‘The Sympathizer’ Episode 3 Is Off the Rails (in a Good Way!)

the sympathizer
‘The Sympathizer’ Episode 3 Is Off the Rails Hopper Stone/HBO

Last week, The Sympathizer asked our undercover spy an important question: What are you fighting for anymore? As a communist sympathizer, the Captain (Hoa Xuande) had a simple mission in Vietnam: He worked under the General (Toan Le), the head of the South Vietnamese military, and passed important information back to the North. His efforts resulted in the Fall of Saigon, which marked the North’s complete takeover of the South. And yet it remains unknown just how much the Captain’s actions affected his side’s outcome in the war.

Now the Captain is living in Los Angeles. He fled the Fall of Saigon along with the General and dozens of other South Vietnam refugees. His mission is to keep reporting to the North about the General’s activities in America. The only problem? The General isn’t exactly campaigning with U.S. politicians or military personnel to reclaim Vietnam. The U.S. already pulled its troops out of the war before the Fall, and the General is transitioning to a completely new life in Los Angeles. He’s opened a liquor store, of all things.

Still, the General believes that spies from the North are out to assassinate him. His paranoid delusions forced the Captain to falsely name the Major (Phanxinê) as the spy—just to throw some heat off his own name—but now the General wants him to kill the Major. The saddest part? The Major is just a nice guy who treats people with comforting candy that he illegally imports from back home in Vietnam. Is the Captain really going to kill him just to keep up this façade as a spy? What, really, is the Captain even fighting for anymore?

As episode 3 begins, the Captain learns that his Bon is also harboring a secret. We knew that he was a former paratrooper for South Vietnam, but we didn’t know that he was part of the F-6—a top secret program that trained skilled assassins. “It was horrifying to learn,” the Captain narrates. “He killed dozens of our comrades. But honestly, it was also a relief. I wasn’t the only one who has been lying all these years.” Back in episode 1, I pointed out how odd it seemed that Bon was part of the Captain and Man’s "Three Musketeers," since Bon holds such contempt for the North. After his wife and child died in the Fall of Saigon, he only holds even more rage in his heart. The mission to kill the Major clearly reinvigorated his comatose state. “You ever see brain splatter?” Bon asks him. “You know what I hate? When it gets in your mouth.” Bon’s on a path of blind revenge—and the Captain better hope that he’s never on the other side of it.

the sympathizer
I love the Major.Hopper Stone/HBO

New Favorite Character Alert

Meanwhile, the Major is completely oblivious. I truly hope he doesn’t get whacked because he’s a joy on screen. His mother (Kieu Chinh) is turning 80 years old, so he’s throwing her a birthday party that he calls a Longevity Party. “The way things are going, I bet she’ll outlive me,” the Major jokes as he hands out the invitations. How ironic, Major, that those words might ring true any day now.

During a stakeout of the Major’s home, they’re forced to share tea with his mother. She shares that the Major is trying to become a candy salesman in America, and profit off the country’s capitalism just like the General’s liquor store. He’s a Vietnamese Willy Wonka—the furthest possible image from an assassin for the North. When the Captain finds out that he’s selling slightly expired candy back to Saigon, the Major jokes that it’s “still fresh, just like my mom.”

The Major’s mother loves America as well. She tells the Captain that no one in America will care that he’s only Vietnamese anywhere close to how often it came up back home. Maybe he can even find a girlfriend here. Yeah, you’re right! What is the Captain fighting for, exactly, outside of protecting his own secret identity? “It’s a new world here,” the Major tells him. “You don’t have to stay just a c***k or a bastard.” Kill this woman’s poor little Winnie the Pooh son? The Captain should fall in love and follow his own dreams!

For a brief moment, he considers it. The Captain invites Ms. Mori (Sandra Oh) to the Longevity Party, and she agrees to join him. The nice moment is interrupted by Claude (Robert Downey Jr.), who is posing as a gay man walking his dog. At first, I thought it was our third Downey antagonist, but it’s actually just our first Downey character in disguise. “I’m whatever I need to be,” he tells the Captain. “Just like you.” Even though the General is “an impotent clown,” the CIA is still watching him. “A clown with a crown,” Claude says. He orders him to keep the General happy by killing the Major, or the next guy, and the next guy, because America needs a malleable fool like the General in charge if they hope to continue to hold power in Vietnam. Ironically, they currently hold zero power since the Fall.

