You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Sympathizer Is a Spy Thriller of Rare Sophistication

Park Chan-wook’s new miniseries on HBO takes American imperialism to task.


Critics loved HBO’s Watchmen. Damon Lindelof’s 2019 miniseries may have divided audiences with its intense violence, byzantine intertextuality, and narrative complexity, but critics across the spectrum were seemingly united in their praise for the audacious adaptation and expansion of Alan Moore and David Gibbons’s canonical graphic novel. The book offered up an influential critique of the superhero genre, explicitly noting its fascistic tendencies, its indulgence in authoritarian fantasy; Lindelof’s miniseries took that critique and ran with it, transforming Moore’s story of an alternate-universe United States run by anti-heroic superheroes into an epic serial about the deep roots of white supremacy in the United States, from the 1921 Tulsa race massacre to the menacing specter of present-day traffic stops.

Despite its immediate acclaim, the series has had an ambivalent afterlife. Its unsparing depiction of a masked police force poisoned by racism and corruption was lauded in 2019, but, after a global pandemic and the George Floyd protest movement, truth proved to be even stranger than Watchmen’s fiction. And, for all its attentiveness to the complicated histories of racial violence in the United States, it is notably less attentive to the complicated history of America’s involvement in Vietnam. In the world of Watchmen, the titular superheroes help the United States to “win” the Vietnam War and subsequently annex Vietnam as the fifty-first state. As many critics have noted, the show skims over the sociopolitical ramifications of this sliding door only then to saddle a Vietnamese character as the show’s ultimate villain. As the novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote at the time, in reference to Watchmen’s protagonist, “Her urgent awareness of white supremacy is not matched by equal awareness about American imperialism—or, it seems, any awareness at all.”

HBO’s new miniseries The Sympathizer shares Watchmen’s high degree of difficulty and playful hand with heavy themes, but it’s also the series-length take on American imperialism that Nguyen wished for back in 2019. That’s largely because the series is based on Nguyen’s own Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about the Vietnam War, a text that’s savvy about American racial politics in its own right but also witheringly insightful about the way that America’s proxy conflict in Asia wreaked havoc on the generation who lived through it. Adapted by legendary South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, The Sympathizer is both a corrective and a luxury, a series with an urgent political perspective and the kind of stylistic verve we rarely get to see on television.

The Sympathizer is the story of the Captain (Hoa Xuande)—he remains unnamed in the novel—a North Vietnamese spy embedded in the South Vietnamese military. In the months before the end of the war, he is serving as the personal assistant to the General (Toan Le), a pompous, paranoid, corrupt South Vietnamese muckety-muck. The Captain lives like a servant in the General’s mansion, constantly belittled by him, but also entrusted with lethal and life-altering duties that he both reviles and relishes. In one early scene, we watch the Captain sort through a long list of staffers, choosing which ones will be granted seats on the CIA plane that will evacuate the General from Vietnam to U.S. territory. He’s clearly repulsed by the task and the sheer gross fact that the General has chosen to delegate it, but he also clearly takes some pleasure in meting out bureaucratic vengeance on a group of people he judges to be criminals. After the fall of Saigon, the Captain escapes on the CIA plane, and—still under instructions from his Communist handler and childhood best friend—plans to report back on potential threats from the South Vietnamese government in exile.

That government, though, exists mostly as a set of reflexively honored hierarchies and social pressures in the United States. While the early scenes in Vietnam are affecting and visually striking, life in Los Angeles is stranger. The General gives orders—or at least he hints at them—and his former lackeys race to comply. But, even as these commands sometimes lead to fatal results, they transpire as a kind of playacting. In one post-exile episode, the General pressures the Captain to kill a colleague who’s believed to be a spy. The General is petulant and pathetic, but to acknowledge that, to act accordingly, would be to give up the game. As the Captain brings himself to land the final blow, there’s a look in his eyes that asks, seriously? Are we really doing this? How far must he go to pretend that nothing has changed, that the stakes are still the same, that those stakes exist at all?

