Patriot (Seasons 1 and 2)




Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.
—Nathanael West, Day of the Locust


1.
I want to say a few words in praise of the Amazon Prime show Patriot, which I never would have watched without a friend saying how strange, surprising, and affecting it is. Because of work and life, I haven't been able to read any fiction more than the occasional short story for a month or so now — my brain is pulled in too many other directions for me to hold a novel's details in mind — and few movies or tv shows have felt like anything other than loud wallpaper. This state of mind probably contributed to my appreciation of Patriot, as its mood fit so well with my own moment.

Patriot does not seem to have gathered many viewers, at least not among people I know or critics I read. (Amazon, like other services, doesn't release viewing numbers, so we can only use anecdotal evidence to guess about popularity or lack of it.) Season 1 got noticed here and there, Season 2 less so. In a media environment oversaturated with choices, it's easy for shows to fall between the cracks of our attention. My own reasons for ignoring Patriot for so long are probably common: I didn't encounter much publicity for it, and the title didn't make me think it would be anything I would ever be interested in. Everyone I've mentioned the show to has thought, from the title, that it must either be about football or a survivalist.

But no, Patriot is not about football (except perhaps metaphorically), and though its main character, John, is something of a survivalist, he's not such in the typical contemporary sense of that word. This is a show about spies and murder and mayhem, but that description is at least as deceptive as it is descriptive, because the show is about those things in the way of the Coen brothers' Burn After Reading or Hal Hartley's Amateur — the spies are often incompetent, the murders almost random, the events governed more by chance than intention. It all has more in common with The Grand Budapest Hotel than with anything a genre-hunting algorithm would pair it with. The prominence of music (both within the story and as part of the narrative's form and effect) makes the show quite literally a melodrama and almost a musical, and heightens its dream-like qualities. Who among us has not dreamed, at least once, of being a spy or a folksinger or both?

You could almost best describe the show via references to music: It's Bob Dylan plus the Beastie Boys plus a pothead's James Bond theme song. But that misses all its charm.

Really, it's Townes van Zandt. In the first episode, John and his father sing "If I Needed You" together, and its lyrics lay out some of the themes that will resonate through both of the seasons currently released:
If I needed you
Would you come to me?
Would you come to me
And ease my pain?
If you needed me
I would come to you
I'd swim the seas
For to ease your pain.
One of the live albums released after van Zandt's death was called In Pain. In many ways, that would be a better title for this show than Patriot, because throughout, from the first episode to the most recent, our central character, John, is in mental and often physical pain. The pain is caused by his experience of being an intelligence operative who received bad information and killed an innocent man, got arrested, was tortured, and then, not long after, got re-recruited by his Intelligence Director dad for a seemingly simple job of pretending to be an engineer with a midwestern firm that is able to do business in Luxembourg and Iran, thus allowing him to deliver a large amount of money to some Iranians to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Everything goes wrong, only increasing John's pain. Michael Dorman is extraordinary in the role because through nearly every scene in the series, John must work to stay focused, to hold himself together, and while we need to see this struggle, it also needs somehow to be interesting. The great challenge of the role is that John doesn't get better. He starts beleaguered, gets broken, and ends barely breathing. There's no arc, just descent from worse to more worse.

Though John is the most consistently and visibly battered, what we see is that all the men in this show are in pain in some way or another. And they all inflict pain, as often as not through their incompetence or inattention. Hardly anyone in the show gets injured or killed because they are targeted enemies; most deaths and maimings occur through accidents caused by the main characters or because the unfortunate victims were simply in the way of the main characters' goals. Another title for Patriot would be Collateral Damage.

