It's popular in American media, particularly media made and produced by the Disney corporation, to depict political radicals as going “too far” (see Black Panther, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, etc.). They may have good intentions, but their methods are what the narrative often objects to. Political rebellions on TV and the Silver Screen usually strive to walk a narrow line between showing characters who fight against injustice while outwardly rejecting the methods that many real-life political revolutionaries have had to use.
This especially applies to Star Wars, which at its core, is about a rebellion fighting against an entrenched fascist empire. The portrayal of violence is inevitable, so more than most family-friendly media; this series has always needed to manage that line between being a good member of a rebellion and a bad one.
For over a decade now, the character Saw Gerrera has been the symbolic crossing of that line. His evolution through various types of media tells us something very interesting about what our society believes is acceptable rebellion and what dissident behavior it thinks should be ignored. Andor (a show I love) continues this tradition with Gerrera, and rather than focus on his temperate or tactics; it curiously roots objections against him in centrist ideology.
Saw Gerrera through the ages
There is this tendency to view properties like Star Wars through a very stifling and IP-centric lens. Since the IP of Star Wars is owned by one entity — right now, that being the Disney corporation — people will try to interpret a character like Saw Gerrera's various iterations through one cohesive lens. The truth, though, is that although Gerrera is usually portrayed as a radical who goes too far, what that "too far" is varies across time, medium, and creative direction.
In season five of Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008), for example, Anakin tries to push for the Jedi to use rebel cells against the Confederacy, specifically using them to overthrow the pro-Confederate Onderonian government. One of these rebels is Saw Gerrera. In a way that is very reminiscent of the post-9/11 politics of the time, the Jedi initially perceived these non-state-sanctioned rebels as bad actors. "We must not train terrorists," Obi-Wan Kenobi lectures. "How we conduct war is what distinguishes us from others." Anakin bristles at these accusations, and he and his apprentice Ahsoka Tano work to nurture leader Steela Gerrera, who is depicted as bold but also pragmatic.
Her brother Saw, however, is depicted as reckless. He isn't strategic. He eschews the soft power of propaganda and recruitment for exclusively tactical violence. "Go write a speech about it," he quips when Steela, who at this point is the appointed leader of this cell, rejects his military advice. He then arrogantly goes off to do a solo mission that threatens the entire rebellion.
We see another perspective in 2014's Star Wars: Rebels. The protagonist Ezra Bridger and his companions interact with him on the planet of Geonosis, investigating why the Empire has genocided the entire planet. He's so primed with baggage from the Clone Wars that he cannot handle the current situation with either clarity or compassion. He derogatorily calls a Geonosian survivor a bug and automatically suspects them of foul play.
However, the criticism here is not just that his PTSD from the war prevents him from being objective but that he's using the Empire's tactics of oppression and genocide. "Our enemy shows no mercy. Neither can we," he lectures, underscoring that he has some authoritarian impulses of his own. Gerrera threatens to destroy the last egg of a Geonosian queen, even when such action risks the survivability of their entire race.
His motivations are somewhat different in 2016's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It's no longer a question of strategy or inexperience but his temperament being too unstable. While Mon Mothma lectures that Saw is distrusted because of his extremism and militancy, this is nonsense. The rebellion also does tactics people would consider excessive, especially those carried out by Cassian Andor, who shoots down a character for being unable to climb a wall to escape a Storm Trooper patrol. Andor is assigned to assassinate the protagonist's father (who is being forced to build the Death Star) and only stops because of a last-minute crisis of conscience, not because his superiors changed their mind.
The viewer sees that Gerrera is problematic, not really because of his methods, but because he's unhinged. Every interaction with Gerrera is of someone whose paranoia borders on madness. A defector comes to him with vital information, and he is so used to deceptions that he doesn't believe him. Gerrera represents here a revolutionary figure so used to fighting those both within his coalition, and without that, he cannot relationship build.
In the show, Bad Batch (2021), Saw Gerrera isn't portrayed as bad at all but as one of the first to offer resistance against the new Galactic Empire. He is shown evacuating civilians out of the reach of Imperial influence, trying to get our protagonists to fight against fascism. "If we give up now," he says in the pilot, "everything we fought for, everyone we lost, will have been for nothing." His stubbornness here is not a detriment but a positive — something that allows him to keep fighting when very few are.
Saw Gerrera in Andor
Now we need to talk about Andor (2022) because we get an entirely different perspective altogether, which is interesting given that the showrunner, Tony Gilroy, also helped to write Rogue One. We interact with Gerrera through the lens of Luthen Rael, a rebel spymaster trying to get him to join up with other rebellious factions. Gerrera refuses as a matter of principle, saying:
“Kreegyr’s a separatist. Maya Pei’s a neo Republican. The Ghorman front. The Partisan Alliance? Sectorists. Human cultists? Galaxy partitionists. They’re lost! All of them lost! Lost. What are you Luthen?”
