‘The Sympathizer’ Episode 1 Recap: Why Can’t The Captain Stay In Vietnam?


Park Chan-wook’s The Sympathizer, which he has co-written with Don McKellar and is based on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel, is centered around the Vietnam War (it’s known in Vietnam as the American War) and its aftereffects. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll be aware that the war was taking place between the communists of North Vietnam and the anti-communists of South Vietnam. China, the USSR, and other communist countries were supporting the North, and the USA and anti-communist countries supported the South. The protagonist of the story is referred to as the Captain, who is apparently in a Vietnamese jail, and he is being asked to recount everything that he has done during his tenure as the assistant of the General. Since Captain refers to the jailer as “Comrade,” I’m guessing that he has been wrongfully imprisoned because everyone thinks he represents South Vietnam, even though he was working for the North. So, let’s find out what his deal is.

Spoiler Alert

The Captain’s Attempt to Help the Communists Fails

The opening few minutes of episode 1 of The Sympathizer unfold in a non-linear fashion. So, allow me to lay it out a little more plainly. The Captain has two friends, Bon and Man. Bon is married and has a kid. Meanwhile, Man and the Captain are communists and are working silently to dismantle the South Vietnamese Secret Police. Since Bon lost his loved ones to the Viet Cong, he is an army man and is unaware of Man and the Captain’s political ties. When Bon is out of earshot, Man asks the Captain to get him the list of all the officials in the South Vietnamese Secret Police. The Captain learns about the list’s whereabouts, snaps photos of it, puts the reel in the mailbox, which is then picked up by a woman. Later on, that woman is captured by the South Vietnamese Secret Police, and in order to prevent them from learning what is in the reel, she ingests it. 

Since the Captain can’t reveal that he is on her side, he punches her in front of everyone (after being coaxed to do so by the woman, of course). Then, that woman is forced to defecate in front of the Captain, the CIA’s Claude, and other police officers so that they can access the photo reel. When they find out that she was smuggling a list of the officials in the South Vietnam Secret Police, they bring her to a local theater to torture her until she reveals the name of her contact. And the Captain is forced to watch this horrifying ordeal alongside Claude and the General. By the way, amidst all this, it’s revealed that the Captain is biracial and is discriminated against in Vietnam and the USA (which is where he went to do his studies). Additionally, he was close to the General and his family. In fact, he used to live with them and work for the communists right under his nose.

A man revealed that the Captain has to go to America.

As promised by the captive lady, two months after the day she warned that South Vietnam was going to fall, Saigon is bombarded with the help of Russian missiles. Also, as promised by the communist woman, the General is forced to set up a meeting with Claude and arrange flights to America for his family (which is made up of 58 members), Madame’s family, and the officials of the Special Police. Claude and the General get into a bit of an argument because Claude doesn’t want to risk too much of America’s resources on the people of a country who are running away from the fight. But since the General is adamant about the fact that South Vietnam has done everything they could based on America’s suggestions, they deserve to be helped appropriately. Claude tells the General to burn all the documents that prove how the USA has guided (or misguided) South Vietnam into a state of anarchy before agreeing to give them the planes that he and his associates need. 

Later on, the Captain is tasked with making a list of the members of the Special Police who’ll get to board the plane to America and those who will be left behind. In order to dent the General’s power in a small but effective way, the Captain shortlists all those people who only seem efficient while destroying their morale by forcing them to take a limited number of family members along with them. The Captain doesn’t intend to go to America himself because he wants to fight with his fellow comrades. However, he wants the General to arrange a seat for Bon and his family because he doesn’t want him to die in a losing battle. When the Captain, Bon, and Man go out drinking together, Bon gets into a fight with a trio of soldiers for racially discriminating against the Captain. Man uses this opportunity to tell the Captain (after he gives Man another copy of the Special Police list) that he is in fact going to the USA because the communists need an insider who’ll feed them information about the actions of the General and the Americans. The Captain is shocked because he wants to stay in Vietnam and fight, but he doesn’t really have an option other than going to America.

The General Leads His Family and Friends Out of Vietnam

The Captain heads out with the General, Madame, Lan (the General and Madame’s daughter), the Special Police, Bon, and his family to get to the airport. To show how manly he is, even when he is running away from his country, the General rides all the way to the airport on his Harley Davidson (I can be wrong because I’m not good with bikes and their brands) through curfew zones, while the rest follows him in buses. When they do reach the airport, they realize how chaotic the whole situation is. People are trying to break into the airport. American soldiers are doing whatever they can to board the Vietnamese people onto the airplanes in an organized fashion. Bombs are dropping here, there, and everywhere. It’s a mess.

As a token of thanks, the General gives his bike to Claude. The Captain bids goodbye to Claude after talking about Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” and then he rides away like a boss. While waiting to board another bus that’ll take them to the airplane, Bon talks about how he is hopeful about the future because of his wife and child. That pretty much seals their fate as, at the end of The Sympathizer episode 1, when the airstrip is bombarded by the North Vietnamese, Bon’s wife and child die, along with many other people. The General and his family manage to get on the plane. However, the Captain refuses to go without Bon, who is unable to move because he is holding the dead bodies of his wife and child. The episode abruptly cuts away from this harrowing moment to the Captain sobbing in the cell, where he is recounting this whole event. He is distracted by Del Shannon’s “Runaway” playing somewhere in the distance, as it probably reminds him of the conversation he had with Claude at the airport.

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Pramit Chatterjee
Pramit Chatterjee
Pramit loves to write about movies, television shows, short films, and basically anything that emerges from the world of entertainment. He occasionally talks to people, and judges them on the basis of their love for Edgar Wright, Ryan Gosling, Keanu Reeves, and the best television series ever made, Dark.

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