There were high hopes for The Diplomata political drama from Netflix starring Keri Russell as a newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to the U.K. Alas, the show is slow-paced, dialogue-heavy, and complicated at times due to all the political jargon. It likely won’t reach the level of success of a similar new show on Netflix, The Night Agent, but The Diplomat might appeal to fans of shows like Succession, Homelandand The West Wing (showrunner Debora Cahn worked on both of the two latter shows.)
The story begins when Kate Wyler (Russell) is preparing to travel to Kabul, Afghanistan, to continue the work she has been doing in war-torn regions. She receives a call from the White House she believes is for her husband, Hal Wyler (Rufus Sewell), a veteran ambassador with a stellar, though controversial reputation. But it’s not him they want — it’s her.
Given her experience in diplomatic relations, the government wants Kate to go to the U.K. and help diffuse an international crisis. A ship has been blown up and officials believe that Iran is behind it. There’s a secondary reason, however; a secret scandal involving the vice president means her resignation is imminent, and officials think that Kate is the perfect and simplest person to step in. There wouldn’t be an election: she’s a shoo-in for the job. Except Kate doesn’t know this yet.
Rocky arrival in the U.K.
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Once Kate arrives in the U.K. with her husband, she faces challenge after challenge while promising to be the perfect wife sitting on the sidelines. Alongside trying to get through to the U.S. President Rayburn (Michael McKean), U.K. Prime Minister Nicol Trowbridge (Rory Kinnear), and other political players, she’s constantly looking over her shoulder as her husband keeps trying to intervene. Not to mention that she winces at everyone poking and prodding, wanting to outfit her in dresses and heels for magazine cover shoots and publicity ops. She’s a black pants and blazer type of woman who doesn’t want to be pranced around like a trophy.
Kate is fit for the job, but she’s constantly questioning her tactics as her husband slyly weaves in his opinions and ideas with a “who me?” type attitude. He’s not interfering, he insists, just giving advice. Kate respects his knowledge and experience, but while working as an ambassador, he made ruthless and manipulative moves that didn’t sit well with others. Thus, despite his tremendous reputation, Hal has made enemies and people don’t trust him, Kate included. But she also believes she needs his counsel. Nonetheless, her fierce strength, independence, and skill also mean she’s hell-bent on following her gut instincts.
She slowly becomes more comfortable in the U.K. and the position, learning to delegate tasks to others and forging a strong alliance and friendship with Austin Dennison (David Gyasi), the British foreign secretary.
But the situation is consistently murky, both personally and professionally. Kate both leans on Hal and wants him to leave and let her do the work on her own. Her marriage, it turns out, is on the rocks, with the couple on the verge of divorce. Despite Hal’s insistence that he can get Kate to love him again, Kate wants to move on. This creates even more friction as she tries to get the job done with him constantly in her ear.
When others discover the state of Kate’s marriage, the news about the real plans for her are divulged. The vice president can’t be divorced. Kate is stuck with Hal for better or for worse if she wants that job. Kate has love for Hal, but she constantly feels like she’s living in his shadow. As she grows more confident and assertive, however, the situation becomes more about whether he can live contentedly in hers.
Diffusing a crisis
As she focuses on the work, trying to put the issues in her marriage on the backburner while Hal not-so-innocently lurks in the background, Kate’s research and knowledge convinces her that Iran is not behind the bombing. The issues must be navigated cleanly and seamlessly, which is increasingly difficult for Kate to manage. The brash prime minister is angered about his innocent citizens being killed, so much so that he makes statements about “reigning terror” down on the enemy. Meanwhile, Kate must prevent the U.S. from reacting impulsively when they don’t have all the facts or proof while also making sure their lack of reaction doesn’t result in a soured relationship with the U.K., which expects the U.S. to be on its side.
Through a series of investigations, clandestine meetings, and secret notes handed over by leaders of other nations, the finger begins to point to Russia. Eventually, Kate realizes it’s not Russia that’s responsible, but rather a Russian who was hired to conduct the bombings. They discover the person’s identity and set up a plan to have him arrested and tried.
Despite her work leading to potentially solving the case, capturing the perpetrator, and maintaining positive diplomatic relations, Kate can’t stop thinking about the great work she could have been doing in Kabul instead. That feeling of regret is intensified when she meets with an old colleague back in the U.S. and hears about how much worse the situation has gotten there. She questions whether ambassador, or even vice president, is the position for her and her future. Does she really want it? Or would she rather do work she deems more meaningful? Especially if doing so means she could finally shake Hal from her life.
What’s going on with Hal?
While Kate is the central character, it’s Hal who steals every scene and keeps fans guessing. Is he truly, madly in love with Kate? Or does he have ulterior motives?
Through it all, Kate and Hal’s relationship takes twists and turns. He tries to sit by, keeping himself busy with mundane tasks and events, indulging on British pastries, and reading the newspaper. He does little things to show he cares for Kate and wants to keep her on her toes, like making a plate of breakfast that he doesn’t eat, knowing she’ll sit down and pick at it before starting her day. Is he truly invested in making sure she does her job effectively and lives out her dream because he cares about her happiness and success? Or is he, as she occasionally suspects, lobbying to run for president or secretary of state and needs her to get there?
In one shocking scene, Hal encourages Kate to sleep with Dennison when he recognizes a mutual attraction between them (she doesn’t, but there are clear romantic feelings there). Hal also, it should be noted, has a rendezvous in a pool with Dennison’s sister, though he advises her he can do “anything but intercourse” because he’s staunchly devoted to his wife.
How does The Diplomat end?
While attending a gala in hopes of fostering positive diplomatic relations with France, Kate learns that the U.K. has ordered the assassination of the guilty party, not an arrest. She is furious, but when she meets with Dennison and expresses her anger, he is bewildered. There is no way such an order could have been given without his go-ahead, which he assures he did not give. He frantically checks his phone to see if he missed an e-mail. That’s when a light bulb goes off in Kate’s head.
The only people who would benefit from the bomber being killed are the people who ordered the bombing in the first place. If the U.K. prime minister secretly ordered the assassination, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to put two and two together.
At the same time Kate makes this harrowing realization, Stuart Hayford (Ato Essandoh), Kate’s deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in London, and Eidra Park (Ali Ahn), chief of the CIA station in London, are about to meet with an official from France. It’s a meeting that Hal initially set up, but Kate canceled, once again to prevent her husband from sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong. Hal, nonetheless, charmed his way into attending for five minutes to say his piece. But as the trio approach the man’s vehicle from different sides, it explodes.
The presumption is that they were all killed in the blast, insinuated by Kate’s horrified face when Secret Service agents approach her on the bridge in Paris, where she stands with Austin and whispers something. There’s no confirmation, but if the three weren’t killed, they were at the very least severely injured. A possible near-death experience for her husband could put things in perspective for the both of them.
The cliff-hanger ending of The Diplomat suggests a season 2 concept is brewing. But we’ll have to wait and see if the series is popular enough to warrant one.
Stream The Diplomat season 1 on Netflix.