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The Sympathizer Recap: War Games

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Photo: Hopper Stone/HBO

The penultimate episode opens with a series of quick cuts. Hardly any of the shots linger for longer than a few seconds. The Captain is descending the hill behind the General to greet the insurgent refugee army. Directed by Marc Munden, the sixth episode returns to the espionage-style plot at full steam, regaining some of the momentum and style of the first three installments. The camera jerks around to emphasize the Captain’s growing panic. He learns that the General plans to send a squad abroad for a recon mission in Thailand, which Bon is thinking about enlisting in. “Life is a suicide mission,” Bon tells the Captain. “The war’s over when the General says so.”

The General is also irked by Sonny’s ongoing investigations into his “charity,” the non-profit organization that is a front for the insurgent mission, and implies to the Captain that he wants Sonny dead. The Captain hurriedly sends off a letter to Man, informing him of the General’s escalating plan, and asks for his help to save Bon. While he awaits Man’s response, the Captain snoops on Congressman Ned Goodwin and his wife to determine exactly how the General’s mission is being funded. But no matter what he finds out, the Captain finds himself cornered: “If I had to kill again, it would only be to fulfill the General’s order, and to fulfill his order was to fulfill Man’s order to maintain the General’s trust.” The longer the Captain stays in America, the more he’s forced to act against his political and moral conscience. His position as a spy is no longer justifiable. The Captain’s reasoning sounds increasingly ludicrous to the North Vietnamese commander, who’s spent the past year interrogating him. His predicament recalls what the Major once said of refugees who fail to assimilate: “You’re just a wandering ghost living between two worlds forever.” What once struck me as a maudlin now sounds like a dire warning of the Captain’s fate.

At Madame Pho, the Captain runs into Sonny and tells him to follow the money. Sonny is suspicious of the Captain’s motives, but the two agree on their shared goal: They don’t want anyone else to die for a lost cause. Sonny says he has a friend at the Los Angeles Times who can publish the story once the Captain gets proof of the donations. Later that night, the Captain arrives at the General’s liquor store and overhears a fight between him and Claude. Bon, who’s working the cash register, tells the Captain he’s enlisting. Bon would rather die killing a Viet Cong than grow bitterly old in America, like the men he’s selling liquor to, who go home to beat their wives and children. It’s a short but affecting scene that also reveals the series’ most regrettable fault: The Sympathizer’s close focus on the Captain comes at the expense of supporting characters like Bon and the General, who’ve independently undergone their own ideological transformations in America. In this episode, the General’s bloodthirsty delusion briefly resurfaces, although his trust in the Captain has apparently not wavered. As the Captain drives him past the troop’s training grounds, the General takes out his Glock to shoot at the Viet Cong targets. The two men eventually arrive at a natural sauna, where the General bemoans his losses to the Captain. But the tone of his complaints and his delusion of “winning everything back” from America’s grasp is more pathetic than threatening. The Captain asks if he could join the recon mission — a request that parallels his earlier plea to stay in Vietnam and support the Communist cause — but the General denies it. His answer is eerily similar to Man’s, which, once again, places the Captain’s subjectivity into question. The General claims the Captain will be more helpful in America. Even after all this time, he’s the only one that the General trusts.

A letter has yet to come from Man, but the Captain sends forth another one, announcing his plan to return to Vietnam. He imagines a conversation with Man in his office. This time, it’s clearer that Man is a figment of the Captain’s own conscience. The Captain’s face is briefly superimposed onto Man’s while he says: “What happens to a mole that has lived too long in darkness when it’s suddenly thrusted into the sun? It is blind.” When their faces switch back, the Captain’s voice is dubbed over Man’s, creating the impression that the Captain is indeed speaking to himself. He’s advising his ego to stay in America: “You belong there. You’re American.”

The Captain manages to sneak some photos of Ned’s donations at a fundraising event, where he bumps into his old professor, who’s revealed to be the author of the text, The Oriental Mode of Destruction. It’s a fitting title for the episode, too, as the Captain goes scorched earth in its second half. After presenting Sonny with evidence of “Napalm Ned” and the CIA’s meddling, the Captain confesses to his Communist sympathies. “I don’t hate you, Sonny,” the Captain says, although it’s clear that he does. He hates Sonny for being “unburdened,” for picking a side and living with the consequences. He is also envious (and the camerawork makes it clear) of Sonny’s relationship with Sophia — and this nefarious admixture of hatred and envy is what undergirds the Captain’s motivation to kill his ideological ally. The murder is swift and coldly executed. The Captain jams his gun into an empty Coca-Cola can and shoots Sonny in the chest. He proceeds to change into the blonde wig worn during Major Oanh’s murder before proceeding to send off the documents to the LA Times.

The documents, the Captain later confesses, were never published. He wasn’t sure if the LA Times was simply uninterested in the documents, or whether the CIA intervened before the story’s publication. “I did my best to stop the General’s mission,” the Captain tells the North Vietnamese commander, though it’s revealed to be a lie. Instead, he had gone home with Sonny’s documents and proceeded to burn them in his kitchen. Two days later, the Captain receives a letter from Man, a response to his first letter about Bon’s mission. All it says is “Request denied,” presumably the final two words that the Captain ever received from Man. It prompts him to insist to the General on accompanying Bon to Thailand.

There’s a curious little interlude before the Captain’s departure, where he meets up with Sophia and Lana — two women whom we know very little about but remain, for whatever reason, overwhelmingly drawn to the Captain’s nervous charms. Sophia calls him over and says she’ll give him an alibi for the day of Sonny’s murder, an unbelievably generous offer for the man who murdered her lover. “How did you become this?” she asks the Captain, caressing his cheek. “Go … far away.” But even Sandra Oh’s marvelous acting chops could not redeem this impossible scene. There’s no clear reason why Sophia would be compelled to protect the Captain; even when he’s being a terrible spy, events always manage to align in his favor. He runs over to Lana’s place to see her one last time before departing; the two share a half-kiss before he steps back to ruffle her head, an implicit brotherly rejection of any further advances.

The episode ends with Bon and the Captain on a taxiing plane en route to Thailand. Bon is on the verge of a panic attack, staring at an old picture of his dead wife and child, and the Captain looks stricken with fear. His attempts to assuage Bon fall flat. The mission is a death wish, a fait accompli that the Captain knows he has to accept.

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Terry Nguyen , 2024-05-20 04:00:16

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