My husband is the “Star Wars” aficionado (better word than jester, as in “the silly side”) of the family: Since the first “Star Wars” movie release in 1977, seeing these movies once is enough for me. The Walt Disney Company, after buying the rights to the “Star Wars” series, has been making spinoff miniseries as fast as they can, and my husband has an app for that. I watch with him sometimes, but he has to remind me where the newly imagined characters fit into the overall “Star Wars” timeline.
The latest Disney series, “Andor,” is about a freedom fighter that predates the first “Star Wars” film, which is actually the fourth main “Star Wars” film chronologically. Cassian Andor appears in the movie “Rogue One,” which came out in 2016, but the same actor, Diego Luna, now plays his younger self in “Andor.” Do you have all that?
If not, no worries. What struck me about “Andor”, now that I’ve seen all 12 episodes, is Andor’s time in prison. Convicted of trumped-up charges, Andor is sentenced to six years of hard labor in a facility that mass-produces a cumbersome, unidentifiable piece of something mechanical: The human cogs make cogs.
The inmates must work in teams. If their daily output is not satisfactory to the prison authorities, the entire team suffers severely from corporal punishment. The prison itself is surrounded by water, reminiscent of Alcatraz, so that escape seems impossible. The facility floors are wired to shock the daylights out of any perpetually barefoot inmate who steps out of line.
My caution radar went off when Andor first arrives at the prison. Having worked in a prison for many years, I make it a policy not to watch movies or TV shows about prison, because I find the depiction either too brutal to watch, or too wrong to bear, or both. It’s kind of like watching a movie or TV version of a Catholic mass and realizing that the writers didn’t do their research: Standing and sitting are wrong, or the parts are out of order. The smallest mistakes take your mind off the story.
But to my surprise, even though “Andor” is set in a galaxy far, far away, the writers nailed the prison experience.
First, nothing sensational happens to the existing prisoners the moment Andor arrives, no gang fights or riots or rapes. What Andor quickly experiences, together with his fellow prisoners, is the boredom in prison. Everything is the same every day, the work, the food, the clothes, the schedule, the monotony.
Then there is the deprivation. Inmates are given exactly enough to survive and do the job, but no more. It is the feeling of anonymity, that one’s humanity now means nothing more than a number in the system.
It is the soul-crushing but casual cruelty of the guards, the cruelty for the sake of cruelty, the manifestation of power that corrupts those who wield even a small part of it. But it’s also the way the stronger or smarter or younger or more able-bodied inmates help the faltering prisoners as best they can without getting into trouble themselves.
All of this background to the actual plot of “Andor” is consistent with my time working with inmates in a state prison library.
A seemingly wasted part of the prison segment in “Andor” broke my heart with its accuracy. The inmates grill the newly arrived Andor for news of the Empire’s nefarious policies that have doubled their time, and he doesn’t know. “The Public Order Sentencing Directive,” they proclaimed to him. “THE DOOR!”
But what they want to know hasn’t made the news. “This guy’s never heard of it,” one prisoner realizes. No one on the outside cares.
The men I worked with passionately followed new proposals and developments in the criminal justice system, and were always hungry for news that the local papers and nightly broadcasts didn’t really cover. No one on the outside regularly reported on the details of bills before the state legislature, AB this or SB that. The agony of this prison in a remote part of the galaxy is absolutely true. So did the despair and hopelessness that led one of Andor’s fellow prisoners to end his life.
By not peppering the prison with the usual trademark “Star Wars” weird aliens and lovable droids, the “Andor” writers get the prison right. They evoke the viewer’s compassion for the suffering of imprisoned people.
The prison subplot even culminates in episode 10 with an unexpected and breathtaking self-sacrifice by an elderly prisoner. Well done, writers.
Those of us who have never been in a prison, either as inmates or visitors or workers, usually don’t spare a thought about what goes on inside one. We don’t worry about the poor conditions or unfair punishments or institutional abuse that inmates may endure, because we think they deserve to be there. They did something bad to go to jail in the first place, after all, so why waste time on their fate? They have earned the misery they get; the more deprivation the better.
But as Dostoevsky once observed, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” The way we care for those on the margins matters.
“When did we see you in prison and visit you?” the sheep ask the master in Jesus’ story in Matthew 25. “When did we not visit you?” ask the goats. We know the answer.