Someone We Barely Knew Just Had One Of The Most Tragic Deaths In Star Wars History

This article contains spoilers for the latest episode of "Andor."

A blood-curdling torture sequence. Continued commentary on authoritarianism and the prison industrial complex. Some of the most unflinchingly honest depictions of faceless figures getting crushed under the machinery of a relentless Empire. It's not likely that anyone initially expected "Andor," a prequel/spin-off series of the crowd-pleasing "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," to go this hard on some downright revolutionary subject matter, especially for a franchise now owned by the biggest entertainment empire of them all. And yet, it feels refreshing that creator Tony Gilroy did anyway.

Picking up right where last week's episode left off, episode 9 (titled "Nobody's Listening," which /Film's Bryan Young recapped here) further explored the dire circumstances that Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his fellow inmates at the Imperial prison find themselves in. Hunted by the Empire for his Rebel activity but imprisoned for an altogether imagined (and far more petty) crime, Cassian spends much of the hour attempting to convince Andy Serkis' longtime prisoner and supervisor Kino Loy to offer his help in staging a prison break. Repeatedly rebuffed, even as rumors spread of nefarious doings in other sections of the prison, it takes the heart-wrenching death of relatively minor supporting character Ulaf (Christopher Fairbank) and the hopelessness of their situation that his passing reveals to finally get Kino and Cassian to see eye-to-eye.

While next week promises to dial it up in terms of action, however, it feels fitting to pause and take stock of how this one death — so seemingly insignificant in the grand scheme of things — casts such a long shadow and stands out as one of the most senselessly tragic deaths in all of "Star Wars."

Trouble on the line

The first step of any fascist government is to break the will of its own people, first and foremost — oftentimes literally, predominantly spiritually, but occasionally in both ways at the same time.

While Kino stood out most emphatically during the last episode, representing how even the toughest and most seasoned figures can become cowed under the weight of the Empire through the tantalizing promise of freedom while approaching the end of his prison sentence, it's the grizzled Ulaf who receives much more of a focus during episode 9. With even less time to go before he gets out, the warning signs begin early on as he struggles to keep up with the rest of his shift mates on the grueling production line. Clutching his hands and soon exhibiting signs of memory loss and confusion — which only Cassian seems to take note of beyond how much it's slowing them down — Ulaf's condition rapidly deteriorates until he can barely even stand anymore. Fearing how their merciless guards would respond to such an unforgivable infraction, the workers try their best to cover for their older fellow inmate for as long as they possibly can.

This health situation is compounded by the running storyline about rumors of trouble taking place elsewhere in the prison. Despite the facility's attempts to keep each level of prison laborers separate from each other, word travels fast and eventually reaches Cassian's group that an entire shift of inmates have been wiped out ("fried," to use the terminology stemming from the electrified floors) for unknown reasons. The connection between Ulaf's inability to work anymore and the tangible fear beginning to grip the entire prison doesn't become clear until both subplots intersect with one brutally casual death.

An undignified end

Viewers finally get their answer in dramatic fashion when Ulaf collapses in one of the tunnels connecting different segments of the sprawling prison complex. Calling in a medically-inclined inmate who attempts to fill the role of a practicing doctor, Kino and Cassian attempt to keep Ulaf in good spirits and in good health — at least until the excruciatingly little time left on his prison term finally runs out and he can get his taste of freedom. But the doctor's glazed eyes, haunted expression, and cryptic dialogue all point to the fact that he's well-aware of what's happened elsewhere in the facility and it doesn't take long for the other two prisoners to wring the truth out of him.

The circumstances are even more dire than either Cassian or Kino could've guessed. Adamant that Ulaf has absolutely no hope for survival after suffering a massive stroke, the "doctor" begrudgingly admits that an Imperial mix-up allowed a "freed" prisoner to be shuffled into another level of shift workers — which betrays the carefully guarded fact that nobody is ever actually allowed to leave in the first place. Completely devoid of hope, putting Ulaf out of his misery is actually the kindest thing they could possibly do for the old-timer. As if the tragedy of dying so close to his first glimpse of the outside world wasn't bad enough, the fact that the end of his sentence was apparently a lie all along only twists the knife in even more.

"Star Wars" is littered with the sacrifices of heroes in service of a greater cause. Ulaf's anonymous passing in "Andor," however, will never be considered as such. But even though we barely got to know him, this untimely death still hits hard.

"Andor" is currently streaming on Disney+.