The Subversive Ordinariness of ‘Andor’ and ‘The Chosen’

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Sometime recently, I was bubbling over with praise once again for the new Star Wars series, Andor, and my wife said something that struck me. “It sounds like you like this show for the same reasons we’ve liked The Chosen.”

In the conversation at hand, I was talking about one thing that has really appealed to me about Andor: the grounded, tangible feeling of its filmmaking. Andor was made without the use of recent technology like ILM Stagecraft and has been very restrained in its use of other VFX, focusing on practical set-pieces, costumes, and a very earthy aesthetic throughout much of its runtime.

Ironically, these are many of the things that are also praiseworthy about Dallas Jenkins’ and Angel Studios’ smash-hit series The Chosen. The idea that The Chosen portrays a story of Jesus’ ministry that “feels real” has been a key part of its huge appeal, going so far as to show Jesus doing ordinary things like brushing his teeth, carving wooden toys, and struggling to get a campfire started. If some Bible adaptations have portrayed Jesus and His disciples as stone statues without much emotion or humanity, The Chosen swings hard toward depicting Jesus as someone you could really hug or share a joke with.

Over the years, the Star Wars saga has also shared a struggle with heroes who feel like stone statues from time to time. One of the common critiques of the Prequel Trilogy was that the Jedi characters felt like cold Shakespearean monks, whose resistance to emotional attachment made them cease to be relatable or believable as ordinary human beings. Star Wars, spare for the remarkable exception of The Last Jedi, has often been focused on characters with “royal” lineage, less concerned with ordinary folk who have no connection to a grand divinely-willed destiny.

The Chosen and Andor both make great strides toward a depiction of their subject matter that feels real. They both take a world of grand, near-mythic figures and bring them down to something relatable and specific. In The Chosen, Simon Peter is a poor fisherman with a hot temper, sarcastic sense of humor, and lots of money in debts. Matthew is a meticulous (and solitary) tax collector with a hint of autism. Mary is a former prostitute who is called out of her old life by Jesus in the first episode, but she still struggles with depression, traumatic memories, and destructive habits.

Likewise, in Andor, there are no Jedi or Emperors or Sith Lords to be found. The main characters do things like sell scrap metal, work in factories and mines, and try not to call too much attention to themselves in a world dominated by The Empire. We’ve become so accustomed to Star Wars showing us who we should care about by giving that person a lightsaber or a connection to a mystical Skywalker bloodline that it’s almost surprising to see a story where the characters are just ordinary people, plain and simple.

But the similarities between the shows, and their shared appeal, go much deeper than their groundedness. Andor is no direct allegory for The Gospels, mind you, but it does share some surprising resemblances and even stronger spiritual subtext. And, to put it simply: it’s just really excellent television.

Andor is no direct allegory for The Gospels, mind you, but it does share some surprising resemblances and even stronger spiritual subtext.

Houston Coley

Andor is many things: elegant, empathetic, subversive, thoughtful, and perhaps the first piece of Star Wars media to elicit tears of both righteous anger and emotional catharsis. It’s also a beautiful demonstration of the ordinariness of rebellion, the strength of community, and the importance of making a choice to fight evil.

It’s easy to praise the show using broad umbrella comparisons like, “it’s the best Disney+ series yet!” or “it’s the best Star Wars since The Empire Strikes Back!” Although both of these statements might be true, they still don’t do any real justice to the rich storytelling on display in showrunner Tony Gilroy’s 12-episode masterpiece, which goes far beyond simply being “good Star Wars” or “good streaming content.”

I’ll come out and say it: the show starts off as a decently slow burn. That’s not remotely a bad thing, but it does require some focused grown-up attention to be paid to an entirely new cast of seemingly unexceptional characters in a completely new place. Gilroy described it this way:

“Do you really think that you will be able to appreciate what happened in Episodes Eight, Nine, and Ten as much without knowing what happened back in Episodes One, Two, and Three?…You’re absolutely enriched by it…If you really wanna feel something, if you have something that lives with you, the requirement for that is that you really care. You need that investment that you [make] in the early episodes.”

For some, the perceived slowness early on could come from the way this take on Star Wars totally differs in its priorities from other entries in the saga. The automatic assumption the audience makes when we’re introduced to Cassian Andor’s home-planet, Ferrix, is that this setting will be abandoned quickly as the show moves along to the real adventure—which might lead to feelings of stalled confusion when we’re deliberately introduced to each of Cassian’s neighbors, his childhood friends, his aging and stuttering droid, his adopted mother, and the many people to whom he owes debts. Ferrix is, to really play up the comparison, a sort-of Nazareth of the Star Wars Galaxy.

