Going with the flow

Michael Dorman in Patriot

When I put the last mark on a painting, it’s almost never what I expected it to be during the first brushstroke. And I’m usually surprised several dozen times while getting from start to finish by what I’m required to do. So I can identify a bit with the protagonist in Amazon’s original series, Patriot. It’s a funny, poignant, and whimsically Kafkaesque series built around the personality of a sad-sack folk singer whose day job is working in Special Ops for the CIA. Actually, he has two day jobs. The other is his NOC, his non-official cover, as an industrial engineer working in a bleak Rust Belt factory in Milwaukee where he specializes in the “structural dynamics of flow.” In layman’s terms: piping. His company, McMillan, builds conduits for anything and everything, creating perfect circles in a world of epic imperfection, both planetary and human. These indispensable imperfections are what drive the story forward through one entertaining absurdity after another.

The theme of the show is “the structural dynamics of flow,” the principles of moving anything from Point A to Point B, that could apply to both McMillan piping and counter-intelligence. Likewise, Lakeman, with the help of his family and a co-worker, attempts to get $11 million Euros through airport security into Amsterdam and then on its way to Iran via a courier in Luxembourg. (His family cohort includes Cool Rick, Lakeman’s Beastie Boys-obsessed brother, and his father, who presides over most of the action as a seasoned but compassionate “control” who is professionally imperiled by his son’s mistakes.)

Nothing and no one in the show gets from Point A to Point B as planned. McMillan is going bankrupt. The covert payoff is making the rounds of Luxembourg as more and more people try to get their hands on it. The show’s surreal silliness reaches a pinnacle when its protagonist attempts to retrieve the stolen garment bag full of loot from a Brazilian baggage handler. The man has high-tailed it back to his apartment, where he’s rooming with what appear to be half a dozen South American wrestlers. When Lakeman breaks in to steal the bag, the wrestlers, bare-chested and bald—like mutant clones of Vin Diesel—emerge from various doorways and impassively pile atop Lakeman, which evidently is their go-to jujitsu move. The vignette is more like an avant-garde Busby Berkeley number than hand-to-hand combat. There are no Jason Bourne tussles in this show. Lakeman has to stab one of the fighters to get away and finally delivers the money to the Iranian agent. But the Iranian loses the bag to a thieving puppeteer who then gets arrested for stealing a dog collar, and the money ends up in something like a casual evidence room while the puppeteer serves her five days in jail.

In his spare time—yes, he actually has enough of it to write music—Lakeman performs his own folk songs in the manner of Sun Kil Moon, long rambling confessions (I kept waiting for him to say blue crab cakes) that don’t rhyme but are as sad and funny as the show. He appears to be too depressed to recognize or care that he’s doling out highly confidential state secrets as ironic confessional poetry. The dry tone that runs throughout the show’s intentional absurdities becomes most acute when characters start riffing in pipe-speak. It’s the inside gibberish of their profession, which is often hilarious—a nerd’s version of a rapper’s own sort of flow. Here’s an excerpt from one episode’s transcript, the moment in Amsterdam when John’s boss, Leslie, introduces him to the audience assembled in a grand theater, as if for a performance of Beethoven’s late quartets:

And now to explain the core of Donnely nut plate spacing and cracked reconfiguration, my associate, John Lakeman.

(Light applause)

Lakeman: Hey, guys. Hey. Ready to talk plate processing and residue transport plate funneling? Why don’t we start with joust jambs? Hey, why not? Plates and jousts? Can we couple them? Hell, yeah, we can. Want to know how? Get this. Proprietary to McMillan. Only us. Ready? We fit Donnely nut spacing grip grids and splay-flexed brace columns against beam-fastened derrick husk nuts and girdle plate Jerries, while plate flex tandems press task apparati of 10 vertipin-plated pan traps at every maiden clamp plate packet. Knuckle couplers plate alternating sprams from the T-Nut to the S. K. N to the chim line.

Stunned Euro guy in audience: Whoa.

One of the story lines is that Lakeman, the protagonist, has to compete with Stephen, a bright and cheerful Asian applicant for a job at McMillan, which Lakeman must land since McMillan does business in Iran—where he needs to go in order to help stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon. Lakeman doesn’t stand a chance against Stephen, since Lakeman never quite gets his piping in order, through most of the showSo he leans back on his special CIA training and decides to shove Stephen in front of a bus. As a result of his head injury, Stephen can still do his work at breakneck speed on a laptop, but he needs someone else to actually open the laptop for him, at which point he begins typing furiously and far too productively for Lakeman’s comfort, prompting Lakeman to quietly shut the display, putting both computer and Stephen back into sleep mode.

Stephen’s most serious injury is the loss of his sense of humor. He no longer can make jokes or recognize irony. His therapist is determined to rehabilitate his sense of humor. What’s amusing about this conceit is that the pretty young therapist could just as well have devoted herself to getting Lakeman himself to lighten up. He rarely smiles and never laughs in the series. He executes his mission in a somnambulistic funk, which at times actually becomes useful as a badass numbness, enabling him to kill whoever needs killing, as occasion warrants. The lead actor, Michael Dorman, has a face that looks designed by Gary Trudeau, locked into a rueful, stunned melancholy at the duplicitous life he’s chosen.

In this world, the life of an intelligence operative is hardly romantic, rarely satisfying. Budgets are lean. An administrative aide from Langley can’t even come up with the scratch to buy a chair for Lakeman’s flat. Screw-ups abound and when the agency issues Lakeman a fake Social Security card, there are ten numbers for McMillan HR to choke on, so he nearly loses his job because of one too many digits. There is no Aston-Martin with turrets for headlamps here. He has his wits and a knife, some duct tape and a guitar string, to accomplish his mission.

It’s a beautiful show, full of dolorous slow comedy. Sometimes, the movie’s mannerisms become too whimsically Wes Anderson. One stylistic tic is to present a character’s face in the center of the screen, staring at the camera, often with an architecturally symmetrical backdrop, a practice that grows a little old as you get deeper into the episodes. By the end of the season, Lakeman has achieved deep wisdom in the structural dynamics of flow. As he tells the detective in the final scene, “Wherever you’re going, you’re not going to be able to get from here to there as easily as you think.”

One of the best things about the show is the opening title sequence. As is true of many shows, it’s at least equal or even superior in emotional power to everything in the story. It has the same delicate balance between humor and sadness, a similar wry take on human endeavor as a whole, sending you into a timeless dream state for the semi-pitiful goofiness that ensues. In the case of Patriot, the opening number is a folk song from the 60s, The Train by Vashti Bunyan. It’s lyrics are a kind of simplified version of The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter, the Chinese poem Ezra Pound translated. It plays behind a medley of home-movie clips, which feels like a quiet salute to the opening of The Wonder Years. You see Lakeman—the character’s real name in the show is John Tavner—as a little rambunctious kid risking his health and safety again and again, doing a jig after dismounting from a miniature dirt bike, riding a sheep in a rodeo until he gets slammed into a wall, showing off a missing tooth for the camera, and finally, taking aim at a target with a scoped rifle, maybe steadying himself to shoot a gun for the first time in his life. The sequence ends with the kick of the rifle as he fires, nearly knocking the boy onto his back as the song enters its poignant chorus. The poetry of it is moving and perfectly done. Everything in the story follows from the spirit of that shot.

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