‘The Sympathizer’ Recap, Episode Two: ‘Good Little Asian’

10 min read

The Sympathizer

Good Little Asian

Season 1

Episode 2

Editor’s Rating

4 stars

Photo: Hopper Stone/HBO

The first episode of The Sympathizer ended on a cliffhanger — “a real Hollywood cliffhanger,” remarks a North Vietnamese commander at the second episode’s start. Tasked with reading the Captain’s prison letters, the commander’s tone drips with disapproval (the Communists, of course, despise American entertainment while recognizing its ingenuity as soft propaganda). But the comment is a sly metafictional wink from a script that is keen on addressing and ironizing its many tropes and limitations. According to a New Yorker profile of Park Chan-wook, the final cuts of the first episode were determined less than two months from the series premiere. Unsurprisingly, HBO executives had requested Park and his co-showrunner Don McKellar to make the episode easier to understand and, very likely, more suspenseful. And so this “real Hollywood cliffhanger,” one can surmise, is a truism that real Hollywood executives actually want.

The second episode, however, swiftly departs from the mood of heightened melodrama that colored the last climactic scene. It is better paced and more tonally consistent than the premiere, with just the right amount of explanatory voiceover. We return to Bon and the Captain on the bombed airfield, surrounded by death and debris. Bon decides to carry his wife, Linh, who was struck by shrapnel from a felled helicopter, as he and the Captain make a run for the departing plane with the infant in tow. The Captain’s recollection of the harrowing event is interspersed with scenes from a road trip taken mere months later: The Captain is speeding through the Oklahoma desert in a blue convertible with the top down. He is smoking a cigarette while Bon languishes in the backseat. The scenes alternate between the solemn horror of the evacuation and the serenity of the desert as the jaunty “Hello L.A., Bye-Bye Birmingham” swells in the background. This juxtaposition reflects the jarring reality of refugee life; grieving becomes secondary, dependent on one’s survival and acculturation. Bon dissociates and goes mute, refusing to shower or eat unless the Captain forces him to. For the Captain, the journey to America is like a second homecoming if we are to believe Man’s previous accusation that he loves America. For Bon, it’s hell — an unfamiliar wasteland he has to traverse alone without his wife and child.

In “Good Little Asian,” there’s only one instance of the pause-and-replay narrative maneuver used in the first episode: The Captain rewinds us back to his first days in America at Fort Chaffee with the General, who insists on wearing out his Army uniform. This strikes a nerve among the women in the refugee camp. They hurl profanities and food at his face, blaming him for the failed war and the death of their sons. The outpour of resentment triggers the General’s paranoia; Toan Le is fabulous in this episode, paring back the General’s goofy countenance to reveal the gnawing delusions of a defeated and increasingly dangerous man. Cornered in an outhouse with the Captain, the General suspects there must be a spy who’s sowing discontent among the refugees and orders the Captain to suss out the culprit. At Fort Chaffee, the Captain reaches out to an old college professor for sponsorship. It’s an opportunity to get out of the General’s immediate line of fire and relocate to sunny Southern California, where the General is also planning his next move.

Professor Hammer (Robert Downey Jr.) is an ostentatious figure with a heavy lisp and an Oriental fetish who introduces the Captain to his secretary, Ms. Mori (Sandra Oh). Downey Jr. has an uncanny flair for playing racist characters; his caricature of an Eastern Studies professor is comically outrageous and a bit heavy-handed. Hammer speaks to Ms. Mori in Japanese (she sarcastically responds, “This is America. If you don’t want to speak English, go back to your own country”), boldly changes into a kimono in his office, and dishes on the latest academic drama: The Oriental Studies department is at risk of being folded into Asian American Studies (“God help us!”). Then, he instructs the Captain to come up with a list of dueling qualities, which reflect his status as a mixed-race “Oriental and Occidental,” remarking: “Half-breeds are the future, my dear boy.” The Captain is asked to present this list at a party for (predominantly white) donors with Ms. Mori in attendance.

