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Little Intimacies of a Fraying Marriage

Netflix's The Diplomat

· tv,Reviews,the diplomat

I'm not a television critc or much of a TV-watcher for that matter. It's a personal flaw. My attention span demands more interaction than sitting still watching a television show or movie usually affords. Reading works well enough, as long as the books are physical. After that, video games are where I spend most of my "entertainment" time.

When I do end up watching a show, it's usually because Nina (my wife) started watching it first, and I caught enough of it in the background of whatever I was doing for it to draw me in. The result is that I have a surprising list of shows that I've seen nearly every episode of, except for the first one or two. Ted Lasso springs to mind. The latest example of this has been Netflix's The Diplomat.

The show stars Keri Russell and Rufus Sewell, playing Kate and Hal Wyler respectively. Having missed the first two episodes, here's what I can tell you of the premise: Kate is a long-time civil servant who worked behind-the-scenes in the diplomatic corps while her husband was in the limelight, a political superstar who also pissed a fair few people off along the way, including Kate. Now, Kate has the big public-facing role, in a post that's meant to be more of a prestige appointment than serious work: ambassador to the U.K.

From what I understand, it's a show in the mould of The West Wing (a show I've only seen in clips): political competence porn, featuring a protagonist whose insights rarely steer her wrong, whose gambles mostly pay off, and who paints a vision of American diplomacy in which the U.S. plays the role of de-escalator, ever conscious of our impact on the world stage and the disaster our intervention can mean for other countries, even when well-intended. (One of the background elements of Kate's story is her involvement in protecting women's rights in Afghanistan, and the fallout of the U.S. withdrawal for her contacts there.)

There's a definite pleasure in watching Kate navigate the morally ambiguous world of U.S. foreign policy. When she tells the U.S. president that failing to show up for a NATO ally would be 49% bad, but sparking war with Iran would be 51% bad and that means she wins by two points, it's a gripping speech, made all the more tense by her earlier refusal to endanger an Iranian contact in the service of peace. It's good to see a show ackowledge that one of the challenges to peace is that it, too, has a cost--but that the cost is often still the "less bad" option.

But as gripping as Keri Russell's performance in those scenes is, that's not what kept me watching. Rather, it was the portrayal of Hal and Kate's marriage. It is a marriage, the show tells us, that long ago lost its luster. Prior to Kate's appointment, it seems she and Hal were even preparing to separate. Kate's appointment complicates things, but they spend most of the show sleeping in separate bedrooms and keeping boundaries clear.

Except when they don't. I'm not referring to the occasional tumble into bed with each other (though that does, eventually, happen), but to all the other little signs the show gives us that this is indeed a couple that have been married for fifteen years. When Hal serves himself breakfast from the ambassador's table in the morning, Kate takes nibbles from his plate. She reflexively takes a sip of his coffee after he's left the room. They know each other's habits and foibles and talk about them with the frankness that only a couple who have grown very comfortable with each other over the years can manage.

The Diplomat portrays a marriage, even one on the rocks, as more than just a living arrangement, or a set of feelings and attitudes one has toward another person; it's a collection of habits, little intimate acts that come from years of fitting your life together with another. Sometimes, after years of growing and growing apart, they are the only thing that remains. Sometimes, they are gravity enough to keep two people returning to each other's orbit. Which is the case for Kate and Hal? I haven't seen the last episode yet, so I can't say. I do know, it has my attention.


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