Who can you trust?
That is the central question at the core of THE DIPLOMAT, the sharp new Netflix series created by Debora Cahn (THE WEST WING, GREY’S ANATOMY). It’s the dilemma facing Kate Wyler (Keri Russell) as she starts her new job as the American ambassador to the UK after a British aircraft carrier is torpedoed and starts sinking in the Persian Gulf. Kate needs smart, truthful advisors on her side as she works to stave off a NATO war with Iran, but such aids are in short supply in this fish-out-of-water story. Making matters even tougher for her is her husband, Hal Wyler (Rufus Sewell), a former ambassador himself along for the journey. He’s got experience, connections, and brio, which makes him a great resource for Kate, but unfortunately, he’s also a cheating cad. Can she trust him? Can this marriage be saved? Can the world?
The answers to such questions are complicated, to say the least. And that’s what makes this show so much fun. Kate is used to being a tough-talking negotiator in the Middle East, never one to pussyfoot or let protocol get in her way. But now she’s dealing with the Brits and they love to stand on ceremony and keep that stiff upper lip. To further complicate her career, she’s under the microscope by the White House as they’re evaluating her performance in the UK to see if she’s got the acumen to be the new Vice-President under the aging and cantankerous US President Rayburn (Michael McKeon, channeling equal parts Biden and Reagan).
Kate doesn’t want the Veep job, but her husband thinks it’s an incredible opportunity that may help his career too. Meanwhile, she’s got to find out who torpedoed that ship, and Kate doesn’t tend to be the most diplomatic even though that’s her job. She’s short-tempered, swears a lot, and doesn’t hide her eye rolls around fools. She could care less about British propriety and can’t even be bothered to brush her messy hair or keep wearing heels. (She likes going barefoot, even outside amongst the grass and gravel.) The fact is Kate is one of the most prickly heroines ever to front a television series and THE DIPLOMAT soars the more surly she is. She’s so testy that during a publicity shoot in the first episode, she is so distressed about wearing a frilly frock, that she strips out of it in the mansion she’s been assigned to live in and lays down on the stairs to de-stress. (She doesn’t think much of the opulent digs they’ve given her either!)
Hal is her opposite in most ways. He’s elegant, wears a suit like he was born in one, and truly enjoys the life of dinner parties, chauffeurs, and high-end conclaves. He can be very shallow, but he’s got a strong streak of global righteousness to him as well. He’s had a history of being a good ambassador and knows the ins and outs of the game. He’s also a strong supporter of his wife, despite itching to do more over in England and looking for all kinds of opportunities to play hooky. Kate gives him a pretty long leash, but she can’t always count on him to stay on the porch. It’s put a strain on their marriage and they’re talking divorce, something that wouldn’t exactly help Kate’s political chances to get on the President’s ticket.
Fortunately, Kate starts to warm up to a few people on her side starting with the chief of mission Stuart Heyford (Ato Essandoh). He’s a real straight-arrow American and makes for a great right-hand man for her. Additionally, savvy CIA station chief Eidra Park (Ali Ahn) has Kate’s back and is tough, yet fair. She’s involved with Eidra, one of the few secrets the two of them don’t share with Kate early on. Worse for Kate is British PM Nicol Trowbridge (Rory Kinnear), an insecure prick who doesn’t trust her because he’s arrogant and more than a bit of a sexist pig. Kate can’t stand the PM’s vanity on full display when he arrives for a strategy meaning in a friend’s red sportscar or each time he expresses a desire to bomb somebody in Iran to help his poll numbers go up. It’s everything that Kate can do to keep the doofus from declaring WWIII on Iran before they even have enough solid intel to determine if they indeed are the culprits. (Something tells Kate, it’s not the Iranians, but the Russians.)
And all that is established in just the first episode. Whew! It’s full of verve, and drama, and moves swiftly, even if almost every scene is dialogue-driven. One of the other attributes keeping the show a rollicking ride as well is the genuine mystery of who did order the aircraft carrier to be shelled. That revelation is finally exposed in the first season’s finale, and it is a whopper.
The cast is uniformly excellent across the board, with special callouts to David Gyasi in his star-making role as the British foreign secretary Austin Dennison. Dennison’s precise, cautious, and discrete – not exactly sexy adjectives, but Gyasi makes the character one of this season’s best creations. T’Nia Miller, playing his mischievous sister is sexy too, though her character is everything Austin isn’t when it comes to discretion.
Of course, the show depends on Russell and Sewell, and what their chemistry is like, considering this is one part political thriller and one part love story. The two are fantastic together, and may very well be doing the best work of their careers in this vehicle. They make Kate and Hal’s marriage one of the most fascinating and complex unions ever presented in a series. At times, they are so in sync with each other, they eat off the same plate and finish each other’s thoughts. Other times, the two are like oil and water, not mixing in a town that likes things dignified. At one point, Kate and Hal have a knock-down, drag-out fight on the estate’s lawn. It’s perhaps the biggest error in an otherwise tight and smart show, but damn if Russell and Sewell don’t sell it anyway.
THE DIPLOMAT comments on a number of hot-button issues currently dominating newspaper headlines around the world, from the role of NATO to how to make sense of Putin’s mercurial control to an utter lack of transparency in politics anywhere these days. The show also comments regularly on all the sexism that Kate must face day in and day out in the war room and the bedroom, as the old boys’ network is everywhere and her husband is often a card-carrying member. The new world order may seem to suggest modern shades of gray, but old-boy cronyism and prejudice still appear to be in fashion in Kate’s circle. And she thought wearing heels was uncomfortable. Good speed, Madame Ambassador.