John risks exposing his identity because of his passionate involvement in an internet argument about whether van Zandt's original "Pancho & Lefty" is superior to Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard's cover of it. In many ways, John is both Pancho and Lefty; in other ways, he's one or the other, and his father, brother, and various friends fill the companion role. The final verse, with its slight change of wording from the chorus, is chilling in the context of the show:
A few grey Federales say
They could have had him any day.
They only let him go so wrong
Out of kindness, I suppose...
It's also worth thinking about Patriot in the context of van Zandt because of the mood that the show creates. Even the occasional action scenes are tinged with a kind of wry, world-weary melancholy that feels like so many of van Zandt's songs.


2.
Few movies or tv shows are premised on the idea that the instruments of international imperialism and the US security state are fundamentally incompetent, but in Patriot, that is a bedrock reality of the world. (In that, it's closest to Burn After Reading.) In many stories (think of the Bourne movies), the government agencies are infected with corruption, but they are usually portrayed as terrifyingly adept at wielding their power. The agencies in Patriot, whether intelligence or police, are often powerful, but they use that power stupidly and destructively. This is a refreshing view, and for all of the show's surrealism, it seems to me to make it vastly more realistic than most spy movies and cop shows.

It's also worth noting that in the world of Patriot, heterosexual white guys ruin everything. This is consistent, episode after episode. The women in the show are mostly highly competent and their work and lives are hindered by the men — often working in positions more officially powerful than the women are — who blunder everything into chaos. This is most obvious with the Luxembourg police, where women have been sidelined into the homicide department because nobody ever gets murdered in Luxembourg. They are harassed and belittled by other police who prove later in the show to be less effective at policing than the Three Stooges. If the women hadn't had to deal with their bumbling male colleagues, they would have apprehended everyone within a couple episodes.

The show includes more scenes of men standing at urinals than anything I've ever seen that isn't porn. (The hapless police have a urinal scene of their own, one so surprising, darkly funny, and disturbing that I barely have words to describe it. It both invokes patriarchal attitudes and quite vividly shows those attitudes to be based on nothing but the patriarchs' high regard for themselves.) Our protagonist is named John, like a toilet or a man who might get serviced by another man in a public restroom. The company John fakes his way into working for specializes in industrial piping (a phallic activity if ever there was one) and doesn't seem to employ any women. Indeed, they pride themselves on a vague, macho ethos that they say creates a "McMillan Man" (the title of episode 3), an ethos that apparently finds its fullest expression in the company's regular duck hunts (guns: more phallic objects, and this time deadly). But the secret is that none of the McMillan men are particularly good at being McMillan Men.

Even though men ruin everything in this show, they're still mostly appealing. We fear for their fates, we rue their bad decisions, we forgive them, we yearn for them to succeed — sometimes even when success means a detestable outcome. These men, flawed and even monstrous as they may be, are endearing. Were John played by a hardbodied actor, the character would likely be insufferable and repulsive; but Michael Dorman is a lovable sort who much better fits the stereotype of the sensitive folksinger than he does the stereotype of the international assassin. His brother Eddie, though a U.S. senator, is basically a manchild very slowly inching his way toward adulthood. Their father, Tom, is certainly more intimidating (actor Terry O'Quinn was The Stepfather, after all), but the show quickly undermines any idea we have that he is an effective puppetmaster. Most ways you look at it, he's a monster, but he also quite legitimately cares about his kids, even as he endangers their lives. It's an impressive performance by O'Quinn because there is no way anybody with even a vaguely functioning moral sense could say that Tom is a good person or a good father, but he's trying very hard to be both, and that effort is strangely moving. He aches to fix his mistakes, but every fix he comes up with only exacerbates the problems.

