'The Diplomat' is smart, twisty TV about being great at your job
"Nobody with the temperament to win a campaign should be in charge of anything."
A character says this near the end of the first episode of The Diplomat, an excellent new Netflix political thriller series that stars Keri Russell (The Americans, Felicity) and was created by Debora Cahn (The West Wing, Homeland).
This line about temperament might sound like a statement of cynicism about politics. And it is. But it's also about competencies. Not competence in a general sense, but competencies — the different skills, abilities and talents that make people good at different kinds of work, and how often those competencies are not rewarded or recognized. This is one of many things The Diplomat is about: the mismatch between having the right stuff to be a high-profile figure and having the right stuff to do the real work. But more broadly, it's about skills, and about being good at your job. If that sounds dry, it isn't. It turns out to be fascinating to watch a whole show that's mostly about people who are good at their complex, high-stakes jobs.
The Diplomat is about Kate Wyler (Russell), a longtime Foreign Service officer who's been doing delicate work in the Middle East, as has her husband Hal (Rufus Sewell). Hal has the same job Kate does, but he does it very differently. (Because they both do this work, they are what's known as a "tandem couple.") Kate is good at a lot of things, but Hal has far more swagger. He's much higher profile and more politically oriented. Everybody knows Hal. The Wyler marriage is a working partnership where she is the support team and he is the public-facing star.
But after an explosion on a British aircraft carrier creates a fresh crisis, Kate is sent to London, where the president (Michael McKean) and his chief of staff, Billie (Nana Mensah), want her to be the new ambassador. Kate's deputy in London will be Stuart (Ato Essandoh), who's used to handling a variety of ambassadors but has some additional business on his plate when it comes to Kate and Hal. London will shake up the Wyler marriage, too, because Kate will be the lead and Hal will be, in effect, the trailing spouse.
Kate has no interest in what strikes her as a largely ceremonial job often given to big donors as a reward. But as it turns out, Billie needs Kate to do in London what Foreign Service officers do elsewhere, which is to carry out international diplomacy in critically important ways. The explosion has raised the prospect of a march to war that will seem queasily familiar to viewers. It's going to take a lot of very smart and level-headed people to handle it.
The president is not reliably smart and level-headed. The same goes for the British prime minister, Trowbridge (Rory Kinnear). And the U.S. secretary of state (Miguel Sandoval). And even Hal. So the people who do much of the most delicate work — including Kate, Stuart, Billie, CIA station chief Eidra (Ali Ahn), and UK foreign secretary Austin Dennison (David Gyasi) — work around these famous and blustering men, compensating for their weaknesses, fixing their mistakes, cleaning up the messes they've made, and choreographing without credit most of the things they do that are helpful. And even then, these operators, as we might call them, are often not listened to when they offer their advice. (It is probably not a coincidence that the powerful figures whose jobs they facilitate are mostly white guys, and they are mostly not.)
There's a lot of fun to be had with the fact that Kate manages with exacting nuance questions like: What kind of a photo op will send what message at what time? What can a carefully structured speech communicate right out in public? What is too delicate to send via the most private and trusted channels? What kind of meetings can you have within the strict protocols of diplomacy? Which call can you make to which person, and when, and when that person answers, what can you say? Protocol is inherently entertaining because it's inherently silly much of the time, and yet it's a reality with which somebody like Kate lives all the time.
Kate understands the fine points of the relationships she and Hal have built around the world, and she understands how fragile they are. She also is under no illusions about the history of United States diplomacy and its limitations. At one point, when she is asking to have her opinion respected and an important source in another country not pressured beyond what's reasonable, she says in deep frustration to a colleague, "Do not be an infinitely ravenous American."
As people whose guiding principle is restraint, they are unusual heroes for a thriller, given how often a similar character will signal seriousness of purpose by grabbing a gun and heading out into the night.
The Diplomat unfolds in a series of suspenseful twists, it's true. But it does so with a refreshing reluctance to resort to violence. In fact, this is overwhelmingly a thriller about people who, through their work, try to prevent violence and limit the use of military force to the most necessary situations. They are most definitely not pacifists, but as portrayed here, they are wary of the recklessness and ego that allow conflicts to spin out of control. Regardless of how they view it morally, they certainly see needless escalation as no-win, strategically. And as people whose guiding principle is restraint, they are unusual heroes for a thriller, given how often a similar character will signal seriousness of purpose by grabbing a gun and heading out into the night.
This is also a story about gender and work. Kate and Hal's marriage has been based on a specific idea not only of who they are to each other, but who the wife of a prominent man is generally. Eidra, too, is in a workplace relationship that raises questions of how that relationship becoming public would affect her career versus her partner's. And she tells someone, regarding Kate and Hal's relationship, that being a tandem couple has professionally been bad for both of them. "But," she adds, "mostly her."
Even tasks of great importance are sometimes described to Kate in ways that make them sound suspiciously like caretaking: keep this man from doing anything crazy, keep this man on the rails, keep this man calm, tell this man what he needs and wants to hear. There are some fine lines here between diplomacy, flattery and indulgence of the unreasonable. Some of what Kate does is part of the job of anyone who follows such strict and careful protocols. But some of it oozes sexism. It's as if being Hal's wife has prepared Kate for a lifetime of dealing with men who expect her to spend her considerable talents in ways that benefit the mission — but also make their lives easier, or even make their lives possible. She is a gifted facilitator, perhaps to her own detriment. Facilitators are often not appreciated, whether they are facilitating the operation of a home, the maintenance of a demanding career, or a diplomatic resolution.
Debora Cahn, who created this show, has worked on The West Wing and Homeland, and the DNA of both shows is easy to spot. The Diplomat has The West Wing's fondness for process nerds and playful dialogue — it's often quite funny, especially in its little moments among co-workers. It has Homeland's exploration of international diplomacy and its complexities. But interestingly, the publicity around the show has not emphasized Cahn's work on Grey's Anatomy, where she was nominated for an Emmy.
Maybe Grey's is generally understood to be soapier? Somehow less "important" than the others? But despite its unevenness, Grey's Anatomy has real strengths, including a genuine interest in the interiority of women. That DNA is here, too. The result is a show that brings in elements of a bunch of different kinds of TV — the prestige cable drama, the upmarket broadcast hit, the spy thriller, and the nighttime soap. All those pieces are part of the appeal.
And nobody is better-suited for a show that weaves in so many styles than Keri Russell, whose central performance gives The Diplomat both heft and humor. She's done light material, tragic material, romantic and brutal stories, and she's always, always good. She is, among other things, really funny in this, even though she hasn't played funny all that often in recent years. (She did have a blast in Cocaine Bear.) Russell has a lived-in, casual way of moving through rooms, grabbing snacks, sitting in chairs — regular business that always makes her seem like her character has emerged organically from the environment. Here, she's able to deploy both her warmth (Felicity) and her cool (The Americans) in the same role, and both her delivery of dialogue and her silent reactions can get laughs as well as gasps.
It's good, smart, well-built, well-acted, well-written television. It isn't what you'd call cinematic; it's far more interested in its story than its form. But episode by episode, it builds that story into something exciting and suspenseful — and thoughtful, too. It's a thriller that's both a good yarn and an examination of the capacity of good and careful work to actually solve problems. And if that's not thrilling, what is?
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