Please note: The last episode of Season 1 and much of Season 2 include many sequences filmed from the perspective of someone who has extremely blurry vision. There are also references to traumatic brain injuries and to people having their assistive devices and therapy dogs stolen, which, understandably, may be upsetting to watch.
I wouldn’t have expected to be recommending a show that depicts quite so many scenes of mostly white men having conversations about piping while peeing at urinals, but here we are anyway. It turns out that Patriot is a great example of not judging a series by its title or by its cumulative urinal scenes. The show, which wasn’t renewed after its second season, is a weird and intoxicating mix of dark comedy, mystery, original songs, drama, zany antics, and social commentary. There are a lot of moving parts, overlapping stories and backstories, and digressions in this show, which, even with its often deliberate pace, can sometimes make it confusing to watch. But, with patience, it all (mostly) congeals into a rambling story that can be mesmerizing. And, you know, I think it’s a series that’s constantly swinging for the fences, so it’s not surprising that it sometimes misses the basket. (Mixed sports metaphor intended.)
John Tavner (Michael Dorman) is an intelligence officer who works under non-official cover in the gray areas of the law. To help himself cope with the atrocities he has helped to commit, he also sings brutally honest folk songs, often under an assumed name. He’s just finished a particularly traumatizing mission where, as he explains in a song that he performs in a public square in Amsterdam, “in June 2011 the United States learned that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was fucking around with new centrifuges.” He goes on to sing that he was supposed to shoot an Egyptian physicist who he was vacationing with his kids, but, because of bad intelligence, John accidentally shot a male hotel maid instead. He was then captured and tortured. Once freed, the U.S. government plunked him down in Amsterdam so he could decompress before coming home to his supportive wife (Kathleen Munroe), who isn’t privy to the details of his work. But, as his song goes, he’s “showing signs of mental instability” and has “been gettin’ baked, just lookin’ up at birds, wondering why there aren’t male hotel maids in other countries.” He’s considering just staying in Amsterdam and participating in dangerous midnight bike rides, but obviously that’s not going to happen. Still, would I watch a mini-series about John Tavner getting stoned and making music with his songwriting buddy (Mark Boone Junior)? I probably would. Soon, his father (Terry O’Quinn), who is also his handler, sends John’s devoted brother Eddie (Michael Chernus), an ineffectual and affable congressman, to bring him home. Which John allows him to do, but only after he finishes competing in a mechanical bull-riding contest. Once home, he takes on the cover of John Lakeman and interviews for a job at an industrial piping firm in Milwaukee that has projects in Luxembourg and Iran. This will provide him with the necessary cover to smuggle a whole lot of cash to Luxembourg to buy the Iranian election.
Sure, it sounds simple enough, but shit starts going sideways from the start. He bombs the interview and feels forced to throw the better candidate under a truck (literally) to guarantee he gets the job.
Then, in order to pass the required drug test, he has to borrow someone else’s urine (cue our first urinal scene), which requires he reveal his cover to a coworker named Dennis (Chris Conrad). Fortunately or unfortunately, only time will tell, Dennis is all too eager to help out and to be John’s new best friend. Their conversation gets overheard by a security guard (Tony Fitzpatrick), who blackmails John into helping him with his own illicit project. And, instead of getting better, the situation only gets more complicated when it turns out the engineers will be flying commercial (John finds this out during the second, or maybe it’s the third, urinal scene), not private like his father had thought, to Luxembourg, and John is forced to check his bag full of Euros. Of course, the bag gets stolen, John ends up killing someone to get it back, Eddie—who is so excited to have been made an Attaché that he gets a badge made—is deployed by their father to assist John, and a very smart and determined detective, Agathe Albans (Aliette Opheim), picks up the homicide investigation.
Also, because he’s sidetracked by killing people and chasing down the garment bag full of money, John misses a super important piping meeting, thus pissing off his boss, Leslie Claret (Kurtwood Smith), and jeopardizing his whole cover as an engineer. And finally, he cannot, for love, honor, or money, get the government to provide him with a chair for his Milwaukee apartment.
