Rogue One, the first Star Wars standalone movie, is well into its theatrical life. It’s standing firmly at 85% on Rotten Tomatoes and it crossed one billion dollars at the worldwide box office, so it’s safe to say that it was a critical and financial success.
Additionally, the movie delivered on the promises made by the filmmakers: it was a war movie and, while staying faithful to Star Wars aesthetic and storytelling, it delivered something new to the audience. One of those novelties was muddying the waters of Rebellion’s morality.
While making the Original Trilogy, George Lucas made a pretty clear line in the sand between the Empire and the Rebellion. For those of us who came into it as children and grew up with the original movies, it was always clear: the Rebellion is good, the Empire is bad.
When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 and Lucasfilm formed its Story Group, we started seeing the changes and shades of gray introduced into the stories – it seems that the Star Wars galaxy grew up along with its original fans. These changes were especially noticeable in the representation of the Empire. The questions like: “Why would anyone join the Empire in the first place?” or “Is every Imperial officer evil?” started getting answers in the characters like Ciena Ree and Thane Kyrell (Lost Stars), Rae Sloane (New Dawn, Aftermath, etc.) or Agent Kallas (Rebels). The only indication that the Rebellion was going to get a similar treatment was the mentioning of Saw Gerrera’s partisans in some of the novels.
Imagine my surprise when the first individual act of a rebel in Rogue One was to murder an informant. Cassian Andor shoots an injured Tivik in the back due to the character’s inability to escape capture by the Empire. Cassian’s rationalization is clear: Tivik was already shaken and it is highly possible that he would have spilled all Rebellion’s secrets at once. And, if not willingly, he would certainly do it after being tortured. Allow me to cross (several) streams here. In the words of Mister Spock, Cassian’s rationalization is clear: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one. The Rebellion as a whole outweighs Tivik’s life.
This is Cassian’s personal account of the event (from Rogue One: Rebel Dossier by Jason Fry, emphasis mine):
“Before I could find out more, stormtroopers approached us. They were clearly looking for Tivik. I eliminated the troopers and neutralized Tivik to prevent him of being taken into Imperial custody.”
We are certainly not accustomed to our rebels behaving this way. Cassian’s cold account of the event does even more to shade the morals of people that have for decades been seen as the irreproachable heroes of the franchise.
So, who is Cassian Andor and how did he become the man we meet at the beginning of Rogue One?
Cassian was born 26 BBY on the planet Fest. As a six-year-old, he joined an insurrectionist cell backed by the Separatist. He fought by throwing rocks and bottles against Republic walkers and clone troopers. It is likely that he joined the Separatists after his father was killed during the protest against militarization of the Republic. So, basically, Cassian started his military career as a child soldier.
Sometime after the Republic transformed into the Empire, Andor was recruited into the Rebellion from the ranks of other anarchists by General Davits Draven and became a part of its intelligence branch. The communication between Draven and Mon Mothma in the same Rebel Dossier, gives us more insight into Andor from two different perspectives.
[…] Capt. Andor is one of the most capable agents within Rebel Intelligence. He is a valuable fighter on a battlefield, able to handle missions ranging from reconnaissance and infiltration to assassination and sabotage. […] Capt. Andor is also skilled at gathering information and figuring out what it means, without having to report back to base for assistance or instruction. […] Capt. Andor has worked with the rebels since he was a child. It is no exaggeration to say that we are his family. He is absolutely loyal to the rebel cause and will do whatever he must to achieve our goal.
[…] I have never doubted Capt. Andor’s abilities or his dedication to the rebel movement. He is truly one of our best and brightest, and I trust his judgment on this mission.
I am concerned about him, however. I understand that for our rebel movement to survive, brave men and women must do terrible things that we’d rather not talk about. But what happens to those men and women afterward? Are we doing enough to help them live with what they’ve had to do? Do we encourage them when they feel guilty? Comfort them when they can’t sleep? And do we notice when they stop feeling guilty? When they no longer lose sleep?
