Throughout Its First Season, The Old Man Has Been a Masterclass in Making Small Moments Feel Big

TV Features The Old Man
Throughout Its First Season, The Old Man Has Been a Masterclass in Making Small Moments Feel Big

In FX’s new drama, The Old Man, there’s a moment in Episode 2 that stands out for its nuance and quiet melancholy. In it, the protagonist, Dan Chase (Jeff Bridges), grabs a pan to make some scrambled eggs for a woman he just met. Zoe (Amy Brenneman) is in distress because of something embarrassing that happened to her son, for which she was responsible. Earlier in the episode, she told Chase that when she was a kid and was having a moment, her mom used to drop everything and cook some scrambled eggs to make her feel better. It always worked.

Chase remembers this and thinks quickly. Instead of talking to express his support and understanding, he starts cooking. No words are being said. The act is thoughtful and deeply moving. Zoe is touched—visibly. She steps closer to the man who just walked into her life and rests her head on his shoulder. Perfect tranquillity.

This bit excellently demonstrates the quality of writing that the creators (Robert Levine and Jonathan E. Steinberg) employ repeatedly in Season 1. Moments like these aren’t something you normally see in an intense TV show about spies. But that’s precisely why The Old Man stands out in the genre. It has kindness and vulnerability and isn’t afraid to show it.

The plot follows two men (Dan Chase, an ex-CIA operative, and Harold Halper (John Lithgow), an FBI Assistant Director for Counterintelligence) who became frenemies 30 years ago when they were heavily involved in the Soviet-Afghan War. Their shared past is riddled with complicated relationships, losses, and regrets they both prefer to leave buried. Chase and Halper saw and did things (violence, torture, assassination, and murder, among others) that made them hard men. They learned to contain and hide their emotions to stay efficient and survive the most dangerous assignments. But now, as they’re well into their 60s, the number of traumas they carefully compartmentalized begin to eat at them as someone from their past re-emerges.

Instead of only displaying their toughness, The Old Man separates itself by putting an emphasis on the two men’s internal struggles. We witness how they grapple with feelings, crack under emotional weight, and make overwhelming sacrifices for their loved ones.

When we first meet Halper in the pilot, he’s at home playing with his grandson. On first impression, he seems like a retired, somewhat fragile man. As grandfather and grandson build a LEGO house, we learn that the boy’s parents are gone. The child says he wishes someone could figure out how to bring them back one day. What we see next is Halper devastated, crying in his bathroom. We think he’s a broken father consumed with grief until his wife appears, telling him he’s got a phone call. It’s the bureau. In a few seconds, Halper turns from a grieving dad to a commanding and dominant superior. The tears are gone—there’s no space for them. Lithgow is fantastic playing Halper with a domineering finesse and authority. But he really comes alive in those moments when his character can’t disguise (or control) what’s in his heart.

Jeff Bridges’ protagonist is a little more complex. Dan Chase has many faces that Bridges delivers with such stoic and concise charisma that it’s hard to determine which one is his true identity—or whether they’re real at all. A great example of that is when Chase and Zoe go out for dinner on their first date. He’s charming and quiet, patiently listening, and letting her open up to him. They share their history of love and relationships with each other. It’s a surprisingly candid scene that digs into the core of Zoe’s personality while revealing some truths about Chase’s past. It feels so real that it could be easily from a romantic drama about two people who suffered devastating losses, and now are taking a chance to find a partner they can grow old with. The fact that it’s not makes the scene all the more compelling and impressive.

Smartly, though, there isn’t an overabundance of these moments throughout the season—which is why they feel so powerful. They’re carefully placed between suspenseful and action-packed plot events that drive the narrative. At first look, these small junctures that feel so big don’t seem to connect to the main storyline at all. Yet, as we go further into the series, it becomes more obvious why these sentimental bits reoccur in every episode.

What Levine and Steinberg do is gradually build a bond between the characters, deepening their arcs and the mystery surrounding them. Essentially, they use a narrative (the series is based on a Thomas Perry novel) that’s conventionally more driven by plot than character and turn it on its head. While the storyline is indeed intricate and thrilling, by giving us a delicately crafted character study of Chase and Halper, the two characters become more exciting (and relatable) to examine and root for. Hence The Old Man successfully raises the bar of what we expect from spy thrillers.

In the finale, as the show reveals its biggest twist, a key character that was mostly offscreen (moving the pieces behind the scenes) steps ahead and joins the two protagonists in equal importance. As he wakes up one morning, worn and ragged, reluctantly performing his daily routines, he doesn’t yet know how this ordinary day will turn monumental for him in a matter of hours. He will see a part of his past that likely kept him alive for this long. With this ending, the series unquestionably confirms its investment in character rather than plot. And it also sets up the tone for what’s going to come next.

That said, it makes one wonder why the creators decided to make this an ongoing show rather than a succinct limited series. Not that I’m not pleased with the news that FX recently renewed the show for Season 2, but I have some concerns about its longevity. And mostly, I’m worried about Bridges’ (72) physical condition, who nearly died and was hospitalized during shooting as he tackled cancer and COVID simultaneously before wrapping up his final scenes. But if that’s any indication of how tough and dedicated an actor he is, the lead role couldn’t be in more capable hands.

Akos Peterbencze is an entertainment writer based in London. He covers film and TV regularly on Looper, and his work has also been published in Humungus, Frame Rated, and Fanfare. Akos is a Rustin Cohle aficionado and believes that the first season of True Detective is a masterpiece. You can find him talk about all-things pop culture on Twitter (@akospeterbencze) and Medium (@akospeterbencze).

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