Russell’s steely stagecraft drives diplomatic drama
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In The Americans, the always incredible Keri Russell played an impostor — a steel-eyed Soviet spy embedded in Reagan-era suburban America. In The Diplomat, a glossy, snappy political drama now streaming on Netflix, she’s dealing with impostor syndrome, which turns out to be just as tricky.
Russell plays Kate Wyler, an experienced member of the American foreign service who is competent, committed and dedicated but can’t stop thinking that the person you really want to talk to is her husband.
Called in to meet with U.S. President William Rayburn (played with a nice edge of eccentricity by Michael McKean), she initially believes the job they’re discussing — the U.K. ambassadorship — is meant for her husband, Hal (Rufus Sewell), a high-flying former ambassador who’s currently in disgrace. When they finally sort out it’s her they’re asking, Kate still views it as somehow Hal-related. “They don’t want me without Hal,” she explains later.
Kate, who had been expecting to do substantive work in a crisis-zone posting, instead finds herself taking on what she self-deprecatingly downplays as a ceremonial role, basically garden-party duty in “the land of hats,” as Hal calls it.
But a recent attack on a British aircraft carrier by an unknown enemy means Kate is dropped into the middle of a diplomatic firestorm that has dangerous global implications. In her first week on the job, she must navigate the brinkmanship of Rayburn and oafish British PM Nicol Trowbridge (Rory Kinnear), form an uneasy alliance with British foreign secretary Austin Dennison (David Gyasi), and sift through top-secret intel on the Russians and Iranians.
On top of all this geopolitical wrangling, Kate is handling her complicated marriage to Hal, whose powers of charm and persuasion are presented here as practically supernatural (a gambit the charismatic Sewell mostly manages to carry off). The sidelined Hal likes to jokingly refer to himself as “the wife,” but he seems to be running shadow negotiations that could undermine Kate’s position.
The eight-episode series, which has already been greenlighted for a second season, covers a lot of ground — diplomacy, espionage, even the possibility of nuclear war. But its thematic through line is female leadership and what that looks like. In The Diplomat, it seems to come down to trying to save the world while simultaneously dealing with yogurt stains on your blazer.
Show creator Debora Cahn is a veteran of The West Wing, and it shows. The series is wonderfully talky, with a Sorkin-esque way of being smart but also just a bit smug about being smart. There’s lots of catnip for policy nerds, lots of self-consciously jaunty badinage under extreme pressure. The whispered backroom deals and intense pull-asides are meant to convey urgent, high-stakes realism, but mostly the show comes off as slightly preposterous fun.
Cahn does get serious, though, about the challenges Kate faces because of her gender — the insulting assumptions, the petty condescensions, the constant need to prove she’s not “eating off her husband’s plate.”
Even when Kate is working on military de-escalation in the Persian Gulf, there’s an enormous amount of energy expended on how she looks. On her first day of work, a staffer asks if she has anything “tea-length.” When it comes out that her work wardrobe basically consists of “one black suit and another black suit,” a rack of stylist-approved outfits mysteriously appears in her office. She spends a lot of time carrying her stilettos because her feet hurt.
At the same time, we see how much of Kate’s gift for diplomacy comes not just from her formidable intelligence and diligence but from the contortionist skills she’s picked up as a woman in power.
She effaces herself. She smooths out conflicts. She manages powerful, entitled narcissists without them knowing they’re being managed. Take the odious Trowbridge, who’s constantly undermining Kate, referring to her as both a “schoolmarm” and a “babe.” She weaponizes his underestimation of her, bringing in her ideas and making him believe he thought of them.
By the end of The Diplomat’s first season, Kate’s relationship to power feels ambivalent and exhausting. But as Hal points out, “no one who likes power should ever have it,” which is a good argument for rooting for the extremely frazzled but undeniably effective Kate as she heads into Season 2.
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Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.