The Sympathizer: Who is the Commissar? Why Does He Wear a Mask?

Image Credit: Hopper Stone/HBO

HBO’s ‘The Sympathizer’ begins with a man identified simply as the Captain narrating the series of events that led him from Vietnam to America and then back to Vietnam, all while working as a spy for the Viet Cong. He reveals his story from a prison cell in Vietnam, where he has been put in a reeducation camp, even though he had been working for them all along. For the higher-ups, it is difficult to believe that all these years embedded with the enemy haven’t changed the Captain. They put him through some very torturous things to check his resolve. In between all this, the Captain discovers that the one person he needs to convince about his loyalty is a mysterious man named the Commissar. He is mentioned throughout the series but appears only in the final episode. SPOILERS AHEAD

The Commissar Turns Out to Someone Entirely Unexpected

At the reeducation camp, the Captain is interrogated by the Commandant, who tells him to write his story in as much detail as possible. He reveals that all of this will be read by the Commissar, and that is the man the Captain needs to convince if he wants to escape the fate of the rest of the prisoners. While trying to do that, the Captain also tells his captors about Man, his friend and handler, with whom he had been in touch all this while. When he asks them to call Man to clarify everything, they question Man’s existence, making the Captain wonder what happened to his friend.

Image Credit: Hopper Stone/HBO

In a shocking turn of events, it turns out that the Commissar is Man himself. This means that he knew about the Captain being in prison, tortured, and forced to write his story, trying to prove that he has not turned into a double agent and is still loyal to his country. But even when he knew everything, Man never stepped forward to help his friend. Turns out that things are more complicated than that. Even though Man wanted to help him, he knew that any leniency on his part would be misconstrued by the people around him, and it could prove fatal for him and the Captain.

Man knew that it wasn’t about convincing him; it was the Commandant who needed to be sure of the Captain’s story. Because without his approval, even though he was Man’s junior, the doubt about the Captain would remain forever, and it would also taint Man. So, he allowed the series of events to go forward as it would for anyone else, and though he tried his best to make things easy for his friend, there wasn’t much he could do. So, it was after the Commandant was convinced of the version of the story written by the Captain that Man finally showed his face to his friend and told him everything that had happened in all the years he was gone.

What Happened to Man’s Face?

To the prisoners of the reeducation camp, the Commissar is the mysterious man with the mask. No one knows his identity, and no one knows why he wears a mask. Man reveals that the mask is not a choice but a necessity. Turns out that the day they won the Vietnam War, he had been on the ground. He watched as their planes took over the sky and bombarded Saigon. Unfortunately, Man happened to be in the vicinity of one of these bombs. He was far enough to survive but close enough to feel the napalm burn his body. Almost all of his face and one of his hands were badly burnt, and it was a miracle that he survived.

Image Credit: Hopper Stone/HBO

Even though Man recovered enough to get back to work eventually, he could never go back to the way he was. He needed to protect his wounds, which is why he had to wear the mask. It was also a way to keep his wounds hidden. The mask allowed him and others around him not to be distracted by his injuries, so he started wearing it all the time. The Captain realizes that his injuries may also have been why Man was so slow to respond to his messages from America, especially when he had asked permission to kill the Major.

Man’s injuries, which he will never recover from, make him wonder whether the cost of freedom was much higher for him. While he fought for his side with tooth and nail, he wondered if he had given up too much. It wasn’t just about his face and his body but also about his friends, whom he was only reunited with when they were held as prisoners in the place run by him. In the end, this mask, which remained a continuous reminder of all he had lost, becomes the very thing that helps save his friends, giving Man the redemption he’d been vying for.

Read More: The Sympathizer: The Real-Life Viet Cong Spy Who Inspired the Captain