We do eventually leave Ferrix, but the place and characters introduced there matter greatly to the story being told and eventually return in the end—which is a little subversive for Star Wars, a franchise where the heroes usually leave their dreary homes behind and never look back. Characters like Cassian and his immediate community are so nondescript that they don’t immediately feel like they’ll be important to the plot. They’re essentially fishermen and tax collectors. But that’s where Andor is different from all other Star Wars, and The Gospels are different from all other religious narratives.

When I revisited the original Star Wars movies recently, one thing struck me: growing up, I guess I always believed the various footsoldiers and X-Wing pilots and generals who helped to stop The Empire were just “professional Rebels” trained and raised since childhood to fight evil. The Rebel Alliance in the Original Trilogy feels like it’s been running like a well-oiled machine as long as there’s been an Empire to oppose. What Andor dares to ask is, “who are these people, anyway? Where do they come from? What have they lost? Do they have families? What would catalyze someone to join an organized group of perceived extremists?”

One of the chief strengths of the show is that it works well as a standalone story even if you know very little about Star Wars, but I’d argue that statement has one crucial caveat: the audience must know about the character of Cassian Andor from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Cassian, in Rogue One, is a committed rebel spy willing to sacrifice his life to stop The Empire; the Cassian we meet at the start of his own series is the opposite of someone who would ever “join a cause.” The dramatic question at the heart of Andor is “what would cause a previously disengaged person to give up their life for a revolution?” The internal transformation of the character from a greasy, impoverished loner to a sacrificial freedom fighter is the main draw.

Andor, then, is a story about radicalization. It’s about characters who were previously disengaged learning to care about something and make a stand for it, even risking loss of life. Ironically, The Chosen is about the same thing.

Granted, the revolution Jesus’ disciples are being radicalized into is one of profound nonviolence and humility, but it is radical nonetheless and complete with, as Jesus puts it in the show, a “manifesto” known as the Sermon On The Mount. The Chosen frequently depicts just how subversive Jesus’ words and commands really were, especially at the start of Season 3, when the disciples gawk and dismay at the instruction to take no money, cloak, or weapons with them on their journey. This suggestion would be radical even within the worlsd of Andor, where the bestowment of a blaster gun is an oft-repeated symbol of trust and empowerment.

Andor, then, is a story about radicalization. It’s about characters who were previously disengaged learning to care about something and make a stand for it, even risking loss of life.

Houston Coley

It’s fitting that although Cassian Andor is the hinge piece of his show—the one puzzle piece everyone seems to be pursuing. It’s ultimately an ensemble story, communicating the depth and breadth of subtle rebellion running through every avenue of the galaxy by showing the variety of people participating in different ways. It’s a body of resistance, to use a church metaphor.

As soon as we find out that Mon Mothma, a wealthy senator and a future leader in the rebellion, is secretly funneling funds to the rebels, familiar alarm bells might go off for Bible nerds. The Gospels share a very similar character: Joanna, an early financial contributor to the church, who was married to King Herod’s household manager. She appears in the premiere episode of the third season of The Chosen.

Luke 14:25 records Jesus saying, “if you come to me but will not leave your family, you cannot be my follower. You must love me more than your father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters—even more than your own life!” It’s a passage that has provoked much controversy over the past 2000 years, but it certainly feels akin to the radical commitment Mon Mothma ultimately makes to the rebellion at the end of Andor, and a bit reminiscent of rebel organizer Luthen Rael’s now-iconic quote: “I burn my life to make a sunrise that I know I’ll never see.” Cassian comes to embody this quote by the time the credits roll on Rogue One, where he ultimately sacrifices himself to aid in destroying the Death Star.

If Andor’s dramatic tension lies in the transformation of a character from a loner to a martyr, The Chosen grapples with the same transformation among the many disciples of Jesus. Almost all of them will eventually give up their lives for the faith, which begs an even greater question of how a person could ever arrive at that point of sheer commitment. It’s not entirely grounded in scripture, of course, but the traditional narrative that Simon Peter is eventually crucified upside down for his faith in Jesus has stuck with me whenever I’m watching the character onscreen in The Chosen, thinking about the drastic internal transformation that would lead to this radical “all-in” sacrifice.

Radicalization is a word often loaded with an inherently violent subtext, and indeed, Andor depicts the grim realities of violent revolution in overthrowing oppressors, whether it’s escaping a prison or pulling a heist. I mean, this is all leading to a deeply destructive act of blowing up The Death Star, right?

