A Splashy Drama About the Diplomacy of Marriage
On Netflix’s The Diplomat, relationships and geopolitics are similarly hard to wrangle.
The pleasure of The Diplomat, Netflix’s zippy new geopolitical drama, is how enticingly it ties together tropes and tricks from shows gone by, a TV bouquet that’s undeniably familiar and yet still seems fresh. The premise—an American diplomat is reluctantly conscripted during a crisis into the role of ambassador to the United Kingdom—borrows equally from fish-out-of-water comedies and intense political thrillers. Kate Wyler, played by Keri Russell, is a sharp, diligent, charmingly slobby Foreign Service officer whose career has long come second to that of her charismatic husband, Hal (Rufus Sewell). When a British aircraft carrier is bombed off the coast of Iran and the White House reaches out about a vacant strategic position, she initially assumes it’s Hal they’re after. Kate, who thinks she’s on her way to filling a diplomatic position in Afghanistan, is an unlikely show pony. But Hal senses possibility. “You need to lean into the Cinderella thing,” he tells her as she balks at a photo shoot with British Vogue commemorating her new job. “I’m here for 30 funerals,” Kate replies. “The only tea-length garment I packed is a burka.”
For a show about geopolitical catastrophe, The Diplomat is surprisingly fun; it’s snappily structured to careen its way through kidnappings and catastrophic photo ops and refrigerator raids with bizarrely high stakes. Its creator, Debora Cahn, has worked on Homeland and The West Wing, but also on Grey’s Anatomy, whose DNA seems to inform The Diplomat’s tone—self-aware, smarter than it often seems, sometimes sillier than is strictly necessary. (To be fair, Homeland could be silly too.) When a young woman in a bad wig bundles Hal into a car at the end of the first episode and sticks a hypodermic needle in his neck, the moment is a shock for viewers, but not for Kate, who reels off a list of people who have targeted Hal in the past, including disgruntled Islamic State commanders, Hezbollah generals. Even the secretary of state has it in for him—clearly the man has a history.
But for all its insouciance with regard to plot, The Diplomat is also astute when it comes to relationships: the special ones, the damaging ones, and the ones that manage to be both. In the second half of the show’s eight episodes, the action swerves its way toward an explosive cliffhanger. I found the momentum less interesting, though, than the thesis the show quietly espouses early on: that maintaining a marriage is more like diplomacy than many of us realize.
Kate’s relationship with Hal, we can see immediately, is complicated, but in a deeply sympathetic way. Russell—who in her career has played a Mouseketeer, a curly-haired college ingenue, a Russian assassin role-playing a housewife, and a nurse trying to protect kids from a cocaine-addled bear—is in godlike form. Kate is grumpy (I lost count after the seventh muttered “Jesus Christ”), stubborn, and exacting, yet Russell makes her lovable too. She also offsets some of the character’s more clichéd personality traits—messiness, a lack of personal graces—by emphasizing her competence, a quality that’s always somehow in short order among TV’s most high-strung heroes. Kate has spent the bulk of her career supporting Hal, a peacocking, intensely ambitious networker whose charm is rivaled only by his egocentrism. Her reluctance to take the job she’s offered, we soon understand, has to do with Hal—not only how he’ll respond to being shoehorned into the role of a diplomatic spouse, but also what kind of trouble he’ll kick up, left to his own devices in London.
The couple’s chemistry, though, is undeniable. Sewell smolders unknowably as Hal; he says over and over again how happy he is to be supporting Kate, while constantly undercutting her, by instinct if not by intention. The revelations of the first episode include that Kate is—without her knowledge—being assessed to potentially replace the vice president, and that she and Hal are likely headed for divorce. The two paths can’t coexist, which leaves Kate in a pickle. (Also, the bull-like, chaotic, Johnsonian British prime minister, Nicol Trowbridge—played genially by Rory Kinnear—keeps pushing the U.S. president to declare war, which Kate would prefer to avert.)
The micro and the macro, enemies foreign and oh so domestic. Watching The Diplomat, you might start to think about how so many of the terms used to describe international relations are intimate in nature: Countries get in bed with each other, they sever ties, they seek rapprochement, they issue ultimatums. Diplomacy is about trying to forge meaningful bonds that help each party thrive, which is also a neat description of marriage. And the thing about Hal is that he’s an invaluable asset until he’s not: No one knows Kate better; no one can enable her success quite so efficiently, or blow it up with such aplomb. “She hates cameras and microphones,” he tells her anxious chief of staff, Stuart Hayford (Ato Essandoh), adding as an afterthought, “and people.” His intimacy with Kate is the kind built on years of precedent: knowing when she’s hungry; understanding when her shoes are hurting her; sensing when she needs to, as he euphemistically puts it, “scratch an itch.”
With regard to politics, The Diplomat tends toward lightness, with occasional flashes of insight. There are abundant references to real-world crises, and a sight gag about an employee barely out of college who’s a Russia expert at the embassy because everyone who’s anyone has been sent to Ukraine. There’s a “bad guy” with his own private militia who’s seemingly modeled after the founder of the Wagner Group, and the American president seems like an unholy fusion of presidents 45 and 46: older than he’d like to be, crass, essentially eager to help. David Gyasi is engagingly hamstrung as the British foreign secretary, who’s caught between his scheming, unscrupulous boss and Kate, with whom he has a meaningful connection. And Stuart’s relationship with Kate is combative at first but eventually vital as they earn each other’s trust. The series is thoughtful about power, and why the people who crave it most are the least suited to wield it. But it’s most gratifying when it’s exposing the nuances of our most crucial commitments: how we know whom to trust, and what we do when things turn toxic.