This article contains spoilers for The Diplomat Season 1.
In May of 2021, a friend told me that she was a writer on a new Netflix show starring Keri Russell as a career U.S. diplomat who is appointed ambassador to Great Britain during a crisis: a British aircraft carrier is bombed, possibly by Iran or Russia, leaving her in charge to untangle the mess.
I told her the whole premise was preposterous. American ambassadors to St. James’ Court are never professional Foreign Service officers; the post, to a greater extent than all other postings, is reserved for prominent pols—campaign donors, party chairmen, ex-cabinet secretaries—and the task is largely ceremonial, except during crises, when the ambassador’s special ties with the president are handy for cementing the “special relationship” between Washington and London. An unknown, in-the-weeds FSO, with no appetite for pomp or flashbulbs, doesn’t fill this bill one bit.
The friend said the series was still in early development and asked if I could sit in on a session of the writers room. I thought it might be fun, so I did, as a favor. Not desiring any formal affiliation with the show, I neither requested nor received any pay or credit, nor did I sign a nondisclosure agreement (though I agreed not to talk about the show before it aired).
The writers room, which took place two months after our initial conversation, was in Manhattan, an easy subway ride away, but the COVID lockdown was on, so I participated through Zoom. I opened with the main point that I’d raised with my friend: The whole premise didn’t make sense because career diplomats don’t get to be ambassador to Great Britain. I was assured that this point would be finessed. And it was, sort of: One of the characters remarks that the situation is unusual. OK. But it’s still preposterous.
More head-slapping still is a subplot that wasn’t mentioned at the meeting: It turns out the diplomat is also being tested to see if she has the stuff to step in as vice president (replacing another intelligent woman who’s about to step down over a financial impropriety), and perhaps, since the president is old, to move all the way up to the Oval Office. This is really ridiculous: The president’s party chiefs would want to have a say in this pick, and, again, an obscure diplomat who’s uncomfortable giving speeches or posing for photos, and who has no prior history with the president or any other political leaders, is, to say the least, an unlikely candidate.
But this show is created by Debora Cahn, a former writer-producer on The West Wing, and so it indulges in the same liberal-intellectual fantasy: As one of the characters in The Diplomat puts it, wouldn’t it be great if a political leader got the job just because he (or better yet, she) was good at it?
Let me interrupt this grumpy screed to say that, for the most part, I enjoyed watching The Diplomat. The pace is crisp; the acting is fine, striking a balance between dramatic immersion and wink-and-nudge rom-com. I went with it, binged all eight episodes of Season 1, and didn’t hate myself afterward (except until the very end of the final episode, with its three cliffhangers, none of which makes the slightest bit of sense).
Even so, on the slightest reflection, the whole shebang is risible from the get-go.
During the writers meeting, I was told that the plot would involve a deadly attack against a British aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean, launched by the Russians in a way that made it look like it was done by Iran. I asked why the Russians would want to do this, and why they would want one of their few allies, Iran, to take the retaliatory hit. The writers didn’t have an answer at this point. Judging from the entirety of Season 1, they still don’t.
I then committed a faux pas, asking why the attack couldn’t be staged by the Chinese; they were the fashionable enemies of the moment. (This was well before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.) The writers looked at one another awkwardly. Then, of course, it came to me: For the past decade or so, it has been that the bad guy in an American movie or TV show can never be China. All the studios rely heavily on the Chinese market for their products; giving China a bad look would risk a Beijing boycott. For instance: In 2012, Hollywood remade Red Dawn, a 1984 movie about a Soviet invasion of the United States. By the time of the do-over, U.S.-Russian relations had settled into a post–Cold War “reset,” so the enemy was recast to be China. However, in the screenplay’s final draft, the invaders were swarms of North Koreans—which was beyond ludicrous. (Even so, the movie grossed $65 million at the box office.)
