WARNING: SPOILERS ahead for The Sympathizer episode 1.




  • Robert Downey Jr. stars in The Sympathizer, a historical fiction based on the Vietnam War novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen.
  • The Sympathizer follows The Captain, a communist mole working for North Vietnam during the Fall of Saigon.
  • The series explores espionage, loyalty, and betrayal in the final days of the Vietnam War through a captivating narrative.

The new A24 original series The Sympathizer premiered on HBO and MAX on April 14, 2024. The highly anticipated miniseries began with episode 1 “Death Wish” which quickly dives into a retelling of the Vietnam War months before the Fall of Saigon, a historical landmark during that pivotal event. The Sympathizer’s cast is led by recent Academy Award winner Robert Downey Jr. as Claude, an eccentric yet incredibly resourceful CIA operative. Set in the 1975, The Sympathizer is a work of historical fiction that is based on the novel of the same name written by Vietnamese-American professor Viet Thanh Nguyen.

The Sympathizer was created by Don McKellar (Last Night, The Red Violin) and Park Chan-wook, the celebrated director of Oldboy (2003), The Handmaiden (2016), and Decision to Leave (2022). The Sympathizer marks Chan-wook’s first return to television since 2018’s The Little Drummer Girl, which originally aired on AMC. While Downey Jr. is undoubtedly the most recognizable albeit interchanging face in The Sympathizer, up-and-coming actor Hoa Xuande plays the protagonist simply known as The Captain, a communist mole secretly working for North Vietnam while being stationed in South Vietnam in support of the Americans efforts against the spread of communism.

The Sympathizer episode 1 “Death Wish” has several time jumps in the first half of the episode alone. The series begins essentially at the end of the narrative in which The Captain is being held prisoner after the Fall of Saigon. The Captain is told to rewrite his account of everything that happened leading up to his imprisonment, starting with his encounter with a female communist spy who was exposed by the South Vietnamese Army and the Americans. As it turns out, The Captain is so experienced at playing both sides of the conflict in the Vietnam War that he ends up getting stuck in the middle by the end of the acclaimed series.

8 Claude Invites The Captain To Sit In On An Interrogation Of A Communist Sympathizer

The fellow spy is tortured but doesn’t rat out The Captain to his superiors

The Captain and Claude in The Sympathizer episode 1

After learning the fate of The Captain in the opening scene of The Symptathizer, the series jumps back to 4 months prior to the Fall of Saigon. The Captain is in the thick of his operation as a mole for the Northern Vietnamese Army and is shocked to discover that a comrade of his has been discovered by the so-called Secret Police of the Southern Vietnamese Army, led by The General. Claude, the only American CIA operative who is introduced in the first episode of The Sympathizer, invites The Captain to witness the interrogation process in order to educate him on how to properly handle these situations.

The Captain recognizes the communist as someone he has previously worked with and watches in silent sadness as she is tied to a chair and interrogated. Despite knowing exactly who The Captain is, she does not rat him out as the person who gave her the complete roster of Secret Police. As the series starts to unfold, the audience discovers that The Captain was the one who gave her the intel she is being questioned about, but her resolve demonstrates how passionate she is about defending Northern Vietnam’s interests.

7 Man Informs The Captain That Their Communist Leaders Want A Full Roster Of The Secret Police

Man says the North Vietnamese communists will need to educate the south

The Captain and Man in The Sympathizer episode 1

The Sympathzier then goes back 2 days prior to the interrogation scene in the theater in which The Captain figures out quite easily how to access the Secret Police roster and take pictures of it without being detected. In another quick flashback scene that goes back three days prior, The Captain’s longtime friend named Man gives him the assignment from the higher ups in the Northern Vietnamese army. It’s evident that Man has more insider access than The Captain does and has given him plenty of assignments before. This sends the Captain on him mission in the General’s office, opening up a locked filing cabinet and taking photos of the roster with a small camera fit for a spy.

6 The Captain Gave The Communist Spy The Photos Of The Complete Secret Police Staff List

She swallowed the film before being interrogated by Claude and The General

Communist spy in The Sympathizer episode 1

Once The Captain realizes that the communist spy has been captured, which he is forced to play a part in by hitting her upon her arrest, he calls Man and tells him that the “cat is going to pounce on the pigeon”. This Captain uses cryptic terminology to inform Man that the communist spy is about to be taken into the hands of Claude and the CIA, which could surely spell trouble for their secret ally. Man, who is also a dentist, understands the severity of the situation but knows that her fate is now out of his hands.

The communist spy had swallowed the film containing the image of the Secret Police staff list that The Captain had taken. Claude and his associates wait for her to defecate the film so they can discover what she had gotten her hands on. After being interrogated to no avail, the communist spy threatens them all about the Fall of Saigon that is to come. Her words are meant more to demonstrate the might of the Northern Vietnamese Army than to actually warn them of the impending attack.

