Keri Russell Stars in Netflix’s So-So Political Drama

Apr 19, 2023

There is nothing more disappointing than seeing the talents of a charismatic screen performer become increasingly subsumed by a series that only scratches the surface of its potential. In Netflix’s The Diplomat, it is Keri Russell who commands our attention in typically outstanding form. As the veteran diplomat Kate Wyler, Russell is the one holding the entire thing together even as you can see it all starting to come apart. This refers to both the narrative, which is defined by a series of interconnected and escalating conflicts playing out on an international stage, as well as the show writ large that begins to tie itself into knots. The result is a season that taps into Russell’s talents just enough to prevent it from being dismissed entirely but can’t rise to her level with enough consistency to really grab you over its eight episodes. For every grounded and harrowing development it introduces, The Diplomat becomes a hollow theatrical performance based upon shaky dramatic developments that only end up undercutting the tension it seemed to be going for.

The driving force of the story, at least initially, is the sudden bombing of a British aircraft carrier that results in several casualties. Many are calling for blood in retaliation, despite not having any clear idea of who is actually behind it. Kate, who has been planning to go to Afghanistan, is then made the new U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom where she must diffuse this situation in order to prevent it from escalating further and find the real culprit. She won’t be traveling alone, as her smarmy husband Hal (Rufus Sewell) is coming along as well. A former ambassador himself, he still has plenty of connections that he seeks to use under the auspices of helping his wife navigate the crisis. As we come to realize, his supposed altruism is frequently used as a cover for his own intentions, which he keeps secret from Kate. He isn’t even the only one withholding the truth from her; the reason she’s been tasked with this often stuffy yet still important position is actually to size her up for a potential higher office. Ultimately, Kate will have to navigate the delicate alliances between the United States and the rest of the world that seems to be on the brink of yet another war breaking out.

Image via Netflix

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There is then a more serious undercurrent to how this drama unfolds. Not only is the ongoing war in Ukraine mentioned throughout, but Kate discusses one other past conflict at multiple points. The Iraq War is something that she correctly holds up as being an example of how those in government can not only fail to do their jobs but, actually, repeatedly tell a lie to justify actions that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands as well as a completely destabilized region. It has long been an issue that Hollywood has failed to capture on screen, but there is at least something approaching an acknowledgment in The Diplomat of this monumental destruction.

The issue is that this all becomes nothing more than lip service, as The Diplomat treats much of its story like a game. Any moments where we are supposed to take this narrative seriously, observing the grim realities of how power and violence are often the sole languages that are spoken, become less compelling when the tone turns oddly flippant. In one key scene, Kate calls the bluff of another character who is clamoring for a military solution by giving them exactly what they want in a list of targets. It is a brash move that could have easily resulted in untold deaths and something a more measured show would grapple with. Instead, The Diplomat just throws it in as an instance of surprise at how daring Kate is before subsequently flitting away to the next crisis she will have to think her way out of.

The core of this problem is that the series rests on a fantasy. No matter how bleak the challenges facing the world may be and how terrifying this trajectory becomes, all that is needed is a scrappy diplomat to shake things up. If only life and international politics were as simple as this overly neat depiction. For much of The Diplomat, there is a willingness to go along with this light fluff that is given more gravitas by Russell. Getting to see her as Kate cutting through the nonsense is engaging for much of the first couple of episodes, but the series starts to wear thin until the cracks begin to form. Just when she is able to avert catastrophe in one instance, another will take its place. Making matters worse is the declining state of her marriage. The experience relies on a darker humor, given that the two want to rip each other’s clothes off in one scene and tear each apart in the next, but it lacks the boldness that shows like Succession have in successfully pulling off this tonal dance.

Image via Netflix

The back-and-forth Russell has with Sewell only works sporadically given that the latter actor seems content to play the character with an air of detachment that lessens the impact he carries. When Hal is caught up in something dire at the end of one episode, it gets resolved almost immediately so he can get back to making snide observations around the edges of the story. This is clearly meant to be juxtaposed with the stakes of everything else playing out, but it doesn’t have the same heft as just seeing Russell’s Kate command the screen. There is no need to fill time outside of her, but there is still a scattering of subplots from various other bureaucratic characters which never connect despite how much time we spend with them.

Through all of this noise, Russell still manages to find some way to bring emotion out of the clunky story. Her character could easily carry several seasons of the show and, barring cancelation, following what is a clear cliffhanger in this one, there is still room for the show to grow in the potential journey ahead. One just wishes that The Diplomat was sharper and more tactful in this first season as, despite Russell’s strong central performance, it is built upon a house of cards that threatens to collapse under even the slightest bit of scrutiny.

Rating: C+

The Diplomat premieres April 20 on Netflix.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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