“Pretty Good:” On Patriot and Spies as Falling Stars

A man holds a guitar in the street in a scene from Patriot
Amazon Studios

Meet John Lakeman. Well, first meet John Tavner. They share a name, a body, an existentially tortured soul, but not yet a purpose. That is to say, John Tavner (Michael Dorman) is a spy: a patriot, a mutable vessel for his country. Fingers severed, teeth pulled, spirit broken—whatever sacrifice is necessary to complete the All Important Mission, he will gladly (or at least ably) undertake. And when his country asks him to adopt the surname of Lakeman, he will. 

But not yet. When we meet John, he’s just singing. We’re introduced to the spy as a busker, sitting on a lonely bench in Amsterdam, peddling his soul to passersby. Or really, the soul of his nation, since the lyrics of his improvisational folk tune recount his latest mission, a botched assassination that ended with John accidentally killing an innocent housekeeper. With his real target (and his real purpose) scattered in the wind, John is in hiding, spending his non-busking hours riding a bike with the brakes ominously removed—or getting high—or aching. 

It’s clear even in these first few scenes that John is trapped in a state you might call “stoically verklempt,” an oxymoron whose contradiction contains the central tension of Patriot (2015-2018), the short-lived but well-loved (by my dad and me, at least) series from creator Steven Conrad. We meet our hero at the end of his rope, full of obvious remorse and pain but unable to express it outside of song. When asked how he’s doing, he only knows two words: “Pretty good,” a funny-sad response whose balance tips towards the latter half of that hyphenate as its lie grows increasingly ludicrous. And boy does it, since this hero’s journey is only headed south from rock bottom, with all the doomed poetry of a falling star. 

Over its two seasons, Patriot traces that meteoric descent with a humanist’s touch, turning international espionage into quotidian drama and grounding the global politics of nuclear armament in the mundane specifics of industrial piping workplaces and father-son dynamics. In fleshing out its many quirks with the brokenhearted humanity that often gets sublimated (along with everything else) into the Greater Good, the show recasts the familiar tale of a selfless national servant as that of a man sacrificed on the altar of patriotism—and by his father, no less. 

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As it happens, John wasn’t just serving his country when he killed the housekeeper, but also his dad, Tom Tavner (Terry O’Quinn), a steely Director of Intelligence at the CIA. International affairs are the Tavner family business, and it’s John’s brother, congressman Edward “Eddie” Tavner (Michael Chernus), whom Tom sends to extract John from Amsterdam. In another story, this might scan as an act of familial love—and, as carried out by the affable Eddie, it’s not not that—but in Patriot, there’s an ulterior motive behind the visage of affection.

Specifically: the prevention of a nuclear Iran. It’s 2012, and the leading candidate in Iran’s presidential election is Cantar Walley (Jay Abdo), a big fan of nuclear weapons and a big international threat (per the CIA) if elected. To stop that from happening, Tom needs the shattered John Tavner to become the enterprising John Lakeman, going under “non-official cover” as an engineer at McMillan, a Milwaukeean firm specializing in piping and thus offering a plausible reason for John to be in Luxembourg, where a covert donation in support of Walley’s moderate rival is planned. In theory, John’s job is just to get a job—become a “McMillan Man”—and then use the cover of that job to deliver a bag of money. Point A to Point B. 

Patriot, though, is not about the theory of A to B, but the practice—the “Structural Dynamics of Flow,” as John’s new boss, Leslie Claret (Kurtwood Smith), terms it in his industrial text of the same name. Leslie typifies the McMillan Man, all hard work and attention to detail and hilariously hyperbolic shop talk (“We bolster twelve husk nuts to each girdle-jerry while flex tandems press a task apparatus of ten vertically composited patch handlers…”), and he has even less patience for the depressed and distracted John than Smith’s Red Forman had for his son Eric. Because of the non-official status of John’s cover, he can’t badge his way into a McMillan job; he’ll have to rip it from Leslie’s iron grasp. 