The McMillan Men are good at projecting an air of competence and machismo, at wearing their skin like iron, but each one of them is a mess. To some extent or another, machismo has ruined each of their lives. It's no surprise that the most messed up life is that of Leslie Claret, the leader who others say has a girl's name. His tough patriarchal mien is all he has left of a once-promising life, and he has to keep up appearances, keep up the strong tough maleness, or else maybe he, too, will begin to believe he has a girl's name. It shouldn't matter, of course, and in any rational world it doesn't, but the world of Patriot is far from a rational world, and the world of McMillan is even less so, despite what it looks like from outside. It's a company of men being destroyed by the energy they put into being good McMillan Men. They don't find anything like redemption until they let it go. They have to risk caring for each other in more honest, less competitive ways, they have to risk femininity, they have to risk the perception that their homosociality might be tinged with homosexuality (they have to stop caring about that) — and when they do let go, when they do take the risk of being less male and more human, it's not like everything is suddenly better. But they at least get through the day more easily, usually without making it all too much worse.

The thing Tom realizes much too late is: You can call off the mission. The world won't end. (At least, not immediately.) You'll save lives and you'll be able to live with yourself a little better. This is what all the men have to learn in one way or another through the show. Give up trying to rule the world (or what you call "save the world") and instead take stock of your own behavior, try to help somebody, try to heal somebody, try to make a community. The women and minorities in the show know this; it's why for the most part they're happier and less messed up than the men, even if they have all sorts of frustrations and regrets. Patriarchy and racism haven't let them think they can rule the world. They're busy trying to survive, or trying to just do their jobs with all these stupid, blundering, wanting-to-rule-the-world straight white guys in the way. (Sometimes they don't make it. Sometimes they get thrown in front of a truck by the "hero" of the story. Sometimes they are collateral damage.)

The supposed enemies in the show don't seem particularly threatening. They're all like cartoons, whether the Brazilians or the Iranians or whoever. They are like objective correlatives for America's xenophobic fantasies. They are impossible to take seriously as anything "real" except for how real the ignorance of Americans about the rest of the world is — so much of American culture seems built on the idea that everybody we don't like at one moment or another is comic book villain or the bad guy in a James Bond movie. Patriot takes that idea and runs with it.

If anybody stops and thinks about what's going on in the show as the events get more and more bizarre and convoluted, what they'll inevitably have to ask themselves is, "Wait, what are innocent people getting hurt and killed for...? A bag of money that everybody's chasing around for reasons that grow less and less clear at every turn...?" Sounds just like American foreign policy.


3.
It's easy to think, in these enlightened days, that gay-panicked men wielding misogyny are some barbaric relic of an era before now — because how, in these post-metrosexual times, could such atavisms attack? But then of course we remember the statistics of violence against transgender people, and we remember just how much abuse women endure at the hands and words of men, and we read, as I did this morning, about social media censoring images of affection between men, and we remember that McMillan Men still roam the Earth, still want to save us all, still cannot save themselves.


4.
Like a great pop song, Patriot thrives on rhythm. The rhythm of the shots, of the edits, of the dialogue. Sometimes it bounces, jumps, skips, falls; other times, it slows down, hangs fire, lingers longer than ever expected on a single note.

The first season narrative is highly nonlinear, zipping around so much that when a title announces something like "5 hours ago" we have to laugh, because what is the now to that ago? The latest time seems to be 2017, when (mostly) Tom speaks to a recording that seems to be a deposition. What these recordings are, we do not find out in these seasons. They provide almost a sense of relief, a sense that there is, somewhere beyond us, a conclusion. This is important because it can feel sometimes that the show might just keep falling into fractals of plot (splitting like the jellyfish that are a guiding metaphor, and then reality, in season 2), the events never concluding, just pushing forward into more and more complications, chaos spiralling off in all directions, pain continuing, no direction home, an ever-rolling stone... But the mysterious 2017 recordings point toward a conclusion of some sort, a reckoning and accounting, a final verse.

That sort of jazzy metastasizing style gets expressed in the editing, too. Patriot has some of the longest shots you're likely to see on a tv show. One particularly sticks out in memory, a climactic moment in season 2's episode 3, "The Guns of France". John is doing what his father told him to do (get a gun), he's completed the first part of what he needs to do to fulfill this task (beautifully and hilariously laid out in the previous episode, when he sings one of the best songs on the show, "French Gun"), and he's off to steal a gun from a grocer he's identified. The whole escapade is narrated with the song "Martin Tidy", and it's shown as a single continuous shot. It feels like it goes on forever. It's simultaneously somehow thrilling and really frustrating. The song is laid back, languorous and rambling, sometimes even maybe a little bit boring. John walks through the streets and the subway. "This could be ea-ea-easy," he sings. We of course know there's no way it's going to be easy. Eventually, John does, too. The shot continues, mayhem happens, and without the music changing its mood or style, John sings, "Man, that shit was so fucked up. It sure wasn't ea-ea-easy." We've moved from the calm of the song fitting the slow walk through the city to the calm of the song being at humorous odds both with what's on the screen and with the lyrics. Finally, both the song and the shot end, and we feel relief, but then also have to start adjusting to the new problems (and injuries) the scene has introduced. This divergence between what's actually happening and the mood created by the filming and music is common to the show. The music is rarely anything other than calm, and all of John's songs have a loose, casual, unhurried style. It's only as John is dealing with bodily injury, the loss of his fake identity, and the immediate need to avoid releasing information while anesthetized that the music changes style at all — "Monster Hand" is, if I remember correctly, the most energetic song he sings, more blues than folk.

The plotting and structure bring a constant repetition and revision of events into play. It's quite marvelous to go back after watching both seasons and see just how much is contained in the first episode that will continue to resonate through both seasons. The show's plot structure is a kind of unspooling. It's an unspooling caused by the quest for the MacGuffin of MacGuffins: the bag of money. The way the characters chase after this bag for so long, and the way it destroys so much of their lives, it ought to be called the American Dream.

The narrative sets up visual and thematic harmonies galore. Sometimes it's little things, easily missed — one episode opens with a flashback to John in a training session, reading a book titled New Techniques of Modern Practical Close Combat, and while the training in how to fight a dog is quickly relevant, we briefly see a page of one other technique, involving a bicycle, that is later used quickly as well. Larger, more obvious harmonies are common, too, for instance in the injuries that Det. Nan Ntep sustains, inflicted by John, that blur her vision in the same way his is blurred. This extends the show's subjectivity (it rarely seems we are seeing anything as it is but rather as it is perceived by the characters) but also encourages us to think about how and why we prioritize the perspectives we do. Det. Ntep is a particularly interesting character in terms of her harmonies with other characters; her life overlaps with many people's in the show in weird ways (she and Leslie, for instance, both have tugboat captain fathers, and Tom had to pretend to be such a father), and she seems like one of the most intelligent and honorable people in the entire series, yet her efforts are frustrated at every turn. Once again, incompetent white men make progress toward their goals, but a tremendously skilled black woman, who shares some background and experiences with those incompetent white men, cannot.

The unspooling of the plot allows minor characters to become important, major characters to fade to the background, and then back and forth in a kind of narrative dance. The movement of characters between foreground and background forces us — sometimes without our knowing it — to have to care for characters who were previously the butts of jokes. It's an effect that sneaks up on us, one that I associate with Coen brothers movies, and one of the reasons why I think complaints about the Coens looking down on their characters is quite wrong. Often (especially in their comedies) the Coens start with caricatures and encourage us to laugh at those caricatures, and we oblige, and then they give us reason to see those caricatures as human beings with desires and hopes and sadness, and then we feel like the assholes we were. Similarly, Patriot. Ha ha, John just pushed that guy in front of a truck! Ha ha, now that guy has a traumatic brain injury and isn't it funny how John treats him terribly ha ha ha! And then somewhere along the way you realize that this character, Stephen (same name as the show's creator), is the nicest, most decent, least dishonest guy in the show. And you maybe think, "Of all the people on this show I would like to be friends with, Stephen's up toward the top." And you cringe whenever John is terrible to him, even though you know he's a threat to John's secret identity. John cringes, too, but, as always, he sticks to his mission, he does what he thinks he has to do. Soon enough his secret identity is discarded anyway, and it doesn't really matter that Stephen might have revealed some unpleasant truths about him, and the mission could have been cancelled without anybody getting hurt, but the mission wasn't cancelled, and people got hurt, and if we think about this, we feel like the assholes we are.


