Robert Downey Jr. Is a Little Too Good at Playing a Racist on ‘The Sympathizer’


We ended last week’s episode of The Sympathizer on a potential murder. But before Captain (Hoa Xunde) and Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan) kill Major Oahn (Phanxinê), they need to double check a few things. Does the General (Toan Le) still want Major dead? Yes, duh. The bigger question, though, is how Bon and Captain plan on pulling off a homicide without leaving any trace.

Captain pitches armed robbery, but Bon shrugs him off. Bon has something to admit: He wasn’t just a regular paratrooper in the war. He was actually in the F-6 program—which specialized in killing and torturing—and never told Man (Don Nguyen) or Captain. Captain is frightened to hear this, although he’s also relieved that he and Man aren’t the only ones harboring secrets.

Before they can kill Major, though, Captain and Man will need to hatch a solid plan that they can both agree on. The pair stalk the Major at work, where his wife visits him with their new twin babies Spinach (named after Popeye) and Broccoli (named after…literally just the vegetable). This really makes Captain feel terrible. He’s killing this new dad to cover his own ass. Nevertheless, Bon and Captain persist, visiting the Major’s home to plot how they’ll sneak in and perform the kill. They’re caught scheming by the Major’s mother (Kieu Chinh), who invites them to tea and demands they attend her upcoming birthday gala.

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Later in the week, Captain realizes he’s being followed around by Claude (Robert Downey Jr.), who is toting around a little dog and pretending to be the “neighborhood homosexual” to keep his CIA agent a secret. Claude says that, if they’re going to kill Major, Bon and Captain need proof beforehand. Captain obliges—and also cringes after Claude forces him to pick up his dog’s poop with a hankie.

There’s not a huge rush to kill Major anyway, since Man hasn’t been responding to encoded letters from Captain, who wants approval. Luckily, Captain does find something he can use as proof against Major. Major has been meeting with shady figures and working on a small export business, which sends expired American candy to Vietnam at discount prices. This, the Major hopes, will bolster the Saigon market and destabilize the communist economy.

Captain says he wants in on the biz, so the pair start working together. Major has really gone all in on his American dream, excited to celebrate the fourth of July. He buys Captain an American flag bumper sticker and encourages his new coworker to embrace American tradition; otherwise, Captain will be stuck between two worlds forever. They need to assimilate.

Captain brings along Sofia (Sandra Oh)—who is now officially his girlfriend—to the Major’s mother’s gala, which is being held by the General. The General already believes Major is out to get him, having hired the General’s daughter (Vy Le) to perform an inappropriate set of songs to kick things off. Next to the stage is SoCal congressman Ned Godwin (also Downey Jr.), who makes a speech trying to impress the Vietnamese crowd. “Communism never wins,” he shouts. “Capitalism will triumph!”

Robert Downey Jr. in Sympathizer

The idea of Independence Day thoroughly excites Captain, who suggests to Bon that the fireworks would make for the perfect noise distraction against a gunshot. So, on the Fourth of July, Captain and Bon stake out the Major’s house. Although Captain really struggles to kill the Major, he eventually gets the job done with Bon’s help. It’s an epic fight scene, with Captain trying hard not to cry while the Major limps around with a gunshot wound in his hip. As if that’s not traumatizing enough, when Captain calls to tell General the news, the General asks Captain to prepare a eulogy for Major’s funeral.

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Captain finally gets word from Man. “Is it necessary?” Man asks, although Captain thinks of this now in past tense: “Was it necessary?” The Major’s death makes Captain recall torturing and killing a communist ally of his back in Vietnam over a year ago. He’s dealing with an amount of trauma that he can no longer just ignore.

Claude approaches Captain after the Major’s funeral, looking to hear about the evidence Captain found. Although Captain doesn’t have a ton other than the illicit candy business, Claude says he actually found something: secret messages written on rice paper. “I think he suspects me. Should I kill him?” one paper reads. These messages are the letters Captain sent to Man, intercepted by the Major—luckily, Claude reads these as if the Major had sent them. Captain will live to see another day.

Beaming off their success, Claude invites Captain out for dinner with his friends. His friends all look the same—it’s because they’re all the white menaces played by Robert Downey Jr., including Claude, Ned Godwin, Professor Hammer, and a new guy, film director Niko. Niko, who introduces himself by calling Captain a slur, wants to cast Captain in his upcoming adaptation of Hamlet set during the Vietnam War. This roundtable of racist RDJs is so unsettling—perhaps scarier than any horror movie.

This dinner, followed by a vaudeville-esque performance by Claude with a nude woman, really stresses Captain out. The Hamlet script reminds him of his parents. Everything is becoming too much to handle in America. Captain needs to break free of this two-sided life before he collapses under the weight of his identity.

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