You’d think it would get boring, reviewing a show with (nearly) only positive things to say about it, but I’m absolutely floored by what Andor has achieved in eight swift episodes. First, it staked its claim as a grounded alternative to the other increasingly messy, Jedi-obsessed Star Wars properties on Disney+. Since then it’s revealed itself as a gripping, nuanced drama that’s kicking most prestige TV’s ass week in, week out. “Narkina” continues the show’s hot streak and, while it’s a little quieter than the last two event-packed episodes, still tells one hell of a story in just forty minutes. Plus, Andy Serkis and Forest Whitaker show up! We’re just being spoiled at this point.
This week, we pick up right after last episode’s major cliffhanger: Cassian’s going to prison for six years. The bloated sentence is a direct consequence of the Empire flexing its muscles after the robbery on the garrison, which they have no idea Cassian was even an integral part of. Going by Keef, he’s sent to Narkina 5, a water planet populated by heptagonal sea prisons, and subjected to the kind of inhumane treatment and conditions that are par for the course with the Empire (and, indeed, with America).
No two ways about it, this episode’s “subtext” has an exclamation point attached. The casual cruelty the Empire deploys time and time again in this episode is uncomfortably familiar even if you’ve never watched Star Wars. Keef, young and able-bodied as he is, has been labeled “labor-worthy” and assigned 12-hour work shifts in the prison’s factory facility. His floor manager is Kino Loy (Andy Serkis!), a fellow prisoner, but one who rules his domain with an iron fist. He has less than a year left of his sentence and demands blood, sweat, and tears from every last one of the inmates in his charge. There are rewards (you get food with “taste”) and punishments (the floors are made of Tungstoid Steel, which can be activated to cause great pain and injury to the bare-footed inmates) for the most and least productive “tables’’ at the factory, respectively. But it’s more than that for Kino, who doesn’t want to give the increasingly volatile Empire any reason at all to turn its eye to him and his (apparently) impending release. It’s the kind of trickle-down cruelty that makes the Empire, and institutions like it, so effective. If the prisoners are so busy keeping themselves blameless for an arbitrary superior, all of them will be too distracted (and exhausted) to work together on anything that isn’t mandatory labor.
Cassian’s new life parallels neatly with his star-crossed Imperial counterpart, Syril Karn, whose workplace strikingly resembles something between a Death Star control room and an office pod from Severance. One day, he’s pulled from his drudgery and sat in front of fellow zealot Dedra Meero, who rebukes him for filing false reports involving Cassian Andor just to get the ISB’s attention. I’d long suspected them to be on a collision course, but they remain on different ends of the Empire’s hierarchy for now. While Meero needs an ally, and gets confirmation from Syril that Blevin’s report on what went down on Ferrix is very inaccurate, she’s still not ready to pluck this annoyingly overeager bozo from desk-job obscurity just yet.
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For all “Narkina”’s doom and gloom, it’s also extremely funny in at least one aspect. The Empire has him! Cassian Andor is captured and imprisoned! Mission accomplished! Only they have no way of knowing it. Galactic evil works hard, but bureaucratic impotence works harder.
Another time jump takes us ahead a month, or as the text on screen calls it, “30 shifts later.” Andor has been brilliant in depicting the domino effect of the nascent rebellion from the people directly involved to those in far-flung regions of the galaxy. At Mon’s party (yes, another one) someone makes a reference to the heist at the Garrison being a “slaughter,” which is some top class state-sponsored misinformation. On Ferrix, Stormtroopers roam freely and the local hotel’s been converted into a makeshift Imperial base. Maarva ails in her home after injuring herself trying to help a future rebellion that may not even happen and rejects any serious help from Bix, who’s back to wondering where Cassian is.
Get in line, Bix. Also asking “Where’s Cassian?” are Cinta and Vel, who are staking out Maarva’s home on the off chance Cassian returns. We only spend a few minutes with them, but Faye Marsay and Varada Sethu have done an excellent job in fleshing out their relationship in just a few short scenes. Anyway, Bix uses her hidden communicator to telegram Luthen about Cassian. Luthen himself is frustrated by this missing loose end and, coaxed by Kleya, who fears they’re exposing themselves by operating a direct line to Ferrix, cuts off all communication. Bix is later captured and brought in front of Dedra. One way or the other, the standoff next week is going to be intense.
Frustratingly, the stuff that doesn’t quite land this week is the connective tissue to Rogue One, with Luthen visiting Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera, a militant anarchist who we know ends up raising Jyn Erso. I enjoyed the exposition of the petty infighting between various factions positioned against the Empire, but until we see that in action, it doesn’t amount to much more than a re-announcement of their individual philosophies. Luthen maintains his position that the Empire exerting more control, imposing more misery, is a good thing. He even describes it as “helping” the cause. The show asked us last week and it’s not shy to ask again: Is there such a thing as a “greater good” when mass suffering is an inevitability?
I talked earlier about more earthbound analogies sneaking into Andor, and a brief but brutal scene in which a prisoner in Cassian’s cell dies by suicide (simply by throwing himself to the floor after lights out, when the steel is activated) is perhaps one of the most upsettingly close-to-home. We know Cassian doesn’t serve his full sentence (or else there’d be no Rogue One), but the Empire is, step by step, accidentally turning the once-passive Cassian into a hardened rebel who knows their playbook. The main players in this story have never been closer, in their own ways. The question is (and I have no answer here): Who’s going to find Cassian first?
- Credit to Andor for making even low-level Imperial forces feel threatening and cruel. I’m for sure more afraid of the Shoretroopers at the resort-like Niamos than I am of the Stormtroopers in the movies.
- With a few tweaks, this could easily be a top-tier thriller set absolutely anywhere, any time. George Lucas’ aesthetic and legacy was simply the trojan horse to give Tony Gilroy & Co. a built-in core audience (and big ol’ budget) that an original drama on, say, AMC would kill for. They haven’t made a legitimately bad move yet.
- Reiterating my shout out to Vel and Cinta! There’s more romantic nuance to their very brief conversations about logistics than there is in The Rise Of Skywalker’s abysmal blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stab at “representation,” which was so unashamedly lazy I’d argue it actually did more harm than good.
- Mon got married to her asshole husband at 15, which explains a lot.
- After toiling as the stragglers for Cassian’s first few shifts, Table 5 becomes one of Kino’s most productive units. I can’t help myself here: Let’s give it up for table five!
- The rampant dehumanization means none of the prison scenes are “fun,” but I have to say those are the snazziest prison jumpsuits I’ve seen since Paddington 2.