In one of the show’s first divergences from the theoretically straight path from A to B, John flunks his interview with Leslie, while his competition, Stephen Tchoo (Marcus Toji), aces his. Under pressure from his dad to get the job at all costs (whomst among us), John severs the branch as violently as he can, pushing Stephen in front of a van. 

In the moment, this seems like quite a severe move to secure a mid-level position at a piping company, but that conflation of drastic actions with banal effects (and vice versa) comes to define Patriot’s worldview. This isn’t the movie where the spy races across Europe to dramatically defuse a bomb; this is the show where the spy has to memorize the difference between a flam-fastened pan trap and a splay-flexed brace column in order to secure a ticket to Europe in the first place. From Conrad’s perspective, the gears of society are turned by the people on the ground. Everything else is extrapolation, the resultant apparatus of a world too complicated for its own good. 

In fitting with that landborne view of the world, surprisingly little gets traditionally accomplished over Patriot’s 18 episodes—though in John’s defense, surprisingly much gets in his way. John is something like the living manifestation of Murphy’s Law, a fact the show plays for constant (dark) humor, a sort of reverse superpower. If something can stop John from delivering A to B, it will. 

As it turns out, the “to” in “A to B” is more of a continuum than a preposition. A point five (A.5) exists, as does negative B (-B). When John lands in Luxembourg, he isn’t even out of the airport before his bag of Iranian election money is stolen by an airport employee. One better, the thief is part of a family of Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighters, a fact John learns the hard way when he goes to retrieve the money and ends up killing one of them to escape with the bag. When he does get the bag to its drop-off point (B?), the man he delivers it to is, of course, actually working for Walley, meaning all of John’s efforts have only inadvertently funded the enemy (-B). And because he was busy with the bag, John missed an important McMillan meeting and is cut from the traveling team by Leslie (-C). This all happens in the very first episode. 

The rest of John’s journey is similarly stymied, one step forward and two steps off a cliff. In the show’s parlance, the job of international peacekeeping is littered with “jellyfish”: just when you’ve solved one problem, it self-divides into two. You’d think such consistent frustration would transfer to the viewer, but Conrad’s universe is so relentlessly coincidental as to create the impression of a cohesive logic. It’s a small world after all, and if serendipitous meetings and comically unlucky timings don’t usually have nuclear fallout, Patriot at least makes you wonder.

To wit: before John has to show up to the Luxembourg police station to be interviewed by Agathe Albans (Aliette Opheim), the dogged detective investigating the jiu-jitsu fighter’s murder, he sneaks into her house to swipe any incriminating evidence, where he’s spotted by her daughter. Not a huge deal, until he arrives at the station on Bring Your Kids to Work Day. 

Furthermore, John only broke into Agathe’s home to begin with because he knew she’d found a CD with his face on it. During his blue period in Amsterdam, he met a friendly songster named Rob Saperstein (Mark Boone Junior) and their friendship blossomed into an EP of hopeful folk songs. Transposing his pain into something beautiful was a ray of light in an otherwise cloudy era (Saperstein’s wisdom for the depressed: “When I feel bad generally, I just do something specifically that’s fun”), so of course the cruel logic of John’s world would use it to trap him.

These ironies are funny in isolation, but they add to the overarching sense that John is beset on all sides. How do you survive when the entire world seems to be conspiring against your personal happiness? Depression can conjure up this question in anyone, divorced from reality—but John’s case does seem to be substantially evidenced. And while he does many bad things for questionable causes, his sins are always in the name of the father, a degree of separation that allows us to feel like his exaggerated misfortunes are happening to him instead of because of him.

That may be splitting hairs, but it’s an impression that John himself sustains, bearing the most ridiculous setbacks with a straight face. He wears his “Pretty good”s like armor, never letting the tumult in his skull break the surface. And while a more superficial version of this story might use this emotional suppression as yet another angle on toxic masculinity, Conrad’s approach is more oblique. In tandem with John’s constant self-sublimation into whatever cause he’s inheriting from Dad, his lack of vulnerability plays more like an effort not to infringe on the mission (or anyone else). If someone’s gotta suffer the burden of his work, he’d rather it be him.

