Star Wars Gets Political

But not in the way you might think.

A still frame from the Andor series
Lucasfilm Ltd / Disney+

This story contains spoilers for the entire Star Wars franchise, including the Disney+ series Andor.

In the eighth episode of the Star Wars prequel series Andor, the mysterious art dealer turned Rebel leader Luthen implores the extremist fighter Saw Gerrera to unite with other factions against the evil Galactic Empire.

“Aren’t you tired of fighting with people who agree with you?” Luthen pleads with Gerrera. “There’s no chance any of us can make it real on our own.”

“Kreegyr’s a Separatist. Maya Pei’s a neo-republican!” Gerrera replies in disgust. “The Ghorman Front? The Partisan Alliance? Sectorists. Human Cultists. Galaxy Partitionists. They’re lost! All of them, lost! Lost!”

I want to be clear that, as a Star Wars fan since childhood, I have no idea who any of these people are. I don’t recognize the name of a single character or faction, with the exception of the Separatists, the prequel antagonists who fight the Clone Wars against the ill-fated Galactic Republic. But none of that matters.

The point of the conversation is not that viewers are supposed to recognize these terms, but that they are supposed to understand that the forces that eventually become the Rebel Alliance in the series’ first film, 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope, are bitterly divided by ideological differences and personal animosity. In short, they are divided by politics. Andor is perhaps the most sophisticated attempt to give the world of Star Wars its own internal political coherence. Although such efforts have not been without their detractors, they have also given the Star Wars universe some of its most compelling stories. Like Andor’s 2016 predecessor Rogue One, which brought to life the once-anonymous Rebels who captured the Death Star plans driving the plot of the first film, Andor explores the stories of the more ordinary denizens of its universe, the characters who are out of focus when the protagonists are onscreen.

When I say politics, I do not mean that Andor is a liberal or left-wing show. It can be read that way—one can see the echoes of the issues that animated the George Floyd protests in the show’s portrayal of Imperial law-enforcement agencies cracking down on dissent, or in the Imperial prison that has debt clocks in every cell. What I mean is that the series attempts to imagine an internal politics of class, culture, and ideology that motivates its principal characters and fictional institutions.

The characters all come from somewhere, be they rich in the glittering towers of the Imperial capital, lower middle-class in the kitchenettes of its crowded apartment buildings, or poor and desperate to survive on an austere world in the Outer Rim. They have failing marriages, overbearing parents, and ungrateful children; they worry about debt and unemployment and keeping their bosses happy. If the Rebels are a motley band of idealists, fanatics, and crooks, Andor’s Empire, a sprawling colonial power, is populated not just by stormtroopers but by bureaucrats, strivers and sadists, outwardly respectable functionaries who allow a fascist government to manage its everyday business.

There’s the Imperial spymaster who is eager to prove herself more capable than her condescending male colleagues, the wealthy Imperial senator horrified by the recognition that a rebellion involves actual violence, the young idealist eager to share the republican manifesto he’s scribbled in his galactic Moleskine. When one of the show’s rugged insurgents shows up on Coruscant dressed in finery, after having complained about “eating roots and sleeping on rocks for this rebellion,” the audience recognizes for the first time that she comes from a privileged background. In a subsequent scene, her partner dismisses her as “a rich girl running away from her family,” accusing her of being a Corellian Corvette liberal infatuated with her as a symbol of the oppressed class she wishes to rescue. “I’m a mirror,” her partner says. “You love me because I show you what you need to see.” Still other characters, including the protagonist, remain aloof from political struggle—they are too busy trying to survive. When Luthen lists the fiercely divided factions of the Rebel Alliance in his first meeting with Andor, the protagonist shrugs and says that they’re all the same, and all useless.

The show is populated by ordinary people who become revolutionaries or Imperial cronies, not just magic monks, space-cowboy smugglers, or ruthless bounty hunters (not that I don’t love all of those types too). Similarly, the show’s factions, whether part of the Rebels or the Empire, are not monolithic but troubled by their own divisions and rivalries. The show, in other words, is interested in what kind of person joins the Rebels or goes Imperial, and why.

Andor is not the first or last Star Wars property to try to make sense of the internal politics of the beloved space opera. Rogue One showed an existing but still-fractured Rebel Alliance, one that felt more like a harried insurgency battling an invincible hegemon. The animated Clone Wars series similarly features episodes of intrigue focused on the Republic Senate, and the newly released Tales of the Jedi focuses several episodes on how the Sith Lord Dooku lost faith in the Old Republic. The exchange between Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala in Attack of the Clones over the need for a dictator to take control and bring order has been memed to death; Tales of the Jedi tries to tell a story about what would bring a Jedi to that conclusion. The sequel film The Last Jedi attempted to provide a kind of political economy of the Resistance that some fans hated, although I am not one of them.

Star Wars has never been entirely devoid of political allegory; George Lucas famously described the original trilogy as an allegory for both the American Revolution and the Vietnam War, an interpretation that allows the United States to be the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire at the same time. Lucas similarly acknowledged parallels between war’s erosion of democratic freedoms in the prequels and the effects of the Bush-era War on Terror in American politics. Still, the franchise has always broadly conveyed a kind of bland, prodemocracy, anti-authoritarian politics in the most unobjectionable sense. At least, unobjectionable in an American context until recently.

The original trilogy and the prequels have been mocked for their corniness—not without reason—but Lucas’s world building provided a lavish universe for other creators to inhabit. The cold obstinacy of the Jedi Order, the corruption of the Old Republic, the internal politics of the Empire—these were all interesting threads for other writers, filmmakers, and showrunners to pull on. The sequel trilogy, by contrast, ended in a spasm of sterile fan service, and the world it built has until now been almost entirely abandoned. Few fans seem to want to return to it, and creators apparently feel similarly. When there’s no compelling depiction of political or social constraints—not even a passing mention of the Imperial Senate being dissolved, the last remnants of the Old Republic swept away—there’s also not much left to explore.

Andor lacks the recognizable protagonists of its companion series, and there’s nary a parkour lightsaber duel set to a John Williams score to be found. But through Andor’s portrayal of a realistic internal politics of the world of Star Wars before A New Hope takes place, the show provides some of the richest storytelling in the universe, in the grand tradition of filling in plot holes left by prior installments of the franchise. It’s also in keeping with what Lucas said was one of his favorite aspects of the universe he created.

“It isn’t the science, aliens, and all that kind of stuff that I get focused on,” Lucas told AMC in 2018. “It’s how people react to all those things.”