In the Star Wars films, the Empire is big, boisterous, and baroque. It is space stations with lasers so big they can blow up planets. It is giant robot elephant tanks. It is a political leader who wears a black robe, shoots lightning from the tips of his fingers, and chews the scenery like it’s made out of bacon. By contrast, in Andor, the Empire is quiet, omnipresent, and insidious. It is pop-up taverns designed to waylay pilgrims; it is arrests made on the whim of a random Stormtrooper; it is the act of turning neighbor against neighbor, of transforming an entire population into unwitting agents of its police state. It is an Empire where everyone is listening but also no one is listening, where the death cries of children are repurposed as a tool for torture, where power doesn’t panic.
The contrast between the two presentations of the Empire is striking, and it begs the question: Now that Andor has depicted an Empire in such a ruthlessly mundane and disquietingly familiar way, can any future story ever go back to the more arch and overtly evil Empire of the films? Does Star Wars even need to?
As much as the depiction of the Empire in Andor is an intentional product of creator Tony Gilroy and his creative team, it exists somewhat out of necessity. Andor is a story of rebellion, of the Rebellion, personified in the form of Cassian Andor. Meant to carry audiences all the way up to the formal rebirth of the Rebellion in the cinematic Rogue One as a Galactic Alliance capable of striking overt military blows against the Empire, it must by narrative necessity define the evil against which Cassian is rebelling. It is also a much more grounded Star Wars story than most previous ones. There are still spaceships and aliens and laser blasters, but most of the fantasy elements have been stripped away; a more familiar world without lightsabers and Jedi mind tricks requires a villain whose evil is more grounded and less defined by telekinetic chokes and Force lightning. Because this is a quieter, more character-focused story, and because that character is, essentially, just a guy and not a Joseph Campbellian Chosen One, the tone of his antagonists must be modulated accordingly. Having Cassian throw in with the Rebellion because of a high-concept Imperial attack like blowing up a planet is too quick and easy. The series needs to show the Empire slowly raising the temperature of the water until Cassian becomes one of the few frogs that realizes it’s being boiled alive.
For Cassian’s eventual commitment to the life of the rebel to land, we need a strong sense of why Cassian is rebelling, and what the price of not rebelling would be. Thus, the Empire needs to be both everywhere, but also relatively understated. If the Empire is just running around blowing up planets and cackling maniacally, everyone who isn’t rebelling looks stupid or evil. This is expressed by Luthen’s delight over the Empire’s reaction to the Aldhani heist; he wants them to crack down, to suppress civil liberties, for their villainy to become more overt; he is pushing them to become more like the Empire of the original trilogy, to show their true face and thus make it harder for more people to turn a blind eye and do nothing.
The more insidious Empire of Andor also gives Cassian some room to grow. His most overt act of rebellion, the heist on Aldhani, is essentially a mercenary job. He then retreats to Niamos, thinking that with enough money and distance he can ignore the Empire. His experience in the prison on Narkina 5 is the cost of that way of thinking. His fellow escapee Melshi is fervent in his belief that the galaxy needs to know what happened on Narkina 5; like Luthen, he knows that because the Empire is so insidious, simply saying the quiet part out loud becomes an act of rebellion that will inspire more rebellion.
Andor is also a series about the cost of rebellion, and here its depiction of the Empire is integral as well. Maarva dies, after a long life of indirect collaboration and a short life of fervent rebellion, and the Empire turns her funeral into a trap for Cassian. Nemik gives up his life to the cause. Vel and Cinta sacrifice dreams of a normal life together. Mon Mothma risks losing her daughter (to say nothing of her political standing, freedom, and integrity). Lonni, the ISB mole, is trying to do the right thing, at the risk of his family. Luthen’s stunning monologue in episode 10 outlines how he’s thoroughly sacrificed his own moral integrity to the cause. These are all characters both pushed to action and punished for it by the Empire. Rebelling is the right thing to do, but Andor ensures we know it’s not an easy thing to do, in a way few of the previous depictions of the Empire did.
To be fair, Andor also has an advantage in its depiction of the Empire thanks to its format. Expectations are different for a serial series than a big-budget movie. A Star Wars movie, even something stand-alone like Rogue One or relatively character-driven like Solo, comes with expectations of spectacle on a scale higher than what is expected of a streaming series. There, the villains need to be flashier and less clinical in their evil than the Empire of Andor. As a streaming series, Andor has more room to breathe than a feature film (even a trilogy of them). In a movie, the villainy of the Empire needs to be established quickly and bluntly, to establish the stakes and get the audience rooting for the protagonist as soon as possible. In an episodic series, there is more room to develop characters over time, both heroes and villains, and Andor takes advantage of that time. Even among its streaming brethren, Andor has a leg up, with its 12-episode seasons far outpacing, say, the six episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi, set in a similar era and also featuring the Empire as its Big Bad.
So does this mean Andor has delivered the definitive depiction of the Empire, that future stories need not bother because it would be impossible to match what Andor has done? Yes and no. Ultimately, just as with Andor, the tone and format of future stories will dictate the presentation of its villains. Just because Andor’s presentation of the Empire is so compelling doesn’t mean it’s the only way they can work as villains; the Star Wars storytelling galaxy is vast and there is a place for different kinds of stories, just as the more overtly over-the-top and iconographic Empire worked within the context of the kind of story the original trilogy told. A two-ish-hour movie needs broader villains that can establish the scope of the stakes quickly; the destruction of Alderaan in A New Hope isn’t exactly subtle, but it’s an efficient way of making it clear how monstrously evil the Empire is. And given that Luke Skywalker’s story is more archetypal and mythic than Cassian’s, a villain like Darth Vader, who is basically a supervillain, makes for a far more complementary foe than would someone like Dedra Meero.
Ultimately, the depiction of the Empire in Andor exists in part because it needs to in order to support the kind of story Andor is telling. But not all Star Wars films or series have to tell the same kind of grounded, character-focused story as Andor. Post-Andor, there is still room, even in the era of the Empire, for broader, more fantastical stories featuring a broader, more fantastical Empire.
Yet for all that, Andor likely has the market cornered on any story looking to dive deep into this particular era of Star Wars history, in showing the impact of the Empire on the day-to-day lives of its citizens or the way it can push otherwise peaceful people into both morally complex rebellion or agonizing collaboration. The Empire can still be used as a catch-all foil, but any story about the Empire and/or its impact and influence on the galaxy — or even on just one person — will be working in the shadows of Andor, and it will be hard to escape that shadow.
This may not be an issue Lucasfilm needs to tackle in the near future, however, as the Empire slots into a relatively narrow (and well-traveled) window of Star Wars time. While the film side of the Star Wars universe remains something of a mess, there is little to suggest at the moment that any of the films said to be in development will fall into the post-prequels and/or original trilogy timeline. And on the live-action streaming side, the announced series all fall outside that time range — future seasons of The Mandalorian, as well as the Ahsoka-led series and Skeleton Crew (the Stand by Me/Goonies-esque Jude Law-led show about a group of kids in the Star Wars universe), are all set after the fall of the Empire, while The Acolyte, Lucasfilm’s first foray into the High Republic era outside of books and comics, takes place several hundred years before it. All, that is, except for Andor, which will return for a second (and final) season. Which if nothing else means the field is clear for Andor to continue being the showcase for the definitive depiction of the Empire and the depths of its depravity in the modern Star Wars universe.