‘The Sympathizer’ Cast Breaks Down the Mysterious Meaning of ‘Nothing’ in the Finale

SPOILER ALERT The following interview contains spoilers for “Endings Are Hard, Aren’t They?,” the series finale of “The Sympathizer” on HBO

Published Time: 27.05.2024 - 06:31:25 Modified Time: 27.05.2024 - 06:31:25

SPOILER ALERT: The following interview contains spoilers for “Endings Are Hard, Aren’t They?,” the series finale of “The Sympathizer” on HBO.

Robert Downey Jr. may have played five different characters in “The Sympathizer,” but he’s not the only actor in the cast who assumes multiple identities.

The limited series follows a North Vietnamese communist spy simply known as the Captain (Hoa Xuande) who’s embedded in a South Vietnamese community in Los Angeles after the war. Duy Nguyễn plays Man, the Captain’s handler, best friend and sole remaining connection to his home country. But for fear of surveillance, the two send decoy letters addressed to the Captain’s fictional aunt. Any real truths must be brief, focused and written in invisible ink. Therefore, when the Captain is lonely and in need of connection, he has imaginary conversations with Man as though he were with him in person.

“I realized that Man in the Captain’s head is not who Man is in real life,” Nguyễn says. That required him to understand not only his “real” character, but a plethora of alternate selves that were based upon the Captain just as much as they were Man.

“The version of Man in his head really depends on what the Captain needs at the moment from his friend, what he imagines his friend would say,” Nguyễn continues. “I had to read the script over and over again to understand, ‘What is the Captain thinking?'”

These imaginary scenarios take place throughout seven-episode run of “The Sympathizer,” making up a major portion of Nguyễn’s screen time. “We shot all of the imagination scenes in one day — three directors in one day,” he says. “It was intense, like, three scenes from director Park Chan-wook, then director Marc Munden came in for in three scenes and director Fernando Meirelles for one scene. Then Episode 7 is when you get to see the real Man.”

By the finale, titled “Endings Are Hard, Aren’t They?,” a lot has changed.

Though Man has instructed him to stay in America, the Captain is desperate for his homeland and enlists in an attack on the communists devised by the General (Toan Le) so he can travel back to Vietnam. He still hasn’t revealed his affiliations to Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan), a loyal South Vietnamese solider he and Man have been friends with since childhood, when they both get captured and taken to a communist reeducation camp. There, the Captain expects to be recognized as a communist and freed. Instead, he’s forced to spend a year writing a detailed confession to prove himself — even though the leader of the camp turns out to be a masked Man, whose face has been completely distorted by a napalm accident.

“I had to create a whole different character to reach that point at the end, when he’s broken and burned up,” Nguyễn says. “But he still tries to be the person that his friends remember, even though they don’t recognize him. That’s the most heartbreaking part.”

Like the Captain, Man has become something of a “sympathizer” too. He puts the Captain through intense torture, partially to keep their friendship a secret to his colleagues. But the cruelty also seems like a way to get the Captain to admit something Man realized long ago: It’s hard to be proud of their victory in the war when it came at such a high human cost.

Near the end, Man directs the Captain to a famous quote by President Ho Chi Minh: “Nothing is more precious than freedom and independence,” a tenet the Captain believes deeply. But Man tells him that there actually is something more precious, and that he gets three guesses before he can “graduate.”

After he wastes two tries on “belief” and “family,” his friend tells him, “Read the sentence carefully. The answer lies within.”

Nothing, perhaps even nothingness, is what’s more precious. But what does that mean? Before the Captain realizes the answer, he imagines he’s sitting next to the Major (Phanxine) and Sonny (Alan Trong), the two people he murdered as a spy. Is “nothing” death? Is it -

the absence of a politic? Whatever it is, it’s all the Captain needs to hear. Man apologizes for making the lesson “so torturous,” explaining that he’d found firsthand he needed to learn it “the hard way,” and the Captain grabs Bon and escapes the camp. Man watches them as they run away, leaving any allegiance to one side or the other behind.

As part of a wide-ranging interview about “The Sympathizer” and its historical significance, Variety spoke with Hoa Xuande and Duy Nguyễn as well as Sandra Oh, who executive produces the series and stars in five earlier episodes, about nothing.

The quote, “Nothing is more precious than freedom and independence,” and zeroing in on “nothing” — what did that mean to you? What conversations did you have about that? How have you taken that away from the show?

Hoa Xuande: It’s so funny, because that is the sentence that President Ho Chi Minh said when he was trying to lead the movement for the independence of Vietnam, and that sentence has been taken from American ideology. But the way it’s used in the context of the liberation of Vietnam has a very different meaning to how we see it in the West. When we think, “Nothing is more precious than freedom and independence,” we think about the freedom, and we think about the independence. That’s how we’re were taught, and it’s not wrong, but in the show, and the realization the Captain has is that the crux of that sentence is the nothing. Which actually refers to, almost, the fact that you have to humble yourself.

It’s the despair. It’s the fact that all of this effort to achieve this ideal has caused so much destruction, actually ripped people apart, endangered so many people that, was that cause even worth it? The idea that “nothing” is actually above freedom and independence. We have to try and understand that we are no better than the ideals that we purport all the time.

Duy Nguyễn: That’s why I read the book 10 times. Just to understand that part. I had to understand it to understand the whole book. I just took it from the character’s perspective: Why does Man try to teach the Captain that nothing is more precious than independence and freedom? He’s an idealist. A revolutionist. He believed that fighting the war, fighting the Americans, means bringing his freedom. But in Episode 7, you see him taking away freedom and independence from the same people that he was trying to free. The Vietnamese people. He captured them. He realized how meaningless it was, all this pain. That’s the lesson he wants to teach his friend, and the only way he can teach him is by taking away his freedom.

Sandra Oh: If you’ve read the book, that back quarter is pages and pages and pages of torture between these two. I think Man is already past where the Captain is, and is trying to push into some sort of understanding. What is nothing? It is a myriad of things. I have my own interpretation it — almost a Buddhist sense of emptiness. This other space is actually greater than these ideals. Man, through the torture, he pushes you to go into the trauma. You hear all these things, you think, “I’m doing it right,” but he pushes you: What makes you where you are?

In some ways, that’s the moment when the Captain is actually starting to free himself. And what is in that space — the interpretation of nothing — I don’t think we should really define it at this moment, but that is the key. It is a very internal and very dense look at purpose, freedom, how to continue on your journey. When Man says, “It’s right in front of you,” that’s a lot of the lesson as well. It’s right in front of us.

Nguyễn: And also, right in front of you is me. Look at what it’s done to me.

Xuande Yeah. You are nothing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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