‘The Sympathizer’ Episode 5 Is Perfectly Messy Jazz

the sympathizer
‘The Sympathizer’ E5 Is Perfectly Messy JazzHopper Stone/SMPSP

Something incredibly strange took hold of The Sympathizer last week. For reasons I can’t explain, when critically acclaimed South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook departed the limited series, the plot left with him. I can’t really fault the director, HBO, or author Viet Thanh Nguyen, but episode 4 took viewers far away from the espionage thriller that HBO teased in the show’s first three episodes. Surprisingly, I’m not mad about it.

Maybe it’s a plot turn that makes more sense in the novel, but the Captain (Hoa Xuande) whisking himself away to work on a Hollywood set (in what’s clearly a parody of Apocalypse Now) didn’t seem like an obvious destination when the series started. After realizing that any sort of continued espionage is moot­, the Captain seemingly tried to forge a future in America for himself.

Possibly, the message hit home in episode 3 after he murdered someone (the Major) who was fully embracing a new American life. Now the Captain is trying out a new passion. It’s as if he thought he could still do the work for Vietnam, even though he forgot that every institution on The Sympathizer is run by a tyrannical, belly-rubbing Robert Downey Jr. antagonist. Trying to fight for better representation on the film set, the Captain ends up pissing off director Niko Damianos (Downey No. 4) so much that he puts him in the hospital.

The experience forces the Captain to experience ego death. “I have lost something tangible,” he states. “I’ve lost my way. I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t think I can go on like this. I’ve lost myself.” His expertise as a spy is no longer needed. Neither is his position as a member of the South Vietnamese secret police, or his relationship as a CIA informant/film consultant. Without his country, without a mission, who is the Captain?

the sympathizer
Captain of what?Hopper Stone/SMPSP - HBO

Sympathizer? I Barely Know Her.

Attempting to put some good karma back into the world, the Captain gives his studio-accident settlement money to the Major’s (Phanxinê) family. His widow refuses to accept, suggesting that the funds go to a new restaurant owned by the General’s wife (Ky Duyen). She also believes that there’s some secret operation that the General (Toan Le) is plotting to take back their home, even though everyone else views the delusional and paranoid man as a fraud. Ironically, he has actually planned a ridiculous military operation in the basement of the restaurant, which is basically open for anyone to stumble upon. The only reason that the Captain didn’t know about it—outside of being in a hospital for three weeks—is that the General was mad at him for taking Lana (Vy Le) to the film set.

Speaking of Lana, she’s now singing in a nightclub show called FantASIA. The Captain sees her perform one night—and, well, their sibling-esque relationship continues to be questionably flirtatious. He’s jealous when he learns that Lana is still dating Jamie Johnson (Max Whittington-Cooper) from The Hamlet, and he turns down an offer to join them for dinner as a “third wheel.” Sadly, he’s a third wheel in his relationship with Ms. Mori (Sandra Oh) as well. She’s sleeping with Sonny (Alan Trong), an investigative journalist and his old-school rival. The Captain didn’t call her while working on the film—and she didn’t visit him in the hospital. It’s a strange parting all around.

the sympathizer
The Sympathizer embraces the chaos. Hopper Stone/HBO - HBO

You Like Jazz?

Feeling lost, the Captain demands that Niko follow through with his original plan for Vietnamese representation in his movie, threatening him with an alligator in his swimming pool. “I’ll try, honestly,” Niko responds. “But I can’t predict the journey. Editing…is about rhythm, impulse, jazz.” The Captain finds bizarre solace in Niko’s half promise. Maybe we’re in the Captain’s blue period.

He visits Lana at the nightclub again, where she sings “Lady Marmalade” in Vietnamese. In the middle of her performance, he experiences a daydream of Man (Duy Nguyễn). He’s worried that his old friend and North Vietnam correspondent abandoned him. “I should be home,” he tells Man. “What is my mission here? What am I doing in this pathetic, defeatist fantasy? Nothing I’ve done here has made any difference.” Poor Captain. “Do you need a new shoulder to cry on?” Lana asks. Before anything can develop between them, Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan) intervenes with distressing news.

In the most surprising twist of the episode, the General reveals that his mission is not a fool’s errand. Bon is secretly training around fifty men outside Los Angeles to form a new private army. It’s pitched as a threat for the next episode, but not because fifty delusional men can take back Vietnam. The Captain doesn’t want to see Bon and his comically punching bonus army fly to Vietnam just to get murdered.

From what we’ve seen of The Sympathizer’s timeline so far, the Captain does end up back in Vietnam somehow. Now that I look back, it’s possible that the series had to get a bit wacky just so the immediate seriousness hit like a light switch. There are just two episodes left—and the Captain is already at his breaking point.

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