Hello and welcome to my fellow The Old Man viewers. If you’re here, it means you’re probably at least a Jeff Bridges fan, a John Lithgow fan, a spy-thriller aficionado, and/or a dog person. I say this because much of the series’ premiere is regrettably bogged down with character and plot establishment, and it’s only Dave and Carol, and, Bridges’s and Lithgow’s eminence that kept me from dismissing The Old Man as a predictable addition to an already-bloated TV landscape. On the flip side, knowing the medical minefield Jeff Bridges walked through the past couple of years — the Oscar winner is in remission after a bout with lymphoma and he nearly died from COVID — it’s immensely satisfying to see the Dude still literally kicking ass at age 72.
Based on the 2017 novel by Thomas Perry, the new FX series follows Bridges as Dan Chase, the old, grizzled ex-CIA operative with a very special set of skills, a very loyal pair of Rottweilers — and a very checkered past. Lithgow is Harold Harper, the old, grizzled FBI boss juggling his official mission to track down Chase while keeping his own unauthorized decisions under wraps. Despite The Old Man’s penchant for long, languid, tracking shots and expository monologues, each episode leaves several layers of story untouched, making the audience simultaneously satiated and hungry for more.
The episode’s first act sets up Chase’s small-town Vermont life, though there are plenty of scattered hints that he’s not only a real-estate retiree. Like many men his age, Chase is beset by nocturnal urinary issues and nightmares of his sick wife. His daily routine consists of tossing balls with the dogs and extensive phone calls — on a suspicious-looking flip phone — with his loving, albeit unseen, daughter, Emily. The concern in Emily’s voice conveys the possibility that Chase, like his deceased spouse (“YOUR NAME IS ABBEY CHASE” is still written on the kitchen whiteboard), is experiencing cognitive decline. This theory is emphasized by the microwave fire that erupts the second Chase leaves the house as well as by his insistence to Emily and his doctor that “something’s off.” Although medical tests confirm that Chase is not heading down the same path as Abbey, old habits die hard. On his way home, Chase notices a dubious bald man in the local café, prompting him to search through his garbage cans and set up a homemade trap out of tin cans.
Another nightmare about Abbey reveals an additional backstory nugget: Played by Succession’s Hiam Abbass, a disoriented Abbey is lucid enough to know that if dementia gets the better of her, she “could be dangerous” for her husband.
When Chase is awakened by his ingenious tin-can trap, set off by — surprise, surprise — Café Guy, the onetime spy’s hunches are validated: Nope, he’s not losing his marbles; he’s still excellent at his old job. Chase, with an assist from Rottweilers Dave and Carol, swiftly disposes of Café Guy before making it look like a self-defense killing, pocketing the intruder’s knife in the process. Cops are dispatched, and Chase brilliantly plays the role of shaken senior citizen before packing up the dogs and his secret stash of passports to go on the run.
A quick call to Emily in the car reveals that his cover’s been blown and that he won’t be calling her for a while, establishing that Chase’s daughter knows at least a little about his past.
Enter FBI assistant director Harold Harper, who, like Chase, was just trying to live a quiet existence, playing LEGOs with his recently orphaned grandson, until he too is sucked back into the job by forces beyond his control. (All we know about Harper’s family trauma so far is that his son and daughter-in-law were killed, and the circumstances surrounding their deaths seem to be purposely vague.)
Harper receives a quintessential laden-with-gravitas phone call while sobbing in the bathroom. On the other end of the line is CIA agent Raymond Waters (E.J. Bonilla), and he needs Harper’s help in a reopened case. John Lithgow’s face slowly turns ashen as Waters describes how in 1987, an operative went MIA, and now, the CIA has been ordered to “retrieve him.” Harper, who absolutely knows Waters is talking about Dan Chase, is noticeably ruffled over this turn of events, stressing that this case was “resolved, sealed for three decades,” to no avail.
