TV Yelling Corner: The Diplomat
In which Dame Sophie preaches a joyful little sermon
[A word about spoilers: The intro section below includes only details you see in the trailer and the first 15 minutes of the first episode of The Diplomat. If you want to go in knowing nothing beyond that, stop reading at the end of the third paragraph below the trailer. I hope you’ll come back to read the whole shebang later!]
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Friends, our long national televisual nightmare is over: five years after The Americans series finale aired, Keri Russell is back on TV, starring in The Diplomat, a delightfully engrossing oddball of a show that makes the most of both her ability to convey intense, occasionally dazzling professional competence, and her criminally underrated comedy chops. Also, she swears like a linguistically creative sailor, so if you’re in the market for that specific combo pack, The Diplomat is your kind of show.
But let’s back up a minute – what is The Diplomat? It’s a briskly-paced political thriller about Kate Wyler, a hyper-competent career officer in the State Department. After years of working behind the scenes and in tandem with her husband Hal, himself a former Ambassador to Lebanon, Iran, and elsewhere in the Middle East, she’s keen to begin her first posting as US ambassador to Afghanistan. All of that gets put on hold when she’s abruptly reassigned to another ambassadorial post, to the UK, following an attack on a British Navy vessel, ultimately killing 41 sailors.
The UK believes their ship was bombed by an Iranian vessel, and they need her regional expertise to prevent the situation from getting worse. Oh, and also, unbeknownst to Kate, being in the UK will make it possible to – maybe? – thrive under the tutelage and gimlet eye of political makeover king Stuart Heyford, the London embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission who’s been charged by White House Chief of Staff Billie Appiah to vet Kate for the role of Vice President. For various reasons, there’s about to be an opening for that position, and Kate’s at the top of Billie’s list.
Ok, that sounds like a fun watch, but what else is going on there that’s prompted you to write a full explainer?
So glad you asked, fellow curious person who is not at all me. My interest was piqued by Netflix’s promo image selection (a deliberately not-glamorous image of Keri Russell striding purposefully in a black pantsuit and crossbody bag – if anything, it looks like a paparazzi candid of Keri Russell, actual person, rather than a production still of Keri Russell, an actor in character as Kate Wyler), and by the end of the first screener, I was hooked by the audacity of the show’s inconsistent, yet fully coherent tone; its exploration of one very capable woman’s midlife crisis in her career and love life; and the brilliant use of costuming to convey characters’ personalities, standing, and relationships.
Wait, what? Inconsistent yet coherent how?
The Diplomat embraces abundance in everything, including genre elements and tone from scene to scene and sometimes within a scene. It’s a delicious mishmash, and it works, largely because of how assured the writing and performances are. Show creator Debora Cahn has written and produced shows like The West Wing, Homeland, and Grey’s Anatomy, and has woven together things you already know and love from those shows – zippy walk & talks filled with political jargon, rat-a-tat screwball banter, lots of professional arguing to yes (usually) in rooms decorated with impressive paintings. And because it’s on Netflix, all of that comes with exuberant cussing!
By incorporating unexpected humor (one memorable example from the first episode: at Kate’s behest, Hal sniffs her armpit to assess her degree of presentableness once they land in London. His verdict: “not great”) and potential romance (we’ll talk more later about Kate’s counterpart in London, UK Foreign Secretary Austin Dennison) alongside tense negotiations and literal spy-vs-spy moments, The Diplomat creates a fantasy world with real world texture and emotional heft.
It’s a whole bunch of top-notch “yes, and”-ing, that’s crucial to understanding Kate and staying on her side, even when we might like to draw her aside for a caring, very serious word about how she’s behaving. Kate is both literally and figuratively messy, hyper-competent and a fish out of water – of course she’s inconsistent!
The inconsistency reflects Kate Wyler’s inner turmoil, and how intensely competent, impatient, baffled, vexed, compassionate, savvy, infuriated, and not-infrequently horny she is. One moment, she’s offering insightful assessments of a potentially serious threat, the next, justifiably screaming her head off at Hal because he neglected to tell her for the last month that she was on a shortlist of possible VP replacements (and as part of that, he also lied to her when he agreed to what she’d intended as an amicable divorce). Her unhinged, screaming line delivery of “it makes me look! Like a fucking psychotic!!!” followed swiftly by a very professional and calm request to her staff to set up a call with the Secretary of State perfectly captures the show’s essence. It’s weird, it’s unexpected, and it all makes sense as part of a coherent whole.
Should Kate even be doing this job if she’s on such a personal rollercoaster?
