‘The Sympathizer’ Series Review: An Equal Parts Complex and Entertaining Spy Story

Author/Vietnamese-American Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer is a spy novel unlike any other. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book balances many different themes and ideas. Following an unnamed narrator, it tells a story that is equal parts political thriller, romance, and occasional comedy. That helped make the novel a resonatory and powerful piece of fiction. With that acclaim, it was only a matter of time before an on-screen Hollywood adaptation was made. Instead of a feature film, it has been adapted for the smaller, streaming and television screen. Adapted for HBO, The Sympathizer is now an impressive miniseries. 

Park Chan-wook (OldboySympathy for Lady Vengeance, and The Handmaiden) and Don McKellar (Last Night) are the creative brains behind the show. Their mixture of voices crafts an entirely unique tone that is perfect for television. This includes striking a chord of humor amidst the horror of war. In theory, that can sound like challenging viewing. Thankfully, this complex story never once feels like homework. Instead, the writing always manages to entertain through its more darkly comedic and terrifying moments. That success can be primarily attributed to both the main and supporting performances. The first of those is the lead performance of Hoa Xuande as the Captain, the actual sympathizer of the story. 

Hoa Xuande Stars in The Sympathizer

Xuande is tasked with a tough challenge throughout. His allegiances in the story have to shift constantly. Such a shift has to keep viewers guessing about his intentions without audiences knowing what they exactly are. At the same time, it has to make the Captain someone likable throughout the dark process. Xuande accomplishes this with a sense of grace and an overarching pose in equal measure. As he delves further into the web of espionage, that persona becomes more challenging to maintain. That is where the natural tension of the show starts to take its shape. This includes the different deceitful characters with whom the Captain comes in contact with. 

Hoa Xuande in The Sympathizer
Hoa Xuande in The Sympathizer. Image courtesy of Hopper Stone and HBO.

Robert Downey Jr.’s Villainous Outing

One of the worst sets involves Robert Downey Jr.’s multiple roles. He plays four different roles as distinctly villainous characters. Without spoilers, each role comes with its own individualized layer of menace. He has to balance the characters, who are dark “mentors” to the Captain, and the others, who are strictly antagonistic. Downey Jr.’s likable persona gets put to the test here. Because of his popularity as Tony Stark, viewers are happy to see him on screen. His likability makes him even more of a threatening presence as the show progresses. No matter his charm, viewers know he is up to no good. No matter the character, it’s easy to see he has ulterior motives. It adds a sinister quality that makes viewers connect even further to the Captain’s struggle for purpose.

Robert Downey Jr. in The Sympathizer. Image courtesy of Hopper Stone and HBO.
Robert Downey Jr. in The Sympathizer. Image courtesy of Hopper Stone and HBO.

The Sympathizer’s Political Themes

The Captain’s struggle becomes tense as the series becomes even more politically charged. His further divulgence into the world of espionage forces him to struggle with his morality. He has two devils on his shoulders from his past, including his Vietnamese General Trong (Toan Le), who causes the Captain to have a crisis of faith. The persuasion of Downey Jr. (no matter the performance) and the Captain’s soldier “family” showcase a frightening power struggle. As the web of lies expands, the Captain’s makeshift secret-agent persona becomes more challenging. It also forces him to ask, what side is he genuinely fighting for? His communist comrades? Or American “allies?”

Such a battle of wills makes this series of politics go down easy, which, in theory, should help those overwhelmed by the subject matter. Vietnam politics presented on television should not be considered readily accessible material. Both Chan-wook and McKellar clearly understand that. To make it accessible, they wisely shift the core story into one of a man who gets in over his head. Then, the politics are wisely delivered in structured ways that are never spoon-fed to audiences. Instead, the politics help add to the story’s resounding tension. The politics could still make The Sympathizer a struggle for some. 

Sandra Oh in The Sympathizer.
Sandra Oh in The Sympathizer. Image courtesy of Hopper Stone and HBO.

While delivered practically, those political moments can remain overly complex for some viewers. The show lulls audiences in with its on-the-surface “man out of water” story. The premise and story evolve as it progresses into something more complicated and exciting. Those politically charged rhythms could be a severe deterrent for some. The thought-provoking themes and ideas resonate over the show’s eight episodes. Those ideas and themes are there but never overwhelm viewers with their importance. Instead, such ideology serves as a deeper meaning for audience members who want it.

Final thoughts on The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer is easily the best show 2024 has given us thus far. It’s something rich with both complex themes and ideas. Those looking for thought-provoking television should look no further. Meanwhile, those looking for straightforward spy thrills will also be thoroughly entertained. The lead performances of Hoa Xuande and Robert Downey Jr. help make this journey an exciting political spy thriller.  Regardless of the situation, both actors help keep audiences compelled by the moral complexities of the subject. The ability to entertain on both a complex and simplified level is challenging for a television series to accomplish. The Sympathizer manages to deliver that thrillingly. The results provide a gripping, darkly hilarious, and exciting piece of television. 

The Sympathizer is now streaming on MAX. New episodes of the miniseries air Sundays.

Learn more about the miniseries at the official website.

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