Luthen Rael doesn't say directly. He monologues about how he doesn't think these "petty differences" should matter, and then three seconds later mocks Gerrera's political preferences. "Anarchy is a seductive concept," he lectures facetiously. "A bit of a luxury, I'd argue to a man who is hiding in cold caves and begging for spare parts."
In essence, Luthen Rael is one of those annoying moderates who doesn't perceive himself as political, despite clearly having a worldview. And in the context of the show, he’s fighting for a political future where his views are at the center of everything. The only difference between Luthen and Saw is that the latter at least is honest with himself about believing his ethics are superior. Luthen is hiding behind his privilege. His conservative pragmatism is the standard politics of the upper class — both in the Star Wars galaxy and on Earth.
Yet we are supposed to perceive him as the show’s pragmatic core. He is a centrist or moderate, fighting the good fight, despite radical upstarts like Gerrera trying to get in his way. Luthen has sacrificed his morality for a “better future” that he might never see, and the way this arc is framed leads me to believe that we are not meant to say the same for Gerrera. Despite Saw Gerrera also being a person who has fought for his vision of a better future — and in fact, for much longer than Luthen — he is not a voice of wisdom. He is instead seen as "impractical." And in revolutions, the show seems to suggest, that sort of behavior can get you killed. Gerrera is portrayed as an ideologue who would rather watch the rebellion burn if it isn't set up correctly.
Now, I love Andor (see my take on it here), but this theme that ideology shouldn't matter in the fight against fascism is a bad one. Luthen is speaking from the perspective of a privileged elite: the class of people who coopt the rebellion and ultimately get to decide the politics of the New Republic. Mon Mothma becomes the first chancellor of the new government, after all.
It's easy for Luthen to argue against principles when he not only has the upper hand but is also using these various cells from a distance. By the time someone like Saw Gerrera waits for the fight against fascism to be over (assuming it will ever be over, and of course, assuming he is even alive), that fight over leadership will already be lost. Leadership, I remind you that we will see be so incompetent in this universe that it fails to stop the emergence of a new fascist empire 20 years later.
For all this shows many, many positives, making fun of the unpragmatic nature of ideologues while advancing the ideology of anti-fascist centrism is a frustrating theme here. There is another character named Karis Nemik, who is depicted as having a solid head on his shoulders from a theory perspective, but who we meet literally asleep on the job. We aren't supposed to hate Nemik (he's in many ways endearing), but he's a little clueless and dies off fairly quickly.
The people making the most headway in this show are elites like Luthen, Mon Mothma, and her sister, who have the perspective to fight for the bigger picture. Gerrera, fighting on the front lines for so many years he doesn't know what war he is even in anymore, lacks that perspective. The show has little patience for his ideological quibbles while the threat of the Empire is still at large. And I think this sort of elitist handwringing is paternalistic and naive. Ideology will always matter in revolution, and those who want to ignore it, do so at their peril.
A rebellious conclusion
In all of these examples, Saw Gerrera is depicted as an out-of-touch revolutionary who goes too far in his pursuit of justice, but the reason he crosses that line is constantly shifting. In Clone Wars, his main problem was his brashness; in A Rogue One, it was his temperament; in Rebels, it was his tactics; and in Andor, it was more because he doesn't have the “commonsense” to sacrifice his morals. In essence, he morphs to be whatever problematic revolutionary the narrative needs him to be in the moment.
I find it interesting that the current Star Wars narrative (i.e., Andor ) is rooting its criticisms against the revolutionary radical, not with an emotional appeal like past iterations have done (i.e., this character is too reckless, naive, or deranged), but in ideology. Showrunner Tony Gilroy shows us a Saw Gerrera written by a liberal in a post-January 6th world. Gone is the pearl-clutching over tactics — even many moderates are coming around to the idea that fascists cannot be defeated in the marketplace of ideas — and instead, it's a more nuanced criticism of anti-fascist pragmatism. Tony Gilroy seems to be making the case that you must form as broad a coalition as possible, sorting out the details of leadership and ideology once the fascists have been defeated.
Now you can debate the merits of this perspective. From my view, this sort of "we are all in this together to save democracy" rhetoric has been advanced in the US since Nixon, and the political situation has materially gotten worse. Plenty of people are making cases for and against this reasoning, but it is quite the evolution from Gerrera being wrong simply because of his violent ways. That not only feels more honest to me but is far less paternalistic. Granted, having a boomer character yell at a radical anarchist for not being pragmatic still reads as paternalistic, but it's more transparent and less manipulative than in previous iterations.
It will be fascinating to see how this character continues to evolve in the future. Saw Gerrera may have been many things over the years — a rebel, an ideologue, a cultish tyrant — but the one thing he has never stopped being is a fighter.
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