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‘The Diplomat’ on Netflix – on the trade-offs between geopolitics and marriage

‘The Diplomat’ on Netflix – on the trade-offs between geopolitics and marriage
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler and Ato Essandoh as Stuart Heyford in 'The Diplomat'. (Photo: Alex Bailey / Netflix © 2023)

With its parallels to real-world leaders, mangled agendas, subtle flirtations and a heap of snappy one-liners, Netflix’s new whodunnit drama is a rare example of political escapism.

In a nutshell

A mysterious missile attack on a British naval vessel in the Persian Gulf sets the political world ablaze. The Americans think it was Russia and the UK prime minister (Rory Kinnear) suspects Iran and threatens to rain hellfire on Tehran (imagine him as an infuriating amalgam of Boris Johnson and Tony Blair). Caught in the eye of this geopolitical storm is Kate Wyler (Keri Russell) who is appointed as the new US ambassador to the UK and sent there to do damage control. She’s joined by her husband Hal (Rufus Sewell) who is as charismatic as he is unpredictable, and whose own political ambitions are often achieved at the expense of the people around him. 

Kate and Hal (whose relationship seems to hint at that of the Clintons) are planning to separate, which becomes especially complicated when her name gets floated for vice-president, a post she’s unlikely to hold as a divorcee. 

Despite its explosive start, the show is low on action. It’s dialogue-heavy, set in conference rooms and embassies – you could just about listen to it as a podcast. This is not a series to watch ambiently while cooking dinner, it’s one to be watched with a keen eye and discussed at length with friends. The snobbery of Kate’s achingly enlightened angst is acknowledged, so you don’t have to feel bad about enjoying it. The funny, flirty, angry political discussions she has with Hal, supplemented with marital confidence, are the highlight of the series.

Pearl Mackie as Alysse, Keri Russell as Kate Wyler, Anna Francolini as Pippa and Amy Manson as Giselle in ‘The Diplomat’. (Photo: Alex Bailey / Netflix © 2023)

It’s overflowing with snappy one-liners, often smugly funny but never said with a smile. “You’d describe him as a compassionless conservative, we just call him old.” Its quotability extends beyond politics alone. 

The show’s name is not as literal as it seems – while the political whodunnit provides the setting, her methods of diplomacy are also a metaphor for what it means to be a romantic partner. “I feel like the stand-up thing to do is to give a relationship every possible chance, right? It’s the whole fucking definition of my life’s work – there’s nothing you can’t talk out, but at a certain point I am a moron for failing to learn a lesson I have been taught 1,000 times.”

Where to watch it

The Diplomat is available for streaming on Netflix

What’s the vibe?

Most viewers who are bored by politics wouldn’t give The Diplomat a second glance, but in truth, you don’t have to be especially interested in politics or even understand it to enjoy the series – it’s more important whether you enjoy drama. The Diplomat is an escapist series. Geopolitics may not seem like the most luxurious or exciting settings to escape to, but so long as it’s not your setting, it works, because it’s a world with an entirely different set of concerns to one’s usual daily life.

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler and Rufus Sewell as Hal Wyler in ‘The Diplomat’. (Photo: Alex Bailey / Netflix © 2023)

Rory Kinnear as Nicol Trowbridge in ‘The Diplomat’. (Photo: Alex Bailey / Netflix © 2023)

So you might actually enjoy the show because you don’t know about politics. In this way, it’s similar to field-specific dramas like Grey’s Anatomy or Suits. These shows make laymen feel like they’re peeking behind the curtain of industry and learning what makes the medical or legal world tick, but ask a doctor and they might point out that patients died three times too frequently in Grey’s Anatomy, and when they survived, they recovered miraculously quickly; and a lawyer might point out that in Suits, the characters serve as litigators and transactional lawyers at once, and cases go to court far more often than in reality. 

There’s a reason you need experience to be a doctor, lawyer or international ambassador, and these series are designed for people who don’t have that experience. 

The steady-paced drama of The Diplomat seems typical of American broadcast network television, but actually it’s just typical of its executive producer and showrunner Debora Cahn, who had a strong influence on television drama through shows like Grey’s Anatomy (which she wrote and produced from 2006 to 2013).

Of all the shows Cahn has worked on, The Diplomat is most similar to her first, The West Wing, (1999 to 2006) set in the White House. Both are veiled dramas baked with political analogies, depicting the internal workings of fictitious governments. It’s definitely worth mentioning the popular political thriller Homeland, which she wrote and executive produced in its final two seasons (2018 to 2020).

Rufus Sewell and Keri Russell in ‘The Diplomat’. (Photo: Courtesy of Netflix © 2023)

Michael McKean as William Rayburn in ‘The Diplomat’. (Photo: Alex Bailey / Netflix © 2023)

The premise of the show is very similar to Madam Secretary, so it deals with similar themes like women in power and the clashes between work and personal life. The cheeky orchestral soundtrack reminds one of mystery series like Sherlock, colouring the plot with a sense of significance and excitement.

A closer look

“He wants me to show up and look experienced and sad,” says Kate.

“You’re such a fucking snob,” says Hal. 

And she is (which is not to say that she shouldn’t be) but Kerri Russell, who plays her, definitely isn’t. Russell has an impressive range and has acted in wildly different types of productions over the past 30 years. 

Just a year before The Diplomat was filmed, she was on set for Cocaine Bear. Those productions could not possibly be more different, and they really go to show how much a difference writing makes to an actor’s performance. Viewers don’t watch a movie like Cocaine Bear for its intellectual discourse, but Russell’s character’s dialogue was particularly badly written, so despite being one of the most accomplished actors, hers was the most boring, insincere performance.

In contrast, Cahn’s meticulous script for The Diplomat gives Russell a sturdy framework around which she builds a full and natural character. Her co-stars also give her a lot to feed off – the casting was excellent, particularly that of Sewell, Ato Essandoh and Michael McKean – and this is crucial to the central task of the series – to show how politics on a global scale is intertwined with the personal. It’s a schoolyard of gossip and egos, but with far greater consequences. 

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler in ‘The Diplomat’. (Photo: Courtesy of Netflix © 2023)

Kate is an ideological purist, so having her as our vantage point highlights the rift between outcome-driven politicians and careerists. Kate resents the pressure to play Cinderella for the media and accept its gender-based double standards. She seeks to rise above the falseness of bureaucracy but the PR game is built into the system. Her husband, on the other hand, embraces it. Hal’s approach is more aggressive, so it’s difficult for him to accept a back seat and support his wife. He’s an infuriating antihero – by the end, even you will feel manipulated by him – but he also has endearing qualities which keep the feminist outlook of the series safe from accusations of throwing eggs at men. 

The most obvious critique of The Diplomat is that the constant passive aggression and flexing of intellects can be exhausting. It’s expected that you’ll zone out or not quite understand all of the miffed technical discussions but that the general mood between characters and frequent exposition will help you maintain a grip on which characters are good guys and which are the incompetents. 

How much this bothers you will determine whether you enjoy the witty style of humour, which you might call straw man comedy: a common style in political and legal dramas – the seriousness and importance of the stakes are quickly established, but then the characters constantly act discordantly with this insistent seriousness for comedic effect. It can be pretty funny as long as you’re invested in the stakes in the first place. DM/ ML

The Diplomat is available in South Africa on Netflix.

You can contact We’re Watching via [email protected]

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  • Steve Davidson says:

    My wife and I lasted about 5 minutes of the first episode. As soon as this wonderwoman – who can’t brush her hair arrived with that faraway ‘I know everything’ precious look in her eyes – we knew where it was headed. Ham acting, poor script, the works. Not worth wasting any time on it!

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