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The Sympathizer Recap: Twice of Everything

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Photo: Hopper Stone/HBO

In what is perhaps the worst CGI explosion I’ve seen in recent memory, the fifth episode of The Sympathizer begins with a boom. The planned detonation on the set of The Hamlet, which recalls the premiere’s harrowing airfield bombardment, seriously injures the Captain, who’s rushed to the hospital with a severe head injury and second-degree burns. A barrage of childhood memories arise from this stupor: the gruesome blood oath Man, Bon, and the Captain took as kids; the less-gruesome encounter with the head of a dead Viet Cong soldier; schoolyard fights; the Captain boasting that being mixed-race means he’s “twice of everything.” Events from here, by the Captain’s telling (yes, he’s still imprisoned, retelling his story to that North Vietnamese commander), get a bit fuzzy. It takes him a few weeks to recover with Bon by his bedside. He recalls things slightly out of order again.

Legal protections for entertainment workers were apparently weak in the 1970s, though, in one of the episode’s more humorous scenes, the bed-ridden Captain manages to negotiate $15,000 in cash for injury compensation and a personal apology from Hamlet director Niko Damianos — “that asshole [who] really fucked [him] up,” according to Bon. The Captain had unknowingly left an extra $5,000 on the bargaining table, but he doesn’t really care for the money. He’s seeking a reparative action in lieu of an apology: He wants Damianos to keep all the Vietnamese lines in the movie. Damianos attests that he has little control over “the sacred mystery of the editing process.” (Ha, same!) Who knows whether the multimillion-dollar explosion will even make it in? Damianos, at the very least, promises to try, but “editing isn’t about clarifying the story or hammering home the theme,” he says. It’s one of RDJ’s better improvisatory riffs: subdued and intense with an earful of film-bro philosophy. Editing is about “rhythm, impulse, sex.” It’s like jazz.

After the satirical detour of “Give Us Some Good Lines” — which, as I maintain, was a humorless stumble between parody and melodrama, ineffective in imparting to contemporary viewers something novel or insightful about Hollywood’s culturally exploitative practices — the Captain returns home to some shocking changes: The General has delusional plans to reclaim the homeland; Ms. Mori has moved on and is dating Sonny; and Lana has become a Paris by Night-style cabaret performer, singing under the pseudonym, Que Linh.

Speaking of reparations, the Captain decides to give his $15,000 to the Major’s widow, who, in turn, asks him to donate it to the General’s revolutionary cause. His attempt at generosity backfires as there’s no way out of the dilemma. He has to hand over money to the General and admit that he wanted to support the family of the man he assassinated. The Major’s wife doesn’t believe that her husband died in a random, racially-motivated attack, confessing: “I am certain he was killed for being involved in the General’s plan.” Through this conversation, the Captain learns that Madame has opened a restaurant during his departure, which is serving as an unofficial front for the General’s activities. It’s an open secret, in fact, as the General jokes: “Our people keep mistresses better than they keep secrets.” The General is superb in this mafioso mode (the costuming for his character in this episode is equally stellar), though his paranoia seems to have softened into willful determination.

In the restaurant, the Captain runs into Sonny, who is perhaps the closest ideological ally he has in America. Sonny believes that the General’s reclamation mission is a dead end, something the Captain secretly agrees with, but the Captain doesn’t grant his former rival the satisfaction of amiability, much less agreement. It’s only later, when he arrives at Ms. Mori’s house, that he realizes that she’s seeing Sonny. In her defense, Ms. Mori hasn’t heard from the Captain in half a year. The three awkwardly sit down to have some conversation about Ms. Mori’s Japanese heritage and family, only for the Captain to direct attention to his one-sided feud with Sonny. It’s no surprise that Sonny angers the Captain to the extent that he does. For years, the Captain disguised his politics for the greater revolutionary cause, whereas, to him, Sonny was all bark and no bite. He never returned to Vietnam to leverage his American education on behalf of the Communists. He stayed in America, exempt from his homeland’s ideological violence. The Captain spurns Sonny for never having to put his life or identity on the line. Ms. Mori briefly intervenes to say that Sonny is American. “His home is here in LA. His people are here, too. Refugees like you,” she says to the Captain.

It’s a hard dissonance to square for the both of them: The Captain struggles with his American-ness while Sonny struggles with his material detachment from Vietnam, which he tries to make up for with his left-wing newspaper. Sonny admits that he’s “a coward and a hypocrite,” who’s less Vietnamese than the Captain, leading Ms. Mori to claim she’s even worse than Sonny in this hierarchy of hypocrisy. The Captain, finally seeing Ms. Mori’s love for Sonny, realizes the futility of such comparisons. He is embittered in losing the affections of a woman to a rival, but he knows he’s no better than Sonny the longer he stays in America. He’s distracted from his revolutionary duties and he indulges it. He’s grown complicit as a refugee in a country he claims to hate.

To make matters worse, the Captain is behind on his correspondence with Man. Man has become an even greater mystery in the latter half of the series. The North Vietnamese commander tells the Captain he hasn’t been able to identify his handler, casting doubt on whether Man even exists at all. Since leaving Vietnam, all of the “conversations” between the Captain and Man are imagined, a fact that’s made more explicit when Man “shows up” at one of Lana’s performances.

“I haven’t heard from you,” Man says. “I’ve been worried.” Another way to interpret this conversation is as a dialogue between the Captain’s conflicting selves: Man is an imaginary figment of his Communist ego, who keeps him in check and committed to the cause. Man affirms the Captain’s belief that he’s “playing an important role” in America, even while he spurns the General’s “pathetic defeatist fantasy.” Regardless of the nature of the talk, it’s a wake-up call for the Captain. He decides to play triple agent by secretly mailing Sonny photos of the General’s plans.

One day, while out mailing a letter to his “Parisian aunt,” Claude appears out of the blue (again!) to hand the Captain the latest Viet My Bao newspaper and discuss The Hamlet. It’s imperative “to keep an eye on these artist-types,” Claude says, who need “reassurance that they’re subversive … as long as [the CIA] can keep them within the bounds of humanism but with no actionable political ideology.” It’s a scathing summary of what’s wrong with the culture industries today. (Now, if only artists could deliver the same clear-eyed speech about what liberal humanism distracts from…) Claude is a minor digression, second to the Captain’s slow-burn flirtation with Lana. He visits her dressing room after several shows, and they make small talk about his break-up. Lana jokes that the Captain is spying on her, but before things ever go too far, Bon barges in to summon the Captain on the General’s behalf.

Their dynamic has shifted. The Captain no longer appears to be the trusted second-in-command, and he’s kept out of the loop of the General’s nascent operation. Sonny’s article in Viet My Bao criticizes the General’s homeland mission and only encourages him to expedite the plans. The Captain did not realize the extent of the General’s preparation until he arrived at the training grounds and spotted Bon leading the troops. His expression of dumbfounded disbelief is laced with betrayal — the first, as we can surmise, of two betrayals by his blood brothers. But is it true betrayal if the Captain, too, was deceiving Bon the entire time?

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Terry Nguyen , 2024-05-13 04:00:03

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