FX series The Old Man hits on classics, both in film and literature, to impress upon viewers a memorable story that far outshines the action / adventure show’s first impression. Show-creator Jonathan Steinberg (Black Sails) is no stranger to creating memorable adaptations, and The Old Man comes across as better than the novel. The series converses with classical stories like Homer’s Odyssey and classic films like Apocalypse Now to create an entry in a long list of epics that deal with a personal journey home after wandering deep into unfamiliar territory. The show might initially appear to be another action series for jingoists who want to see someone that killed Soviets in a past life get his due. Still, the series stands out in its genre by resonating with a universal longing to return home.
The show opens with Dan Chase, played by Jeff Bridges, living a quaint life in upstate New York with two dogs. Of course, we soon learn that he is living off the grid, forced into hiding after crossing the wrong people during the Soviet-Afghan war. He has lost his wife to Huntington’s, and he has rarely seen his daughter. His situation is akin to being stranded, much like the hero Odysseus from the Odyssey on Calypso’s island. Both stories open with a character that found returning from war was a difficult, if not impossible, task. If you are unfamiliar, Odysseus is saved by some kindness from Zeus, who practically forces Calypso to free him. Still, he is waylaid by Poseidon as soon as he sets sail from the island, with a storm that blows him off his expected path home. Similarly, we see Chase get unstranded. He starts reconnecting with his daughter over the phone. He also goes to the doctor to take precautionary steps to prevent mental decline. Still, he is brutally reminded that he has not yet come back from war, at least not fully, when an assassin breaks into his home, forcing him to begin the long journey back to a semblance of a life he can call home.
With The Old Man, we get to see an epic unfold before our eyes and see Chase’s return home from Afghanistan through flashbacks. This evokes the Odyssey again, which largely comprises Odysseus’ narrative of how he got from Troy to Calypso’s island and the story of his final return by way of the Phoenicians. Chase’s stop-over with Zoe McDonald is close in form to Odysseus’ stop with the Phoenicians. Initially, Chase hides his true identity from Zoe, and she takes to him and offers help. When she eventually learns his true identity, like Alcinous to Odysseus, she still wants to help him. This episode also serves the dual purpose of showing what it is Chase longs for by giving him a fleeting moment of a stable, suburban lifestyle.
You also learn that Chase’s daughter, Emily, is secretly FBI Agent Angela Adams (Alia Shawkat), one of the agents tasked with tracking down Chase. Firmly implanting her with the people who thought her father was dead and are now plotting his demise places Emily / Adams parallel to Telemachus, Odysseus’ son who must thwart the suitors that have taken over his father’s home.
The Old Man also has some similarities with the film classic Apocalypse Nowitself an Odyssean journey. In Apocalypse Now‘s opening, we see Martin Sheen‘s character of Captain Willard struggling with flashbacks and hallucinations in his hotel bedroom. We get similar insight into Dan Chase. The Old Man opens with scenes of Chase struggling to sleep, grappling with hallucinatory visions of his dead wife. Both scenes evoke a lost feeling. Both Willard and Chase know that they are not where they want to be in life, but neither knows if returning from war is even possible. One telling moment in Apocalypse Now comes as Willard is thinking about his crew’s longing for home, and he states, “Trouble is, I’d been back there, and I knew that it just did not exist anymore.” Just like Willard longs for the jungle, it seems that Chase cannot put his past behind him. He still keeps two highly trained dogs and a cache of arms with him in his idyllic, upstate New York life. He can not imagine going back to a situation that resembles his life before getting involved in the Soviet-Afghan war.
Through flashbacks, we also see that Chase served as a Colonel Kurtz-type character, portrayed by Marlon Brando. Colonel Kurtz was the man Captain Willard is tasked with assassinating for having gone rogue during the war to fight the Viet Cong with his cadre of warriors. Chase apparently also took a path of his choosing during the Soviet-Afghan war, choosing to back a militant rebel leader and funnel intelligence assets his way in the name of killing Soviet soldiers. It is almost an alternate ending where Kurtz survives well into adulthood with Willard, his assassin, lurking behind closed doors. In this way, FBI Agent Harold Harper (John Lithgow), who was the Chief of Station during the war and is currently tasked with hunting down Chase, serves as a Captain Willard-type character. Just as Willard doubts whether there is any sense in killing Kurtz, Harold is unsure that his orders surrounding Chase during the war were just. As the two characters in Apocalypse Now serve as mirrors to one another, so do The Old Man‘s Agent Harper and Dan Chase.
The way The Old Man delves into the depths of the incitement to journey and the universal aching for home sets it apart from other entries in the retired-veteran-that-still-kicks-butt genre. This television series has transformed a decent novel with catchy characteristics into a wonderful piece of television. The Old Man is not yet halfway through its first season, but it is in the process of creating an entertaining, sometimes pulpy epic.