Andor’s Brilliant Prison Trilogy Takes ‘Star Wars’ To New Heights

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Andor continues to be the dark horse candidate for Best Disney-era Star Wars project—and I’m lumping movies and shows together here. The only reason I can’t say it’s better than The Mandalorian is that it feels like comparing apples to oranges. These shows are different genres entirely within the Star Wars universe, and only The Mandalorian offers us the cute, kid-friendly stuff. Indeed, I think a lot of kids may find Andor a little too slow and cerebral, and not particularly funny.

In some ways, Andor captures what I think George Lucas was going for in his prequel trilogy’s driest moments: Senate politics, trade deals, bureaucracy. But unlike the prequels, Tony Gilroy’s Star Wars is about spies and rebels, not Jedi and midichlorians. Here, the subterfuge and secret wheelings and dealings are loaded with tension. The humdrum of the mundane is brought humming and buzzing to life. Mon Mothma’s (Genevieve O’Reilly) attempts to funnel her family fortune into the fledgling uprising, show us the future rebel leader walking on a razor’s edge, with calamity around every fraught corner. (We also learn that Vel (Faye Marsay) is her cousin!) And we watch on the edge of our seat as Dedra Meero (Denise Gough) hones in on ‘Axis’, the rebel leader who she (rightly) believes is at the center of an elaborate resistance network.

Both Mothma and Meero are fascinating characters. The former is a politically savvy Senator who masks her true purpose behind the guise of a naïve rich woman and martyr to noble, but galactically insignificant, lost causes. Meero is cunning and ruthless, a relentless investigator whose pursuit of the truth leads her closer and closer to her targets: Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and Axis, who we know is Luthen Rael (Stellan Skarsgård). Meero doesn’t flinch at violence, either. When she interrogates Bix (Adria Arjona) on Ferrix, she asks her when she last saw Andor. “You wouldn’t believe me anyways,” Bix replies. “No,” Meero says. “I suppose I wouldn’t.” She hands her to the torturer instead—a doctor whose sonic torture technology illustrates just how willing, and creative, the Empire truly is when it comes to inflicting pain.

That penchant for cruelty is on full display in the prison colony Andor finds himself in on Narkina 5. Andor’s prison is a new twist on the panopticon, reinforced by electroshocked floors that can fry a barefoot prisoner to death in a heartbeat. At one point, Andor and floor boss Kino Loy (Andy Serkis) argue whether or not they’re being watched or bugged. Loy—eager to finish his sentence and go free—errs on the side of caution. Cassian insists that the guards have no reason to listen in. We’re not that important to them, he tells his fellow inmate. But the point is, neither of them knows, and this combination of fear and uncertainty has created order within the prison, with virtually no effort from the skeleton crew of guards.

The concept of the panopticon was first introduced by philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The basic concept is a highly efficient prison in which the fewest guards possible can control the largest number of inmates. Bentham conceptualized his panopticon as circular, with all prison cells facing a central tower. A single guard could surveil every cell, and inmates would never know if they were being watched. Indeed, the prison could theoretically operate just as well with no guards at all.

This process effectively internalizes the authority of the guards within the inmates themselves. Since they never know if they’re being watched or not, the inmates fall in line and police themselves. In Andor, this concept is tweaked to some degree—deadly floors add a very real, physical consequence to infractions—but remains largely a high-tech version of the same thing. The prisons—surrounded by ocean—are roughly circular in design—heptagonal, but close enough. Inmates’ cells are open-faced without bars or doors, with nothing but the threat of the floor keeping them contained. No guard ever ventures into the cell blocks and only occasionally descends to the work floors, usually to bring in a new prisoner.

Bentham—an early Utilitarian philosopher—described his dystopian invention as a “new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind.” In Andor, this concept extends beyond the prisons of Narkina 5 to the very halls of power. Indeed, the shape of Mon Mothma’s gorgeously appointed penthouse doorways is almost identical to the prisons themselves:

Even the ISB meeting room shares some of this symbolic imagery. The slight differences between each image matters. The prison has the hardest and fewest edges; Mon Mothma’s doorways have several more sides and less rigid angles; the ISB meeting room is a perfect circle.

The Empire itself, then, is a panopticon of sorts. Always watching. Omnipresent. The tower at its center is Emperor Palpatine himself, the all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-watching crux of order and power in the galaxy. Even the rich and powerful are hard-pressed under imperial thumb. Mon Mothma finds herself trapped in her elegant prison life, always looking over her shoulder, stuck between myriad rocks and countless hard places—one of which is a potential deal with a powerful criminal, Davo Sculden (Richard Dillane) from her home planet of Chandrila, who can move her money around free of charge, so long as she considers setting up her daughter with his son. After all, what’s more priceless than status and reputation? When she tells him she’d be more comfortable simply paying him he replies that “a drop of discomfort may be the cost of doing business.”

“It’s a lot to think about,” Davo says as he leaves. “I’m not thinking about it,” she spits back, clearly uninterested in continuing the arranged marriage tradition of her people for her own daughter, or at least with this man. “That’s the first untrue thing you’ve said to me all day,” he replies.

(Another great line from Sculden: “One of the great indulgences of great wealth is the freedom from other people’s opinions.” Damn it but the writing on this show is so on point!)

Kino Loy is another sterling example of the panopticon at play. He does the work of the guards for them, leading his floor of inmate workers with great efficiency and determination. The guards barely have to lift a finger and Loy does the rest. Well, Loy and the constant threat of punishment and promise of reward.

