‘The Sympathizer’ Finale Offers a Mind-Bending Ending That’s Even Stronger for Being So Frustrating SuperNayr

[Editor’s note: The following review contains spoilers for “The Sympathizer,” Episode 7, “Endings Are Hard, Aren’t They?”]

Contradictions are often unsatisfying, but contradictions can also be the only way to reconcile hard truths. For instance, it’s not very satisfying to blame your team’s heartbreaking loss on the referees, but there’s honesty in accepting that, over the course of a game, 50 foul calls will inevitably aid one team more than another. In the end, you choose to honor the established rules or live in denial of the final box score; to accept the result or descend into madness; to go along or throw a fit. Neither choice is technically wrong, and thus both choices are technically right. It’s all a matter of perspective.

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“The Sympathizer” is all about perspective. Over seven time-shifting episodes, Park Chan-wook and Don McKellar’s HBO thriller bounces from one framework to the next with discombobulating regularity — a ping-pong effect enhanced by the built-in duality of our lead, known simply as The Captain (and played with a magnificent, slowly maturing blend of unconcious obedience and instinctual rebellion by Hoa Xuande). He is a double agent, pretending to work for the Southern Vietnamese army while officially operating on behalf of the Northern Vietnamese communists. He’s also half-French, half-Vietnamese (a biological split), as well as half-Vietnamese, half-American (a cultural split brought on by his formative experience studying abroad). Duplicity is part of his job, but it’s also part of his still-developing identity. And while the former is his only way to stay alive, the latter is no way to live.

The Captain is pulled every which way, so long as each way is opposite the other. By magnifying these contradictions, “The Sympathizer” asks us to get comfortable living with dichotomies. Seeing both sides and acknowledging their flaws — and attributes — is the point. Life is not as simple as choosing the right path. Roads have many forks, with many turns, all chosen for different reasons by different people.

But “The Sympathizer” is still the Captain’s story. The show asks us to recognize how contradictions can coexist in the world, but it’s also a personal odyssey, where our protagonist has to reconcile his own contradictions if he hopes to find peace. He must accept that ideologies can guide him, but they can’t protect him; that anything dictating how he lives his life is insignificant compared to the human necessities he can’t refute.

It’s not until his old self is literally blown to smithereens (in the detonation on the movie set that ends Episode 4) when the Captain instinctively grasps as much. His brain takes a little longer to catch up, but by Episode 7, he’s finally acting of his own accord, following a plan of his own design. Where once there was a blind man following the party line, there’s now a man who can see just enough to decide which direction is best. Rather than serving the General (Toan Le) by remaining Stateside as his deputy, or serving his communist allies by continuing to spy on the General in America, the Captain forces his way into the mission in order to protect his friend, Bôn (Fred Nguyen Khan). To be clear, no one wants this but the Captain. Everyone, including Bôn, prefers he stay behind, but the Captain can’t let his ideological allegiances interfere with his independent needs — not anymore.

The Sympathizer stars Hoa Xuande as The Captain, shown here in green camoflauge carrying a rifle in the jungle
Hoa Xuande in ‘The Sympathizer’Courtesy of Hopper Stone / SMPSP / HBO

In order to go through with it, he still needs to believe he’s serving the cause, so he convinces himself he’s going along not just to save Bôn, but to turn himself over to his handlers. The war is over. His mission is complete. Certainly, he’s earned a reprieve. But after he manages to get captured without getting killed, he’s not rewarded like a returning hero, but tossed in a reeducation camp, where he’s forced to spend a year writing confession after confession. These accounts of his time as a spy create the series’ narrative, which — by design — creates further contradictions.

After all, the Captain is beyond an unreliable narrator. First and foremost, his confessions are only given while he’s being tortured. He’s going to keep certain events to himself, simply because he wants to be set free. But the Captain, as we see in the brutal electrocution scenes, is also repressing parts of his story because they’re too traumatic, too upsetting, too contradictory for him to accept. The Captain may think his communist captors (who he also sees as his comrades) want to hear that he’s loyal, so he frames his choice to return to Vietnam via the General’s ill-fated mission as an example of his allegiance to the communist party. Little does the Captain realize, the camp’s Commandant knows better. He knows the Captain’s true motivations because the one-eyed, white-masked overseer is actually Mân (Duy Nguyễn).

