The Sympathizer Comes to a “Hard” End

Hoa Xuande walks through a crowd in The Sympathizer
Photograph by Hopper Stone/HBO

The following review contains spoilers for the entirety of The Sympathizer on HBO

As I reflect on the close of The Sympathizer (with the meta-episode title “Endings Are Hard, Aren’t They?”), it is difficult not to agree with most of the critics that this seven-episode series falls just short of “greatness” (whatever that means in this bloated TV age). Faulted for its extreme tonal shifts and the occasional over-arched eyebrows of Robert Downey Jr. (as Claude, his CIA handler, and a host of other middle-aged white men), it nonetheless gets almost everything else right (save the accents I understand, from reading native Vietnamese takes on the dialogue). But even that gets a meta-moment in the final episode, as our protagonist the Captain (Hoa Xuande) is told by his interrogator that his Vietnamese sounds like translated English. The Sympathizer took us from the lead-up to the fall of Saigon to Southern California, Northern California, and back to the post-liberated hellscape of a Viet Cong re-education camp.

Much of the subtlety and inventiveness of the Park Chan-wook directed pilot and second episode fell away in subsequent episodes, likely a result of having to shift location and focus for each installment. The pilot leaned heavily into the Captain as both interminably split (as a half-breed, bilingual double agent) and an unreliable narrator, a stance revisited in the finale, where it becomes the locus of his re-education: the confession he has been forced to re-write ad infinitum not because it was false, but because it was incomplete.

Robert Downey Jr. with a beard, holding a book while standing outside in The Sympathizer
Photograph by Hopper Stone/HBO

The second episode introduced us to the Captain’s new life in Los Angeles and academia (at the fictional “Cal West” in the show, but Occidental College in the source, a wry decision by author Viet Thanh Nguyen for those in the know). The Captain’s childhood friend Bon (Fred Nguyen Kahn), who lost his wife and child as they fled Saigon, is despondent, the once-powerful General (Toan Le) reduced to opening a liquor store, the Captain forced to play a part in Professor Hammer’s (RDJ) repulsive Orientalist fantasies. The saving grace is Sandra Oh’s cynical Ms. Mori, who becomes the Captain’s lover and confident. We get to know Major Oahn (Phanxinê) as a sycophantic but good-natured member of the ex-pat community who embraces his new home with open arms (always referred to as “the crapulent Major” in the book), which spells his doom as the Captain realizes someone must take the fall as a mole. Director Park Chan-wook does not stint on the brutality of that scene, one that builds on our previous glimpses into the ruthless side of the Captain and raises the temperature on his internal conflict.

The fourth episode takes a hard turn into dayglo satire, as the Captain heads to Napa Valley to shoot Vietnam war flick The Hamlet with director Nikos Damianos (Robert Downy, Jr; more on his multiple roles below). The decision to switch the shooting location from the Philippines in the book rankles somewhat, but allowed the series to pull in supporting characters as extras, and for Bon to expiate his survivor’s guilt by dying in multiple graphic scenes. Placed midway through the series, the film within a film marks a turning point in both the series and the book, but for obvious reasons is grossly over-determined. The Sympathizer is a thinly-veiled satire of not only American movies about the war, but particular actors and auteurs (Coppola, Brando, et. al) and must move through plot points that pointedly foreshadow those of the finale, including scenes of torture, rape and a life-threatening explosion.

Duy Nguyen, with a burned face, standing in a room
Photograph by Hopper Stone/HBO

The distanced view of these events on the page becomes an immersive jumble—if an exceedingly entertaining one—when recreated on screen. The return to LA marks the decline of the Captain’s fortunes: he has lost Ms. Mori to his rival journalist Sonny Tran (Alan Trong). The General’s daughter Lana (Vy Le)—a stowaway to the movie set given the pivotal rape scene in The Hamlet—is now a cabaret singer working with the soul star Jamie Johnson (Max Whittington-Cooper) from the film, the General is raising an army in South California to take back South Vietnam, and the Captain is laid up in the hospital after a tragic accident on set. Cue reminiscences of his childhood bond with Man (Duy Nguyễn, as an adult) and Bon, scenes central to the book, where the first-person narrative drifts back to childhood with a more natural, unforced rhythm.

