“Honestly, I can never keep up with what you people want.” It’s a line that comes mid-way through Fellow Travelers‘ eight-episode run from an ignorant staff member at The Washington Post in 1950s America. Sadly, it’s also a sentiment still heard in 2023.
It’s one of a number of elements about Showtime’s limited series that point to its timely nature and the unfortunate truth that while times have changed, they haven’t changed nearly as much as one might hope.
The series, an adaptation of Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel of the same name, focuses on the relationship between Hawkins ‘Hawk’ Fuller (Matt Bomer) and Tim Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey) in a story that spans from the 1950s and the Red and Lavender Scares to the 1980s and the Aids crisis in America.
As a result, it forms the perfect vehicle with which to explore the timeless themes of identity, prejudice, and ‘othering’. Predominantly set against the tense political backdrop of McCarthy-era America, where people suspected of being communists and/or ‘deviants’ (read homosexuals) were rooted out of government positions, the series sees most of its characters walk a delicate tightrope act, carefully having to tiptoe and code-switch in order to escape persecution.
Names are sacrificed to protect one another in a dangerous political game of chess. Friends become “liabilities.” Plots are carefully devised to explain why two men dine together or why two women are living together. Wins are enjoyed briefly and often in quiet intimate moments.
In the beginning, Hawkins and Lucy (Allison Williams) are set up in what appears to be the ideal American dream lifestyle in the 1980s. After Hawkins hears that Tim is not well, the series darts back and forth between the more liberated but still very troubled present in the 80s and the past, starting in the 1950s. The series spends a disproportionate amount of time focused on the latter setting, only really jumping forward to the Vietnam War protests in the 1970s and the aftermath of Harvey Milk’s assassination in the last couple of episodes. The series would easily work if they had told the story chronologically as from the outset we have an idea of where everyone ends up, it’s just a matter of how they got there.
As Laughlin, Bailey excels. He is endearing first as a younger Laughlin; idealistic, gentle, and innocent who struggles to reconcile his Christian faith and his gay identity. Through the series’ unfolding events Laughlin is transformed into a fiery figure, angry and determined. Here, Bailey is a commanding presence on screen drawing the viewers’ full attention.
To Hawkins, Bomer brings a quiet assuredness that puts the character in the same bracket as Mad Men‘s Don Draper or the US Queer As Folk‘s Brian Kinney. The latter example may be more fitting given Hawkins’ casual relationships with other men in his flat, in the park, or in bathroom stalls. A war hero turned up-and-comer in the Washington DC political scene Hawkins deftly navigates the swamp, never really losing his cool or showing much remorse for those he sacrifices along the way. There is much that is troubling about Hawkins and the actions he takes, he hardly emerges as a hero.
But without a doubt, the series rests on the relationship between Bomer and Bailey’s characters, whose palpable chemistry crackles whenever they share the screen. From the moment they meet at a DC party, the pair are drawn to one another and the audience to them. The dom-sub element of the pair’s relationship extends beyond their often passionate and authentically choreographed sex scenes as Hawkins guides Tim through the political landscape, the former often horrifying the latter with an apparent lack of morality along the way. “I guess I don’t lie as easily as you do,” Tim at one point tells Hawkins who replies, “Then you won’t survive.”
For Marcus Hooks (a wonderful performance from Jelani Alladin) the stakes are that much higher as a black man facing Washington’s supposed ‘desegregation laws’ in pre-Civil Rights Act and Washington March America. Marcus is able to find love in the form of Frankie Hines (Noah J. Ricketts) and together they highlight the intersectionality of discrimination, encountering both racism and homophobia. Could their plot have been more fleshed out? Yes, and the series could be better for it.
Meanwhile, there are strong performances from the supporting cast – Williams, Will Brill as the despicable Roy Cohn, and Chris Bauer in an uncanny portrayal of the righteous villain, Joe McCarthy.
The show is also breathtaking for its technical elements as well. Cinematography, lighting, props, costume design, everything comes together to give the show a real sense of prestige.
Fellow Travelers looks set to join the growing pantheon of LGBTQ media that tackles our community’s trauma. Aids, oppression, stigma, ‘conversion therapy’, racism, anti-semitism, you name it, it’s there. But none of it feels gratuitous or like ‘trauma porn’. On the whole, the series does a good job of drawing attention to each of these, some more subtly than others. The show is easily carried by the performances, especially the two leads, as well as Alladin and Williams, who both give off nuanced impressions.
Fellow Travelers begins streaming on Paramount+ in the UK on 28 October.