Steeped in as much guilt, shame, and regret as love, lust, and queer joy, the Showtime limited series Fellow Travelers unfolds volumes of engaging plot and story in its eight hour-long episodes. At the center of it all are Hawk and Tim, two well-matched yet wildly different men, who meet and become lovers in McCarthy-era Washington, D.C.
Impeccably played by Matt Bomer and Bridgerton fave Jonathan Bailey, Hawk and Tim live an intense, forbidden love. The show, from creator Ron Nyswaner (Homeland), based on the novel by Thomas Mallon, traces the pair’s turbulent relationship across four decades, against a dynamic backdrop of historic events, including the anti-Communist witch hunt led by Senator Joe McCarthy and henchman Roy Cohn.
Both infamously viperous real-life figures appear prominently as characters, with Will Brill as Cohn and Chris Bauer as McCarthy providing nuanced villains in the season’s first half.
The crusading duo has every left-leaning bureaucrat in Washington quaking in their wingtips from fear of being labeled a “Commie,” when they decide to also go after the gays and lesbians purportedly overrunning the ranks of federal government workers.
McCarthy and Cohn’s vicious, secrets- and lies-fueled campaign to purge any seemingly queer person from government heats up just as romance heats up for Hawk, a Senate Relations official at the State Department, and Tim, an idealistic poli-sci grad fresh to D.C.
Their affair, maintained to Hawk’s specific protocols for secrecy, offers an illuminating look at life in the closet during the Eisenhower ’50s, particularly for anyone in Washington, man or woman, who wished to hold on to a high-profile position in government.
Hawkins Fuller, is just such a man, although, as one episode explores in detail, he considers himself bulletproof. A decorated WWII veteran with a degree from Penn and a powerful friend in McCarthy’s nemesis, Senator Smith (Linus Roache), Hawk dates the senator’s daughter, Lucy (Allison Williams) and goes about his gay life stealthily and vigorously, cruising for rough trade to bang hard in his bachelor pad. Tim, a devout Catholic and naïve lover, just happens to turn into something more.
Nyswaner and pilot episode director Daniel Minahan establish the couple’s intense connection in the midst of shadowy political intrigue, and with plenty of R-rated sex. The show’s frequent mood swings, from paranoid characters creeping around alleys and offices in fear, to guys engaged in sweaty, moaning threesomes somehow seem seamless.
Not as seamlessly stitched is the secondary storyline following Hawk’s fellow closeted top, Marcus Gaines (Jelani Alladin), a Black newspaper reporter who spends much of his screen time standing up to D.C.’s sham desegregation laws.
Marcus gets a love story, too, an on-again-off-again dalliance with drag queen Frankie (Noah J. Ricketts).
Through their pairing, and the sensitive performances by Alladin and Ricketts (despite the latter having to overcome one pitiful wig after another), the show explores themes of masculinity, femininity, and self-hatred that also come into play in the depiction of the flat-out weird dynamic between closeted Cohn and his brawny legal “consultant,” David Schine (Matt Visser).
Those two are, in their different ways, shame personified. Fellow Travelers swims confidently in such dark emotions, even more so as the story progresses to the protest movements of the ’60s and ’70s, and then the ’80s HIV/AIDS crisis, which lands squarely on our characters. In the season’s second half, political intrigue gives way to struggling for survival in the face of addiction, disease, and grief.
Yet, hope and love sustain, and even create relationships these guys could not have foreseen, like the begrudging respect that develops between Tim and Hawk’s wife Lucy over years of sharing the same man.
In steely patrician mode, Williams limns a fine portrayal of a well-heeled wife who’s not willfully ignorant, but silent about the truth she recognizes — until the truth can’t be hidden any longer. It takes years for all of Hawk’s and Tim’s truth to come spilling out. Not until they can live honestly can they feel truly liberated.
Fellow Travelers (★★★★☆) is available on streaming and on-demand on Paramount+ with Showtime, as well as on Showtime directly. New episodes are available weekly on Fridays through Dec. 15. Visit www.paramountplus.com.
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