5 The General Asks Claude For Two Planes To The United States For Him & His Family

Claude lies to The General by agreeing to two planes

Claude in The Sympathizer episode 1

Two months later, and two months before the Fall of Saigon, the General invites Claude over to his house to discuss terms about the Americans giving him a plane to flee to the United States. Although the General won’t admit that he is fleeing Vietnam with his entire family, this is exactly what he intends to do. Claude agrees to provide the General with one plane in order to not raise suspicions that the General is abandoning his country. Eventually, after the General and his wife are very persistent about the two planes, Claude politely agrees to the two planes although, as The Captain says in the voiceover, no one there is convinced that the two planes would actually be provided. This turns out to not be the case, as Claude only gets the General one plane.

4 The General Gives The Captain The Staff List To Decide Who Goes On The Plane To The U.S.

The General hands the staff list over after all the trouble The Captain went through to obtain it

The Captain and The General in The Sympathizer episode 1

After The Captain had gone to great lengths to acquire the Secret Police list, the General effectively hands it over to him so that he can determine which of the high ranking members of the Southern Vietnamese military will be selected to travel on the plane with them to the United States. This entire time, the General and Claude have no idea that The Captain is betraying them and had initially taken the photos of the list earlier in the episode. The Captain says he made the selections based on loyalty and ability, but really decides to leave behind some of the most capable ones to face a harsh trial. The Captain picked “the incapable ones who appeared capable” to go to the U.S. and also requests three spots for Bon and his family, since he is the godfather of Bon’s young child. Bon is in the Air Force of Southern Vietnam and has no idea about the truth about Man and The Captain.

3 Man Instructs The Captain To Keep An Eye On The General In The United States

The Captain is tired of being a mole and doesn’t want to go to America

The Captain in The Sympathizer episode 1

While speaking in private while out for drinks with Bon, The Captain tells Man that he has no desire to go to the United States and expresses that he is exhausted from being a mole for three and a half years. After requesting not to go on the plane to the United States that Claude had arranged, Man orders him to stick to the plan because they need eyes and ears on The General at all times. Man also accuses The Captain of loving America and claims that he “dreams in English” ever since he went to college in the United States. The Captain explains that he is both “fascinated and repulsed” by the United States, and Man says that’s exactly what it means to love America, while also emphasizing that “home is overrated”.

2 A United States Air Force Base & The General’s Plane Is Attacked By Artillery

The Northern Vietnamese army knew all about The General’s plan to flee

The plane in The Sympathizer episode 1

In a stunning turn of events, a United States Air Force base in Southern Vietnam is brutally attacked by artillery strikes. An American C-130 military plane was waiting on the tarmac for The General and the buses of passengers to board the plane that would take them to the United States. Clearly, the Northern Vietnamese Amry knew all about The General’s plan to flee the country and were not going to allow that to happen. It’s likely that Man informed his superior about the time and location of The General’s plane because he could have gotten that information directly from The Captain. Many people are killed during the attack which The Captain was completely unaware of.

1 Bon’s Wife & Young Child Die In The Attack

The captain doesn’t make it to the United States

The Captain crying in The Sympathizer episode 1

The first character deaths in The Sympathizer are incredibly tragic ones. While The Captain, Bon, and his family were running to the C-130, Bon’s wife and child were killed by the artillery strikes. Bon is in total shock while The Captain rushes back to be with him on the tarmac. Meanwhile, everyone else who had made it onto the plane is yelling at them to board, but it doesn’t appear that Bon and The Captain are going to make the flight. The first episode of The Sympathizer ends where it started in the aftermath of the Fall of Saigon. The Captain appears mournful while he reflects on the incident from prison. He hears a familiar song that he had talked about with Claude in the final moments of the episode, hinting that Claude could be there to break him out.

the sympathizer tv poster

The Sympathizer

Based on the novel by Viet Thanh Nuyen, The Sympathizer explores the last days of the Vietnam War through the eyes of a half-Vietnamese, half-French spy serving for the communist regime. The TV series adaptation is set-up as a mini-series and will likely still be framed as a confession from the protagonist as they make their way through the war. Photo is of the original novel cover.

Robert Downey Jr. , Kieu Chinh , VyVy Nguyen , Kayli Tran , Evan Shafran , Sandra Oh


Don McKellar , Viet Thanh Nguyen

Based on the novel by Viet Thanh Nuyen, The Sympathizer explores the last days of the Vietnam War through the eyes of a half-Vietnamese, half-French spy serving for the communist regime. The TV adaptation is set-up as a mini-series and will likely still be framed as a confession from the protagonist as they make their way through the war. Photo is of the original novel cover.

Production Company
A24, Rhombus Media, Team Downey, Moho Film, Cinetic Media

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