The penultimate episode finds the Captain severing his ties in LA after murdering Sonny, and joining the General’s doomed militia, flying to Thailand where they will mount a ground assault on Vietnam.  Here we must perforce leave beloved characters like Mori and the General somewhat abruptly (not to mention Lana, with whom he has a furtive romance in the book), because the series has given us but an episode to resolve the book’s tortured (pun intended) close. In Thailand the army is met by Claude, who gives everyone one last night in a strip club and reveals that he knows the Captain’s secret as a communist double agent. Claude offers the Captain an out that he refuses in order to follow Bon into battle. The two of them surrender and are brought to the re-education camp, where the Captain suffers hallucinations in his torment, each apparently holding a truth (in the book he states: “Some might say I was seeing things, but the true optical illusion was in seeing others and oneself as undivided and whole, as if being in focus was more real than being out of focus.”) One last flashback puts a button on the multiple Robert Downey, Jrs., as we see glimpse him as the French priest who raped the Captain’s mother (in the most egregious prosthetic nose yet), and hence his absent father.

I’ve purposively elided past scenes with RDJ as Claude, Professor Hammer, Reaganite senator Ned Godwin, and the auteur (brought together for a spectacularly-crass scene that launches the Captain’s Hollywood career). On the one hand, yes, Downey, Jr. is a spectacular actor who revels in giving each character a distinct voice, movement and gravity. On the other, his outsize performance is often at odds with the delicate tone the series needs if it is to maintain the dry, repressed fury of the book. By contrast, Toan Le’s performance as the General toes this line to perfection, as does that of Phanxinê (as the Major), both of whom resist outright caricature at every appearance. The twin conceits of RDJ’s casting—first, that all white men look similar as the flipside of the faceless Asian stereotype, and second, that the Captain lent his father’s face to all the white men in his tale—doesn’t quite land for me because of the exaggerated prosthetics and representational excess of each character. The Sympathizer is certainly a satire, but one that needs a keen edge to keep the focus on its undistilled tragedy vivid in our contemporary framework. It is yet another, albeit exemplary, account of the revolutionary vanguard becoming the imperialist oppressor, one redoubled in that the old imperialists (the French, Americans and their capitalist seductions) remain ever present as the obscene fathers of their discontent, a scenario we see played out on multiple fronts today.

The Captain is released from his constant torment by two actions (always two, as noted above). First, that he omitted his inaction when a fellow communist spy (Kayli Tran) was raped and tortured in the pilot, and second, when he realizes, prompted by his old friend and current tormentor The Commissar (Man, horribly disfigured in the Fall of Saigon by a Napalm blast), that “Nothing” is that which is more precious than “Independence and Freedom” (in Ho Chi Minh’s phrase “Nothing is more precious than Independence and Freedom”). From a psychoanalytic point of view, the final chapter of both book and series captures the lack around which ideology cycles, the empty center which takes on multiple appearances (independence, freedom, duty, etc.) necessary to sustain its hollow core.

I hastily re-read the final three chapters before writing this review to center my sense of the ending (à la Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, to measure the finality of each). The bon mots delivered throughout the book by the ghosts of the Major and Sonny are often replaced by their curious stares in the series, and by a host of ghosts that see the Captain and Bon off as the boat people sail off to an uncertain fate. Man is somewhat more of an intellectual in the book, which intensifies the weight of his horrific fate, while the Captain is alternately more troubled and more cold-blooded. The book never affords the Captain a title, which renders his position as a vanishing mediator of opposing ideologies and actors more palpable. Witness the Captain’s recognition of the masked Commissar as Man in the book: “But I could still recognize him, for who but a man with two minds could understand a man with no face?,” (and by extension, a man with no name). Post-re-education the book’s narrator refers to himself as “we,” as if reborn into two adjacent minds that will never be fused. But in the end the outstanding lead performance of Hoa Xuande, the substitution of verbal for visual puns, and the brisk direction of Park Chan-wook (eps 1–3), Fernando Meirelles (ep 4), and Mark Munden (eps 5–7) won me over. The close adherence of the writers and show runners to the book’s themes keep The Sympathizer true to the sense of futility and finality expressed by Viet Thanh Nguyen’s sobering novel.

Written by Amy Bauer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *