Much has been written about Tony Gilroy’s excellent Star Wars series Andor, available on Disney+. It’s being rightly praised for its complex characters and its multilayered plot. However, what jumped out at me, as a veteran of the intelligence business, was its knowing depiction of the role and execution of espionage. No surprise, given Gilroy’s affinity for the spy genre and political thrillers. (Warning: there are spoilers ahead.)
As I watched Andor, I was struck that the writers did got the dynamics of conflict between an authoritarian state and an insurgency absolutely correct, and a big part of any such conflict in the real world is the use of espionage. As a matter of fact, Andor incorporated spycraft into the story better and more subtly than many spy shows I’ve seen, paying attention to both the quotidian day-to-day of spy work as well as examining espionage’s big moral and ethical issues.
Andor made it abundantly clear that when you’re involved in a conflict like this, you are always being watched. There are spies and watchers everywhere. Senator Mon Mothma, who knows her driver is an Internal Security Bureau (ISB) plant, complains there is “a new spy every day at the Senate” as well as at the bank where she is trying to discreetly move funds to the rebellion. Free agents, or volunteers, roam the streets of Ferrix, hoping to luck into information they might be able to sell. It becomes quickly apparent that Luthen, architect of the rebellion, has developed a vast network of spies. Spies are such a given that it’s almost humorous when Saw, leader of a partisan group, becomes outraged when he finds out Luthen even has a spy inside Saw’s own ranks.
The only failing I saw in this regard is that the ISB does not appear to have its own network of assets. The ISB will use walk-ins—Nurchi offering to sell Cassian’s whereabouts to the ISB watcher on Ferrix a case in point—but there is no evidence that they have embedded assets. It might be another reflection of the ISB’s arrogance, or it might very well be that they do have a spy network but the writers chose not to feature it this season. The only hint of their spy network was the chatty salesman who sidled up to Luthen on the shuttle in episode three.
Covcomm is essential to running a spy network: it enables you to communicate securely with your assets without the risks that come with meeting in person (a risk Luthen mentions this when a highly-placed agent that he hasn’t laid eyes on in a year requests a meeting.) Covcomm was featured prominently in the show: we see Bix shimmy up a hidden tower to send broadcasts to the handler on a special transmitter (obviously designed to elude detection by the Empire). On the other end, we see Luthen and Kleya, his lieutenant, in the backroom of their antiques shop, the front for their operations, glued to their receiver, listening for messages from agents dispersed all over the galaxy.
Operations officers often must wear a disguise in order to get to a meeting undetected or slip behind enemy lines. This is less about fooling a close observer than it is about slipping past the enemy’s army of watchers. We didn’t see too much in the disguise department in Andor except for Luthen, and it was like something out of The Americans as he alternated between his true self and his false persona, the proprietor of a high-end antiques shop on Coruscant, for which he dons a flamboyant wig and clothing. The unit of rebels pulling off the heist on Aldhani use uniforms to pass as Imperial soldiers, and their sleight of hand rang true, but for the rest of the series’ spies and insurgents, a hood is often all they got to obscure their faces.
The spies of Andor practice good discipline as they ply their trade, from not carrying commercial communications equipment (“don’t carry anything you don’t control”) and always having an exit strategy (“build your exit on the way in,” Luthen warns Cassian), to the chalk marks on the sidewalk that Kleya follows to know where to meet insurgent team leader Vel.
Andor’s writers did a superb job depicting the atmosphere and culture of a Gestapo-like security bureaucracy. It is eat-or-be-eaten, and often management is missing-in-action, out of design rather than incompetence. You’re rewarded for affirming management’s viewpoint, not for rocking the boat or pointing out problems. Officers compete for turf and to move up the ladder, all under the watchful eye of ruthless supervisors who are themselves afraid of putting a foot wrong or being eaten alive by their underlings.
As Andor’s writers have so astutely portrayed, it is this mix of smugness and fear that enabled Luthen’s cleverly dispersed plan to be successful. That the ISB finally awakens to what’s going on under its nose is only because Dedra Meero was able to pursue her suspicions by expertly maneuvering around her colleagues’ attempts to derail her and her supervisor’s sense of self-preservation. A lesser man, such as Sergeant Linus Mosk, can only guess at the machinations he imagines but lacks the means (and will) to prove.
One of the toughest aspects of the espionage business is the protection of assets. When an important asset is at risk, do you leave him in place to continue receiving intelligence or do you pull him out for his own safety? To what lengths do you go in order to protect that asset?
In Andor, the ISB stumbles across a rebel plan to attack a facility. Lonni Jung, an ISB supervisor and embedded asset for the rebels, tells Luthen that their man is going to walk into a trap. But if the rebels warn the man off, the ISB will see there’s a mole in their midst. Luthen makes the decision to let their man (and his entire squad) be slaughtered by the ISB rather than risk exposing their asset. Andor’s writers did a superb job depicting the sometimes cold-hearted calculations spymasters are forced to make. Not only does this sub-plot reveal a lot about Luthen, but it left Lonni, the embedded asset, with the knowledge that 30 men died to protect him—a sacrifice he didn’t ask for.
I can hardly wait to see where Andor will go in season two.
Alma Katsu spent 30+ years working for CIA and NSA, and is also the author of historical horror novels including The Fervor and the Red Widow spy novels. Red London, the second book in the series, comes out March 2023; you can pre-order a copy here.
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