Amazon’s darkly comic spy thriller Patriot largely flew under the radar during its first season last year, never quite building the hype or buzz of the streaming network’s higher-profile shows. (I’d estimate it has about 1% the advertising budget of Jack Ryan.) Nevertheless, the series found enough of a cult audience to get renewed for a second season, which premiered last Friday. Fortunately, it’s just as weird and delightful as the first.
Michael Dorman stars as CIA operative John Tavner, who despite crippling depression and mental trauma, is goaded back to field work by his spymaster father, Tom (Terry O’Quinn). In the first season, John assumed a cover identity as “John Lakeman,” an engineer for an industrial piping company, which proved very difficult to maintain since he knows absolutely nothing about engineering or piping. This afforded him an excuse to travel to Luxembourg on a secret mission to hinder the Iranian nuclear weapons program by making a payoff to an important contact. In short order, the money was lost, some people wound up dead, and John found himself pursued by a very determined and resourceful homicide detective (Aliette Ophiem).
Described like that, the show almost sounds like a pretty serious espionage drama. At times it is, and the story routinely takes some very dark turns. However, it’s also extremely quirky, funny, and surreal. John’s depression has left him nearly in a state of catatonia, barely able to function or hold a conversation. When he says he hasn’t slept in months, there’s never any trace of exaggeration in that. The more the series progresses, the further he sinks within himself, until he’s practically a walking corpse. Somehow, he manages to remain highly competent at his spy job (the engineering job, not so much). His perception of the world around him is so numbed that he becomes unaffected by pain or the increasingly bizarre events that befall him.
As his only form of mental release, John is prone to writing the highly classified details of his spy missions into folk songs that he performs at open mic nights in random cafes. Naturally, that isn’t a terribly wise decision for his personal safety.
Season 2 picks up the story right where the first one ended, but moves most of the action to Paris. Just about every character from the first season returns – including John’s goofy Congressman brother Eddie, his over-eager buddy Dennis, and his hardass boss from the piping company (Kurtwood Smith). New to the cast are Debra Winger as John’s mother and a Parisian cop (Eye Haidara) whose life is ruined by a chance encounter with John. The plot this time finds Tom, desperate to cover their tracks from their failed mission, directing John to assassinate a visiting Iranian diplomat. Doing so leads down a very convoluted and dangerous path, but also results in some great new songs.
One of the show’s greatest strengths is how tightly written and plotted it is. Even minor characters and events that seem like throwaway details have a way of circling back around again and turning up in unexpected ways. Supporting characters that you’d assume had played out their parts manage to work their way back into John’s life and complicate his mission. The new characters are also fleshed out extremely well in economical ways. I’d gladly watch a spinoff series just about the Det. Ntep character.
The show doubles down on everything that worked in Season 1 and delivers another terrific storyline filled with shocking twists, wild flights of fancy, and hilarious deadpan humor. Even for as outrageous as it gets, though, the show never loses sight of the real human cost of John’s job and the trauma he’s subjected to. The season ending is both a moment of triumph and a downer at the same time.
About the only negative I’d cite is an overuse of blurry shaky-cam shots to represent John’s fading vision after suffering too many concussions. The first few times that was employed were effective enough, but the gag wears thin by the twentieth or thirtieth time. Other than that minor issue, Patriot is a little gem that deserves to be found by a greater audience.