If you haven’t seen Amazon’s new series Patriot, you’re missing out. Seriously. The slow-burning dark comedy about an intelligence agent posing as an engineer in Milwaukee to prevent a nuclear Iran involves confessional neo-folk, Brazilian jiu jitsu and rock paper scissors, along with a healthy dose of ennui. It’s an international thriller stuck in a middle-American—and existential—malaise.
Across the board, the acting is excellent, with lead work done by the relatively unknown Michael Dorman, whose measured deadpan and sad stare are perfect—to say he’s sleepwalking is a high compliment. More familiar faces appear as well, with Michael Chernus of Orange is the New Black once again playing a goofy brother, and Kurtwood Smith, TV’s forever-dad Red Foreman, playing… well, a stern, gruff authority figure. But there are hidden depths to him as well, and they are carefully revealed with great pathos.
Easily the best parts of the show are the direction and camerawork, with series creator and writer Steve Conrad helming most episodes, and cinematography by Jim Whitaker. Their work is among some of the best being done on TV, reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s masterfully shot The Knick. Using shallow focus to highlight elements throughout scenes, the camera directs the the eye beautifully, shifting between layers of resonance and revealing knowledge slowly as the characters navigate a world where they only see a few of the facts.
Shots are gorgeous and often unconventionally framed: the lead enclosed by circles of concrete pipes as he contemplates, or spotted form a bird’s eye view. There’s a hint of Wes Anderson in the often symmetrical shots, but the show isn’t afraid to load them in a lopsided manner, the actors and their work concentrated to the sides. The show breathes deep and slow, like in the golden hours of a lake during a duck hunt, then gasps in shock when unexpected violence flares up quickly and hilariously. Characters walk into long shots from the far distance, working their way into focus, and the audience realizes something is coming, even if they aren’t quite sure what it is.
Themes in Patriot ripple out, and themes of violence and conscience, of security, of fathers and sons and of the very lonely come around like circles. With brief looks into the lives of these characters, we see how everything connects, subtly, slowly, and how it is all bigger than we are, our struggles and daily triumphs framed in by much greater forces, pulling into and away from our lives, and the finish line constantly moving as we simply try to go from A to B.