Andor’s Ambiguous Pursuit of Justice
“There will be no rules going forward. If you are not willing to risk your conscience, then surrender and be done with it.” — Luthen Rael, Andor
Andor has not only become one of the most beloved shows of 2022, it is also considered the best of the Star Wars live-action series. Incredibly, this is despite having very little of the quintessential explosive action we’ve grown to expect from the franchise.
No, Andor is not moved along by action-packed fights and gratuitous deaths. Andor deals with the slow but constant, suffocating choke hold of the Galactic Empire. It considers what drives people under oppression to radicalize and retaliate with rebellious and immoral acts in the name of justice.
Andor deals with ambiguous morality from the beginning. In the lusciously neo-noir opening, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is on Morlana One visiting a brothel to look for his sister. Two corporate security officers notice him and start harassing him. Moments later, Cassian stands in the rain with the two dead officers at his feet. As opposed to other Star Wars shows, where a killing like this would go generally unnoticed, Andor makes much of Cassian’s actions. At this point in the saga, it’s still a big deal to kill, to orchestrate a heist, and to affiliate with thugs—all of which will take place as the season unfolds.
Throughout, Andor leads us—characters and audience alike—into losing our naivete about the ethics of justice. Midway through the season, Cassian finds himself as part of a rebel group—led by antique dealer and undercover rebellion founder Luthen Rael (Stellan Skarsgård)—planning to rob the payroll of an Imperial base on Aldhani. When the rebels learn that Cassian is not committed to the rebellion but has simply been hired to be part of the heist, one of them, Karis Nemik (Alex Lawther), thinks about what is permissible in the fight for freedom. As he writes a manifesto for the rebellion, he tells Cassian that he wrote a chapter titled, "The Role of Mercenaries in the Galactic Struggle for Freedom.” Nemik comes to understand that they just need all the help they can get.
When Chadrilan senator and undercover rebellion founder Mon Mothma (Genvieve O’Reilly) is forced to seek alternative financial services to fund Luthen and the rebels, her friend Tay Kolma (Ben Miles) mentions Davo Sculdun (Richard Dillane), “the wealthiest thug of them all.” Mon Mothma’s scruples initially lead her to oppose this suggestion. But she ends up inviting Sculdun to her house for a meeting. After he denies a monetary payment for the favor, he tells her, “A drop of discomfort may be the price of doing business.” Much to Mothma’s dismay, Sculdun’s actual price is an introduction between his son and her daughter. This season tests how far Mon Mothma is willing to go in support of the rebellion. Will she risk financially affiliating with a thug and even socially associating with his family?
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The only character bitterly sober about the darkness and moral sacrifice needed for justice is Luthen Rael. The season features two instances in which Luthen speaks one-on-one about the ethics of pursuing justice: first with Cassian and then with Lonnie Jung (Robert Emms), a rebel spy working undercover in the Imperial Security Bureau. During both rendezvous, the lighting in the scenes portrays Luthen’s ambiguity, illuminating one side of his face while the other half remains in shadows. When Lonnie asks Luthen what he’s sacrificing, Luthen’s words echo his half-lit face, as he delivers what is arguably one of the best monologues in Star Wars history. “I’ve made my mind a sunless place . . . I yearned to be a savior against injustice without contemplating the cost . . . 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 will never see.”
Luthen is willing to hire a mercenary, plot a heist with little probability of success and a high risk of retaliation, kill the mercenary he paid off, and sacrifice rebel groups all for a bigger cause. But in that ethically compromised fight for justice, he finds hope, even if it’s not for himself.
Under oppression, freedom is a morally ambiguous endeavor. This is something the people of Israel experienced in the Old Testament. Yet, Yahweh stands with the oppressed and acts on their behalf. In Exodus we see that Israel’s heroes are not blameless. The midwives disobey and lie to Pharaoh. Miriam and Jochebed swindle Pharaoh’s daughter into saving Moses and paying Jochebed to nurse him. Moses murders an Egyptian guard and escapes, abandoning his family. Living in the margins means you function from the liminal ethics of the margins. When Yahweh acts on behalf of Israel, the plagues unleash illness, pestilence, and the death of many first-born innocents. The biblical text doesn’t resolve the ambiguity, but holds us in its tension along with the freedom of Israel. The people are commanded to commemorate the day of their freedom by remembering the deaths of first-born Egyptians and the redemption of their own first-born sons in the observance of the Passover. Freedom is celebrated, but its deathly cost is also to be remembered.
It seems that for the characters in Andor, freedom from oppression is not just about organizing or even having the courage to fight. Perhaps what requires more courage is crossing the edges of their ethics in the fight for freedom; holding the tension between the good they fight for and the transgressions they commit to get it. The end of Season One leaves us in this tension. (Spoiler alert.) While Cassian commits to the cause and Luthen no longer needs to kill him, Mon Mothma risks her conscience, her family, and her reputation by taking Sculdun’s money. When you fight the Galactic Empire, civility can no longer accompany your disobedience. Ethical compromise becomes your only fighting chance.
Could it be, however, that Mon Mothma's "compromise," in which she socializes with sinners, also echoes a gospel hope? Jesus’ own social and meal-sharing habits give us a glimpse of his invitation to misfits, tax collectors, sinners, the marginalized, and the compromised into the work of liberation. As we await the new heaven and a new earth promised in Revelation 21—a new hope, one could say, where there will be no oppression—we work in the shadows of a fallen world, striving as best we can to bring forth the full light of freedom.