…that through death He might… release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.
Star Wars is many things, but first and foremost, it is – at least to my mind – a myth. As a myth, Star Wars operates by a poetic, Jungian logic by which the external events of the story reflect the internal processes of human souls. In Revenge of the Sith, for instance, the inward drama of Anakin Skywalker’s spiritual downfall is writ large in the outward drama of the Republic’s political downfall. Anakin, enslaved to his fear, is transformed into Darth Vader, just as the Republic, dominated by fear, becomes the Empire. The internal is analogous to the external, and vice versa; per Goethe, “All that is outside, also is inside.” You might say that Anakin is a microcosm of the Republic, or that the Republic is a macrocosm of Anakin, and both would be true, from a certain point of view.
There is much to be said in praise of Andor, Tony Gilroy’s series depicting the gritty origins of the Rebellion against the Empire. The show is cinematically compelling, a rarity in the galaxy of Star Wars streaming, and written with an ear for depth and subtlety. However, Andor’s very strength – its focus on “realism,” even “social realism” – creates a kind of disjoint, running against the grain of Star Wars’ very essence. Where Star Wars is poetic, Andor is prosaic. With Star Wars, George Lucas aspired to be a modern Virgil; with Andor, Gilroy aims for something more like Steinbeck. The spiritual gives precedence to the political, the mythological to the sociological.
And yet, there is one episode of Andor – the tenth – that reaches the spiritual and mythic heights of Star Wars at its most powerful.
For Christians, much of the Old Testament can be read “mythically,” in the sense defined above. It is both a factual, historical narrative and a poetic or symbolic picture of perennial patterns in the spiritual life. We can see this logic at work in the way the story of the Exodus acts as a type of the story of salvation. Through the work of Moses, God delivers His people, the Israelites, from their slavery in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea. This historical event rhymes with the spiritual mystery all Christians must experience: through the work of Jesus, God delivers us, His people, from our slavery to sin through the waters of baptism.
Andor’s best episode, “One Way Out,” is a variation on this very theme. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), the series’ protagonist and a future hero of the Rebellion, has been incarcerated in an Imperial prison that also acts as a labor camp. The mechanics of the prison are appallingly inhuman. The barefoot prisoners are forced to stay “on program” by floors that can electrocute them at a moment’s notice if activated by the guards while also being pitted against each other in a futile, never-ending competition to meet ever higher quotas. Scrambling to avoid pain and death on the one hand and to accrue meager benefits on the other, believing escape impossible, counting down the days until their release, most of the prisoners have resigned themselves to play the game and wait out their sentences. Kino Loy (Andy Serkis), the foreman on Cassian’s level, actively opposes any escape attempt because he has less than a year left on his sentence. Kino thinks he knows how to win the game: if he keeps his head down and follows the rules, eventually, he will be free.
As “One Way Out” begins, however, Kino is staggering under the crushing revelation that the Empire will never set him free. An Imperial slip-up has revealed the circular, Sisyphean nature of their system: prisoners who are supposedly released are merely transferred to another prison. The game is rigged; it cannot be won; Cassian and Kino are, in fact, slaves. As far as the Empire is concerned, they will toil until they die: “We’re going to die here,” Kino realizes, “Or in the next place.” The only way out of this slavery is through water. First, the prisoners spring a leak in the pipes, using water to short out the prison’s electrical floors; then, they must swim through water to escape, for the facility is in the middle of an ocean, surrounded on all sides by the sea.
Up to this point, Andor has presented this situation as a realistic, “historical” narrative – the story of Cassian and Kino’s deliverance from literal, physical slavery. However, the element of water introduces a new kind of symbolic resonance to the story, turning it into a powerful picture of deliverance from spiritual slavery. “One Way Out” is not only the story of Cassian and Kino’s escape from this particular prison. It is also the story of their escape from the Empire’s spiritual domination and their conversion to the cause of the Rebellion – a cause for which they will ultimately give their lives as martyrs. Essentially, it is a story of baptism.
Baptism is the mystery through which the Christian dies to sin and shares in the death of Christ. The water of baptism means death – a death that brings freedom and new life. As St. Paul writes, “[D]o you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death… our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin.” (Romans 6) Apart from Christ, the human condition is one of slavery to sin, and to the devil, who has “the power of death” and thus tyrannizes those who “through fear of death” are “subject to bondage.” (Hebrews 2) And yet, by His death, Christ triumphs over death; and by sharing in Christ’s death, we are freed from the fear of death, and are no longer slaves of sin.
Andor’s Imperial prison – in keeping with the symbolism of the Empire throughout Star Wars – derives its power from the prisoners’ fear of death. So long as Kino is unwilling to die, he is willing to endure the endless toil of Imperial slavery. If he is to be free, he must be willing to die; he must come to say, with Cassian, “I’d rather die trying to take them down than die giving them what they want.” Though Kino would like to believe otherwise, death is a given. The question is not whether or not he will die, but whether or not he will die well.
Thus, when rallying the other prisoners to rise up and escape, Kino begins with death. “We’re going to die here, or in the next place,” he says. “We are done with counting shifts… There is only one way out… I’m going to assume that I’m dead already and take it from there.” Following Kino’s example, if the prisoners are to be free, they must count themselves as dead. “I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m pretending to be dead,” one prisoner repeats like a mantra, steeling himself for the escape attempt that may cost him his life.
During the escape, many of the prisoners do die, but even in the midst of this death, a profound reversal takes place. As the prisoners overrun the facility en masse, charging towards the light of the outside world, the vastly outnumbered guards – those who tyrannized by dealing out death – cower in the darkness. The prisoners, who have overcome their fear of death, are free; the guards are revealed to be slaves themselves, hopelessly subject to the fear of death.
The Christian symbolism – the story of the Exodus overlaid with the mystery of baptism – comes full circle when the escape brings Cassian and Kino to the sea that surrounds the prison. “One way out!” the prisoners shout as they leap to freedom. For Kino, though, water truly does mean death. “I can’t swim,” he tells Cassian helplessly, lingering on the cusp of freedom as the others rush past him. Like Moses, leading his people to the Promised Land before dying at its threshold – or like Virgil, the virtuous pagan, the unbaptized poet, who guides Dante to the gates of Paradise before returning to his place in Hell – Kino points others toward a salvation beyond himself. He gives everything, knowing he will receive nothing in return – at least, not in this world.
It is the only way out.