But I think the radicalization depicted in Andor, while violent, also goes beyond being simply about extreme retaliation. Radicalization in Andor is about each character searching their hearts and deciding where their allegiances lie—the choice to either fight for their own self-preservation, resign themselves to the status quo, or double down on an ideology that opposes it. Spoiler alert: almost every main character in the show ends up doubling down further, going “all-in” on the cause they come to fight for. We see radicalization in the arcs of characters like Syril Karn and Dedro Meero, who go from corporate/Imperial pencil-pushers to deeply devoted antagonists as they encounter opposition. But we also see radicalization toward the rebellion in characters like Cassian, his mother Maarva, his entire community on Ferrix, and the prisoners on Narkina 5, who all get fed up with the way things are and decide to commit to opposing it, even if it means facing their own death. The show does not depict the mere act of radicalization as uniformly “good” or “bad”, but it does lift up the heroes who decide to fight for something outside of their own well-being.

The most sinister characters in Andor are the ones who are only using the “Star Wars” to free or further themselves. Dedra Meero, the initially-unassuming ISB officer tasked with investigating Cassian’s crimes, slowly morphs into one of the most evil characters in the series as she seeks to elevate her own status in the Imperial hierarchy above all else. Even Cassian begins his involvement with “the cause” by thinking that he can join just to improve his own circumstances. One seemingly-committed rebel Cassian meets along the way, Skeen, reveals that his investment is entirely self-serving: he says, “Oh, I’m a rebel. It’s just me against everybody else.”

Characters like Dedra and Skeen do not meet happy ends in Andor. In Skeen’s case, it’s probably because he’s fallen for the very agenda he sought to oppose. The Empire aims to divide and isolate and create a zero sum game, but their downfall (both on Ferrix and in the later prison arc) comes when people bravely care for each other rather than fighting solely for their own self-interest. You can’t fight a revolution just for yourself, and by the end of the series, none of the citizens of Ferrix are making decisions to protect their own self-interest either. They’re making a covenantal stand for love of neighbor.

The Chosen and Andor both feature an oppressive Empire looming over their ordinary characters, and indeed, The Empire in Star Wars takes lots of influence from Rome. Of course, The Chosen and Andor come to wildly different conclusions about what opposing their Empires might look like.

Maarva Andor, Cassian’s mother, tells a crowd on Ferrix toward the end of the season that they’ve been “asleep” for too long; she says “there is a wound at the center of the galaxy that won’t heal” and motivates the community to wake up and “fight the Empire.” For many people today, the church (in the ancient world and the modern one) might feel like the epitome of a community that is “asleep” in the face of evil. After all, the early church did not participate in any violent revolution against the Roman Empire or take many political stands; their determined nonviolence might even be viewed by some as complacency with the status quo.

For many people today, the church (in the ancient world and the modern one) might feel like the epitome of a community that is “asleep” in the face of evil.

Houston Coley

But the early church was a revolution. Glen Scrivener talks about it in his recent book, The Air We Breathe: How We All Came to Believe in Freedom, Kindness, Progress, and Equality. He says: “To claim—as Christians do—that the man on the cross was God is the most revolutionary notion the world has ever entertained.”

The early church completely disrupted the hierarchy of the Roman Empire (and the ancient world at large) by suggesting that the last would be first, and by radically humanizing and caring for women, slaves, widows, prisoners, and orphans. The beyond-subversive values that the early church stood for helped form the basis for our understanding of human rights today – and although they didn’t use weapons, they did take a stand for something and died for it.

If there’s any worthy non-violent stand-in for the early church in Andor beyond the rebellion, it might just be the group called The Daughters of Ferrix. The Daughters of Ferrix are described briefly as a “social club” in the community, but it’s clear that they’re much more than that; when Cassian’s mother Maarva is ill, they do everything they can to help her, and even offer to care for her aging droid, who feels much closer to a small child. They’re the people responsible for looking after the community, and when the revolution begins, several of the Daughters of Ferrix help to ferry rebel fugitives off-planet to escape imprisonment. It’s a touching picture of what real, covenantal love within community can look like.

Jesus came to liberate the captives and rescue the oppressed, and while Andor obviously doesn’t have a literal Jesus stand-in character, it definitely depicts the tangible manifestation of this liberation, awakening our prophetic imaginations toward what true freedom might look like. When I first watched the “One Way Out” sequence toward the middle of the season, where Andy Serkis’ character inspires a group of prisoners to break free, the resulting catharsis when the prisoners once again breathed fresh air almost felt like worship.

In The Chosen, a character like Simon Peter goes from a disinterested gambler (and a traitor to his friends) to a devoted follower of Christ chiefly because he experiences a miracle and is literally saved from imprisonment by the Romans. Cassian’s journey in Andor similarly depicts the necessity of being “saved” from capture and prison in his journey, but it more clearly depicts the sheer evil and brokenness of the world that causes Cassian to realize he needs freedom in the first place. It causes us, as the audience, to grapple with the present brokenness that will someday be vanquished, too.