Now that the U.S. and the European Union are talking about “de-coupling” or “de-risking” from China’s supply chain (and perhaps its demand imperatives as well), maybe some studio chief will once again dare to make a war movie with China as the enemy. For now, though, cinematic wars have to be started by Iran (the surefire foe), Russia (The Diplomat’s writers hit on a bit of good luck with the Ukraine invasion), or a Russian militia group (modeled after the Wagner Group) that may or may not be acting independently of the Kremlin (I may have been partly responsible for this twist, when I told them that the Russian military, intelligence, and private criminal groups often cooperate to the point where they seem indistinguishable to an outsider).
The writers clearly talked with a lot more people than just me, and did some reading, too. Someone briefed them well on such matters as the interplay of the National Security Agency, GCHQ (Britain’s NSA), MI5, and the London embassy’s CIA station chief; on the distinction between Russia’s FSB (foreign intelligence service) and GRU (military intelligence); on the bureaucratic tensions between Euro-proud France and post-Brexit Britain; and the whiplash contrasts between the dry tedium of most diplomatic intercourse with the heady thrill of a breakthrough when one comes.
In this case, the diplomat’s thrills and breakthroughs come a bit too easily; by her third day on the job, she and her connivingly ambitious husband—a former ambassador himself who’s desperate to get back in the game and the spotlight—have derailed an attempt by the brusque British prime minister to ensnare U.S. carriers in a war with Iran and put the brakes on escalation to a war with Russia.
But, hey, that’s entertainment. And since the show is rated “Mature Audiences” (for “language, nudity, sex, smoking”), we’re also introduced to a new, diplomatic twist on a troubled marriage’s “make-up sex,” which might be called “thanks-for-helping-me-save-the-world sex.”
In real life, there are at least two kinds of good career diplomats: those who are in it to help the downtrodden and oppressed in the world’s worst distant corners—and those who yearn for postings to the likes of London and Paris, with promotions to negotiating teams and staff spots in the White House or the State Department, and possibly beyond.
Keri Russell, last seen as a committed Soviet sleeper-spy in The Americans, is very convincing as the first kind of diplomat. She was on her way to Afghanistan when the detour to London came, and even when engrossed in the highest of high-stakes diplomacy, she feels guilty and remorseful that she’s not in Kabul, saving rebellious women from the Taliban’s torture. The depth and appeal of her character make the dissonances of her residency at Winfield House (the U.S. ambassador’s lavish mansion in London) seem more wrenching and comical than they might otherwise have been.
As a further treat for the aficionado, her husband (played by Rufus Sewell, one of those excellent British stage and screen actors who can adopt a flawless American accent) is clearly modeled on the late Richard Holbrooke, who was both types of good diplomat—a figure at once alluring and alienating, brilliant, bold, deceptive, and jaw-droppingly self-aggrandizing. My friend, who is no longer with the show, tells me that the show’s writers were told to read George Packer’s biography of Holbrooke, Our Man (now that could be a great miniseries), and to watch the HBO documentary about him, which was titled … The Diplomat.
But good, game acting—and there’s plenty of it here—can’t compensate entirely for a plotline whose basic premises are persistently, inescapably silly.
The climax of the season’s final episode jumps not merely one shark but three. In a matter of a few minutes, our heroine and her flirt-mate, the British foreign secretary, realize that the bombing of the aircraft carrier might have been ordered by the British prime minister for the sake of winning a couple of crucial Scottish districts in the next election; a car bomb blows up a Tory backbencher who’s desperate to tell the ambassador’s husband some urgent secret; and police instantly report the bombing to the ambassador (even though the bombing is in London and she’s in Paris), who folds in tears, which suggests that her husband, who had been running toward the would-be whistleblower, may have been killed or wounded in the blast as well.
So the Russians didn’t order the militia to blow up the carrier? It was the craven British prime minister, in order to win what electoral districts again? And how will this affect our heroine’s ambivalent drive for the vice presidency or her husband’s blatant maneuvering to be secretary of state?
It seems the writers never addressed the questions raised in the Zoom call that day. Instead, their evasions sent them down some rabbit holes that they may find impossible to dig out of in Season 2. Still, I’ll probably tune in, if just to see if this incarnation of Richard Holbrooke’s character gets the real man’s dream job.