Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Fellow Travelers: Sex and Politics

Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey in Fellow Travelers. (Photo: Ben Mark Holzberg)

Matt Bomer has a personal triumph in the role of Hawk Fuller, a State Department official whose concealment of his gay identity turns into a devastating coup of deception in the Showtime limited series Fellow Travelers. Created by Ron Nyswaner, who wrote two of the eight episodes and the stories for two others and adapted from Thomas Mallon’s 2008 novel, it follows Hawk’s erratic love affair with Tim Laughlin (Bridgerton’s Jonathan Bailey), beginning in 1953. Tim arrives in D.C. straight out of college, still bound to his Catholic upbringing and his hero worship of Joe McCarthy. Hawk is cynical about both God and Tail-Gunner Joe, but he helps Tim land a job in the senator’s office while he pursues this somewhat younger man. Their complicated relationship, which they drop in and out of over the years, is intercut with its inevitable finale, when Tim, now a gay activist, is in San Francisco in the mid-eighties dying of AIDS.

In an era when the FBI is almost as ruthless about rooting out “deviants” as Communists, Hawk has managed to mask his sexuality behind a Korean war-hero background, jock looks and a flawless veneer of charm. He courts Lucy Smith (Allison Williams), the daughter of his political mentor, a do-gooding senator (Linus Roache), and when his bachelor status begins to look suspicious, he marries her and starts a family. But, like his friend Marcus Gaines (Jelani Alladin), a Black journalist struggling to cross the color line, he frequents an underground gay club and is familiar with all of Washington’s cruising spots. Both men – as Marcus warns Tim when he starts sleeping with Hawk – are resolute about keeping emotional involvement out of their sexual activities. Marcus violates his own principle first, when he initiates an affair with a dancer named Frankie (Noah J. Ricketts), though it terrifies him that Frankie is just as quick to push back against homophobia as against racial discrimination. Hawk is a far cooler customer – at least, that’s the role he plays to perfection. He wants Tim in his bed but he insists on complete control over the frequency of their liaisons, and the moment he sniffs out threats to his political career he distances himself, and his self-protecting behavior can be brutal. As Bomer plays Hawk, his gamesmanship has an ironic edge, like that of a master jewel thief in a heist picture, and it’s very seductive. The trick to the performance, though, is what’s going on underneath: the warmth and affection that take increasing hold on him even when he steadfastly refuses to call it love. Tim is the one to call it by its name. Bomer gives a beautiful performance, masterfully layered and more moving with every episode.

The series’ compilation of historical footnotes about the treatment of homosexuals during the 1950s is compelling and even shocking for those of us who may assume we have a general sense of what it might have been like to be gay in that era but haven’t made a study of it. (In one jaw-dropping scene a pair of lesbians masquerading as friendly roommates, one of whom works in the State Department alongside Hawk, are questioned by agents who go so far as to check out the mattress in the master bedroom to see if the dent looks too broad to suggest only one occupant.) But the parts about right-wing politics in the Eisenhower years aren’t any better than they are in Hollywood movies about the blacklist like Guilty by Suspicion and Trumbo. We know that Joe McCarthy was a clown, albeit a dangerous one, but Chris Bauer plays him too broadly, and Will Brill gets Roy Cohn’s repulsiveness but not the brilliance that undergirds his bravado.

I liked Jonathan Bailey as the young reporter Olly Stevens on Broadchurch, but he’s not quite right for the role of Tim; you can’t see why Hawk falls for him. The show needs an actor who can make earnestness and naiveté sexy – someone like the young Tony Perkins. Still, the scenes between these two men contain the boldest and most interesting writing in Fellow Travelers – especially, I think, the explicit sexual encounters. Structurally, the series is a historical social-problem piece that proves its thesis about the psychological effect of political suppression of sexual identity. But its portrayal of the relationship between its two main characters has an undeniable cumulative power. In the last two episodes (especially the finale), the emotional authenticity finally transcends melodrama.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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