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How Keri Russell sells The Diplomat’s disaster heroine

Netflix’s The Diplomat asks what high-powered political games look like when they’re played by a woman with impostor syndrome.

A man and woman sit on a couch holding drinks.
Rufus Sewell and Keri Russell star in The Diplomat.
Alex Bailey/Netflix
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

A remarkable thing about Netflix’s latest limited series hit The Diplomat is that at the end of it, a diplomat makes a speech about how diplomacy never works.

His point is that the niceties of diplomacy are just window-dressing for the real work. But by that point, we’ve seen this for ourselves, because we’ve watched our hero, Keri Russell’s beleaguered ambassador, tear through one polite facade after another in her quest to do her job.

Unlike the cliché you might expect, however, Russell’s character, Kate Wyler, isn’t being destructive because she’s a maverick iconoclast doing it her way. Rather, she is battling to get anything done at all. As the newly appointed US ambassador to the UK, Kate has to navigate not only an unfolding international military crisis but a new job that comes with a fully stacked deck of ways to undermine her, from deadening protocols and hierarchies to garden-variety sexism. (Not to mention the constant manipulation from her wheeling-and-dealing husband.)

It’s a striking portrait of an overachiever who’s learned to mask but not quite conquer her own impostor syndrome. Kate, by all rights, should be striding through the corridors of power with confidence. Instead, she repeatedly struggles to assert and even believe in her own basic agency, at a moment when her performance could mean the difference between solving an international crisis or embroiling everyone in a nuclear war.

Kate sees herself as “an emotional support dog,” and acts accordingly

Created by West Wing alum Debora Cahn, The Diplomat takes pains to remind us of the well-known aphorism that the best leaders are people who don’t want to be leaders, rather than those for whom leadership is a self-serving means to a power-grabbing end.

The tacit question this series poses in response that makes it both so fascinating and so weird is this: What does it look like when that fabled ideal leader is a woman? What if her lack of ambition isn’t due to altruism or selflessness, but rather having her sense of agency almost entirely eroded by years of institutional sexism and misogyny? What if she knows from experience that even in power, she’s not going to get to be more than a pleasant, competent face for other people’s goals?

For this conceit to work, The Diplomat must let its protagonist be a bedraggled, chaotic disaster whose self-worth is at rock bottom (who also has a preternatural skill for this type of work), and it does. Thrust into the center of an international political fiasco, Kate bites and snaps her way through a marathon first week on the job, joining a parade of dissociated, messy TV antiheroines. One spends the entirety of the show’s eight episodes desperate for someone to brush her hair.

Prior to being abruptly assigned the British ambassadorship, Kate was preparing for a much different diplomatic role in Afghanistan, one that seemed to her both far more urgent and far more well-suited to her no-frills temperament. Now, she has to tiptoe around multiple US and British agencies at loggerheads with one another, all while battling multiple fronts at home, especially her outrageously manipulative husband, Hal (Rufus Sewell), and her nagging self-doubt. Her goal — to uncover the real culprit behind the bombing of a British aircraft carrier — seems to move farther away with every play she fumbles in this new landscape.

We’re used to seeing this type of harried female character in roles where their shortcomings either don’t interfere with their larger role or else play out privately, secretly, until they become larger than our heroine can handle and threaten her public facade. Not so with Kate Wyler: Her dysfunction comes in the form of her rejection of traditional diplomatic skills, which coexists with her intelligence and sharp instincts for the job at hand. Even as she proves diligent and competent at the actual work of doing her job, Kate stays morose, cloaking herself in a protective facade of cynicism, openly convinced of her own irrelevance. “I’m an emotional support dog,” she insists early on.

Kate’s disorientation, and her conviction that she doesn’t belong in that role, is so great that it initially prevents her from understanding what her role is even supposed to be. It doesn’t help that, without her consent, she’s tacitly auditioning for another role for which she also hasn’t been prepped: vice president.

To an unusual extent, Kate’s impostor syndrome is truly justified. Media outlets misreport that her husband, not her, is the new British ambassador. Her boss starts trying to fire her after less than a day on the job. Her entire role seems like a mistake and a fluke. She’s been preparing for a role in Afghanistan, not the one she’s abruptly thrust into, all the while expecting that her husband, not her, will be the one granted the showy, high-profile position. Even worse: Her husband probably backchanneled the whole plan to make her veep in order to gain power for himself. Even her potential role as vice president is intended to be a convenient front for someone else to get something better.