In flashback, we meet Young Dan Chase (Bill Heck; admirably not doing a Jeff Bridges impression) and Young Abbey Chase (Leem Lubany), who are here to toss us a few more backstory deets. While Abbey marvels at the “three pages of just pancakes” in American diner menus, Dan, tired of living on the run, pitches her the idea of acquiring new identities and becoming a boring married couple living the American Dream. Dan and Abbey’s dialogue is pointed, yet it’s ambiguous enough to let the audience piece together what might’ve happened between these two: “Abbey” obviously wasn’t raised in the United States, and she and “Dan” had to leave “the mountains” because he did something questionable.
Back in the present day, Chase gets a call on his burner flip phone. It’s Harper, and man, oh, man, do these two have history. Enough history that despite consulting on the operation to retrieve Chase, Harper is also doing everything in his power to ensure Chase is never found. In between offering condolences on the deaths of their respective family members (it’s here we learn Abbey had Huntington’s disease), Harper informs Chase there’s a transponder on his car — and that he’s too old and out of practice to outwit a millennial-staffed government agency. Harper also seasons this pot of exposition soup by assuring Chase the CIA isn’t out to kill him, just put him on a chartered jet. Harper speculates the jet’s destination is Kabul, Afghanistan, where a man named Faraz Hamzad awaits. And something tells me Abbey’s real identity is wrapped up in the words “Afghanistan” and “Faraz Hamzad.”
Cool, cool, cool, cool, so why is Harper being so forthcoming? It’s not because Chase is his blood brother. Whatever he did for, or with, Chase three decades ago won’t sit well with the authorities. So, to cover his own ass, Harper is willing to do whatever it takes to keep the CIA from finding Chase. Like, threatening to arrest and incarcerate Emily the second her dad attempts to contact her, thus forcing Chase to permanently disappear.
A heartbreaking good-bye phone call between father and daughter ensues, with Jeff Bridges holding a facial-expression master class while a distraught Emily — the unnamed actress herself holding her own master class in voice acting — begs him to reconsider.
Which he does immediately after hanging up.
In an overlong, drawn-out sequence, the final 15 minutes of the episode establish once and for all that Dan Chase is still plenty capable of taking out multiple agents half his age. We see Chase veering off the main road with agents eventually tracking his car to a deserted path. Or so they thought — because Chase tossed the transponder! As the three agents sweeping the area prepare to stand down, a vehicle comes crashing out of nowhere. It’s the Old Man! And he’s not going down without a fight, even though he can’t bounce back from injury the way he did during the Reagan administration. With little more than his car’s red taillights illuminating this brutal scene, Chase skillfully dispatches two of the three agents.
The third agent, however, proves a worthy challenge, taking Chase into custody after engaging him in some vicious hand-to-hand combat. But then, the young agent makes a fatal mistake, calling Waters and saying, “Situation under control” — right when Chase brandishes Café Guy’s first-act knife. Soon enough, Chase is using Chekhov’s knife to cut his zip-ties and cause the arresting agent to lose control of the car. And if you think a septuagenarian spy can’t keep fighting in a flipped-over car, well, you’d be dead wrong.
Chase doesn’t have the pleasure of killing this last agent, though, bestowing the honor on his trusty canine companions. After a snarling Dave and Carol surround the defeated agent, we cut to a long shot of the agent’s car. A battered but triumphant Chase sluggishly crawls out of the vehicle while the agent screams, struggles, and eventually succumbs to death by Rottweiler(s).
As Harper, who watched this entire ordeal play out on a surveillance screen, tries to digest what he’s just witnessed, he gets a call. (Get used to it. They like phone calls on this show.) It’s Chase, and he has a message for his onetime colleague: Stay away from his daughter, unless Harper wants his agents to become Dave and Carol’s next meal. Then, in the ultimate act of defiance, Chase contacts Emily before the dead agents’ bodies go cold.
The spy game may have changed over the past 30 years, but underestimating Dan Chase in any decade is a rookie mistake.
That’s Like, My Opinion, Man
• I know it’s taken directly from the novel, but naming a rogue CIA agent “Chase” is a little too on-the-nose for my taste.
• Another too-on-the-nose element is the characters constantly questioning who Dan Chase is. Isn’t that the whole point of a spy thriller? We’re not supposed to know everything yet!