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You Aren’t Watching ‘Patriot,’ but You Should Be

Amazon’s dark comedy about spycraft is incredibly messed up. This is a compliment.

Amazon/Ringer illustration

Let me begin by saying that I struggle to talk rationally about Patriot, so great is my affection and so low the odds that you’ve heard of it. But we must speak plainly now, because parent studio Amazon has given us a gift: Despite its awful SEO and progressively more cancellation-happy overlords, Patriot returns for its second season Friday, three full years after its pilot episode. Do you like dark? Do you like funny? Can you tolerate some intermittent head-bashing in the name of American imperialism and/or ennui? Join me on this ride, friend.

I can see, I guess, how you might have shrugged the first time Patriot popped up (or didn’t; it’s entirely possible you just learned about this show in the last paragraph). The show’s underlying premise—begrudging CIA operative carries out increasingly cockamamie international missions in the name of national security—was the sort of kooky/dark setup that, under the sheen of the corporate prestige television machine, prompted some reviewers to write off the first season as an example of Peak TV’s bloat and “over-confidence in old ideas,” or just another thing to “get around to watching someday.”

But here’s the thing: Patriot is really, incredibly, ecstatically messed up. The show takes a spy drama and runs it through a filter of Veep-style oh-god-are-they-really … ? humor and the weirdo tenderness of—I’m dead serious—Amélie. Its closest recent comparison might be Killing Eve, at least from a murder-as-camp perspective. The show is the brainchild of Steve Conrad, whose previous credits include the gloriously bleak The Weather Man and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and, yeah, that’s about where the pulse sits.

Our begrudging CIA operative is one John Tavner (played by the supremely effective, little-known-in-the-U.S. Kiwi actor Michael Dorman), who takes orders from his extralegally inclined government father, Tom (played by Terry O’Quinn, a.k.a. John Locke from Lost). The specifics of that extralegality—Iran! Nuclear weapons! Inconvenient jiujitsu experts!—matter less than what Patriot calls the jellyfish problem: You try to get rid of one jellyfish and you end up with a whole lot more of them. John’s directives keep going wrong, and the solutions to those problems create their own problems, all of them kaleidoscopically weird (a dissertation on the blight of European “accordion pimps”) and, frequently, violence-demanding (a pal specializing in disarming victims via a sock full of dimes). (If the marine biological axiom feels a little, uh, off, consider that our hero picked it up on a mission from someone who had been tortured by having “American Pie” blasted at them on loop.)

Season 1 chronicled the jellyfishing of a seemingly simple job gone wrong (no spoilers, I promise). That job—get hired by a nondescript Milwaukee manufacturing company that makes regular business trips to Luxembourg; use this as cover to deliver a duffel bag of cash to a foreign asset in Luxembourg—is a case study in the writing craft at work in the plot.

The new season picks up with the ripples of that earlier job, plus updated marching orders—an assassination!—that promptly go awry. But the main story in Patriot’s second chapter is a deeper one: Can John, who’s been wracking up concussions and writing folk songs (yes, folk songs) about hating his job, be saved from the evils of his work, or has he slipped, in the words of the European police officer who’s been tailing him this whole time, into being a ghoul? Unthinkable violence befalls a friendly grocer and a child in a park and a kindly aunt and a young detective and a basically nice former coworker. The show is funny even—or especially—when it’s at its most morbid, but the second season doesn’t just play the violence off for laughs. We see John creaking under the weight of the terrible things he’s done. Taken together, it is, at times, genuinely moving, which only makes John’s eventual, begrudging knuckle cracks that much funnier.

The first season of Patriot suffered somewhat in that it was already outdated by the time it aired: The show came through Amazon’s pilot program, so while its debut came at the end of 2015, the rest of the season didn’t arrive until early 2017. The result was that much of the international intrigue felt stale: In the pre–Iran-deal world of 2015, pearl-clutching over the country’s nuclear ambitions made a lot more sense. Now the show has caught up with the present, and has had the great sense to mostly avoid talking about politics. And so Patriot sticks to its meat and potatoes—namely, freaky spycraft and Dorman’s thousand-yard stare. And, bleak as it is, it’s just funnier that way.