The Sympathizer Episode 1 Recap: Unveiling HBO’s Thrilling Dive into Vietnam’s History

The Sympathizer Episode 1 Recap: Television has provided us with a captivating exploration of Asian history in recent years. Shows like FX’s Shōgun transported audiences back to 17th-century Japan, while Netflix’s 3 Body Problem delved into China’s Cultural Revolution.

Now, HBO’s The Sympathizer joins the ranks, kicking off its thrilling narrative with the Fall of Saigon in Vietnam. Far from a complaint, these prestige TV series offer invaluable world-history refreshers, particularly for someone covering all three in 2024.


The Sympathizer Episode 1 Recap


The Sympathizer Episode 1 Recap

The Sympathizer, which premiered on HBO this Sunday night, introduces us to the Captain (Hoa Xuande), a member of the South Vietnamese Army in 1975. Unbeknownst to his superiors, the Captain is secretly a spy for the North, reporting the activities of the General (Toan Le) and CIA agent Claude (Robert Downey Jr.) back to his handlers.

He is a communist sympathizer, but HBO’s adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s award-winning novel doesn’t delve into the Captain’s specific motivations in the premiere episode, aside from a sense of righteousness in his mission.

The Captain’s dualities extend beyond his allegiance. He is half Vietnamese and half French, which becomes a point of contention in every room he enters. Questions arise about whether he is Vietnamese enough for his mission and whether he truly sympathizes with the cause.

Additionally, having attended college abroad in the U.S., he speaks impeccable English, leading to concerns about whether his newfound love for American freedom and Coca-Cola might impact his fight for his people back home. As the Captain states in The Sympathizer’s opening minutes, “I was cursed to see every issue from both sides.”

The Sympathizer Episode 1 Recap

In The Sympathizer Episode 1, we approach the end of the Vietnam War, known as the American War in Vietnam, as the opening title crawl reminds us. There are always two sides to every tale, and the Captain sees both of them. The U.S. aided South Vietnam in its fight against the North, but the war’s cost American lives greatly hurt its reputation back in America.

When the U.S. finally pulled out of the country in 1973, the North took control. Saigon, the capital in the South, fell to the North, leading to more than 7,000 South Vietnamese fleeing their home in a U.S.-backed evacuation mission titled Operation Frequent Wind. In this work of historical fiction, the Captain is among those evacuees.

Arriving there is no small feat, and The Sympathizer begins four months before the Fall of Saigon to illustrate the challenges. To be fair, the show starts at the end of our story, with the Captain captured by his people, but we’ll save you the confusion (for now) and tell the story in chronological order.

The Captain’s Undercover Mission

At a movie theatre, the General and Claude interrogate a communist sympathizer allegedly captured by the Captain. Throughout his mission, the Captain is occasionally forced to help the South Vietnamese to maintain his cover.

Unfortunately for the woman onstage, this is one of those trying times. To cut the tension of a scene in which a woman is attacked onstage for information, The Sympathizer cracks some movie puns. Outside, there’s a poster for Death Wish, the 1974 Charles Bronson movie.

The spotlight from a film projector plays the role of a bright lamp in an interrogation room, and the interrogators taunt her by calling her a “diva” who should “perform” for her audience. When they ask her for the name of her contact in the North, she stares venomously at the Captain.

The General and Claude remain oblivious to the Captain’s true allegiance. The Captain lives as a servant in the General’s house, where he teaches English to the General’s daughter and picks up his dry cleaning. He’s essentially part of the family.

As he sits with his superiors, the General is more concerned with what to wear to dinner than what their prisoner has to say. The woman reportedly swallowed a roll of microfilm, so the CIA waited to see what it contained when it came back out the other end. As Claude tells him, “This is counterintelligence. It gets wet down here.”

Although the prisoner won’t reveal what the microfilm contains, the Captain knows exactly what they’ve found. A couple of days earlier, our main character stole a complete staff list for the South’s secret police from a locked filing cabinet in the General’s office.

Ironically, once the plans for Operation Frequent Wind were set, the General personally handed him the list. He ordered the Captain to decide who would board the evacuation plane and who would stay behind. So the Captain selects the weakest members among them. His only request? A place for his friend Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan) and Bon’s family.

Even though Bon despises the North for killing his father in the war, he mysteriously remains one of the Captain’s closest friends. A doctor named Man (Duy Nguyễn), the third member of the “Three Musketeers,” is also secretly a communist sympathizer. The Captain receives his true orders from Man, who must also exist somewhere in the chain of command for the North.

They exchange messages using a secret code derived from Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction—a fictional book by a racist foreign policy expert in America. (Also, if you’re waiting for the Captain’s real name, you’ll likely never get it. The novel never reveals it, either. So it’s just Captain from here on out. The same goes for the General.)

The Evacuation Night

Part of the evacuation crew himself, the Captain pushes Man to arrest the General and his men before they can escape. Man reveals that the North has other plans in mind. Should the General safely evacuate Vietnam, the North will need “someone with the General to keep an eye on him and report back.”

The Captain can’t believe it. “I’ve been living underground for three and a half years, fighting, yearning for the day of victory,” he tells him. “I want to be here and celebrate.

And to help build our future! When the plane arrives and everyone’s on board, I’m going to walk up to the General and say, ‘Bon voyage, I’m staying home.’” Sorry, Captain—that’s not going to happen. As Man tells him, “Home is overrated.”

In a flash of horrific CGI and a blood-red skyline, the evacuation night is a disaster. The North rains hellfire down on the passengers as they run from a crowded bus to the airport tarmac. They’re sitting ducks out there. In the chaos, the Captain helps the General and Bon successfully board the plane.

Bon’s wife and child are killed in the assault, greatly increasing the likelihood that his friend would attempt to kill him if he ever found out he was a spy. For the Captain’s sake, I hope that event never comes to pass. But as a member of an audience watching a television show for the tension and drama, I hope it does.

The Sympathizer Episode 1 sets the stage for an exhilarating historical fiction drama, offering a nuanced exploration of the Vietnam War from multiple perspectives. With its compelling characters, intricate plot, and captivating performances, the series promises to keep viewers on the edge of their seats as the story unfolds.

The Sympathizer Season 1 is streaming on HBO and JioCinema.

Leave a Comment