrunner Tony Gilroy’s 2022 show “Andor'' would be much the same — imagine my excitement when I was proven wrong.
“Andor” is a gritty prequel to the 2016 hit film “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” starring Diego Luna reprising his role as rebel spy Cassian Andor. Tragically, Cassian dies a hero at the film’s conclusion.
“Andor” follows Cassian’s journey as he transforms from petty thief to rebel freedom fighter five years prior to the events of the original movie. After a misunderstanding ends with Cassian killing an imperial officer, he finds himself increasingly intertwined with a growing rebel movement led by secretive linchpin Luthen Rael (Stellan Skarsgård) and senator Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly). But, the empire is hot on his heels, as he and the other rebels are relentlessly pursued by the cold-blooded imperial intelligence officer Dedra Meero (Denise Gough).
From its first shot, “Andor” sets itself apart from other Star Wars streaming shows with its stunning and grounded locations.
Each destination is meticulously detailed and full of life, in part due to a near-religious commitment to practical sets and on-location shooting. Each location, from the rolling hills of Aldhani to the cramped, dirty streets of Ferrix and even the sterile Imperial Security Bureau (ISB) headquarters on Coruscant feel tangible and lived in.
Most other Star Wars shows forgo on-location shooting in favor of StageCraft, a technology first engineered for “The Mandalorian.” StageCraft utilizes large screens enclosing a set to project an interactive digital background in real-time. Although a valuable and innovative tool for directors, StageCraft makes sets look artificial when overused. By utilizing real locales, “Andor” manages to feel far more three-dimensional than its peers.
The use of real locations in lieu of digital soundstages in “Andor” also alleviates the cinematographers’ burden of recreating realistic outdoor lighting, enabling the show to achieve a more dynamic appearance. While shots in “The Book of Boba Fett” appear flat and void of contrast, “Andor” utilizes depth, shadow and framing in a truly cinematic fashion.
The substantial visuals of “Andor” are essential to its grounded take on the Star Wars universe. While Star Wars is best known for its action-adventure spectacle, “Andor” transports audiences to a grittier side of the galaxy. Gone are the mystical space wizards and valiant war heroes — enter partisan saboteurs, secret police and ruthless cloak-and-dagger politics.
It’s refreshing to see the Star Wars galaxy from the eyes of the everyday people who inhabit it. The Empire and its military, while at times a mere nuisance in other media, become real, immediate threats in “Andor.” The show is brimming with tension and jaw-clenching drama throughout, bolstered by Nicholas Britell’s textured orchestra-synth score.
However, the snappy pace of the series doesn’t quite extend to the first two episodes, which take their sweet time putting events into motion. This means you might have to get through a few slow episodes before “Andor” fully blossoms.
The cast of “Andor” takes to the material like Emperor Palpatine to sinister cackling — though with much more subtlety. Luna acquits himself well as the directionless drifter turned revolutionary Cassian while also remaining underspoken, accentuating the growth his character must undergo to evolve into the one we know in Rogue One.
Skarsgård’s portrayal of Luthen Rael is another obvious standout, pinning together the show’s various converging plotlines. Luthen at first appears to serve as a conventional mentor figure to Cassian, however as the show progresses Skarsgård skillfully navigates an increasingly apparent moral grayness.
It would be a crime not to also mention Denise Gough and Genevieve O’Reilly’s contributions. Gough brings a calculating intensity to ISB officer Dedra Meero which instantly solidifies her as one of the best Star Wars villains to grace the screen. Likewise, O’Reilly takes full advantage of the opportunity to explore the emotional depth of Mon Mothma in a way she wasn’t allowed to in the prequel trilogy films, where nearly all of her scenes were cut.
The actors wouldn’t have the freedom to give us such engaging characters without a solid script to back them up, which “Andor” delivers on. The dialogue is endlessly witty and never falls prey to the long-winded exposition detours which are so common in genre television. Rather, the audience is trusted to fill in the gray areas left by layered banter, and the show more than benefits from it.
This is a marked improvement on what the show’s siblings offer. For instance, much of the script of “The Book of Boba Fett” is pure exposition, leaving inadequate room for meaningful character interaction. Its redundant explanations and meaningless noise quickly become boring.
The first season of “Andor” rises above the expectations set by other Star Wars streaming shows in every possible way. Don’t let the slow pace of the first two episodes deter you — the show has a wealth of depth and dedication you will regret missing out on.
Season one of “Andor” is currently streaming on Disney Plus.
Noah Fellinger is an Arts Editor for The Daily Cardinal. He's covered the performing arts, new film and television releases, and labor issues in the arts. Follow him on Twitter at @Noah_Fellinger.