Usually, thrilling tales of espionage come with the expectation of sexy, bad–s spies making impossible feats of human physicality look easy, accompanied by inventive gadgetry decades ahead of our current technology and a suaveness akin to a superhuman trait, a la James Bond or Ethan Hawke. Sometimes missions go awry, but the hero almost always wins, looking insanely cool all the while. Amazon’s “Patriot” paints a far less glamorous but far more relatable picture of the life of a spy: one ruled by Murphy’s law where literally everything goes wrong.
Like most spy thrillers, “Patriot” doesn’t shy away from crazy high stakes. In order to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, U.S. intelligence officer John Tavner goes undercover as John Lakeman at an international industrial engineering firm to covertly deliver a briefcase containing $10 million — the show’s MacGuffin — to the political party opposed to going nuclear. As his father and boss Tom Tavner puts it, it’s a simple transfer from A to B.
But unlike most spy thrillers, “Patriot” takes place in a world almost devoid of wishy-washy plot conveniences, instead overrun with inconveniences and complications that make the transfer anything but simple. Unlike Bond and Hawke, John doesn’t have a seemingly bottomless pit of funds or a team of trained professionals with high-tech tools that make every problem he runs into inconsequential. Instead, his agency can barely afford to give him a chair, let alone help akin to a deus ex machina.
Starting with his need to eliminate more qualified competition and bum urine untainted with THC off a stranger to land the cover job, John suffers setback after setback that jeopardizes the mission and his own safety. One issue piles on top of the other: The hopeful hiree survives John’s murder attempt with temporary brain damage, and when he breaks his cover to obtain the pee, a security guard overhears him and leverages the secret to get John to do his weird bidding.
Both John and the viewers become quickly overwhelmed with the sheer amount of worries that pile onto his plate. Balancing blackmail, an overeager but mostly unhelpful sidekick, a boss who hates him, a disabled coworker slowly regaining his memory, a career he knows nothing about and the whole “stop Iran from going nuclear” thing is no easy feat. Especially not when he’s haunted by guilt and PTSD from assassinating an innocent man instead of a nuclear physicist and the consequent three months of torture he faced before the series’s beginning.
“Patriot” stands apart for its realistic depiction of the psyche of an “international man of mystery.” While John embodies the same stoicism as his contemporaries, it stems not from a cool, unaffected demeanor but severe depression that regularly rears its ugly head and makes him suicidal. If you thought spies couldn’t devolve into existential crises like the rest of us, John proves you wrong and reveals a vulnerability any person would feel if confronted with violence and tragedy daily.
But don’t let the depression drag you down. At its heart, “Patriot” is a comedy and a hilariously dark one at that. The show is populated by a host of unique and entirely original characters, all with their own quirks and personalities that will endear you to nearly every one of them. From John’s brother “Cool Rick” and his decidedly uncool obsession with tracksuits to the Beastie Boys to Dennis McClaren, the shmuck who provides his pee and subsequently becomes obsessed with being a part of the mission, each character brings to the table realistically ridiculous backstories, motivations and actions.
For example, after McClaren contracts herpes from a lady of the night while completing a task for John, he and Cool Rick videotape a poorly composed excuse to tell his wife. McClaren, with his diseased mouth just out of frame, documents himself “saving” the choking Cool Rick with mouth-to-mouth instead of the Heimlich, after which the latter apologizes for giving his savior herpes. It’s absurd but completely believable that they would craft such a scene based on their established characters.
Perhaps the show’s most unique and endlessly funny gag is its original music. John, a talented folk singer and guitarist, creates several songs very literally based on his life. Trust me, I can’t do the genius hilarity of them justice without a whole bunch of context, but one of my favorites is the second season’s “French Gun.”
Because nothing is ever easy in this show or real life, John of course can’t just magically attain a weapon in France when he needs it. So, he dictates the circumstances under which a citizen could get one: “But say you are a Senegalese grocer with a tidy little joint in a rough neighborhood, and you keep getting your ass beat. You’re just stackin’ up the crackers, and some French f—er takes your cash register and leaves you beat, down in a heap, in France. If you’re attacked in your place of business and can demonstrate loss of property and consciousness, on the 13th attack, oh man, you get strapped in France.”
As John journeys to the building where they keep records of all the gun owners, which he must break into all spy-like, we see his lyrics literally play out onscreen. Props to the actor playing the grocer, because his grin after “Oh man, you get strapped” is such a kicker. Even more payoff comes later in the episode when you realize this grocer is the man John has chosen to attack to steal his gun.
One of the coolest things about “Patriot” is this smart handling of an astonishing number of story threads that tie everything together in the end. No joke is a onetime, pointless gag; the show milks nuanced comedy out of each situation without overdoing it. Every scene has a purpose that further drives the plot, no matter how ridiculous or comical it is.
Because of its fresh, funny take on the tired spy trope, “Patriot” is a show unlike any other. Instead of a detached, almost superhuman protagonist that audiences are supposed to idolize, John is just a regular old guy, albeit with insane aim and tolerance for pain, who you end up pitying for most of the show. With two incredible seasons out on Amazon, it’s the perfect binge for the holiday season before break ends.