The delusion that all his suffering for the cause will be worthwhile in the end is propped up, artfully, by the show itself, which uses its rhythms and forms to coach us—and John—to be patient. Conrad and his fellow writers and directors favor long scenes and infrequent cuts, letting the superlative actors play out complicated turns with the focused leisure of a stage play. They often frame their shots with wide, painterly compositions that show off the cityscapes, sometimes placing the camera so far from the characters that we can hardly see their lips move. 

Without any of the usual footholds for a conversational scene, we’re left to watch for subtle shifts in body language while listening to their words and taking in the gorgeous backdrops. John’s songs frequently soundtrack the show as well (soulfully performed by Dorman himself!), offering plaintive ruminations on his struggles that aren’t hopeful in content so much as form; we can only hope that putting his dark thoughts into song is healthier than putting them elsewhere. 

Whether this unusual narrative pace sets the tempo for John’s approach or is a cinematic reflection of it, there’s an undeniable synchronicity between the show and its hero. But for all that meditative calmness in the face of danger, John’s lackadaisical approach to spycraft can still get frustrating at times. It’s hard not to feel that with just a little more pep in his step, he could keep his multitude of plates spinning. As the show goes on, though, it becomes clearer that his disaffected crawl toward Point B is rooted in a larger disillusionment. How do you choose between country and self? Father and self? Father and another living soul? 

John’s response to all those split allegiances is to burrow deeper into himself, carrying out his tasks with as little urgency and as great a remove from his own actions as possible—which, unfortunately for him, isn’t very much. Safe at home with his stateside politicking and fatherly manipulation, Tom exists on the plane of generalities; he’s fighting the idea of an armed Iran. John, meanwhile, is bound to the world of practicalities; he’s fighting jiu-jitsu-trained Brazilians when he’s lucky, unarmed women and children when he’s not. How could he not question the cause?

This dichotomy between officers and soldiers is common to most spy dramas, but the divide isn’t usually between a father and son—the political charged with the personal. John doesn’t have the privilege of hating his boss. This is where the show’s title starts to slide into place. By inextricably tying John’s sense of national service to his relationship with his father, Patriot broadens the idea of patriotism to examine undying service to anything or anyone—Uncle Sam and father Tom, all rolled into one. 

As John tries and fails to reconcile these ideas, the cognitive dissonance and his physical travails increasingly tear him apart; he becomes his own self-dividing jellyfish. This inner conflict combines with his cosmic misfortune to create a lose-lose conundrum. What’s worse: doing a bad thing for your dad/country, or failing to do so? In the face of such an impossible question, John fights to maintain his “pretty good,” but the effort accumulates; his straight face begins to crack. 

If we thought John was at the end of his rope in the series premiere, he’s found new limits to his suffering by the season’s end. Hunted by the police, on thin ice with McMillan, and still in pursuit of the bag of money, he reaches a breaking point when Tom orders him to kill the Iranian woman Walley sent to collect the cash. Instead, John rides his brakeless bike through red lights until a car puts him out of his misery. Self-sacrificial to the end, he’d rather kill himself than yet another person. 

No such easy out. Barely on the surviving end of his suicide attempt, John—against the protests of Eddie—is sent back out by Tom to find the money. His unending body-and-soul beatdown manifests in another example of camera-and-character fusion: whenever the show puts us in John’s POV, it’s as if we’re looking through a plastic bag, our vision blurring at the edges. Literally all he can see is the task in front of him, and barely even that. Watching, at this point, is almost painful, John and the viewer alike reaching the point of no return. Mercifully, just before we can get there, we’re offered a lifeline: Patriot’s sublime second season, and its unexpected swerve toward transcendent grace.