Here, the show reminds us, perhaps too crudely, that this was a different time. Overt racism and microaggressions were all too common in the 1970s, and American race relations, even in a university setting, had yet to adopt the palatable veneer of today’s DEI-approved language, wherein racial contemptuousness is simply better concealed. American solidarity, too, of the Vietnam War is disparaged when a student reporter comes to interview the Captain and asks if he felt the support of American activists. Everyone was marching, the reporter said. “We were on your side.” To which the Captain asks, “And which side is that?” The reporter stammers back, “The side of the Vietnamese people.” The Captain implicitly questions the extent of that solidarity, rebuking any sort of American sympathy, no matter how well-intentioned. Curiously, this cynicism didn’t extend to Hammer’s antics. Despite how the Captain is characterized as an astute observer, he seemed shocked (almost uncharacteristically so) to discover a copy of Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction on the Professor’s desk, a text that the Captain accused of being “racist rubbish.” (The text is also used as a cipher in his spy correspondence with Man.) What else, we begin to wonder, are the Captain’s blind spots? At times, I wonder if the script has done a disservice to Hoa Xuande, setting him up to play a character with split allegiances, who doesn’t really feel committed to either side. Xuande is a charismatic actor, but his screen presence seems to be usurped by his older co-stars, especially when next to Oh, Le, and RDJ. To the actor’s credit, it’s in the Captain’s nature to be an absorbent, affable sponge (that’s what makes him a good spy), but I am sometimes unconvinced by his smug, unshakable bravado — a posture that morphs into an exaggerated nervousness when the Captain’s loyalty is questioned.

The most titillating development in “Good Little Asian” is the Captain’s burgeoning affair with Ms. Mori, who sees through his amiable act as a teacher’s pet. During the Professor’s party, the two sneak away for a smoke and the Captain confesses his aversion to cephalopods. He tells Ms. Mori that, as a young boy, he’d once stolen a piece of raw squid from the kitchen to masturbate with — a detail that recalls a spectacularly tentacular scene in Park’s 2003 movie Oldboy, where an actor slurps down several live octopi. (Fitting, as Viet Thanh Nguyen has mentioned Oldboy as a tonal influence of The Sympathizer.) This part of the Captain’s confession is occasionally interrupted by comments from the North Vietnamese commander, who accused him of forsaking his duty in having fun abroad. The Captain counters that he was simply learning things about America, “this strange and bountiful land.” Soon enough, he goes to pay his respects at the General’s new home in Los Angeles. The Captain arrives at the same time as Major Oanh (Phanxinê) to pay his respects and notices that the Major has brought some peanut candy, a Vietnamese delicacy that is unavailable in the U.S. The General’s paranoia has only worsened since Fort Chaffee. He’s convinced that he narrowly avoided an assassination attempt and that the spy is closing in on him. At the end of their conversation, he takes out a small handgun and points it at the Captain’s head. It’s a plain threat. The stakes are now heightened, as the Captain’s closest confidantes are unraveling without someone to blame. Bon feels personally affronted by the Captain’s affair with Ms. Mori, and the General expects him to name some suspects.

On the opening day of the General’s new liquor store, the Captain runs into Sonny Tran, the reporter behind the Việt Mỹ Báo newspaper. The two have some shared history. They attended college together, although they had a disagreement over a Ho Chi Minh quote: Sonny is more aligned with the Communists while the Captain was “a CIA scholarship student.” At the grand opening, the General takes the opportunity to “reestablish [his] leadership,” delivering a speech that implies the graffiti on his new storefront is the work of a mole. The speech successfully rouses the remaining men, former Secret Police agents, who raise their fists in agreement, calling for the murder of the spy. At the night’s end, the Captain comes to the General and Claude, who’s back from Vietnam, to inform them of his prime suspect: Major Oanh. The evidence is his peanut candy, a treat directly shipped from Vietnam. The Captain is ordered to get rid of the Major. But, as we learn from the Captain’s interview with the student reporter, he’s allegedly never killed a man before, not with his bare hands. That question, though, retroactively triggers a partial flashback of another interrogation scene, which involves boiled eggs. Briefly, the reporter’s head is transformed into an egg — a creative choice that remains unresolved at the episode’s conclusion.

The Captain had his own reservations about killing the Major; he had been penning a note to Man about the Major but ended up burning it. At home, seeing a dejected Bon, something spurs the Captain into action. One of the most heartbreaking cuts of that episode occurs in the final five minutes: Bon is standing before a makeshift shrine in their apartment, staring at a picture of his family and punching his head with his right fist. It cuts to an earlier funeral scene, with the two men dressed in white standing before a row of coffins. Bon punches his head to the rhythm of a hammer as Linh’s coffin is nailed shut. It’s an eerie, haunting pronouncement of grief and guilt that the Captain unassumingly exploits, ushering his friend out the door. They take a drive. The Captain enlists Bon’s help with Major Oanh. Bon clarifies, “Which Oanh? The dumpling?” — a statement that recalls Tony Soprano, in a very similar circumstance, saying, “You think he’s going to fuck with Big Pussy? My Pussy?” Bon assures the Captain that he can help. He speaks like a man with nothing to lose. The episode concludes with another needle drop, Nina Simone’s “Do I Move You?”, but there is a malefic sense of doom looming over the characters as they speed down the road. Things are being put into motion that can’t be undone.

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