Revealing the Captain’s warden as his childhood blood-brother elicits another challenging question: Why would his friend torture him like this? The answer exists in the Captain’s memory, specifically within the very first scene of “The Sympathizer,” when he walked into a Saigon movie theater expecting to see “Death Wish” with Claude (Robert Downey Jr.) and instead was forced to sit and stare as a captured spy was tortured on stage.

“Forced,” though, may not be the right word. As a communist, the Captain can’t allow the South Vietnamese to brutally assault one of his comrades. But as a communist spy, he can’t allow himself to be caught, and that supersedes his duty to a fellow officer. And yet, what makes the scene so complicated for the Captain is that his ideology and morality are actually aligned — as a communist and a human being, he wants to save this woman — but his duty and fallibility prohibit any action. He allows it to happen in order to protect his covert operation, sure, but he also allows it to happen because he’s terrified of being next, of taking her place, of ending up on a stage instead of in the audience.

The cruel irony is that’s where he ends up anyway, even though he wasn’t captured by opposing forces. Instead, he and Bôn and all the other prisoners are being tortured by the very people the Captain believed were fighting to end such atrocities. The contradiction is the point — Mân’s point — and thus his reeducation comes down to understanding the duality of a single sentence: “Nothing is more precious than freedom and independence.” If you’re anything like me, you may have to read Ho Chi Minh’s governing proclamation a few times, with varying inflections, before the meaning hits home. Nothing is more precious than freedom and independence. “Nothing” is the answer. Nothing is goal.

Author Viet Thanh Nguyen breaks it down further, writing from the Captain’s perspective in the novel’s closing pages:

But what was this meaning? What had I intuited at last? Namely this: While nothing is more precious than independence and freedom, nothing is also more precious than independence and freedom. These two slogans are almost the same, but not quite. … I understood, at last, how our revolution had gone from being the vanguard of political change to the rearguard hoarding power.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, “The Sympathizer,” p. 360

The Captain goes on to note that the French and Americans followed the same trajectory — revolutionaries who became imperialists — and now the North Vietnamese were imitating their oppressors. “Having liberated ourselves in the name of independence and freedom … we then deprived our defeated brethren of the same.”

The series doesn’t provide such an overt explanation, but the Captain’s brief interaction with the spy (played by Kayli Tran but never given a name) is plenty illustrative on its own. “I wanted to believe that the secret I had guarded was precious,” she says. “You must’ve been very disappointed to find your answer in me?” the Captain responds, to which she plainly says, “Nothing can disappoint me now.”

Looking back, her remark carries a similar double meaning to the other “nothing” slogan. The most common interpretation is that she can’t be disappointed because of everything she’s been through, and that’s likely true. After experiencing the worst of humanity, what could possibly lead her to have high expectations of anything or anyone else? But another interpretation is that she’s agreeing with the Captain. He is her answer, he is “nothing,” and “nothing” can, in fact, disappoint her. She wanted to believe what she was guarding was precious. Instead, it was another person like her, on a mission just as meaningless as her own.

Episode 7 begins in the same way it ends: With the Captain embarking on a dangerous voyage, the success of which is far from guaranteed, staring at the ghosts that haunt him. When he sees the Major (Phanxinê) and Sonny (Alan Trong) on the flight to Thailand, he turns to Bôn and asks, “Have you ever seen a ghost? Sometimes I see the ghosts of people I’ve killed.” “Because they believe they died without justice,” Bôn replies. “The world is full of them.” In the series’ closing shots, as the two friends float out into the ocean, the Captain understands. He’s reconciled his inner conflict, but that doesn’t spare him from the ghosts — dozens and dozens of them, lining the shore. There are so many, some have to stand in the sea. Hundreds of souls left adrift because their lives were lost for reasons that don’t make sense.

Instinctively, these final moments may feel frustrating, like this epic odyssey is going out with a whimper instead of a bang. There’s no glory in these deaths. There’s no Hollywood ending, touting their bravery or patriotism. But that very feeling also serves “The Sympathizer’s” antiwar message. Their contradictions are unresolved, their ends beyond unsatisfying. And that’s the point. Because that’s the truth.

Grade: A-

“The Sympathizer” is available on HBO and Max.

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