‘The Diplomat’ Review: Keri Russell’s Slick Netflix Series Makes a Meal Out of Political Parlance

Save the marriage, save the world?
The Diplomat Netflix series Keri Russell Ato Essandoh
Keri Russell and Ato Essandoh in "The Diplomat"
Courtesy of Alex Bailey / Netflix

The Diplomat” talks a big game. Set within closed-door embassy offices and staggeringly grand municipal buildings, various political officials fervently discuss the state of Iran, Russia, and Afghanistan. They name-drop presidents and call up sources. They make historic, sweeping plans for countries thousands of miles away in response to international incidents that rarely make the news and then rework those plans when new information comes in — which it does, all the damn time.

Always, it seems, they’re talking. Talking about what’s best for their country, their president, their people; talking about what’s best for that other country, and its president, and its people; talking about how they’re going to talk about those topics, so they’ll be best positioned to get what they want, and talking about what’s already been said, parsing keywords and inflections that might shed light on the speaker’s hidden intentions.

Call it spycraft, call it political parlance, call it diplomacy in action — whatever you call it, “The Diplomat” makes it hypnotic. Created, written, and showrun by Debora Cahn (who spent four years on “The West Wing” before producing and writing for “Homeland”), the new Netflix series starring the great Keri Russell is a clever evolution from those two programs, balancing big walk-and-talk energy with hushed and hurried chatter. “The Diplomat” doesn’t idealize government work like Aaron Sorkin did, nor does it indulge in action-driven spectacle the way Alex Gansa and Lesli Linka Glatter often enjoyed. But, as befits its character-based, story-driven medium, the political thriller keeps you guessing from start to finish, and it does so almost exclusively through dialogue, be it shouted, whispered, winked, or stared.

Meet Kate Wyler. A longtime No. 2 to her diplomatic star of a husband, Hal (Rufus Sewell), Kate is a “career officer” — an American ambassador who’s experienced in crisis zones, but has little patience for posturing. She wears black clothes because they hide the inevitable stains left by her fast-snacking. She doesn’t make small talk, unless it’s some sort of secret code, and she likes to keep moving, whether that’s pushing to enact policies, rushing from one emergency to the next, or both at the same time. What she doesn’t like is posing for photos. She has zero interest in attending funerals or weddings as an “emotional support dog,” and she’s not interested in furthering her own image when she could be helping those in real need.

All this is only a problem because Kate isn’t being sent to Kabul, like she was first told. She’s going to London to serve as the U.K.’s U.S. ambassador, which is a traditionally “ceremonial” position that fellow diplomats equate to “buttering a crumpet.” At first, she asks the president (Michael McKean!!) to send Hal instead. She promises he’d be great, and that she’s totally fine working in a different country than her partner. But President Forcett Rayburn won’t do it (because Hal, despite being “a good man,” has pissed off too many important people), and — using the same inquisitive spirit employed by every character in “The Diplomat” — the more important question isn’t what Kate’s actually asking; it’s why is she so eager to be apart from her husband.

Yes, as it turns out, their marriage is on the rocks, so now not only does Kate have to settle into her new, unwanted position while finding out who attacked a British aircraft carrier — which, if handled poorly, could result in a third World War — she also has to gauge the honest intentions of her shifty hubby. Hal is a bit of an enigma. He promises to support her (and be happy doing it) in the same way Kate supported him in years past, but then he’ll go off and do something self-serving or, at least, that appears self-serving. Intentionally or otherwise, the season never reaches a clear resolution toward Hal’s character. He’s part asshole, part wounded bird, but the two halves never congeal into a recognizable whole. By the end of eight episodes, I have no idea what to think of Hal, but that’s largely OK, because Kate f’n rules.

Kate swears all the time. She’s unafraid to scream and shout and knock shit over. She tackles a man into a bush. That man is her husband. After telling her staff a dozen times she prefers pants — enunciating each “p” with such precision it could puncture a bullet-proof vest — Kate spots a rack of beautiful gowns in her office and lets out an exasperated “for fuck’s sake!” Kate is also very good at her job, and watching her go about her duties makes for scintillating television by itself.

The Diplomat Netflix series Keri Russell Michael McKean
Michael McKean and Rufus Sewell in “The Diplomat”Courtesy of Alex Bailey / Netflix

Much of the credit goes to Russell, an actor of incredible ferocity and sublime humor, but Cahn gets what makes swapping diplomatic secrets so compelling. Notes are scribbled on pieces of paper that state the opposite of what’s being said out loud. Meetings are arranged in private that lead to other, even more private meetings. Within the ordinary, grounded, day-to-day life of this very busy woman, there are juicy mini-adventures to be had. By the back-half of the first season, you’re flagging which innocuous comments are suspicious before Kate or another character confirms your hunch.

Perhaps best of all, “The Diplomat” values efficiency. As an hourlong drama, every episode is under 53 minutes, and it barely makes time for B- and C-stories. Often, side-plots involving other office affairs or continuing political machinations are simply lumped into the main plot. Sometimes, they’re just given cursory nods so quick and to-the-point it feels like their greater purpose is masking edits between scenes in Kate’s main arc. Like its obsessed and overworked central subject, the series hustles from start to finish.

At the beginning, being in such a hurry can lead to a bit of confusion over names and titles, affiliations and motivations. The vague nature of Kate and Hal’s relationship issues, mainly driven by his occasional subservience to the plot, can also be frustrating. But there are so many detailed delights tucked in to each scene that it’s hard to care. By understanding its core source of momentum — information and how it’s shared between people — as well as maximizing each locale (be it the size and splendor of Old England’s institutions or a quick, secretive sojourn through the great outdoors), “The Diplomat” makes a meal out of blending political parlance with office melodrama. It talks a big game — and backs it up.

Grade: B+

“The Diplomat” premieres Thursday, April 20 on Netflix.

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