Star Wars, as it was first created, is the story of a plucky rebellion fighting against a galactic hegemony. It evolved into a wider universe filled with seemingly infinite worlds. In this galaxy, far far away, Star Wars can be nearly anything; a space western, a tragedy of brother fighting brother, a war of great brutality, and even a place where a single child grows up in secret to save the galaxy from his own father.
But it has never felt especially real.
Part of the problem was Lucas’ struggle to write compelling dialogue. Often, actors like Mark Hamil would have to fight with him on lines they felt were too corny or ridiculous. This was particularly evident in the prequel trilogy, which was bashed by critics for frequently atrocious dialogue. After Disney acquired the franchise, the issue wasn’t as pronounced, though far from perfect. Head-scratchers such as “somehow Palpatine returned” snuck in, but rarely was there ever focus on trying to ground the dialogue in the world.
More than the dialogue, though, Star Wars simply doesn’t feel like a world of normal people. We often see the Empire’s atrocities –Alderan, for example–, but we rarely spend time examining how they affect the lives of the citizens of the galaxy. We don’t see the Empire functioning. We don’t get many stories of people who aren’t destined for greatness.
Rogue One tried to be the “darker” Star Wars story, but it was still fundamentally a story about grand sacrifice in the name of something undeniably important. Andor, on the other hand, Disney’s latest prequel series set before the events of that film, breaks the mold. It’s filled with people who are either resigned to oppression or actively enjoy the power the Empire gives them, or those who give their lives to take even a small victory over the Empire.
In the Star Wars universe, a dark tone does not generally equal a grounded story. Even in stories that show the Sith or other villains as empathetic or sympathetic, these are often larger-than-life figures who play out theatrical dramas. Revenge of the Sith is a prime example, essentially the last act in a tragedy. Andor feels more grounded because what is happening and what is being fought for is much smaller and more intimate.
Consider the first part of Episode 1 in which Andor kills two corporate security members in order to not get arrested. The first three episodes, in general, are about this crime and the response to it. We never see stormtroopers. We never see Star Destroyers. The first three episodes make the Empire seem both omnipresent and far away because the world this is happening in is too insignificant for them to care about at first. Even as we later see more Imperials, they are intelligence officers, Imperial Army Soldiers (who are distinct from the Stormtroopers), and administrators. No lightsaber-swinging inquisitors are to be found yet.
The events we’re presented with in the show aren’t significant enough to merit attention from Vader or anyone even in his stratosphere, but they are vital to the characters in question. If Andor is caught he will almost certainly be executed. Several people who stand up to Corporate security or the Empire are killed as well.
Characters in Andor also do things that convey they are fallible, making them that much more believable. Andor kills one of those two security officers accidentally, then the other one because he’s covering up his own mistake. The Corporate Security response to Andor’s murders is then plagued with inefficiency and personal greed. In the intelligence arm of the Empire, there are jurisdiction conflicts and people wanting to attain personal glory at the expense of their colleagues.
These mistakes end up mattering and the story feels more character-driven rather than driven by the plot. One of the truths about the Star Wars universe is that events occur the way they do because of fate, prophecy, or simply the machinations of Palpatine’s plots. Because Andor feels so character driven and real, it allows the audience to feel real suspense. It allows us to wonder where plot threads may go and what people may do.
The Mandolorian did a lot to reinvent what a Star Wars story on screen could be about. It leaned into elements of the lore that exist outside the decades-long drama of the Skywalker family like Bounty Hunters and Mandalorians. Ultimately, however, the story is tied into the mythos of the force and the main story of the Skywalkers with the inclusion of the young Baby Yoda.
Andor is of course not finished yet, so it is still possible for it to betray the more grounded elements set up in the first few episodes, but it appears to be on a very different path. Rogue One was about the sacrifices the Rebellion had to endure to pull off a major victory against the Empire, but Andor seems to be delving into the sacrifices needed to even pull off a small victory against the Empire. Andor is a story that takes more interest in the middle managers of the Empire and the normal people the machine of Imperial domination crushes underneath its gears.
In the lore of the series, there is a massacre early in the reign of the Empire called the Ghorman Massacre. Civilians gathered on Moff Tarkin’s Landing pad to protest against the high taxes on the planet Ghorman, trying to block the Imperial from landing his ship in the pad. Tarkin landed his ship anyway, killing and injuring hundreds. For so long Star Wars during the reign of the Empire was a time when horrible things happened to people like this, but we never got to understand who they were and how they lived. We never get to see the more small-scale tragedies and oppressions of the Empire or the more subtle yet widespread things they did to enforce their reign.
For once, Andor is committed to showing a part of the galaxy we rarely ever get to see and that has freed Andor to be very different from everything else Star Wars, except for scraps of lore or the occasional book. You may hear from people that Andor “isn’t Star Wars”, and in that sense, they are right in that this is something we’ve never seen before. However, it’s also a fulfillment of a promise that this is a fiction universe with a life outside of the movies and TV shows. It makes the Galaxy Far Far away feel not so far from our own after all.
As powerful as the escapism of Star Wars is, a Star Wars that can feel real and gritty when it wants to elevate the universe as a whole.