5.
And then there's the dialogue. Much like the plotting, the dialogue relies on careful, seemingly offhand, repetition. For one small example: follow the word cool through the series. It takes on all sorts of meanings and nonmeanings, gets used by various characters, has something like a life of its own. Or listen to the way Tom and Leslie always use each others' names whenever they talk. Or the way Tom never says John "smokes weed" but rather that he is "smoking on the weed". These are examples of words and phrases being used not for meaning but for rhythm, for shape, for pattern, for anything other than denotative sense. The show's dialogue sometimes seems like it could have been written by Gertrude Stein. Such a style makes me think of Hal Hartley back when Hal Hartley, long ago, made interesting movies — Simple Men, Trust, Amateur, Henry Fool.

The most impressive dialogue in the show is actually monologue: whenever characters talk at length about piping. It's thrilling nonsense, part Stein, part Mac Wellman, part Sid Caesar, part esoteric instruction manual. It's gibberish to us, but the words are ones the piping men are deeply committed to, just as the American intelligence agents are devoted to their nonsensical assumptions about how the world works and should work. The piping talk is like a parody of the highly competent, professional men of Michael Mann movies. (Too bad there's no mention of a turboencabulator.) Characters like Leslie Claret are experts at the lingo, true masters — but their mastery is, in our world at least, meaningless.

In the last few episodes of season 2, the show sets up a clever link between dialogue and music with some discussion of John's go-to phrase when asked how he's doing — "Pretty good," he often says — which then gets reflected in John Prine's classic song "Pretty Good". This is clever, but what makes it more than clever is the set-up and the placement. By the time the song plays, it's as if the entire series has been leading to it, because it's not only the dialogue that connects to the song, but the situations, personalities, and, most powerfully, the overall mood of the moment in the particular episode: the song is resigned in its lyrics but determined in its tune, pushing forward despite everything being "pretty good, not bad" and "actually everything is just about the same". Here, John Prine sings for John Tavner.

Though all the main activities and primary goals in the show prove empty, meaningless, wrongheaded, disastrous, and even murderous — this is not a nihilistic comedy. Again and again, in every episode, Patriot asserts that some things matter a lot. There's a sentimental core that keeps the show from being hours and hours of misery. What sticks in the mind, for me at least, are the acts of decency. It's as if the show is insisting that kindness, generosity, and a tolerance for the foibles of existence are not things that should be directed at only the most deserving and pitiful among us, but at us all. John is a murderer. He destroys more than he creates. John does not deserve pity or kindness or generosity if we must parcel out a limited supply of pity, kindness, and generosity only to some people, the deserving few. And yet how can you get through this show and not want him to be safe and to be happy? Tom, too, that old apparatchik of hell, an Eichmann who sends his son off to do dirty deeds dirt cheap. It's hard not to want him to be able to relax, to be able to sit down and play guitar with John again, to stop worrying, to be all right. And all the McMillan Men, who prove ultimately lovable and even, in their own ways, kind and generous and not at all macho, at least not when at their best.


6.
I think back to Townes van Zandt and to the song "Rex's Blues", much of which we might call "John Tavner's Blues". It's one of the most compassionate songs I've ever heard, and maybe its end is one we can hope for for John, and for Tom, and for the McMillan Men, and for anybody who hasn't yet realized that they should let go of the gibberish that's destroying them, the nonsense warping the world around them — that they can call off the mission and ride the blue wind high and free:
I'm chained upon the face of time
Feeling full of foolish rhyme
There ain't no dark till something shines
I'm bound to leave this dark behind

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