It Starts On The Page: Read ‘The Sympathizer’ Premiere Script “Death Wish” By Don McKellar & Park Chan-wook

Editor’s note: Deadline’s It Starts on the Page features standout limited or anthology series scripts in 2024 Emmy contention.

“What they want to hear, Sir, is that we still share a purpose: the Mission Civilization, a faith in the good fight, the American way, et cetera,” double agent the Captain (Hoa Xuande) tells the desperate General (Toan Le) as the fall of Saigon appears imminent in the opening episode of HBO’s The Sympathizer. “A sophomore debate theme for a Fort Leavenworth alum like yourself.”

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In many ways, the line from the “Death Wish” script, written by The Sympathizer creators Don McKellar and Park Chan-wook, sums up the complexities and duplicities of the premium cabler’s multi-genre limited series based on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning novel of the same name.

Starring Robert Downey Jr in several roles personifying America and its disastrous involvement in Southeast Asia, The Sympathizer flipped the script literally and figuratively on the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

As Old Boy helmer Park, who also directed the premiere, and McKellar explain in the forward to their script below, the seven-episode The Sympathizer embraces unconventional wisdom and takes a new perspective on a history too many of us have learned from Hollywood movies.

This script is about writing. Writing under pressure, under the scrutiny of merciless supervision. Perhaps some of you can identify.

Our hero, the Captain, is an author, a reluctant author, forced to tell his story — or rather, re-tell his story, a story we think we already know — the story of the Vietnam War and its consequences. Our perception of that absurd and horrifying war has been formed mostly by Hollywood, in spectacles that primarily focus on US soldiers and the fallout back home. But the Captain is necessarily telling the story from his side, the other side, a side no less fraught with biases and contradictions, — from the perspective of a Vietnamese communist spy.

For ourselves, however, the screenwriters, we don’t mean to suggest that writing this script was torture. It wasn’t. The novel that the series is based on is wildly entertaining, opinionated and frequently hilarious. It was a gift to have the book’s characters and great set pieces in our arsenal. Its sheer verve challenged us to go for some of the bigger swings. It doesn’t turn its nose up at those Hollywood depictions of the war; it tries to get inside them and show why they work. We don’t want to give away the series finale, but suffice it to say that it is his pleasure in storytelling that turns out to be the Captain’s fatal flaw as a doctrinaire communist. He learns that the orthodoxies and agendas fighting to structure and constrict his narrative can’t sustain themselves. In the end, his bare humanity and individuality are all that are left to keep the story going.

Ok, we hear you, this may be a self-serving take for a pair of TV screenwriters, but it kept us going through the pandemic and the long road to our air date.

Enjoy the read.


Click below to read the script.

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