There’s almost a Squid Games aspect to the ‘gamification’ of Narkina 5’s prisons. Each floor consists of a seven tables with seven men at each table. These men work frantically each day for hours putting some kind of tech together. We don’t know what it is and neither do they. That’s part of the point. The work doesn’t have to be meaningful, it simply has to be efficient. And so each table competes against the others. The winner will have flavor added to their gruel (which is dispensed from tubes in each prisoner’s cell) while the losing table will be shocked (mildly, not to death). Meanwhile, each floor competes against the others. Everything about these prisons is ruthlessly efficient. They are clean and sharp. Hard lines and white walls. The prisoners do not live in filth and squalor. They have access to as much food and water as they please—“They like us well-fueled” Andor is informed—but there’s also a secret that ends up being the prison’s undoing.

When an older inmate suffers from a massive stroke, a medical inmate (in blue stripes rather than orange) is brought to tend to him. He’s one of the few inmates with access to more than one floor—elaborate sign language has been devised to communicate with other prisoners from a distance during shift changes, but this is like playing the game of telephone. Much is lost in translation.

The doctor informs Loy and Andor that an entire floor was fried—100 men killed—to prevent them from spreading word that the Empire slipped up. A man who was released from his prison sentence was returned the next day, revealing a horrible truth: Nobody is actually ever set free. They’re simply transferred to another prison when their sentence is up. That whole risk-vs-reward promise is upended in an instant when Loy realizes that his sentence, over in less than a year, will actually be extended for life. As Andor says—and Loy later echoes to the whole prison—he’d rather die fighting to get free than in chains.

And so the prison uprising ensues, with a desperate plan to overwhelm the few guards before they can activate the deadly floors. What follows is an intense, action-packed fight for their lives. Many don’t make it. Andor is unflinching in its portrayal of violence and death in ways that most Star Wars rarely achieves (the destruction of entire planets from a distance being one exception to this rule). They throw metal rods and whatever makeshift weapons they can at the guards, who fire back with deadly force. Cassian has broken a water main at this point, and when the guards activate the floor to fry the prisoners (many of whom make it onto the tables in time, many of whom don’t) the water shorts the system out. The inmates finally clamber their way up and kill the guards, taking blasters and racing to free the rest of the cells. They take the command center—a barely guarded tower in the center of the prison—and shut off the power, turning off the floors. The remaining guards hide as the inmates race to the top of the massive prison and leap off into the water below, swimming toward freedom.

“I can’t swim,” Loy tells Andor. “What?” Andor shouts back. But he’s pressed to the edge, knocked over by the flood of other inmates. Kino Loy remains above, still a prisoner.

There are others. Other prisoners in different kinds of cells.

Lonni Jung (Robert Emms) is revealed as a double agent. The ISB officer has been working for Luthen all this time, though the two only meet face-to-face in the tenth episode of Andor. Lonni has been feeding the rebels precious intel, and they’ve returned the favor in order to help advance his career. The higher he moves in the ranks of Imperial intelligence, the more useful he becomes to Luthen’s efforts.

But he wants out now. After telling Luthen that a rebel plan has been discovered and begging him to call it off—Luthen won’t, however, because it risks revealing the mole—he explains that he has a daughter now and he can’t keep taking such risks for her sake. For his wife’s sake. Luthen disagrees. There’s only one way out from this game: Death.

Lonni begs. He’s sacrificed so much. What has Luthen sacrificed?

“Calm. Kindness, kinship, love. I’ve given up all chance at inner peace,” the older man replies. “I’ve made my mind a sunless space. I share my dreams with ghosts. I wake up every day to an equation I wrote fifteen years ago from which there’s only one conclusion: I’m damned for what I do. My anger, my ego, my unwillingness to yield, my eagerness to fight, has set me on a fight from which there’s no escape.”

“What is my sacrifice?” he continues. “I’m condemned to use the tools of my enemy to defeat them. I burn my decency for someone else’s future. I burn my life to make a sunrise that I know I’ll never see . . . So what do I sacrifice? Everything!

I won’t lie. This scene gave me goosebumps.

Truly, this is Stellan Skarsgård at his very best. And one of the many moments in Andor when you realize just how much better this show is than almost anything else Star Wars has given us since Return Of The Jedi.

And this is Star Wars at its very best, too. The examination of power, of freedom, of the thin line between the two, combined with the gorgeous cinematography, tight and powerful writing, and universally strong performances is simply on another level. Give me Mando for humor and Baby Yoda and a fun space adventure, but give me Andor for a serious, almost literary, take on this galaxy far, far away. Between the two, this is what Star Wars needs to become. This is the way.

The prison trilogy—Andor’s 8th, 9th and 10th episodes—was directed by Toby Haynes (Black Mirror, Sherlock, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) and written by House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon.

Are you enjoying Andor as much as I am? Let me know on Twitter or Facebook. We have just two episodes left and then the long wait until Season 2.

P.S. I have been largely writing about this show every three episodes or so. The first three episodes were one trilogy, the second three another. Only the 7th episode has bucked this trend. I’ll be curious to see what they do with the penultimate episode and finale.

Also, I was right. Andor most certainly is a new hope for Disney’s struggling Star Wars franchise. Just goes to show, when you hand this property over to people with vision who honor and respect what’s come before, you get something truly special.

Here’s my video review of the Prison trilogy as well:

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