Be careful, Captain!Hopper Stone/HBO

Time to Party

The Longevity Party is very nice. It’s like a bat mitzvah for an 80-year-old woman. The General’s daughter, Lana (Vy Le), sings a song on stage as the General mutters to himself. His daughter signing at his enemy’s party? Betrayal! “I wouldn’t be suffering if you had just done your fucking job already!” he tells the Captain. Talking to Lana, she tells him, “Not the schoolgirl you once knew, huh?” Uh-oh. I don’t trust this! She grabs him by the arm as Ms. Mori comes over. The Captain slinks off of her as he calls Ms. Mori his “boss.” Oof. “I mean, my girlfriend, Ms. Mori,” he says. “Sofia,” she responds. The Captain is really treading water here between "Boss" and basically his "step-sister"—two search terms on a very specific kind of website.

During this awkward encounter, the Major makes a hilarious speech to his mother. I wish we could’ve heard the whole thing. “Oh Mother,” he begins, “When I touch my belly button, I remember you and I were tied together by a familial cord.” The Major also introduces his twin children, whom he’s named Spinach and Broccoli because of “the American cartoon, Popeye, and for good health.” As they come together for a group photo, they scream, “Spinach, broccoli, cheese!” Wow, perfect. Popeye would be proud.

I’m having an amazing time at this party, so it’s the perfect opportunity for our third Downey to make his appearance. This character is Ned Godwin, a Reagan-esque politician and former soldier who fought against the Viet Cong. He gifts the Major’s mother a knife that he used to kill, which is a taboo gift in Vietnam. “It severs relationships,” someone informs Ms. Mori at the party. Ned is a bit of freak, just like the other two Downeys, but it’s becoming hilariously clear that if you’re a white guy on The Sympathizer, then you're played by Robert Downey Jr.

Here he is, folks: Downey No. 3.Hopper Stone/HBO

Kill the Major? But I Love Him!

The Captain and Bon decide that the loud fireworks on the Fourth of July will make the perfect cover for the assassination. Wearing a silly blond wig, the Captain prepares to take an innocent man’s life. He approaches the Major with a gun inside a fast food bag, but he’s fucking up the plan. He’s nervous. The fireworks end—and he loses his chance to fire. He shoots the Major in the gut, forcing Bon to jump out of their car and help him brutally finish the job. When he calls the General to confirm the kill, the General asks him to write a eulogy for the man. “You really think he was a spy?” the Captain asks Bon. “Who cares?” he responds.

Damn, I really liked the Major! Captain, I don’t know if I’ll forgive you for this. It seems he very likely won’t pardon himself, either. Later that night, he recalls a time when he tortured a fellow communist sympathizer with Clause. As he interrogates and warns him about the CIA’s harsh methods, the Captain says, “You’ll feel so guilty, that you’ll pray for death all over again.’ He tears up. He’s sympathizing. To spare his misery, the Captain helps him suffocate on an egg, whch the prisoner chokes on during breakfast. Presumably, it’s the first person he’s ever killed. Claude (grossly!) eats the egg after it flies out of the prisoner’s mouth. “The shell provided a perfectly hygienic seal,” he says.

Back in the present, the Captain frames the Major by giving up his own secret code with Man. It proves to the CIA that the Major was a spy, but it’s only because they think his undercover actions were the Major’s. He’s in the clear. Still, he had to reveal how his secret code worked. Was it worth it?

“A spy is asked to be all things at once,” the Captain reflects. “A comrade, an enemy—anything less lands you on the wrong side of an interrogation. Although, I realize now, there was nothing I could have done to avoid such a fate.” As the audience already knows from glimpses into the future, the Captain somehow winds up in a prison back in North Vietnam, questioned by his own comrades.

Downeys, everywhere I look.Hopper Stone/HBO

I'm Sorry, What is Going on Now?

Before the Captain returns to Vietnam, he remains embedded in Los Angeles. I have no idea what the following scene entails, but the Captain attends a meeting of the Downeys. All three Downeys are present at a fancy stakeout, as they meet a fourth Downey character named Niko. He’s a filmmaker who's making a movie about the Vietnam War, and he wants the Captain to serve as his interpreter and consultant. Huh? What in God's name is happening here? We’re making a movie?!

The Downeys go absolutely insane. One of the hostesses rubs Niko’s belly as Clause sings at the piano and politician Ned Godwin howls like a dog at a woman covered in whipped cream. I’m having the same thoughts as the Captain as the credits roll. What the hell have we gotten ourselves into now?

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