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Hong Chau Keeps Netflix’s The Night Agent From Sliding Into Mediocrity

The supporting actors give Netflix’s political thriller just enough juice to stand out.
  • Hong Chau (and her steel-colored wig) in The Night Agent (Photo: Dan Power/Netflix)
    Hong Chau (and her steel-colored wig) in The Night Agent (Photo: Dan Power/Netflix)

    There are plenty of mediocre thrillers out there, but The Night Agent is one of the few that’s worth thinking about later. Because even though it’s a conspiracy-by-numbers tale about villains in the White House, the Netflix series is packed with surprising side plots and supporting characters. They are what’s likely to stick in the mind, long after the heroes have become a memory interchangeable with dozens of others just like them.

    But it’s the heroes, of course, who get top billing. The titular night agent is Peter Sutherland (Gabriel Basso), an FBI rookie who almost single-handedly thwarted a bombing on the D.C. Metro, only to become the target of an online conspiracy theory that he actually planned the attack himself. He was deemed suspicious because his father was outed as a traitor years before, and the vloggers assumed the poisoned apple fell close to the tree. In the aftermath of all that, Peter now finds himself working the graveyard shift in the basement of the White House, monitoring a top-secret phone that never rings.

    Naturally, the phone rings in the first episode. Peter takes a call from Rose Larkin (Luciane Buchanan), a failed tech entrepreneur who was staying with her aunt and uncle when they were attacked by assassins. Before pushing her out the door, her uncle gave Rose a special number to call for help. That’s how she first reaches Peter, and soon enough they team up, determined to find out who killed Rose’s family. The solution to that mystery also involves the Metro bombing and Peter’s tarnished reputation.

    Peter and Rose’s story unfolds with competence, if nothing else. Series creator Shawn Ryan also created The Shield and S.W.A.T., so he knows his way around a chase scene, and he can inject tension into the bit where someone sits in front of a laptop, anxiously waiting for a top-secret file to download before the wrong person walks in the room. Basso and Buchanan also have the requisite level of chemistry, making it seem halfway believable when they flirt with each other while jumping out of a second-story hotel window.

    Still, there’s a half-hearted quality to these shenanigans, like Ryan couldn’t be bothered to avoid the genre’s most obvious cliches. One plot twist involves identical twins being mistaken for each other. Another uses the “I never told you his name” trope, when a government official mentions something about Peter’s friend that she could only know because she’s spying on him. This certainly keeps the plot moving, but it also creates a numbing sense of familiarity that characters like Peter and Rose can’t transcend. Like so many heroes before him, Peter never makes a morally questionable decision. He might break the rules or even kill some people, but he’s explicitly framed as the good guy. Similarly, Rose might have occasional panic attacks about her sudden life as a hunted woman, but it’s clear her ethical compass and advanced tech skills will carry her through.

    On the other hand, there’s Diane Farr, the president’s Chief of Staff. Played by Hong Chau, she enters the show like a tank in a steel-gray wig, barking orders at agency heads and managing Peter in the field. It’s quickly revealed she has a complicated relationship to the Metro bombing and to the people chasing Rose, but she’s never just a good guy or a bad guy. Instead, she’s a political idealist who lets her genuine hope for America push her to make outlandish choices. If Peter is the action-show fantasy of a patriot, then Farr is the reality, whose strengths get tangled with her flaws.

    Just like on Season 2 of Homecoming, Chau excels in the scenes when her leather-hided character finally breaks down, revealing a vulnerable human core. When Farr faces what she’s lost and why, The Night Agent suddenly has emotional heft. There’s a similar impact when college student Maddie (Sarah Desjardins) learns some unpleasant facts about her father, Vice President Redfield (Christopher Shyer). Desjardins and Shyer have a startlingly intense connection, which adds fire to their season-long arc of accusations and double crosses. Their last scene together is just a long, silent stare across a room, and it’s more impactful than any complicated revelation about secret agents and their ploys.

    As evidenced by Maddie and her dad, The Night Agent is really a show about parents and children, or the people we treat like parents when we need someone to believe in. Even Peter gets a chance to confront his dad’s dark past, and nobody gets out of the series with their heroes intact. That’s a good story, and the series benefits every time we get to hear it.

    The Night Agent premieres March 23 on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: The Night Agent, Netflix, Christopher Shyer, Gabriel Basso, Hong Chau, Luciane Buchanan, Sarah Desjardins, Shawn Ryan