That life in California is at least partially a facade is part and parcel of Nguyen’s insight. As new arrivals in the United States, stripped of their former stature, these immigrants adopt the customs of their new home—even its more xenophobic flourishes—in order to rebuild. They start small businesses, ally themselves with local conservative politicians, pledge fealty to their General and the homeland he represents, while striking out on their own in the strip malls of L.A. The Captain’s efforts both to take part in and undercut this burgeoning community draw out its foundational contradictions. The child of a Vietnamese woman and a French priest, he’s an outcast in his community despite his central role in that community’s functioning. His fluency in English and familiarity with American customs—he spent time as an exchange student at Occidental College—make him both an asset and a pariah. He’s devastated not to have stayed in Saigon to rejoin his Communist comrades, but, as his handler reminds him, he secretly loves capitalist America. The Captain is leading a double life; so is everyone else.

Xuande brilliantly plays the Captain as a charming cipher. Within the world of the show, his disingenuousness inoculates him from suspicion—how could a man this shallow, this debased in his commitment to being liked by everybody, be a traitor?—but it also poses a challenge for us as viewers. How do we build an emotional connection to a character who’s defined by the skill with which he withholds emotion, or fakes it? How do we get a hold on this nameless protagonist, who seems always to be blowing smoke up the ass of everyone he addresses, including possibly us? The answer is that the form of this show is the thing that supplies the expressiveness. It’s the show that beguiles and holds us, not the Captain.

I recently wrote, for this magazine, about the epidemic of stylelessness on TV. On one hand, there’s the paint-by-numbers aesthetic of “prestige TV” that gussies up otherwise middling fare in cinematic costume; but, on the other, there’s the “Netflix look” of series designed, for budgetary reasons, to adhere to the same dark, lifeless boilerplate. I argued that, when streamers and networks produce series without distinctive visual points of view, they sacrifice the sense of authorship that makes great TV great. The Sympathizer is as direct an answer to that lament as I could have imagined. You want style, it seems to ask. Well, here you go.

While Nguyen is the author of the story upon which this series is based, Park Chan-wook is without a doubt this series’ author. Every moment of every episode—in particular, the first three, which he directed himself—appears handcrafted with layers of visual meaning, some grim, some ecstatic. When you see the spinning dial of a rotary phone graphic-match into a spinning car tire, or a political prisoner interrogated on the empty stage of a cinema with the projector blasting naked light on her face as the Captain looks on, or two characters talking espionage strategy while a fight scene straight out of Blake Edwards transpires in the background, you might be tempted to describe what Park is doing as “showy.” But the overall effect is a series that feels alive, frame by frame. If the Captain is too cool, his show is suffused with a kind of dark zaniness that allows us to sense, scene-by-scene, the high-wire he walks. Every step could be a pratfall or a land mine, a bit or a disaster.

I’ve saved mention of what is Park’s perhaps most ostentatious stylistic choice for last. If you’ve seen any publicity material for this show, you will have seen an overload of Robert Downey Jr.—who plays five separate roles across the seven episodes of this miniseries. Downey is the perfect actor to undertake such an act: Wily and oily, ingratiating and grotesque, he is able to transform five different ways while retaining an essence of himself in each role. Despite the quality of his performance, his casting is essentially a rueful structural joke. It’s not just that Downey plays so many different characters; he plays essentially every major white character in the series, including the Captain’s CIA contact in Vietnam, the college professor who sponsors him, and the filmmaker who offers him a job. Some of these characters mentor the Captain, and some of them grow to love him, in a way, but they all exploit him. American imperialism is brutishly powerful, whether its institutional arm is the U.S. government, the academy, or Hollywood, but it is not at all subtle. In each of its forms, imperialism bears the same face.

The Sympathizer can occasionally be confusing at a plot level, and, to its credit, it’s uninterested in hand-holding the viewer. But, between a plot that’s both labyrinthine and free associative, a structure that’s picaresque in its jumping from place to place, and a protagonist who’s always a bit of a mystery, the show risks a kind of coldness. There are moments of extraordinary emotional resonance alongside moments of sterility, even a few where the piling of meta-textual joke on top of meta-textual joke gets to be too much. But, then again, whenever Park is behind the camera, there’s a vibrancy and an intelligence at work in each visual and sonic choice that make the series constantly watchable. There’s a confidence and a care with this show that feel refreshing. Imagine being surprised at what a shot in a television series looks like; imagine becoming enamored with how a show told its story, not just the story itself; imagine falling for a style. The Sympathizer moves and shakes its way through seven circles of American imperial ruin, swaggering into oblivion.