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It’s telling that we’ve gotten this far without mentioning that John is married. For much of the first season, his wife, Alice (Kathleen Munroe), is relegated to the sidelines. Unaware of what John’s doing or where he is, her only line of communication is via audio files they smuggle back and forth—hers, jokey catch-ups and sweet nothings; his, songs detailing his declining mental state. Increasingly doubtful that Tom is prioritizing his son’s safety and worried about John’s musical admission to seeing his nocturnal bike rides as ambivalent flirtations with death, she does try to sneak past protocol to visit him in Milwaukee in season one, only to be stopped by Tom. After she learns of John’s attempted suicide, though, nothing can keep her from Europe. 

Alice’s intercontinental journey to her broken husband is Patriot’s first grand gesture of grace. While John’s love for her was never in question, his continual choice to stay on his dangerous path was an implicitly selfish one, and one the show subtly underscores by letting Alice’s relative scarcity in the first season speak to John’s lack of consideration for the woman suffering on his behalf. When Alice finally finds him in Europe, the first thing she says is that she knows what he does and she still loves him—a moving act of generosity that also recontextualizes John’s commitment to the cause. 

It’s tempting to paint self-sacrifice in the name of nobility or duty or whatever as an inherently selfless act, but when people care about you (and someone out there cares about everyone out there), then self-sacrifice is freighted with more than just the self. John’s vision might’ve been too (literally) clouded to see it, but in offering himself up on the altar of patriotism or sonhood or whatever, he was also sacrificing Alice. Despite this, whether because she understands his reasons or simply forgives him regardless, Alice is—inspiringly—the bigger person. 

The grace-filled reunions don’t stop there. Though John’s slow-motion slide toward oblivion continues throughout the second season, it’s punctuated by a steady gathering of family and friends. There’s darkness, still, but it’s being slowly fractured by love, light starting to seep in through the cracks. 

Through a series of plot contrivances (coincidence!), John and Alice are joined in Paris by Tom, and Leslie, and Eddie, and Saperstein, and even John’s mom (and US Secretary of Transportation), Bernice (Debra Winger). Most of these characters have been at odds with John throughout the two seasons, but after spending so much time keeping one side or the other in the dark, radical honesty paves the way for even the unlikeliest reconciliations. 

Even Leslie, recently humbled by his relapse into addiction (in part thanks to John) and his tenuous relationship with his own son, is able to forgive and understand. None of this is deserved, but its improbability makes it even sweeter, some impossible kindness to push back against all the impossible cruelty. When Bernice asks John if all these mishmashed people are supposed to be gathered together, John puts it plainly: “No, but it’s okay—they’re my friends.”

If there’s one holdout to these warm-and-fuzzies, it’s Tom, whose dedication to his mission is ongoing, if wavering. When he has a heart-to-heart with Leslie, Leslie answers the question of how he’s doing with the honesty John’s never achieved outside of song: “Not too good, Tom.” Tom returns his honesty in kind, admitting for the first time that he hasn’t been the best father, and that John’s been a better son. In their makeshift cathedral of broken fatherhood, Tom confesses to Leslie that he hopes his relationship with John is salvageable—that John will one day be able to understand and forgive his father. 

Meanwhile, Alice is facing an ethical quandary of her own. From the minute she landed in Europe, she was implicated in the kidnapping of Agathe’s daughter, Myna (Jolie Olympia Choko), whom John took in the hope of swapping her for the bag of money now in Agathe’s possession. While in Alice’s care, Myna asks why John was willing to hurt people, and Alice—searching for some justification for all their malfeasance—says it was to prevent something worse from happening. But Myna calls her bluff, asking why they wouldn’t hurt her, then. “Because there is nothing worse than hurting you,” Alice replies. “If they have to hurt you to help the world, then the world’s too broken already, and it should blow up, and who cares.” 

Without biking into traffic, Alice has reached the same moral opt-out point as her husband, which is why she goes along with Agathe’s plan: using the money to implicate Tom as the mastermind of all these crimes. Agathe has long understood what Alice is just now catching up on: John can’t say no to his dad. As the detective gently puts it to Alice, “Your husband is not yet a ghoul. Please help me apprehend the man who’s changing him.” And more poetically: “Alice, your husband is crying mercy, but he has no voice.”

