In Andor, the new Star Wars show from Tony Gilroy, Denise Gough plays Dedra Meero, a lieutenant in the Imperial Security Bureau. When we first meet Dedra, her defining characteristic is her unrecognised competence. The only character perceptive enough to recognise the connections between seemingly isolated incidents of rebel activity, she extends her capacity for work through stimulants while her mediocre male colleagues desire only to maintain the status quo.
Despite ourselves, we find ourselves rooting for Dedra, at least while she remains in her self-contained segment of the story. Once her plot intersects with other characters — the rebels who are the primary protagonists of the show — we remember that her success means their downfall. Andor exploits the pleasures of competence porn and our instinctive support for a character fighting prejudice, compromising the viewer in a way that makes the consequences of Dedra’s success all the more sickening.
Watching Dedra manoeuvre through the imperial bureaucracy, I found myself thinking of Kong Fanhua, the protagonist of 李洱 Li Er’s Cherries on the Pomegranate Tree.1 Like Dedra, Fanhua is the only woman in an organisation dominated by men. As the head of the village, she has to deal with patronising colleagues, envious rivals, and greedy authorities. Watching her dispatch problems, playing one threat off against another, deploying just the right degree of charm or pressure, is one of the most compelling aspects of the book. We cheer on Fanhua, and we forget — at least temporarily — that her ultimate goal is much more difficult to get behind. Fanhua never reaches the tier of villainy that Dedra eventually occupies, but we experience the same kind of uneasy complicity as she sets about forcing unwanted abortions on the women of Guanzhuang village in her efforts to meet the official birth control quota. Cherries on the Pomegranate Tree is a brisk comedy of a novel that occasionally makes you feel uncomfortable about how much you are enjoying yourself.