The first season of Andor is a careful and delicate balancing act in a way Star Wars stories rarely are. It’s at once a series about revolution, power, oppression, and sacrifice, all the while depicting the real human toll each of those things can extract on the everyday people fighting for and against them. While Cassian Andor, the character at its center, was broken down to the point of offering his life for the cause, its most interesting character is the one who gave up his life long before he can even remember: Stellan Skarsgård’s Luthen Rael.
Luthen is the most nuanced character Star Wars has ever had. He has all the gravitas of the living myths like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, all the convictions of Qui-Gon Jinn, all the complications and commitment of Obi-Wan Kenobi, all the showmanship of Kylo Ren, all the cleverness of Leia Organa, and deeper, more human flaws than anyone the series has ever seen. In the capable hands of Andor creator Tony Gilroy and Skarsgård, Luthen is the kind of complicated, thorny, fascinating character Star Wars just never seemed built to contain.
Like most of the people in Andor, Luthen is characterized through details rather than explanations. From his first moments on screen (feigning a business deal to conceal a recruitment operation), to when he pulls up his careful, pained mask as an antiques dealer, to his furious bluster in front of rebel legend Saw Gerrera, Luthen’s drive has always been clear: to eradicate the Empire by any means necessary.
His unwavering commitment to the cause gives the show a reason to employ one of the most brilliant pieces of visual storytelling Star Wars has ever seen: Luthen’s biggest moments all frame him like a Sith Lord. And why shouldn’t they? By the rules of the universe, that’s probably the box he fits most neatly into.
This is most obvious when we see Luthen standing on the bridge above Coruscant in episode 10, silhouetted menacingly against an already dark stage-like background, with a black cape billowing behind him. There, Skarsgård delivers the monologue that builds the foundation of Luthen’s ideology as a character, as he explains giving up his life for the cause, becoming a walking sacrifice for the Rebellion, and throwing away any sense of personal morality or happiness – all for the sake of doing right by the galaxy.
That Sith framing returns in the first season’s finale when we see Luthen, once again sporting a black cloak, stalking through the streets of Ferrix. He’s determined to hunt down Cassian, in hopes of saving the secrets of the Rebellion. Star Wars’ previous entries have all taught us a darkly clad figure stalking around in search of our heroes could only be the actions of a villain, or at least someone bad.
But Andor, from its earliest moments, has been about defying those kinds of easy boxes Star Wars has often thrived on.
There’s no logical way to read Luthen as a Sith Lord, or an Imperial spy, or even as evil. He is the most committed agent of the Rebellion we’ve ever seen in the series. He is the Chess Grandmaster willing to sacrifice every pawn he needs to, if that’s how victory is achieved — no matter how small that victory may be. So by framing him in parallel to Star Wars’ greatest villains, Andor gains access to an intra-universe shorthand for moral dubiousness that clues us into how complicated we’re supposed to feel about Luthen.
Luthen doesn’t get the Cassian treatment — the hero who hasn’t found his way yet — or the Maarva treatment, a spark of righteous fury ready to ignite a rebellion. He doesn’t even get the Mon Mothma treatment of someone caught between doing what’s right for the world and what’s right for her family. In a different show painting with broader brushes, Luthen would be cast as a necessary evil. In Andor, he gets the multitudes he deserves. He’s cruel, cold, clever, calculating, and the only person ruthless enough to give the galaxy a chance against its new fascist overlords. And doing that comes at a cost showrunner Gilroy wants us to feel uncomfortable about.
Star Wars has rarely been a series that felt the need to justify its characters’ means, as long as their ends were good. But that’s all Andor is concerned with. Which is why Luthen gets framed like a Sith Lord (complete with a Darth Maul-like speeder ride through the desert, and a Darth Maul-like weapon on his haulcraft). It forces us to reckon with what it means when the actions of a hero don’t look that different from the actions of the villains we’ve seen before. It forces us, just like Luthen, to constantly examine what price freedom from oppression might be worth.
This is even more clear when the funeral riot starts on Ferrix in the show’s 12th episode. For just a moment, we see Luthen’s cold exterior break during Maarva’s speech. In that moment, he isn’t there to kill Cassian. He’s witnessing the bittersweet payoff to all his sacrifice.
Luthen can never inspire masses of people to die for a cause. He can only command them to do so, and he knows better than anyone that revolutions are built on hope, not orders. Luthen has chosen a life of building a galaxy full of kindling in need of flames to ignite it, which is exactly why someone like Maarva can bring tears to his eyes. She’s the reality of his rebellion.
But once the riot starts in earnest, the coldness returns to Luthen in the blink of an eye. Not because he can’t take the carnage of watching people die for what they believe in — after all, he was ready to kill Cassian himself — but because he knows watching their sacrifice might cloud his judgment later. Seeing the passionate crowds throwing themselves on Imperial shields, blasters, and bombs in hopes of freedom is what Luthen’s entire rebellion relies on, but he’s still human in the end. To give those people a chance to actually overthrow the Empire, that humanity is the part of himself he has to kill. Luthen can’t sacrifice himself for the cause on Ferrix because he did that years ago, and he’s done it again every day since, and he has to keep doing it until either he’s gone or the Empire is.
So instead, Luthen leaves Ferrix just as the plan he’s built for decades starts to take shape. The pawns can’t have faces if they’re just going to be sacrificed.
A character like Luthen has been lurking somewhere in the depths of Star Wars since A New Hope first premiered in 1977. In that first movie, the Rebel Alliance is a scrappy outfit that seems to play by any-means-necessary rules to undermine their enemy. But that movie, and the ones that followed, are largely built on the myths of rebel heroes. They’re about men and women with tremendous powers and the singular ability to change the universe on their own.
Sure, we could imply that some force was working behind the scenes, getting their hands dirty to pave the way for Luke. But it wasn’t until Luthen in Andor that we got to see the full depths of that, or how profoundly damaging it could be to watch a person reckon with making the Rebellion’s hardest choices.