Meanwhile, Tom assigns John his final last-ditch mission: assassinating Walley before he leaves Paris. Barely able to see at this point, with multiple surgically reattached fingers, John dutifully acquiesces, climbing over every last (electrocuted) fence en route to the endgame. And maybe it’s Leslie, or Bernice, or a final grasp at redemption upon seeing the damage he’s wrought on his son, but Tom has a change of heart, calling the hit off right before its execution and finally—finally!—choosing his son over his mission. 

It’s too little, too late: having no reason to believe that Tom would pull her husband out, Alice has already worked with Agathe to catch Tom, and John gets back to their apartment just in time to realize the police are coming for his dad. Even knowing that his wife made the call, and even feeling his dad’s disloyalty in his shaken bones and stitched-up fingers, John repays Tom’s ultimate mercy by helping him escape. Grace can be messy like that—you show a little bit to a man as starved of it as John, and he’s liable to want to pay it forward rather than just absconding with his piece. 

Speaking of grace and messiness, it’s revealed in these final episodes that the man who hit John with his car was one of Walley’s men, Wallace (Nikolas Kontomanolis). Unaware that the person he’d knocked out was his enemy (who would one day kill him), Wallace rushed John to the hospital, where he unknowingly met Tom and explained that John’s accident was an attempt at self-harm. It’s a pointed irony that this exchange likely pushed Tom to finally choose his son’s safety, saving Walley’s life as well. Two enemies, saving lives at a cross purpose to their cause; we bend toward empathy, when not refracted by blind patriotism.

Throughout Patriot, we glimpse enough contrapuntal inner lives—of the Tavners, the McMillan Men, the Iranians, the police—to empathize with everyone, if not every cause. How noble can patriotism really be, when the sincere devotion of each of these parties puts them at such violent odds with each other? But these grace notes between enemies offer hope that if we’re capable of doing horrible things guided by forces of nationalism, obligation, and duty, we’re also capable of doing good things guided by bigger, better, more mysterious forces. It’s still duty, but duty to something more universal—something that feels more like love. 

Perhaps that’s the beacon that John’s swimming toward in his final, preposterous escape from Paris. With Agathe locking down all traditional travel routes, John’s only path is by sea, and he desperately sets out to swim across the English Channel to meet his British friend, James (Chris Addison), at the halfway point. It’s a ridiculous feat for anyone, much less someone who’s now missing teeth to go along with his reattached fingers, but it’s in keeping with Patriot’s coincidental worldview. If Conrad ever has a choice between a rhyme and realistic logic, he’s taking the rhyme every time; of course John should end his long battle with jellyfishing problems by swimming through a sea of literal jellyfish. 

Maybe the hope that powers John’s miraculous swim is this: that with an entire world of governments and corporations and fathers conspiring for our misery, there are still cracks in the structure, little lightholes giving us just enough of a glimpse at a better life to inspire us to try and swim there. When James picks him up on a boat, he asks John how he’s been, giving our man one last chance to offer a less-believable-than-ever “Pretty good.” But for once, he might be headed to calmer waters. 

It’s poetic, maybe, that a show about how hard it is to get from Point A to Point B got canceled after two seasons, leaving its hero stranded somewhere in the middle. But the middle is a place John is slowly learning how to survive, somewhere between France and England, father and wife, country and self, obligation and love. When James tells him that everything’s gonna be okay, John asks him to repeat himself—he literally can’t believe it. When James says it again, John can only offer a cathartic “Cool,” letting his empty-toothed smile slowly slip along with his stoicism as the tears finally come. 

That an ending could leave its hero so broken and still retain the glow of hope is in keeping with Patriot’s many contradictions. But whether that glow emanates from the grace John’s been shown, or whether it’s just the light generated by a falling star burning up on reentry, it’s a little light to cling to, nonetheless.