[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for “The Diplomat,” including the ending.]
There are moments when TV run times can be a helpful kind of spoiler. If things seem a little too quiet and there’s only so many minutes left before the ending and the credits roll, there’s a certain wondering and waiting feeling. Will that tension get released or will that lack of resolution get carried over into the next episode? Watch a show for long enough — even if it’s only for a single season, like with the new Netflix drama “The Diplomat” — and you start to pick up its rhythms to the point where that anticipation comes even if you’re not checking timecodes.
The last episode of “The Diplomat,” with only so much time left, just feels destined for a powderkeg. Shows don’t need to finish off their seasons with theatrics. Muted endings can leave a pit in your stomach, knowing you were robbed of an easy catharsis. And yet. If there’s 10 minutes left in a season that kicked off with an explosion, it’s hard to expect Debora Cahn and the full “Diplomat” team to end with a whimper.
The ending of Season 1 blows up a shaky status quo, leaving lives, marriages, and the general international order in the balance. While Kate Wyler (Keri Russell) is busy trying to figure out the logistics of extraditing their main suspect in the attack that kicked off the season, husband Hal (Rufus Sewell) heads to a suspicious dinner meeting with a British MP. As Kate’s associate Stuart Hayford (Ato Essandoh) and Hal converge on the MP, a car bomb goes off, leaving their fates ambiguous. Officers arrive to give Kate the news just as she realizes the attack that started the season may have been orchestrated by Prime Minister Trowbridge (Rory Kinnear) himself.
Through Kate as the main teacher, “The Diplomat” is a guide for how to anticipate the impossible. Just as Kate and Hal are trying to outmaneuver both their allies and each other, the show is designed to get you to expect the unexpected. Armpit sniffs? Check. Tackle fights within a stone’s throw of a government office castle? Double check. Intricate discussion of yogurt stains? Surprisingly helpful!
So, ending this season on a violent cliffhanger isn’t just a cheap ploy to get renewed for a Season 2 or a tacit admission that the first eight episodes were just a meandering prologue. It’s a savvy move from a show that is not just about institutional knowledge, but has plenty of its own to spare.
That starts with pointing the finger at Trowbridge. Pinning everything on a treasonous PM is a massive swing that for a bunch of other shows would feel like a “break glass in case of emergency” injection into a flagging story. Yet “The Diplomat” has laid the groundwork for a drama with that scandal at its center that wouldn’t feel cheap or exaggerated. (Remember when Trowbridge was going on about that car he got to borrow? The signs were there!) “The Diplomat” is engaging with the realities of a post-Brexit Britain. It’s acknowledging the dangers of a rah-rah approach to foreign policy. And now it gives an even better excuse to put Kinnear and Michael McKean (as equally prickly President Rayburn) in a room together and have them be scrappy political animals. It’s a very appealing prospect.
Take out that explosion/revelation combo and this finale still makes a pretty solid case to keep things going. These episodes can still be loaded with jargon and are still clean and accessible. Visually, this is a step above your boilerplate government conspiracy thriller. Conversations framed by works of art two stories high, Hal popping into frame as he gets called up for his Chatham House campaign kickoff speech, even that handheld framing of Kate’s last “what do we do now” face before the cut to black: all effective reminders that this show is offering some potential cachet, not just pure watchability.
The season finale does flirt with putting a too-neat bow on the “There’s nothing you can’t talk out” theme as it pertains to all kinds of Special Relationships, geopolitical, marital, or otherwise. And explicitly spelling out who’s to blame for the impending Lenkov assassination/cover-up does feel like something that people of Dennison (David Gyasi) and Kate’s savviness would have put together without having to say it out loud. But it does reinforce the idea that it’s not just the aftermath of a car wreck or the uncovering of a giant international scandal that’s the selling point here. There’s a smaller-scale, marriage-in-the-balance story that will continue through even if Hal isn’t alive to see the effects.
And establishing the VP subplot throughout this opening season puts the show in a pretty strong place, able to go down one of two equally viable roads if somehow both Wylers are still around for a potential Season 2. (That blast radius certainly leaves some wiggle room to say that Hal is actually dead, but we’ll operate under the standard rule that characters are alive until proven otherwise. Plus, Sewell’s too good here to let go completely.)
“The Diplomat” does address the idea that the world of politics loves few things more than the cloak of heroics. Surviving an attack (or being the spouse of someone targeted in an attack) could put either of the show’s central couple on a fast track through the political ranks. Though, Kate being the private face of a public operation is where “The Diplomat” really hits its stride. If the higher office whispers go away in future episodes, having Kate in behind-the-scenes fixer mode is just as compelling as putting her a heartbeat away from the Presidency. Cahn is a vet of both “The West Wing” and “Homeland.” If “The Diplomat” wants to hew to one side or the other instead of being a blend of the two, this finale does enough to suggest there’s creative success in any of those options.
You couldn’t design a cliffhanger more ready to mobilize legions of fans for a #SaveTheDiplomat campaign should Netflix wait to announce the show’s future. Yet, part of what makes this show a breath of fresh air in a crowded “shows about covert government affairs” field is that not getting a Season 2 would still weirdly work within the theme of the show. Diplomacy is hard and tedious and often unfulfilling and sometimes all it takes is one random event to explode years — sometimes even decades of careful work. Putting in roughly 6 hours of compelling screen time for a story where the only ending is that people die and the Bad Guy wins and buffoonish, malignant politicians get entrenched further in power? That would be its own fitting conclusion, in a way. But if “The Diplomat” gets the kind of traction that its pedigree seems to indicate it should, this isn’t a show that Netflix can sleep on for long.
“The Diplomat” is now available to stream on Netflix.