clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Amazon’s Patriot is a messy, bloated antihero drama I couldn’t stop watching

This generic show, stocked with clichés, doubles as a sneaky, dark satire of American capitalism

John and his dad, Tom, get ready for the next mission.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I wasn’t planning to review Patriot, Amazon’s latest drama series. I found the pilot formless, too pleased with its own cleverness, and stylishly nonsensical; like too many streaming dramas, it felt like somebody’s screenplay for a movie, pointlessly expanded to 10 hours when it might have struggled to fill two.

But I kept watching the show nonetheless. And while I don’t know if I’d precisely recommend it — its 10-episode first season still feels at least five hours too long — I found myself getting more and more invested in its loopy rhythms with each passing episode. I even downloaded the season’s final two installments to my phone, so I could watch them on a plane. And I’m glad I stuck with the series, even as I still suspect there were better uses of my time.

See, the thing is that Patriot is two shows in one, but instead of those two shows informing each other, neither seems aware of the other’s existence. The first is pretty standard antihero dross: A handsome guy cuts his way through his problems, leaving bodies in his wake and feeling increasingly despondent about his choices.

But the second is a rather elaborate satire of American capitalism in the 21st century, of the United States’ desperate attempts to remain a superpower, and of the notion of living in a waning empire. It’s fitfully funny, occasionally sad, and fond of long digressions that seemingly have nothing to do with anything — but might be the whole point.

These two shows don’t really fit together, so at times, Patriot feels like it’s composed entirely of Breaking Bad cold opens — those stylish prologues that kicked off every episode of the decade’s defining antihero drama. But the deeper I got into Patriot, the more I found myself tuning into its wavelength.

The antihero stuff is Patriot’s least interesting element by far

Kurtwood Smith drops by as John’s new boss, Leslie.

There’s a potentially interesting nugget of an idea at the heart of Patriot: In order to carry out certain missions overseas, the CIA must embed operatives deep in the heart of American companies that do business in other countries, where the CIA can carry out its operations slightly more under the radar..

Thus, Patriot is about John Lakeman, a guy who appears to be a new employee at McMillan, a Milwaukee piping company. But he’s actually John Tavner, a CIA agent who would instead prefer to be a folk musician (under yet another name, presumably).

John’s been assigned to McMillan by Tom (Terry O’Quinn), his father and apparent handler. But as soon as John arrives at MacMillan, it becomes clear that he’s way in over his head when it comes to the modern piping industry and, as such, has to keep inventing new reasons to tag along on company trips to Luxembourg, where Tom is hoping to use John to facilitate the passing of cash to the CIA’s preferred candidate in an upcoming Iranian election.

I would say “got all that?” but that’s really all there is to get. Patriot’s main story is a shaggy dog tale — meaning that it involves a lot of random twists and turns, and a bunch of characters who get involved in pursuit of the money John’s supposed to be handing off, but it’s actually not all that complicated in the end. The show is full of complications, but it mistakes them for complexity.

This means the antihero stuff isn’t as interesting as it thinks it is. John gets sad about the turns his life has taken. He records a folk album that takes off in central Europe (and which also features a musician played by Sons of Anarchy’s Mark Boone Junior, a welcome presence). He tries to negotiate the two alpha males in his life — his father and his new boss, Leslie, played by the great Kurtwood Smith.

But neither John nor the actor playing him, Michael Dorman, is charismatic enough to carry this aspect of the show. Creator and screenwriter Steve Conrad (who also directed the bulk of Patriot’s first season) seems to have an occasionally keen sense of the absurdity of John’s day-to-day life, and there’s a fight sequence in a stairwell I quite enjoyed because it was played for laughs, but I never escaped the feeling of having been there, done that.

That’s why everything else happening on the show is so intriguing.

The show has something really smart to say about capitalism’s decline — when it wants to

Hey, if Mark Boone Junior wants to start a folk rock duo with you, you start a folk rock duo.

To a degree, the shagginess of Patriot’s story is the point. The first thing we see John do is push a fellow candidate for the McMillan job in front of a truck, and that candidate returns to McMillan to work, even though he has a massive brain injury, because he’s seen as so much stronger for the job than John. (Truth be told, he is.)

That’s how I eventually came to think of Patriot — as a show that had suffered massive brain trauma and needed surgery that rendered the left and right halves of its brain unaware of each other’s existence. The antihero stuff proceeds on such a well-worn track because the digressions that initially seem like pointless ways to fill time ultimately start to take over the show.

Pull back a little bit, and Patriot becomes about the desperate schemes of rich, white, American men to stay in power, even though the world is changing around them. (Maybe it’s telling that the man John pushes in front of a truck is of Asian descent.)

Many scenes take the form of tableaux of America masculinity — duck hunts, late-night conversations sessions on the porch, father-son bonding — but true intimacy is nowhere to be seen. All that exists is how to succeed in business without really trying.

Conrad is fond of setting these stories against a backdrop of the global sprawl of capitalism, to illustrate that nobody is exempt from its reach. (One scene even travels all the way to China to trace the origins of a very important duffel bag.) But back in the US, industry is drying up. McMillan is situated in a slowly decaying industrial park, where giant concrete piping looms, and Conrad frames many scenes so that the characters are dominated by reminders of America’s industrial past. All that’s left is the shell game — moving money around and making sure things get from point A to point B.

This approach never quite attains liftoff to become truly vital, but there’s a kind of dark wisdom to it. This is how an empire dies — not by fire or ice, but at the hands of a few people with power they’re desperately trying not to lose. Patriot is immensely fond of having characters speak in the idioms of masculinity past; you’ll hear many of them allude to the older, industrial world, where you could make a living with your hands. But nobody’s doing that any more. Instead, they’re all just trying to make off with as much of the loot as they can, before the world comes calling.

Patriot’s first season is streaming on Amazon Prime.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.