Based on Thomas Perry’s 2017 novel of the same name, the Hulu series The Old Man gets off to a fast start. Dan Chase, played by Jeff Bridges, is an ex-CIA operative who 30 years ago was in Afghanistan helping a local warlord, Faraz Hamzad, fight the Soviet invaders and fend off other warlords so that America would have a friend in power after the war. Three decades later, Chase is nearly killed in episode 1 by an assassin hired by Harold Harper (John Lithgow), his former CIA handler and partner who is now the FBI’s Assistant Director for Counterintelligence. Chase’s two pet rottweilers save the day.
Someone very high up and powerful wanted Chase brought in for questioning so as to appease a now aged, infirm and vengeful Hamzad with an axe to grind that’s been getting honed for three decades. The apparent reason for this change from Chase’s friend to foe? When Chase leaves Afghanistan, he takes the warlord’s wife Belour and daughter with him!
Spousal betrayal is an act that has resulted in untold hours of marital counseling and even, in some cases, symptoms of PTSD that require other interventions. But Hamzad lives in a culture whose cultural and psychological norms require tough leaders and manly men.
Given Hamzad’s environmental and developmental background, it is not much of a stretch to expect him to want to adhere to his culture’s insistence on the dominance of group leaders, the importance of the family unit, the need for clear-cut codes that are not ambiguous, and a good degree of masculine toughness. One more factor to add to the mix: patience. Even a cursory glance at Afghanistan’s history tells us that its people play the long game.
Having lost his wife and daughter to another man in a faraway country, Hamzad is outraged and wants…what, exactly? Early episodes lead one to assume that this is all about vengeance, getting even with Chase. But that turns out to be a simplistic and incomplete view of what drives him. His former spouse has no role to play now, as she has already succumbed to cancer, leaving Chase a widower with a now-grown adopted daughter, Emily, whom he wants to protect at all costs.
With regard to Hamzad and what we do not find out until the final episode—major spoiler alert—is that what he wants most from the plans he has set in motion, is to have his daughter returned to him!
Hamzad’s patience finally starts to pay off. He now has U.S. government connections in place to get satisfaction. Harper is assigned to track down Chase because of his intimate knowledge of Chase’s modus operandi. But Harper is afraid that if Chase is brought in and questioned, secrets long-buried would be revealed that could ruin Harper’s career and even see him criminally prosecuted. This is why he hires an assassin (well-played by Gbengo Akinnagbe as Julian) to go after his former friend and colleague.
Bridges and Lithgow engage in a complicated psychological dance over the course of this 7-episode first season on Hulu and FX. These two actors play their parts well, but sometimes they are upstaged by Amy Brenneman, who plays a divorcé (Zoe McDonald) trying to live a normal life as she struggles to provide for her teenage son despite lapses in alimony payments from her ex.
Chase and McDonald play a game of cat and mouse with Harper and Hamzad’s high-up friend, the former wanting to dispatch Chase and the latter wanting to dispatch both Chase and Harper, as this key background character also has secrets that must stay undisclosed.
Belour initially does not like or trust Chase, but starts to warm up to him after he secures a CIA clandestine drop of sniper rifles to Hamzad’s camp. She apparently responds to Chase’s less macho persona, setting the stage for her eventually leaving Hamzad for Chase and becoming “Abbey,” her new identity in America. But Belour/Abbey dies after some years, leaving Dan Chase a widower and the sole caregiver for Emily, who has been given a new, carefully constructed false identity as Angela Adams.
From time to time, Abbey appears to Chase as an apparition, often with important things to say. These apparitions might be considered self-induced hallucinations brought on by extreme stress. But accepting them at face value does no harm and it enriches the narrative.
Eventually, both Chase and Harper realize that they are being played as puppets whose strings are being pulled by the shadowy former top spymaster that has been engaged to supposedly help Hamzad, who doesn’t know that the spymaster wants both Chase and Harper out of the way. Shadow man’s minions, however, prove to not be up to the challenge.
The writing, acting and direction are all very well done. The score supports the narrative. The cinematography, while very good, is sometimes too dark and dim, making small-screen viewing a challenge.
Suffice to say that Hamzad’s revenge is a dish that is indeed served cold after a three-decade-long gestation and takes a rather unexpected turn, an almost O’Henry kind of ending.
Nonetheless, this is a very good show and one that I recommend watching. I’m looking forward to season 2. My final thought: This show should be called The Old Men.