Tony Gilroy’s 2007 legal thriller Michael Clayton closes with a haunting shot of George Clooney in the back of a car staring mournfully into space. Much the same sensibility is conjured as the debut season of Gilroy’s Star Wars spin-off Andor (Disney+) wraps up with a gripping if downbeat finale.
Anti-hero Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, reprising a part he originated in Gilroy’s grainy 2016 Star Wars prequel Rogue One) doesn’t quite take his leave with a Clooney-esque gaze into the abyss. But the vibe is similar: he’s a troubled soul carrying all the woes of the galaxy on his shoulders.
That remains so even if the episode concludes with Cassian gaining fleeting victory over the dastardly Galactic Empire as he returns to the rustbelt planet of Ferrix to attend the funeral of his adoptive mother, Maarva Andor (Fiona Shaw). As a bonus, he rescues old black-marketeer pal Bix (Adria Arjona) from the clutches of the bad guys.
The gloom that hangs over Andor may well have spread to the Disney boardroom, which has just brought back old boss Bob Iger and which is grappling with the underwhelming viewing figures posted by this $15 million-per-week chronicling of the rise of the original Rebel Alliance, who will eventually go on to zap the Death Star in Star Wars. The suits may be mollified by the excellent reviews and by the praise Gilroy has won for reversing Star Wars’s plunge into tacky irrelevance (see: sputtering Ewan McGregor vehicle Obi-Wan Kenobi).
With Andor, Gilroy has dared do something different – using this tale of Jedi Knights and Stormtroopers as a metaphor for the rise of extremism in present-day society. Those parallels are all but spelt out in a taut and compelling endpoint. As Cassian watches from a dark alley, funeral marchers on Ferrix are met by Stormtroopers wielding riot shields and batons – accoutrements that clearly reference accusations of systemic police brutality in the United States.
Andor’s “What if Ken Loach did Star Wars?” aura predicates against it being an old-fashioned thrill ride. However, the season has had its jet-propelled highs to go along with the existential woes, especially when Cassian was packed off to an interstellar jail midway through. With Andy Serkis riveting as a disgruntled inmate, the show briefly shape-shifted into a future shock remake of The Great Escape.
The intensity remains even if the fun factor is dialled down in the last of 12 episodes (cameras are already rolling on a second, concluding season). Having assisted the embryonic Rebel Alliance and escaped prison, Cassian is back on Ferrix. Accompanied by the galaxy’s must depressive brass band, his mother is about to be buried in accordance with local customs – her ashes compacted into a brick and placed in a wall.
Unfortunately, Cassian has been tailed to Ferrix by a double-whammy of enemies. Representing the Empire is Denise Gough’s Dedra Meero – a Gestapo-like spook who has identified Cassian as a person of interest. However, Gilroy has been clever in depicting the proto-Rebels as every bit as ruthless as their foes.
This is why rebel figure Luthen Rael (Stellan Skarsgård) is also on Ferrix and intent on killing Cassian, who knows too much and might implicate those plotting against the baddies. Also featuring heavily is the series’s best character B2EMO. He – it? – is a depressive robot, who makes Marvin the Paranoid Android from Hitchhikers’s Guide to the Galaxy look like a karaoke machine.
Jedi devotees remain divided about Andor. For some, the lack of “May the Force Be with You" references and lightsaber duels mean it just isn’t Star Wars. But those with memories of the original Lucas trilogy will appreciate Gilroy for picking up on the thread of 1970s miserabilism that underpinned those movies. Glitzy and explosive they have may been – but they were also shot on a freezing sound-stage in Hertfordshire and crewed with jobbing actors from Crossroads and The Sweeney.
That whiff of kitchen-sink despair is amplified in Andor. All of the villains have British accents and seem a bit grumpy and sleep-deprived. The result is a Star Wars spin-off that feels both daring and innovative yet definitively plugged into the films Lucas was making in the Seventies.
How it will link up with the wider story is meanwhile hinted at in a post-credit shot of a well-known deus ex machina from the Lucas blockbusters. It offers final confirmation that, if a different sort of Star Wars, Gilroy’s crotchety saga nonetheless has the Force on its side.