Make no mistake about it: “Patriot” is the story of an abusive relationship. With its bleak haze and black vignettes,Season 2 makes the physical and psychological damage inflicted on John Taynor (Michael Dornan) easier to recognize. (Season 1 featured cloudy but cozy vistas in Prague and Milwaukee vistas, brought to effervescent highs by funny folk tunes.) Seeing the show for what it is doesn’t make it easier to process; creator, writer, and director Steve Conrad’s yarn about loyalty is easygoing and unrelenting, charming in its eccentricities, and stark in its depiction of espionage. There are no fancy gadgets or sexy double agents in the second season of Amazon’s drama; just a father, a son, and their loyalty to an idea bigger than themselves.
Season 2 is shorter (both in episode count and length), darker, and lacking in much of the whimsy that kept Season 1 afloat, but it’s an intriguing narrative with unique payoffs. For an existential drama about America’s decaying moral compass, “Patriot” is pretty funny. Ostensibly, the series follows John, a reluctant intelligence officer only in the game because of his dad, John Sr. (Terry O’Quinn), who runs the State Department and serves as John’s off-the-books boss. Even though Sr. offers little more than faux condolences quickly followed by “go get ’em” pep talks, John faces a pervading since of obligation. He can’t let down his family, but he’s also willing to sacrifice his own happiness for the so-called greater good.
In Season 1, that meant schlepping to Wisconsin to get a real job with an industrial piping firm, with trips planned to Luxembourg and Iran. Using the job as cover, John was supposed to secretly disrupt Iran’s nuclear plans, but as a NOC officer — non-official cover — he’s working off the books. If things went wrong, as they so often do, his dad can’t offer assistance and the U.S.A. would disavow any ties whatsoever.
Jessica Forde / Amazon
So when John has to shove a business rival in front of a bus, it’s up to him to make sure he gets away with it. When he doesn’t know squat about industrial piping, he has to figure out how to fake his way through public pitches against fierce competitors. When Luxembourg police officer Det. Agathe Albans (Aliette Opheim) follows him to Milwaukee, he has to come up with an alibi to get her off his tail.
Despite the clumsy assistance of a few reluctant assistants, like his congressman brother Edward (Michael Chernus) or his bored and buff officemate Dennis (Chris Conrad), the weight on John’s back was enough to make him to snap. In Season 2, we watch his back break. Where we once saw problems stack up through an absurd number of coincidences, now they pile on without the buffer of black comic timing. Picking up where the finale left off, John is forced to make a choice — in front of his wife, Alice (Kathleen Monroe), no less — that will tip him over the edge or pull him off of it.
The first episode sets the tone as a beaten blurry John pushes toward an end everyone knows is unlikely to come. Everything is a bit harder: The songs that served as self-therapy now only exist in his head. The consequences shift from unknown others to those closest to him. Hell, he can barely see for most of Season 2.
Conrad, who writes and directs every episode, puts you in John’s blurry perspective often enough to make you think the lead character could go blind. Though there are some well-executed long takes — one is so long and travels so far it’s amazing the crew was able to block it — much of “Patriot” is as blunt and direct as its central spy. Characters are positioned in the middle of the frame, flanked by symmetrical objects drawing the eye toward the center.
Jessica Forde / Amazon
The show has an aesthetic, but it’s as far from James Bond as spies can get. John’s skills aren’t particular, they’re utilitarian. When tasked with breaking into a building, he doesn’t go searching for a grappling hook or advanced lock-pick; he researches the safest body part to fall on when dropping a certain distance. He puts himself through the wringer to get the job done, even as his instincts pull him in the other direction.
“Patriot” shows a man setting aside his dream for the betterment of those around him and paying a tremendous price. Season 2, in particular, focuses on John’s deadened morality and how his father’s repeated demands trap him in a self-destructive service loop. Like some soldiers after war, John is being used up and spat out under the guise of making the ultimate sacrifice. His martyrdom can be hard to watch, especially when he stops hesitating before pulling the trigger, and the new episodes are challenging, morose, and, at times, opaque.
However, the series has immense patience and consistent empathy that ties the audience to each character. Dennis’ nerdy persistence that he and John are “best friends” is more endearing than alienating under these dire circumstances. Leslie (Kurtwood Smith), John’s boss, takes a fall from grace that’s tragic and somewhat deserved, but he’s not made into an easy villain. Edward’s mistakes are overshadowed by his genuine compassion for John, and when Debra Winger shows up as their mother, you’ll feel the pain she feels for her son.
Season 2 wraps up in a way that could mark the series’ end. After all, it was a year-and-a-half between Amazon releasing the pilot and the rest of Season 1, plus it took another 18-plus months for the sequel to strike. That patience befits the show, but it’s emblematic of viewer demand. Conrad and his team deserve one more shot to continue this story. “Patriot” may mimic corporate America’s “chew ’em up and spit ’em out” attitude, but there’s too much joy in John to let his quest end here. It’s hard to keep a true patriot down.
“Patriot” Season 2 is streaming now on Amazon Prime.