The Old Man, FX and Hulu’s summer spy thriller wrapped up this past week. The show told the story of Dan Chase (Jeff Bridges), a former CIA operative who had been in hiding for decades. He gets discovered, causing him to flee across the country, running from his old partner, the assistant CIA director Harold Harper (John Lithgow).
It was a master class in acting from the two leads. Bridges’ face is lined with pain and regret, but he can easily turn on the charm when he needs to convince a woman to let him keep his dogs in his Airbnb rental. Lithgow can go from the man in control behind the scenes to being in the throes of desperation. Every scene they’re in is fascinating. Also, Alia Shawkat is exceptional and deserves some Emmy attention in 2023.
The show is light on the action after the first episode (Not that surprising, considering Bridges is 77 and had lymphoma and covid during production), but extremely high on tension. There’s a moment when Chase and his companion have to go through a routine traffic checkpoint in the suburbs. It is the most normal thing in the world, but tension gets ratcheted up to the point where Chase is imagining what he’d have to do if things go south. It’s compelling.
The intriguing thing about this show is that it’s all about consequences. It toggles back and forth between Dan Chase in the present and his younger self in Afghanistan. Younger Chase is helping the charismatic rebel leader Faraz Hamzad fight the Russians occupying his country. Chase is certain that this is the guy who is going to stabilize the country, so he goes rogue, working against the CIA’s wishes. Younger Harold Harper has his doubts but reluctantly agrees to funnel them money and weapons off the books. Well, things start going wrong pretty quickly, leading to a cascading chain of events that 35 years later sends Jeff Bridges on the run from hired assassins.
It’s hard to watch this show and not be immediately reminded of real-world CIA adventures, such as funding mujahideen groups to get the Russians out of Afghanistan (including some allegations that money went to Osama bin Laden). Or how doing what seemed like the right thing in 1985 could cause a butterfly effect that leads to US troops being in the country for 20 years.
Thinking about the story arc, I compare it to Scorsese’s recent movie, The Irishman. DeNiro is reflecting on the choices that led him to live out his days alone in a shabby senior center. There are none of the glamors we associate with classic mob movies. Likewise, The Old Man isn’t about spy film capers. There aren’t any Mission: Impossible or Jason Bourne-level stunts. Instead, it’s about Bridges and Lithgow dealing with the fallout of decisions they made long ago. Decisions they thought were the best at the time. And the fallout is heavy.
The Old Man is a great, tension-fueled series, and well worth your time. I’d recommend parceling the episodes out, rather than bingeing them. All the better to savor the performances.
All episodes of The Old Man are available to stream on Hulu.