The chair is one of my favorite parts because it’s such a small running gag that pokes at the dark, bureaucratic underbelly of the American government, which somehow produces a backdoor plan and enough cash to sway a foreign election, but cannot fulfill a request for a single chair. There are other kinds of quiet jokes throughout the show. Agathe, the detective, settles many disputes and stalemates by playing rounds of rochambeau (rock, paper, scissors), which sometimes go on, silently except for the sounds of people’s hands moving, for several minutes. And people feel honor-bound to respect the eventual results. (Moments like this and others feel distinctly like they’re paying homage to Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther. Though there’s probably a more high-class comparison that real reviewers would make.) There is an extended engineering pitch about piping that is done in one continuous take and manages to be simultaneously unintelligible and hilarious while feeling absolutely vulgar. There’s a lot of duck hunting, which, honestly, feels so ludicrous that I can only assume it’s based on someone’s actual experience. There’s a human resources manager who suggests John learn card tricks to manage his stress and a coworker who looks like Ichabod Crane and really wants to commune through cuddling.
And you see what I mean about a lot of moving parts, right? Please trust that these are not all the moving parts or plotlines. Steve Conrad, the creator and writer of the show, said that the elevator pitch for Patriot would have to happen in the Empire State Building’s elevator. That or whatever elevator is used by every series or movie wanting to show a prolonged private conversation between floors. Either way, there’s no succinct way to sum it up, which I think is part of its attraction for me and its repulsion for those who don’t like it. The offbeat group of supporting characters are also well-rounded and become a sort of utterly dysfunctional and disjointed, but determined, family to John and each other. We learn about Leslie’s previous fall from grace, Eddie’s secret family, Agathe’s stint in a children’s home, and Dennis’s fears of his own children, among many other things. Even the guy John pushed under a truck in order to get the job, Stephen (Marcus Toji), despite a massively traumatic brain injury, ends up working beside John who desperately works to undermine any progress Stephen makes toward recovering his memory of the “accident.”
There are loopy coincidences that might not be so loopy after all and meandering digressions that might end up being the entire point. Everything is incredibly complicated and, at the same time, pretty straightforward, which I think is the point. Take for example, the sequence that follows the origins of the money-filled bag from a Chinese factory to a pivotal moment when its poorly sewn seams seal everyone’s (at least temporary) fate. You could argue that the whole thing is just unnecessary bloat, but I would argue that it adds layers. Or the way it follows that same bag as it moves from one room to another to another and back again, managing to build tension while also exploring sexism and bureaucracy as it goes. Or the way a choice that John made as a child may be the thing that undoes the entire mission.
From the beginning, it’s clear that John is in way over his head with this mission. He is depressed and tired and sad and, it appears, morally conflicted about all the violence he inflicts. Most of this is communicated through John’s folk songs, his facial expressions—which can switch from hangdog to gleeful to mischievous in an instant—and through silent stares exchanged with other characters. When asked how he’s doing, John almost always answers with some variant of “pretty good,” which is always spoken in the same soft, unemotional tone. He’s prodded along by his father—who sees that John is almost at his breaking point, but is desperate to maintain power and control—to keep going no matter the cost to himself or others.
(There’s a part that made me snort where his father, who has calmly insisted John assassinate any number of people, scolds him for smoking “the doobies” while in Amsterdam.) And, with help of an ever growing number of people who—either by accident or necessity—are in on the secret mission, he keeps plodding forward until he almost resembles the patriotic human equivalent of the Giving Tree. I think there’s a lot to be parsed there about how caustic things like patriotism and masculinity and filial duty can be. And about the importance of community, vulnerability, and intimacy. I mean, I’m not going to do that right now, but one definitely could.
Look, I realize this is a lot, and perhaps I’m not even explaining it in the best way. And you know, urinals and white guys in suits aside, it took me a bit to really commit to watching the series. Or, I guess I didn’t really commit to it? I just found myself deeply unable to stop watching, which is somehow even better. I mean, it’s just so weird and mesmerizing and funny and sad. And I think to really enjoy this show you do have to let yourself get pulled into Patriot‘s swirling current that is sometimes lazy and sometimes zany, which will carry you along from silly gags to dark suffering to shaggy dog stories to commentaries on humanity. And yes, along the way there will be a lot more urinals than you might expect.