“The Diplomat” Delivers TV’s Most Toxic and Compelling Relationship

There's a dysfunctional marriage at the center of Netflix's newest hit

May 5, 2023 6:00 am
Hal (Rufus Sewell) and Kate (Keri Russell) in "The Diplomat"
Hal (Rufus Sewell) and Kate (Keri Russell) in "The Diplomat"

Warning: this post contains spoilers for Season 1 of The Diplomat.

In the age of streamers, with countless shows being released each and every day, it’s difficult to find something that really holds your attention before being bludgeoned by notifications to watch 50 other shows. But Netflix’s The Diplomat, created by Deborah Cahn (writer-producer of The West Wing and Homeland) is the rare breed of series that demands every second of your attention, refusing to pander. 

There’s political intrigue galore — the story follows Kate Wyler (Keri Russell), who has suddenly been given the role of ambassador to the United Kingdom, interrupting her vital work in Afghanistan. She’s been given the role to check her viability for a much bigger role — the vice presidency — something Kate doesn’t know, but her husband Hal (Rufus Sewell), a former ambassador himself, does.

This is an intelligent show that gleefully bandies around muddy political jargon and explains things for those of us who are unfamiliar with intricate foreign relationships just well enough without making us feel stupid. But to avoid getting bogged down in the detail, The Diplomat is anchored by television’s most compelling, and toxic, relationship. Hal and Kate Wyler’s marriage is a fascinating and extremely unstable relationship propped up by promises of once-in-a-lifetime career opportunities and endless secrecy.

The will-they-won’t-they plot device is typically key to romantic comedies, with audiences wondering whether two characters will end up together. But, fascinatingly, in The Diplomat, it’s the reverse, as Kate and Hal perilously teeter between divorce and matrimony with each passing day.

Kate is fiery when they argue, but never overly emotional. Her voice gets louder but never cracks, and while fury rises, tears certainly do not. Hal, on the other hand, is almost eerily cool, and while the things he says are certainly more emotionally vulnerable than anything Kate says, he maintains a quiet befitting of a lifelong political operative. There’s always a sense that alongside Hal’s undeniable love for his wife is a lurking gamesmanship, which keeps tensions deliriously high. 

Case in point: when it seems as if their relationship is completely beyond repair, Hal suddenly drops the bombshell that Kate’s being considered for vice president. It’s a desperate move, but from Hal’s perspective, a clever one — how could Kate possibly divorce him now? It’s a parasitic, toxic relationship: Hal and Kate need each other to succeed, but at what cost to their own sense of self? That’s a major question that The Diplomat runs with, effectively balancing humor and drama as it tries to figure out whether Kate and Hal are destined to stay together or split up.

Hal’s ploys are something Kate is extremely aware of. Hal’s political prowess is genuinely immense. He has incredible knowledge and a massive, labyrinthine network of valuable contacts. So does Kate, of course, but Hal has the experience of being a diplomat that she lacks. One of their many power struggles pertains to Hal’s inability to remain the “trophy wife” if you will, as he’s always getting involved in Kate’s diplomatic affairs. But in fairness, Kate uses him sparingly as the vital asset he is, which in turn has him let loose. It’s like starting Newton’s Cradle: once you begin, it’s awfully difficult to stop it. Kate says it best: Hal’s “like a racehorse. You gotta run him, or he’ll tear down the barn.” 

It’s challenging stuff, but it is anchored by two fantastic performances by Russell and Sewell. Both completely believable as top-level government employees, the pair exude a lifetime of intricate knowledge, as well as a passion for one another. Their chemistry is crackling, which makes their inner war all the more engaging to watch unfold.

If Kate and Hal were just a couple that couldn’t stand each other, verbally sniping back (there are also physical snipes, as Kate literally punches Hal in the face) and forth, it would make The Diplomat a fun, if uncomfortable watch. But Cahn’s show weaves a far more intricate and compelling web. Where the show really succeeds in portraying the Wyler’s marriage is through their quiet, intimate moments. The show is downright intoxicating in these moments, exploring the intimacy of their relationship with bracing realism.

In the finale, Hal and Kit eat breakfast in bed, yet the pair are in professional mode, talking about the intricacies of the situation in Afghanistan. Smoothly and suddenly, they snap into playful bickering worthy of any married couple: in a second, Kate has gone from serious policy discussion to pestering Hal for getting crumbs all over the bed. It’s a funny, sweet and natural moment, and feels very true to the lives of married political operatives. 

There are plenty of these intimate and exceptional moments — in the first episode, Kate interrupts their conversation for Hal to sniff her armpits before she heads out — that keep the show grounded and true to life. In these scenes, I thought of how natural it is for couples to have passionate rants about their employment, weaving in silly little asides, jumping from work to life and back again in one fell swoop. It’s an honest aspect of relationships that The Diplomat nails, and it does wonders to help the show feel grounded and accessible amidst the international whodunit of it all.

The Diplomat also deals with sex in a fascinating way — an opportunity for pleasure, sure, but sex for Kate and Hal is often transactional, and typically on Kate’s terms. In the same bedroom scene, Kate offers Hal the opportunity to do an important speech in her place, offering him a hint of importance while she goes off to an all-important meeting in Paris. “You can’t buy me off with a speech at Chatham House,” Hal insists. But Kate knows better and has all the power here. As she straddles him and begins to grasp his genitals, she coyly, powerfully retorts, “There is significant evidence otherwise.” The Diplomat treats personal and sexual politics with as much importance as the politics themselves, creating a tantalizing effect. 

The constant instability of Kate and Hal’s relationship reaches a fever pitch in the final episode, in which the implications of the Chatham speech and Hal’s actions throughout the show finally fall into place for Kate. 

She believed that she and Hal have remained together for when she eventually ascends to the role of vice president, though Kate has remained tight-lipped as to whether or not she really wants the position. As the optics of a divorced VP are even more complicated than anything that happens in The Diplomat, Kate seems determined to keep their relationship afloat — in part for appearance’s sake, and in part because she values Hal as an asset (and probably a husband, too). 

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But the fallout from Hal’s speech at Chatham House has caused a shocking revelation: Hal may just be planning his own major career move, with the position of Secretary of State in his sights. Throughout the show, Kate has relied on Hal’s wealth of advice, much of which has resulted in a strained relationship between herself and current Secretary of State Ganon (Miguel Sandoval). But the dominos appear to be falling, and if Hal became SoS, the potential for Kate to become VP would all but evaporate.

The most thrilling scene in The Diplomat is this phone call. The show rhythmically cuts between the two, slowly but surely increasing the speed. At first, the camera is still, but as the conversation ramps up, it starts to slowly spin around both Kate and Hal. With the tension unbearable, the camera becomes more and more expressive. When Kate, quietly enraged, says “You’re chasing Secretary of State,” the camera starts to swirl around both Wylers, practically doing a 360-degree turn around both Kate and Hal. 

It’s beautiful, expressive camerawork for a show that’s rarely flashy. This pivotal moment is worthy of it, as their complex, toxic relationship built on tenterhooks has finally properly spiraled out of control. Just when it seemed like their own unique sense of relational stability was secured, the constant gamesmanship and secrecy finally catches up to them both, threatening everything they’d worked towards. 

Because seemingly all great dramas can’t resist a nail-biting cliffhanger, the status of Kate and Hal’s relationship is extremely up in the air. But thanks to the dynamic, thrilling and alarmingly true-to-life relationship of the Wylers, I’ll be waiting for the second season of The Diplomat with bated breath.

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