To fully grasp the horror of Andor’s stunning prison arc, it helps to go back some 200 years to consider a man named Jeremy Bentham. Bentham, an English philosopher and political thinker, spent the late 1780s abroad and, in a series of letters, crafted one of the finest works of social cruelty in Western thought: the Panopticon. A method of surveillance and social control most clearly mapped to prisons, the Panopticon is best understood as a system meant to give the illusion of constant observation, where the subjects never know if they are being watched or not. One of Bentham’s earliest ideas for implementing the Panopticon was in prisons, which would be constructed with cells arrayed in a circle around a central watchtower that inmates could not see inside. Guards could be watching everything. They could be reading a book. They could not be there at all.
The point of the Panopticon, then, isn’t really surveillance. It’s to get people to police themselves, to instill the idea of a higher power, even if that higher power is but a fiction. In fact, it’s likely better if it is. Stories are powerful. They never have to show their face. You can make people afraid of a story.
The Narkina 5 trilogy — the trio of episodes from “Narkina 5” to “One Way Out” and largely concerned with Cassian’s imprisonment on the eponymous Narkina 5 prison facility — is Andor’s finest hour thus far. Across the last three episodes, each directed by Toby Haynes and written by House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon, Andor has gained a sense of urgency and specificity that doesn’t just make it good Star Wars, but good fiction, filing genre tropes down to sharp emotional shivs that arrest the viewer.
Part of this is due to Andor’s Western-like structure, in which Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is a Man With No Name going from place to place and getting entangled in the stories of others against his will. This allows Andor to do deep character work with a cast of players that come and go, showing the different kinds of people that get involved in revolutions, from wealthy idealists like Vel Sartha (Faye Marsay) to simple grifters like Arvel Skeen (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). The reasons these people have for getting involved in the burgeoning Rebellion, and the varying walks of life they come from, help paint a more complex and mature portrait of the conflicts George Lucas established in 1977’s Star Wars.
We don’t, however, learn anything about Kino Loy (Andy Serkis). His present is all Andor shows us. On Narkina 5, he is the most tragic and pitiable of inmates, an incarcerated man charged with policing his own fellow inmates and keeping them productive and in line. He’s good at the job: disciplined, commanding, and, most importantly, motivated, with less than a year left in his sentence. Some time before we meet him, he learned that his best chance of getting by was to comply with the institutional oppression, and to get others around him to do it as well. The cold language of Narkina 5 — where disembodied and distorted voices regularly demand that inmates get “on program” and perform docility, with hands on their heads — gave him something to conform to. Even if he knows that this performance is entirely for one another, and that no one is likely watching him.
Prisons aren’t just buildings. They’re ideas, systems of control, machines for dehumanization. Their efficacy isn’t limited to the horrors that happen inside, but what people outside of their walls are made to think of them — and more importantly, what they don’t know about them.
One of Andor’s handful of subplots that run alongside Cassian’s imprisonment on Narkina 5 follows Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) as she seeks to secure funding for Luthen’s (Stellan Skarsgård) increasingly ambitious rebel operations. Throughout, she is frustrated by her limited options, as her desire to resist from afar while playing politics is reaching the end of its usefulness, and she must deal with people she finds unsavory.
Mon Mothma’s story does not intersect with Andor’s directly, and it’s not even clear if she’s aware of Imperial prisons like Narkina 5 — it’s implied that no one is. Yet she is also trapped, part of the comfortable charade of democracy that Narkina 5 depends on to exist in secret, visually linked, as some viewers have noticed, in a gutting match cut that juxtaposes the corridors of her palatial home against the shape of the prison Andor is trapped in. Neither character has fully committed to revolution. Neither will escape unless they do.
All of this continues to unfold in spaces far plainer and less imposing than the military might we’ve seen in previous Star Wars stories, and with purpose. Andor leverages the iconography of Star Wars by simply not showing it, and relying on the audience’s familiarity and fandom to do its work for it. We have decades of images of Stormtroopers and Star Destroyers lurking in the corners of our subconscious, and because of that, Andor doesn’t have to show them. We, like its characters, know they’re out there, and know what they can do. That knowledge — that terrorism — is another prison of a sort, to keep the people who are free from ever feeling free.
Conversely, it also shows that the galaxy is too big to rule by brute force. It needs corporate stand-ins like Syril Karn’s former corpo-security guard colleagues on Morlana One, or crushed spirits like Kino Loy, to believe in the Panopticon’s eye. To eradicate whatever it is that others may believe in, and replace it with faith in the Empire’s power and competence.
Competence that, if their victims can be persuaded to look around them and trust one another, is nothing but an illusion.