I’m very on record about my affection for Borgen, a series about the life, loves, and machinations of Birgitte Nyborg, the fictional first Danish Prime Minister. After three regular seasons, the show seemed to have concluded, but it returned last spring with a new standalone miniseries (the floridly titled Borgen: Power and Glory) deeply rooted in Birgitte’s experiences as a woman experiencing perimenopause. In Borgen’s original run, she was frequently a mess in some area or other of her life, and that aspect of the show got turned way up for the miniseries. Both Birgitte and the show were all the more interesting for it.
The Diplomat makes a strong case for the idea that a midlife crisis isn’t necessarily about the crisis-haver falling to pieces and then remaining figuratively shattered on the metaphorical floor for all time. Crises can be generative as well as destructive, and the big questions Kate grapples with – does she want to remain in this “Tiffany” post? If so, can she continue to do the job her way? Would she prefer to request a transfer to Kabul, as originally planned? What would it be like to become the VP? Without the need to remain married to Hal, what kind of relationship does she want to pursue with him? With Austin? – all hold multiple potential outcomes for her as a person and for the fates of multiple nations.
I keep hearing The Diplomat getting compared with The Americans, but I’ve never watched it – is that going to matter much?
No, having watched The Americans is a good thing to do on its own merits, but it won’t make a difference at all in your enjoyment of The Diplomat. Either way, you already know or will know soon that Keri Russell is wildly talented, and a big part of the fun of The Diplomat is watching her pirouette all the way across its narrative high wires, being dazzling and grounded by turns. As Kate, she weds her well-known dramatic gravitas to her criminally underrated comedy chops and chemistry with her male co-stars, in service of portraying a foreign service hero who is also navigating a profound midlife crisis.
You were saying something earlier about the costumes – are they really that big of a deal?
You’re probably using the visual cues of costumes to decode and analyze the show without thinking about it. The Diplomat’s eloquent costuming is of a piece with and enhances its zippy pacing, and it needs to be a model of efficiency because of how samey everyone could look if the designs were not so invested in specificity. Nearly every character in the show is a government employee, so nearly everyone is wearing a suit of one kind or another.
They’re unsung MVPs of the show, establishing characters’ personalities, quirks, rank, class, and priorities, all within very narrow palettes for color, fabric, & cuts. Look at these stills of Hal Wyler face-to-face with the king of a 3-piece suit, British Foreign Secretary Austin Dennison, and of Kate and her team huddled up in her office.
We get so much from each image, even though they’re all wearing suits! Hal’s devil-may-care lack of tie is contrasts sharply and meaningfully with Austin’s three-piece suits, which protect his profound feelings about everything from a harsh world ill-suited to help him do so. In the huddle shot above that, we have No-Tie Hal, CIA Station Chief Eidra Park in a dark suit and silky blouse that harmonizes with Kate’s, Embassy underling Ronnie in a smart suit and bow tie, and Kate’s DCM Stuart in a nice, normal dark suit and tie. The only person dressed as though they genuinely care about clothes is Ronnie, who looks exactly the way she wants to; bow ties are a choice, not something anyone wakes up wearing.
If Kate isn’t in a sweatshirt and jeans, she’s in a suit. On the occasions where Stuart insists she wear a dress, even they are made of practical fabrics – I think they’re ponte, and if not, it’s some other sturdy, low-wrinkle, nicely draping jersey. The exceptions are her silky blouses in a variety of shades (I’m going to assume their practicality lies in being 4-season items and something she can wash easily by hand and dries quickly)
The long-suffering Stuart keeps offering Kate dresses in a variety of shades and fabrics, but the only time she wears anything truly fancy is in the final episode of the season. It’s visually punchy – a floor length gown in a perfect shade of red, made of charmeuse so it catches the light – and because they saved it til the final episode, it’s got more narrative weight behind it, too. Kate changes out of a perfectly serviceable black gown at the last minute to wear the red one — a deliberate visual reflection of her fury at Hal, a decision to embrace spite hotness in a revenge dress, and maybe a signal to Austin that the countdown to their inevitable smooching is moving ahead after being put on hold back when they were negotiating the Lenkov/Libya deal in an earlier episode.
Now, look at this princessy nonsense, but please note that the dress is a Meghan Markle (ca. 2018) special: a neutral shade, in a sturdy-chic jersey fabric, featuring a built-in cape for visual interest. She’s going to be in British Vogue, but by god, her dress will be as streamlined and unfussy as possible no matter what!
Here’s one more to send this issue out on a high note, and to whet your viewing appetite. May we all look so fresh and not-exhausted after a long weekend of negotiating an appropriate response to global terrorism!