The Sympathizer’s best dual identity trick was its last one

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The Sympathizer is full of twists and turns — and why wouldn’t it be? It’s a show (based on a book of the same name by Viet Thanh Nguyen) that follows a Viet Cong double agent from the end of the Vietnam War to life as a refugee in America as he works to secure the Viet Cong’s victory. All the while, the show wrestles with themes of self and identity, as filtered through The Captain (Hoa Xuande), said double agent; his Vietnamese community in 1970s Los Angeles; and the variety of white men he works for (all played by Robert Downey Jr.).

In the final episode, we finally catch up with The Captain’s present-day story in a reeducation camp in Vietnam, led by the shadowy Commissar, who’s been demanding the Captain’s story be written out in exacting detail. It’s no surprise that the true name of the Commissar — another figure defined by his title more than himself — would be another surprise in the plot. But, like any unveiling of true identity in The Sympathizer, it’s more a twist of the knife than anything else.

[Ed. note: The rest of this post contains spoilers for the end of The Sympathizer. This post also has some mentions of sexual assault.]

the Captain, Bon, and Mẫn look at something together and smile Photo: Hopper Stone/HBO

In the final episode, the Captain finds out the Commissar is in fact his friend Mẫn, now scarred from napalm strikes during the fall of Saigon. Worse yet, this old friend/prison camp supervisor is still going to torture him for information.

It’s a tough way for the Captain to find out that his visions of Mẫn — alone in an office and highly decorated, leading the bright future for Vietnam — weren’t accurate. Throughout the show, the Captain’s reflections were a neat framing device and something he saw as mostly a formality, the one thing standing between him and the bright future of Communist Vietnam he had fought so hard for. Now, staring him in the face, is the cold reality of what his struggle has culminated in. It’s all in keeping with the way The Sympathizer has been using the Captain’s imaginative visions as specters of his subjective (and warped) point of view.

“The ghosts really pertain to his consciousness, his conscience about his actions,” Xuande told Polygon. “The Captain’s journey is really about trying to survive, trying to weave his way out, and trying to never be found out, and, obviously, toeing the line between his allegiances.”

In that light, his vision with Mẫn isn’t all that different from his visions of Sonny or the Major; they’re all, as Xuande puts it, an expression of “the trauma that he’s been hiding from.” They’re a startling way for the Captain to realize that his actions have been more about finding any means to survive than about following his communist ideals, or fighting for a better Vietnam.

“When they come back to haunt and remind him about the very things he’s been neglecting in his memory, it’s a reminder for him that everything that he believes and thought he was doing for the cause might not actually be right.”

This is an idea that The Sympathizer underlines again and again with the Captain’s character: Nothing about his life is straightforward or neat, and none of it went the way he planned. Even as he seems to confess to Sonny or carry out the general’s orders to kill him, the Captain is acting for his own reasons, rather than purely “the cause.”

Mẫn (Duy Nguyễn) answering a phone and checking around him in a still from The Sympathizer Photo: Hopper Stone/HBO

Such corruption of idealistic impulses is something Mẫn also knows all too well, seemingly disillusioned with the state of the country at the same time he does his job. He is, as his dual character names speak to, a different person now, much harder than he was as a spy under American imperialism. But (much like Downey Jr.’s parade of white authority figures) Duy Nguyễn wanted to make sure you could see the connective tissue between every version of Mẫn.

“To develop this character, I had to really dig deep: What is Mẫn? How does he talk? How does he move? How does he act around his friend, or does he act alone with just the Captain?” Nguyễn says. “He’s the dentist, so he’s very still; he has to be precise. And he’s intellectual, so he has to stay upright. The way he talks is clear — so those are the parts I keep.

“[In episode 7], he is so damaged, but he still wants to keep the presence in front of his friends. He just wants to try to be the same person his friend saw the last time.”

Which is crucial; all of episode 7 — and the crux of The Sympathizer’s final turn — comes down to how Mẫn’s turn plays. He is the single person, the crucial vector point, around which the Captain’s story gets suddenly jerked back, calling his bluffs and calling out all his perspective gaps. Like the Captain, he is a study of dualities: a person and a rank; loyal to the cause, yet wary; a ghost from the past and a vision of the brave new fractured and corrupted world. After filtering so much of the narrative — and, with it, the war, its aftershocks, and all the complexities contained within those — through the Captain’s identity, Mẫn is the only one who can match and cut through the noise of the story the Captain has been telling himself.

And the truth is at once infinitely more complex and far simpler than he was prepared to believe. Through his torture, the Captain finally reconciles with some of the worst things he did for the war, going all the way back to one of the earliest scenes of the show (that we now know was actually the rape of a fellow Communist agent). He has to accept who he is and where he comes from. And he has to accept that nothing about his trauma and suffering has necessarily fixed his nation. All that hardship might’ve just borne more pain — or, worse, indifference to pain. As the sexually assaulted Communist agent tells him, after all her years in the war and the camp, “nothing can disappoint” her now.

In the end, it’s Mẫn who gets the Captain (and Bon) free of the camp, back on a boat headed for the ol’ U.S. of A. It once again makes him a study in conflict; after so many years of loving (and trying to hate) that place, it might be his salvation after all. As the Captain looks back on Vietnam, he now sees a nation of ghosts — more clearly than ever.

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