‘The Sympathizer’ Stages a Second Vietnam War

Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/HBO
Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/HBO

In the sixth episode of The Sympathizer, the General (Toan Le) is preparing a militia to invade Vietnam and stage a second Vietnam War. Great. Awesome. Definitely what the world needs: More war! But as the Captain (Hoa Xuande) tours the General’s secret military base in the plains of California, he finds out something even worse about this mess—his best friend Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan) has volunteered for this doomed-to-lose army.

Captain could’ve just avoided this shitshow entirely if it wasn’t for Bon. Sure, whatever! Send everyone back to Vietnam to lose the war all over again. But now, he has to defend his friend. Ugh. Captain sends a coded message to Man (Duy Nguyễn) that their side will end up killing Bon if the two of them don’t do anything to protect their non-Commie friend. While he waits for a response, Captain does some digging to figure out where the funds for this militia are coming from.

Hoa Xuande and Robert Downey Jr. in Episode 6 of 'The Sympathizer'
Hopper Stone/HBO

They’ve got to be coming from one of the many characters Robert Downey, Jr. is playing, either CIA informant Claude or politician Ned Godwin. It’s the latter, so Captain volunteers for the campaign to get insider information on the donations—proof, essentially, to send back to Man. Captain schmoozes around with Ned’s wife (Veronica Della Vedova) to get access to the senator’s private drawing room, where, later, he takes the donation documents.

More on that later. Now, though, Captain confronts Sonny about having new information about the militia in connection to Ned. This is a smart play by Captain: He can get Sonny to successfully publish propaganda for the Commies, while also having the ability to air these issues to the General and earn his trust. Captain is playing both sides here. It’s a little confusing—but if Sonny publishes the story about Godwin, the General will instruct Captain to kill Sonny. He gets to take out his nemesis/ex-girlfriend’s new guy while also fulfilling multiple duties on the spy front.

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Bon and Captain get into a fight about staying in America. Forever altered by the death of his wife and child, Bon says he doesn’t want them to have been killed for nothing, so he needs to go fight for his country. Captain retorts: Well, yes! Bon would be dying for nothing if he went to fight in a losing battle. “If the General says to eat shit,” Captain shouts, “are you going to say, ‘Yes, sir,’ and pick up a knife and fork?” Pretty good roast, here. Would be quite a shame if the General was right behind Captain the entire time—oops, there he is.

The General is infuriated and demands to be driven out to the countryside by Captain. There, the General shoots his gun off a few times, takes a bath with Captain, and shows off his disgruntled, bloody toe. Boys will be boys, I guess? Captain’s comments are water under the bridge, but he’s made his stance clear: He’s an American now.

There’s an uneventful event held at Ned’s house, Godwin supporter Professor Hammer (Downey, Jr.) shouts about losing his Oriental department at Cal State, and Captain steals away to grab those papers I mentioned earlier. The last note is about the only important bit here, because Captain takes those papers to Sonny. Without a beat, Sonny gets cracking on an article he plans to submit to the Los Angeles Times.

Hoa Xuande and Robert Downey Jr. in Episode 6 of 'The Sympathizer'
Hopper Stone/HBO

Until…Captain spots a hickey on Sonny’s neck. He spirals into a fit of jealous rage. Captain admits he’s a communist, that he’s infiltrated the special police force, and he’s using Sonny to get a piece published to help his cause while also holding onto the ability to kill Sonny to later impress the General. Sonny is all, “Um, what?” and then Captain pulls out a gun, essentially ending the discussion. Although they’re gruesome, the kill scenes are some of the best in The Sympathizer. Here, Captain chases Sonny around his house with a gun hidden in a Coca-Cola can, popping out little soda explosions with every blast.

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Eventually, Captain is successful and kills Sonny. He collects all the evidence meant for the LA Times story, returns home, and burns everything. Ultimately, he’d rather save Bon than allow an article to be published that would alert the other side, allowing them to have troops ready to kill the General’s militia on sight. Bon catches Captain burning these letters and is super confused: Wasn’t Captain against the takeover? Captain says he’s switched sides. He’s always switching sides. Captain gets a letter from Man: His request to return to Vietnam has been denied. Captain burns that, too. He’s going, whether it’s approved or not.

Captain makes two final stops before he’s on a plane back home. First: He checks in with Sofia (Sandra Oh) about the death of Sonny. Immediately, she pegs Captain as a spy. He dips before she can make any other assumptions. Then, Captain visits Lana (Vy Le), who rejects his advances. Spies aren’t too good on the dating front, are they?

The General approves Captain’s request to join the militia. He and Bon prepare by promising themselves that they’ll get to see Man again someday soon. Then, they board a flight, shaking and fearful of what’s to greet them in their home country.

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