‘The Sympathizer’ Has a Raw Squid Fetish and Is Proud of It

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

The Sympathizer has touched down in America. Following the end of last week’s premiere episode, Captain (Hoa Xunde) is now Stateside, having barely made it onto the airplane out of Vietnam as Saigon fell.

In a tense opening scene, we cut between that moment right before the plane left and Captain’s first days in America. Captain coasts around the panhandle of Texas in a convertible, an easy, breezy life in comparison to the one he had just a few months ago. Did Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan) ever make it on that plane? As Captain roars down the highway, we watch Bon sprinting down the tarmac, trying to make the plane with the corpses of his wife and child in his arms.

Right as the plane leaves the ground, Bon hops aboard. We cut to the American scenery, where a now open convertible reveals Bon sleeping in the backseat. It’s a thrilling, fast scene, cut brilliantly between the two moments in time.

It’s been two months since the fall of Saigon, and although Captain now resides in America, he’s still working with Man (Duy Nguyễn) as a spy. In his free time, Captain uses rice starch to hide secret messages that he sends to his “aunt in Paris,” code for Man, who is now hiding out at an unknown location. Man still needs updates on the General (Toan Le), which reminds Captain of something bad that happened just 10 days ago.

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We flash back to the refugee camps in Arkansas, everyone’s first destination on the American mainland. The camp is full of maggots and mud—certainly not fit for a General—but there’s really nowhere else to go. When the General enters the lunch hall, he’s met with angry mothers who shout obscenities and things like, “This is why my son is dead!” The General pulls Captain into a porta potty (yuck) to assess what’s going on. These women have seen the master lists of soldiers who were chosen to stay and fight. Someone purposefully leaked them—there’s a spy in the General’s circle.

Sandra Oh, Hoa Xuande, and Fred Nguyen Khan.

Sandra Oh, Hoa Xuande, and Fred Nguyen Khan.

Hopper Stone/HBO

But before the General can put two-and-two together, Captain is saved by the bell. His Cal West College professor has agreed to sponsor both Captain and Bon, so they depart the refugee camp and head west. In Los Angeles, Captain is reunited with Professor Hammer (Robert Downey, Jr., who is playing a series of different antagonists in the show), the head of the Oriental department at Cal West. Captain’s first assignment: Make a list of the attributes that make him Oriental versus Occidental, as a mixed-race person. Then, he’ll present this list at Hammer’s party full of other white academics.

The soirée is a real eye-sore: White people are sporting kimonos and other traditional (maybe?) Asian garb as far as the eye can see. Sofia (Sandra Oh), Hammer’s assistant, carries around a tray of deviled eggs with a pair of chopsticks wedged into her hair. Captain teases her, starting a friendship with the one other Asian person at Hammer’s party. After Captain reads his gibberish list of Oriental vs. Occidental attributes and the party wraps, he finds Sofia lingering on the outskirts of Hammer’s property.

Sofia likes how Captain goes along with Hammer’s bizarre Asian fetish: “You play your part without a pho,” she teases. Sofia offers Captain some squid, but he refuses, saying he has some weird history with the cuisine—when he was younger, he grew infatuated with the slimy, cool texture of cephalopods. As a teenager, Captain used a piece of uncooked squid to masturbate; later, once it was cooked, he ate it—to keep his unaware mother from doing so. Sofia is disturbed but intrigued as Captain defends himself, saying that masturbation should be no grosser than murder or torture in this world.

“I fucked a squid, and I enjoyed it,” he shouts. “I’m not ashamed!” It wasn’t just one squid, he goes on. Apparently, there were a few.

Luckily, the Captain is out of his animal-screwing phase and has finally moved on to humans. He and Sofia start hooking up on the regular, and Captain even admits that he’s falling in love with her—but that’s unreasonable. She’s 46 and disillusioned by love. He needs to grow up. Minutes later, Captain starts comparing Sofia to his mother…first, he’s getting his rocks off with a dead squid; now, he’s doing it with someone who reminds him of his mom? What a weirdo.

Duy Nguyen, Fred Nguyen Khan, and Hoa Xuande.

Duy Nguyen, Fred Nguyen Khan, and Hoa Xuande.

Hopper Stone/HBO

Meanwhile, the General is back with his family, who have relocated to Los Angeles. Major Oanh (Phanxinê) visits Captain and the General’s wife to gift them some trinkets—durian and some Vietnamese candy—and the General’s wife makes a snide comment about how the General is no longer in control. He may not be in control of his family, but he does have authority over Captain, who still needs to report back to Man about what’s going on. Unfortunately, the General hasn’t forgotten about the potential spy lurking in his inner circle. With a gun pointed towards Captain’s face, General demands he not only find the spy, but that he also neutralize him.

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In the midst of his spy hunting, the General has decided to open a liquor store in Los Angeles. Racist graffiti appears on opening day, leading him to believe the spy is conspiring against him at every moment. At the ribbon-cutting celebration, the General starts a chant: “Slit the mole’s throat! Slit the mole’s throat!” Captain, nervous, looks pretty suspicious, until he starts chanting along with the crowd.

CIA agent Claude (Downey, Jr., now with more hair) has returned to his homeland to help the General figure out who’s against him. They go to Captain first. “Anyone who says there’s no spy is the spy,” Claude says, forcing Captain’s hand. Quick on his feet, Captain suggests that Major Oanh is the mole. That special candy he brought from Vietnam? That was actually brought in by his connections in the Northern Special Forces. The General, infuriated, quickly destroys all the Vietnamese candy with his gun.

After meeting with Claude and the General, Captain sends a secret message to Man: “Should I kill Major?” Really, it’s the only option that’ll save Captain’s ass. On the plus side, Bon has been super depressed—not showering, not cleaning, watching TV at home all day—since moving to America, and there’s truly nothing like a big murder plot to get someone out of a rut. Bon, having finally showered, sets out with Captain to kill the fake mole. Shouldn’t have sold that candy, Major—maybe try bringing some squid next time around.

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