‘The Sympathizer’ E2 Introduces Another Wild Robert Downey Jr. Character

the sympathizer
‘The Sympathizer’ Episode 2 Adds Another DowneyHopper Stone/SMPSP - HBO

Bear with me, dear readers, because we’re through the worst of it. In The Sympathizer’s premiere, the Captain (Hoa Xuande) successfully escaped the Fall of Saigon to land in America. This should shore up the insane number of locations and timelines on this series. In the second episode, the story finally settles down, as the Captain embarks on a cross-country road trip through Tornado Alley.

Post-war, his current mission is a bit up in the air. As the titular “sympathizer,” he tells communist Vietnam that he’s made it safely to America. Man (Duy Nguyễn), his superior and close friend, tasked him with keeping a close eye on the General (Toan Le), the since-disposed leader of South Vietnam. He also reports undercover to Claude (Robert Downey Jr.), the CIA agent who helped them escape before the North took over Saigon. But as he writes back home to Man, he’s nowhere near fulfilling any of his responsibilities.

The Captain is currently in Texas, asking racist provisions store owners if they have rice starch so that he can write his secret letters. He reports to Man using the coded message system from the repulsive Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction textbook. It’s a process that must take hours. For every location he writes down, he finds a page number and a word matching his exact longitude and latitude coordinates. When we see James Bond in action, he’s always drinking martinis and wearing nice suits to high-stakes poker matches. The audience never really sees the nights he spends just writing out nerdy secret messages with iodine solution.

There’s a lot to relay back home. Their friend Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan) lost his wife and child in the Fall of Saigon. Shell-shocked by the incident, he’s despondent; he needs the Captain to help him eat and shower. The General isn’t faring well in America, either. He’s losing authority without a clear position in the government. Moreover, he’s losing respect. Conditions are incredibly poor at the Vietnamese refugee camp in Arkansas. It’s dirty and infested with pests, and the American food is making everyone sick. “Looking good in your American clothes,” the General tells the refugees as he walks into the cafeteria. He’s oblivious to their resentment and paranoid that a spy is out to assassinate him—easily making the General the funniest character on the show so far. The refugees throw their microwave mac and cheese and chase him into a disgusting outhouse. But Arkansas is only a temporary resting place until they can move out west to settle in California, which is why the Captain is writing from his latest stop in Texas.

the sympathizer
Spotted: Downey character #2. Hopper Stone/SMPSP - HBO

New Pickup Line: “I Fucked a Squid”

An old acquaintance from the Captain’s college days, Professor Hammer, agrees to sponsor both the Captain and Bon in America. So the Captain leaves the refugee camp to meet the professor in Los Angeles. Hammer is our second Robert Downey Jr. character. He’s one of those East Asian Studies professors who become so infatuated with Asian culture that they walk around wearing a kimono like it’s just another cardigan in their closet. “Konnichiwa!” Hammer announces as he walks into his office, greeting his secretary, Ms. Sofia Mori (Sandra Oh). The professor’s office is decorated with tatami mats, floor lamps, and traditional sliding wooden doors. He even displays a copy of Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction without irony. Hammer slaps his bare belly as he calls the Captain “the perfect symbiosis of Oriental and Occidental,” clearly projecting his own bizarre desires. “Half breeds are the future,” he says to the Captain. Hold on while I shudder.

After landing in Los Angeles thanks to the professor’s sponsorship, the Captain rents a quaint apartment. He tells Bon that Hammer gave him a wacky assignment: He must list his Occidental and Oriental qualities and explain how they differ. At a party the professor throws that night, the Captain and Sofia are put on display. In front of his guests, Hammer comments on Ms. Mori’s neckline in her traditional outfit, calling it “erotic.” “And they loved exposing their erotic parts to compete strangers,” she spits back.

This moment of solidarity brings the Captain and Sofia closer together, as they slip away to flirt and mock Hammer’s “feudal lord” attitude. She also calls the Captain out for playing the “good Asian” who is “fresh off the boat” around the professor—and he accepts her criticism. When he’s offered some fried squid, the moment reminds him of a time from his childhood when his mother brought home raw squid for a meal. How very Freudian of you, Captain. It gets weirder. Noticing that the squid was um…slimy and cylindrical…he masturbated into the cephalopod and then proceeded to eat it to hide his dirty deed. For whatever reason, the “I fucked a squid” story works. Sofia is turned on by Mr. Squid Fucker and they have sex. Take notes, gentlemen.

the sympathizer
Welcome to the show, Sanda Oh.Hopper Stone/SMPSP - HBO

I Need Infinite Scenes with the General

In the morning, the Captain welcomes the General and his family to Los Angeles. The Major (Phanxinê) pays them a visit, gifting them a treat from Vietnam that isn’t available in the States. The General’s wife complains about how he doesn’t know how to clean, cook, or do much of anything at all. Drinking and smoking on the porch, the General tells the Captain that he’s paranoid about a potential spy. “I was walking on the sidewalk and one of those toilet-tank covers fell in front of me,” he says. “Don’t you get it? An assassination attempt!” He pulls a gun out of his robe, points it at the Captain, and orders him to neutralize the threat.

A letter from Man arrives, warning the Captain to “never underestimate the General.” But the General is not lobbying Congress and continuing his duties on behalf of the Vietnamese as they once expected he would in America. He’s planning to open a liquor store and seemingly transition into a full American small-business owner. It makes the Captain’s mission seem meaningless, even if the General hilariously believes that every slight transgression in America is someone “deliberately undermining me at every turn.”

the sympathizer
Is it just me or the General the best character on The Sympathizer?Hopper Stone/HBO - HBO

I Don't Want to Be a Spy Anymore

At the opening party, the Captain reacquaints himself with a former college rival, Sonny (Alan Trong). The two debate Vietnamese politics, which proves difficult for the Captain, since he must pretend to support the South Vietnamese even though Sonny sympathizes with the North. “Arguably, I’m more Vietnamese than you, biologically,” Sonny tells him. He also mocks the General’s choice to name the liquor store Yellow Flag Liquors. As the General celebrates his new life, some of his followers are dejected. When he holds up his army honors during a big speech, two people walk out.

Changing rhetoric, the General tells everyone about his suspicions that there’s a spy among them. The party changes from a celebration to an interrogation. The Captain meets with Claude, who menacingly tells him that “only the spy says there’s no spy.” The General brandishes a gun once again and loads it in front of the Captain. In a panic, the Captain spouts out that the Major is the spy, accusing him of shipping treats from the homeland, which means that he still holds contacts in Saigon. It’s a decent save until the General orders him to kill the presumably innocent Major. Kill a guy for handing out candy? Maybe it’s time for the Captain to figure out how to transition out of the spy game.

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