Written by Oli Mould, Reader in Human Geography, Royal Holloway University of London
Andor is the newest Star Wars series on Disney+. It tells the backstory of Cassian Andor, one of the heroes who helped steal the Death Star plans in the 2016 film Rogue One (itself a prequel to the original Star Wars movie from 1977).
\As the series draws to a close, Andor has become a favourite for Star Wars fans. This is despite that fact that it has yet to mention the Force or the Jedi and there hasn’t even been a lightsaber.
One of the major appeals of the show is the level of detail and “everydayness” that it depicted. The characters from the evil, imperialistic and in many cases, overtly fascist Galactic Empire are, in the grand scheme of things, relatively low-level. It optimises what cultural theorist Hannah Arendt, in describing the everyday seemingly mindless tasks undertaken by some of those in the Nazi Party, called “the banality of evil”.
Take the fast-rising military tactical supervisor Dedra Meero and the embittered civil servant-style employee Syril Karn. They are seen scouring reports, sat behind desks, performing menial tasks and in Karn’s case, living at home with his overbearing mother.
It is the intricacy of their work, the levels of bureaucracy and military hierarchy they must navigate, that characterises the massive scale and sheer terror of the Empire. In this, it also not-so-subtly critiques the military-industrial complex by exposing the intricate (and often fraught) links between private military corporations and state.
The series also takes a great deal of care to build up the rebels’ backstories, giving far more emotional weight to their reasons for rebelling. The rebel networks of deceit and subterfuge that the show painstakingly outlines adds real complexity, dynamism and a heightened sense of jeopardy that is somewhat missing from the fast-paced stories of the Star Wars cinematic films.
In essence, Andor is the “grown-up” Star Wars story that many of the fans were craving after the rather one-dimensional and insipid calamity that was Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
But there is a deeper reason I think that Andor is striking a chord: it is capturing the essence of resistance that is happening in the real world around us.
There are the people in Iran protesting against the country’s strict laws. Climate activism is increasing across the world, Black Lives Matter movements continue to fight against institutional racism, reproductive rights groups are campaigning again in the US and resistance is increasing against rampant transphobia. There are very real, and widespread networks of activism across the world.
As Star Wars creator Geroge Lucas has stated, the saga has always been about rebellion against colonialism and fascism. That’s why Andor really is a true Star Wars story and why it speaks very intimately to the troubles, but also the exhilaration and specific triumphs, of effective resistance campaigns and debates around how action should be “done”.
The series introduces us to one of the “lead” organisers of the rebellion, Luthen. Luthen is “hiding in plain site” in the Empire, where he poses as a wealthy antiques shop owner while secretly coordinating rebel activities.
In his utterly captivating and brilliantly written monologue at the end of Episode ten “One Way Out”, he encapsulates the deep sacrifices he had made for life-long resistance. This is brilliantly summed up with the quite haunting line: “I burn my life to make a sunrise I know I’ll never see.”
This again echoes the many times we have heard climate activists claim that they risk jail time, ridicule and everything else that comes with activism because they want a better future for the children – a future they might never see.
For scholars of activism like myself, one of the more intriguing lines from the speech is: “I’m condemned to use the tools of my enemy to defeat them.” Here, he is talking about having to live a lie in order to infiltrate the Empire. But these lines also importantly echo a very live debate in activist and academic circles about how resistance should be “done”.
Whose tools should be used?
To summarise the argument, a more traditional Marxist approach will agree with Luthen, that to defeat the enemy, you must use their tools in a moment of insurrection. This is essentially a political argument that says to change the world, you have to achieve power first. Through political pressure or, if needed, full-scale revolution (such as in Russia in 1917), the aim is to seize power first before using that power to affect change.
More feminist and anarchist approaches will argue that resistance means building your own house with tools you create yourself. This is perhaps most famously captured by the words of the American civil rights activist and poet Audre Lorde who wrote the now famous words: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
She is arguing here that we cannot solve problems of oppression working with the tools of a system of oppression. This thinking sees activism as less about changing the system so that it supports us better, but building entirely new systems.
The show teases this form of activism with Vel and Cinta, two rebels who are in a relationship. After a major successful heist against the Empire, Vel seems to want to run away with Cinta, to stop fighting and leave the system of oppression that they currently operate in and instead forge new lives under new systems of their own making. And in a more subtle, “soft” form of activism, the indigenous people of the occupied planet of Aldhani are seen maintaining their “folk” traditions in spite of clear disdain from the colonial imperial occupiers.
But whichever side of this activist positioning people are on, Andor shows the struggles of attempting each. The time spent detailing the nuances of the Empire’s fascism as well as the various practices of resistance that grow to meet it are why I think Andor is as popular as it is.
In a world where all sorts of groups are fighting for different causes, there are debates about the right and wrong way to go about enacting change. Art and cultures thrives when it speaks to the real world.