Let’s unpack this. It is clear that Cassian’s dedication to the cause extends to assassinations. The Ultimate Visual Guide by Pablo Hidalgo provides us with a few more details. Besides acting as undercover agent and recruiter – Fulcrum – for the Rebellion, the book shows that Cassian carries a personal identifier transponder which conceals a “lullaby” suicide pill. His dedication extends to taking his own life to preserve the safety of the movement. Rebel Dossier, which covers the state of the Rebellion prior to the events of Jedha, proclaims that Cassian’s mission – known as Operation Fracture – is to confirm Bodhi Rook’s information and locate and extract Galen Erso. We know how Draven changes that mission – although Mon Mothma is the military leader of the Rebellion and is aware of the means they sometimes use. In Rogue One, it becomes obvious that Mothma has come to terms with the fact that open war is inevitable. But, here we learn that not only she is prepared for war, she knows of the things that are done in name of the Rebellion, even if she doesn’t like it. That’s quite a contrast to the Mon Mothma given to us so far in the new canon, someone who was always pushing for peace, democracy, demilitarization, etc.
So, at the very top of the Rebellion we have an assassin, the man who orders assassinations and a woman who turns her head at these acts. You have to wonder how savage Saw Gerrera’s actions were when this kind of people cut ties with him. He obviously has no qualms attacking Imperial forces in the middle of a street full of civilians. It’s easy to imagine many of them dying during Saw’s previous attacks.
So what, if anything, changed in-world between the events of Rogue One and the Original Trilogy?
I will posit that before the events of Rogue One, the Rebel Alliance was not a real army or a definite movement. As large as it has grown by this time, it wasn’t completely united. They might have agreed on the goal – to restore the Republic – but there was no actual agreement on the means. Consisting of both military and civic leadership, the rebel council was often gridlocked, mainly because some senators still clung to the belief that it was possible to negotiate with the Empire as well as their dwindling sphere of influence. Open warfare was out of the question, so the secret, surgical missions and sabotages lead by Draven’s men were the only answer. When you are fighting a far superior force and striving to maintain secrecy, “by any means necessary” and “the cause justifies the means” becomes acceptable.
The change started in the ranks as it often happens in real life. Inspired by Jyn Erso’s determination and wrestling with his own demons, Cassian gathered volunteers – spies, saboteurs, assassins – to help Jyn do what the leaders weren’t willing to do. As we know, the mission ends with the massive battle and sacrifice of each and every Rogue One member, allowing Princess Leia to escape with the Death Star plans and giving the Alliance hope for the future.
But, that is not all Rogue One gave the Alliance. In a way, our rogues forced the Alliance’s hand – the battle of Scarif was not just the first victory for the Rebellion, it was the first battle of the Galactic Civil War. The Alliance could no longer just be a series of coordinated attacks by insurrectionists, just a rebellion against tyrannical rule; it became a side in a war, an army. It had to stand united or fall. Even Mon Mothma, writing about Jyn, recognizes this (Alexander Freed, Rogue One novelization, emphasis mine):
“I regret to say I only met Jyn twice. To claim I knew her well would be an insult to the young woman whose fervor captivated so many. Conversely, to speak only of her effect on our movement—to recount yet again the rallying of the Rebellion and our transformation from a wary coalition into a unified nation—would be both redundant and insulting.”
This new, united Alliance could no longer go around assassinating people. Their influence has grown and the galaxy was watching. By the time we see Mon Mothma again on the big screen, when she announces the existence of the second Death Star, General Draven was nowhere to be seen. We know that he is alive at the end of the standalone movie. He is not on Yavin in A New Hope, but neither is Mothma, so make of that what you will.
Perhaps, the changes instigated by the Rogue One crew had much deeper ramifications for the Alliance. Perhaps, Draven’s methods died out with our rogues or were, at least, relegated to the sidelines. Perhaps, people like Cassian became the exception rather than the quietly accepted rule. While we could never look at the Rebellion the same way again, I’d like to believe that this was the case. That Jyn’s “You can’t talk your way around this.” was heard and answered differently than Cassian did initially. That Rogue One gave us the Rebellion we know and root for.