The irony of Cassian Andor’s character is that despite his nondescript and often unheroic profile, the ripple effects of his tiny acts of bravery and resistance in the first few episodes of the show are felt all the way throughout the rest of the season, even more than he could possibly know or understand. If there was one other mainstream comparison I’d level with Andor, I think the closest thing might be Les Misérables, partially because it’s about characters entrenched in systems of oppression and revolution, but also because it depicts the way ordinary acts of dying-to-self can change the world. In a way that closely mirrors Inspector Javert’s zealous decades-long pursuit of Jean Valjean, the Imperial forces who failed to catch Cassian near the start of the season are obsessed with finding and capturing him all the way till the end, even when he’s almost entirely ignorant of their pursuit. Like Javert, the Pre-Mor officer Syril Karn sees Cassian as an unworthy hero who doesn’t deserve grace or mercy – and after his first defeat, Syril devotes all his efforts to exacting punishment on Cass and proving himself as a man of “order.” 

Side note: Tony Gilroy has hinted that the moral allegiance of Syril Karn might still be up for grabs in Season 2, and if so, it’s not hard to imagine Karn going through an arc that resembles The Apostle Paul, transforming from executer to evangelist.

The poetic and tragic ironies often present in Les Misérables are similarly explicit in Andor; after participating in a daring rebel heist with the Imperial forces right on his tail and barely making it out alive, Cassian ends up being randomly arrested for something as trivial as loitering near a petty crime and sent to prison under an alias without a trial. Irony upon ironies: in prison, Cassian is forced to construct mechanical parts for purposes which he is completely unaware, but at the end of the season, we find out that the prisoners have been helping to build The Death Star, the very thing that Cassian will sacrifice his life to help destroy in Rogue One. Prison, however, turns out to be the best possible place for Cassian at that moment; as the ISB intelligence is searching high and low for him across the galaxy, he’s right under The Empire’s nose but completely out of their sight. He ultimately meets several people who will later become key players in the Rebellion in the process.

All of these ironies pinpoint the way that just as the hubris of evil often overlooks the very thing capable of destroying it, the meagerness of the humble can be incapable of knowing just how much their small acts of bravery and selflessness will impact the whole world. Much like the story of Les Misérables ripples out from the initially self-serving actions of Jean Valjean, far beyond Valjean’s knowledge of his impact, the story of Andor hinges on the fallout of Cassian’s bravest choice, even when he would have never considered himself acting heroically. The ordinariness of Ferrix, the tight-knit community caring for each other, their unique culture in the face of the machine and the self-sacrificial courage of the rebellion are all tied to their eventual freedom.

The Chosen is not quite as focused on a revolution against the Roman Empire as Andor is focused on fighting its Galactic Empire – and this is probably because the Gospels aren’t entirely preoccupied with opposing the Roman Empire either. Jesus acknowledged the struggle of living under oppression, but also proposed counter-cultural solutions that were drastically different than any heard before.

The Chosen, The Bible, and Andor all do share one crucial thesis in common, though: it’s the people who seem ordinary and lowly that may have the biggest part to play in true liberation.

Houston Coley and his wife Debora are missional documentary filmmakers currently living between Atlanta and Czech Republic. Houston is a YouTube video essayist, self-described 'theme park theologian', and the artistic director of a nonprofit called Art Within.


5 Comments

  1. Jonathan Taylor

    My family and I were blown away with Andor – it’s the Star Wars story we didn’t know we were longing for.  Have not seen any of The Chosen yet, but I guess that’s on our list now.  Thank you for putting all these thoughts together!

  2. David Calvert

    Insightful reflections! Currently watching The Chosen and Andor, so it was interesting to see this article reflecting on both simultaneously. 

  3. Mark Herringshaw

    @markherringshaw

    This is insightful. Marshall McLuhan changed the realm of communication theory with his “The medium is the message” message. What Houston Coley has pointed out here is quite the opposite reality: “The message is the message” and the medium so long as it stays out of the way is just the medium. I’ve not seen Andor but I can vouch for The Chosen. The power there is in the stories not the storytelling. Jenkins (the director) let’s nothing of the medium stand out to be noticed. In this case, running on a lean crowd funded budget actually helps! The minimalism of the form does permit what Coley calls “ordinariness.” That humility of process never stands to yell out “notice me,” but instead steps back to let the tales tell the tale as they should. Jesus-followers have the best stories and our message is the message; we can be confident in this. No fancy package is necessary because the power is embedded in the thing itself! Very well noted Houston Coley! 

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