Her agency, both in her official role and in her domestic life, is perpetually undermined by everyone around her. She tries to divorce her husband; he lies in order to prolong the marriage. She tries to resign; the president refuses her resignation. She says no, repeatedly, to being considered a candidate for the vice presidency — a plan she only found out about after it had been in the works for over a month. Everyone around her proceeds with the plan as if she has no say in it at all. At every turn, people press her into claustrophobic social situations and literally into claustrophobic dresses. Even the ambiance undermines her: At a tense party, as she dances a tense dance (which her husband has dragged her into) while wearing a hasty updo, the band plays Corinne Bailey Rae’s “Put Your Records On,” subtly encouraging her to “let your hair down.”

Kate’s internal discombobulation impacts the entire tone of the show she’s in. The Diplomat presents as a deeply weird, tonally off-balanced show that seems to be fighting to maintain its equilibrium in every scene. Sometimes this unevenness turns cheeky and intriguing, and other times it’s a pure train wreck; often, it’s both at the same time! When Kate rages against the deep manipulation and coercive control of her husband, it’s framed as comic relief. Initially, no one in Kate’s staff respects her or believes in her; she stalks around, irritable and uncooperative at every turn, giving them few reasons to start. Random side characters set themselves up as pawns on her chessboard without their roles in the game being clear. Her own husband actively plots behind her back and frequently openly undermines her, casually and smugly.

The secretary of state “wants to know she’s not eating off her husband’s plate,” but then later that’s exactly what she does, coming behind Hal after every meal and picking at his scraps, which he methodically selects and leaves behind for her. Like everything else about Kate, her relationship to food reflects her distorted view of herself as someone who only expects and deserves a shard of her husband’s reflected glory. Even after the president has praised her good work, she deflects and insists he only wants to hear from her husband, not her. Kate spends episode after episode being self-deprecating about her appearance, her abilities, her self-image, her sidelined position within her marriage.

All of this uncertainty and self-obliteration taken together makes every episode an intense exercise in psychological exhaustion, as if Kate’s mental and emotional destabilization has seeped into the narrative itself.

It also results in tiny explosions. Kate, when she fights back, lashes out with impulsive violence, whether it’s punching her husband in the face after learning he lied about their divorce or trying to placate Britain’s bellicose prime minister by proposing that Britain bomb Russia. The latter move undermines her alliance with the British foreign secretary and risks, well, cataclysmic world war, but even worse, it mimics what her self-serving husband would do. Even her “bold” moves seem to result from her entrapment in Hal’s shadow.

What keeps all this from being simply bleak and wearying is that despite all of this, Kate is excellent at her job, even when she clearly doesn’t believe that she’s excellent. Her frustration at being passed over, dismissed, and condescended to as a woman in her profession gets subsumed in her larger self-hatred, which manifests in subtle but constant ways. She’s learned to do the whole deep-voiced, ball-busting Elizabeth Holmes thing, sure, but she can’t bring herself to take compliments without immediately deflecting them. She knows how to assert herself in textbook ways within the context of her job (don’t let people push you around; wear suits, not dresses; speak authoritatively), but when it comes to self-reliance, she often falters.

It’s unclear what the extent of Hal’s manipulations have been over the course of her marriage, but it’s clear that they run deep. His controlling behavior over time has impacted her ability to rely upon her judgment instead of falling back on his guidance and advice, even when she knows from long experience that he’s likely working an angle, that he can and will undermine her for his own purposes. It’s Hal, of course, who throws her off balance most of all; Sewell plays him smooth and sleazy, just earnest enough to reel in the audience along with Kate until the final penny drops. But Kate knows better; or at least she repeatedly tells everyone around her that she knows better, as if she’s trying to convince herself.

The Diplomat’s strength lies in Russell’s ability to convince us that Kate is both a competent foil for international terrorists and a perpetual dupe at the hands of her own husband. The show’s writing undercuts this theme by being flat more often than subtle; still, Hal never misses an opportunity to feed her self-doubt with petty criticism, insistent advice-giving, and outright manipulation and lying. When she suggests, repeatedly, that he sit back and listen instead of trying to take charge, he retorts that he never needed to do that “because I thought it was a dumb idea.” The contrast is clear. Kate has learned to weaponize listening out of necessity, because she’s so frequently talked over by Hal and men like him. By the season’s cliffhanger ending, his inability to stand down may well jeopardize his fate along with hers. It could be a lesson learned too late, or in the nick of time.

Yet controlling relationships are cyclical, and Kate and Hal seem to have been in this codependent ouroboros for many years. Escape for Kate might necessitate an explosion of far bigger proportions than she’s allowed herself thus far. It might catapult her at last out of her depression and doubt — or at least allow her to eat off of her own plate.