Technically, the premise of Fellow Travelers, the new Showtime series based on the Thomas Mallon novel of the same name, has all the makings of what could have become a beloved piece of queer media. With backdrops spanning history from McCarthy-era Washington D.C. to Reagan-era San Francisco, the miniseries mostly follows the relationship between two men – the closeted, apolitical, homosexual Don Draper-equivalent Hawkins “Hawk” Fuller (Matt Bomer) and the tormented, conservative turned radical Tim Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey) – who cannot be fully and wholly together. Over the course of the show’s 30+ years, we’re given passing glances into the lives of other characters and some of the historical figures who played major roles in structuring the politics of American culture. Given the rich litany of historical drama that propels the plot of Fellow Travelers forward, you’d think the show’s drama would be able to capture some of that depth. But instead, it turns the tragedies of American empire and the human costs of those tragedies into easy water cooler fodder.
Before we’re transported back to 1952, we’re introduced to Hawk as he’s hosting a party with his wife, Lucy (Allison Williams), at their home in 1986. When Hawk’s old friend (using the word “friend” here loosely) Marcus (Jelani Alladin) shows up to the party unannounced, we learn Tim is dying of AIDS-related illness, and he sent Marcus to give Hawk a sort of “goodbye forever” gift that Hawk had given to Tim in the throes of their original romance. From there, the show moves quickly back in time to the early 1950s for the majority of its first five episodes. There, we get a glimpse of what Hawk’s life was like before Tim: mostly just showing up to his State Department job he seems to truly dislike (though there is never any direct talk of this), schmoozing and scheming with other civil servants and government workers, meeting with his mentor Senator Smith (Linus Roache), and then disappearing into the dark corners of D.C. to hook up with other men as discreetly as he possibly can. Hawk meets Tim at an election night party for Dwight D. Eisenhower, and they exchange subtle flirtations over a conversation about Tim’s hopes for the “anti-communist crusade” that’s taking root in the U.S. government.
Tim, thrusted into his conservative idealism through his experiences in the Catholic Church, is as immediately taken with Hawk as the show wants us to be, and his hopes for what could grow between them are what structure the entire intended emotional arc of the series. There’s an inherent power imbalance between them, not just because of Hawk’s position in the State Department but because of his accomplishments and the connections that come with them, and that imbalance is what causes many of the rifts between their characters. It also serves as the foundation for so much of the sexual and romantic passion the two of them share, which the show isn’t shy or regressive about depicting, thankfully. As their relationship unfolds and fills the majority of the show’s run time, we’re introduced to young Marcus, a Black journalist whose ambitions about his career in writing lead him to be just as clandestine about his sexuality as Hawk is, and young Lucy, Senator Smith’s daughter and the woman Smith desperately wants Hawk to marry. And we get some inside looks at the members of the Senate Permanent Committee on Investigations: Joseph McCarthy (Chris Bauer), Roy Cohn (Will Brill), and David Schine (Matt Visser).
As the show progresses, the story goes exactly where you think it will with some small surprises in between. We watch as the Senate Permanent Committee on Investigations expands its hunt for communists in the U.S. government to a hunt for all people engaging in “deviant” lifestyles, and small hints are dropped regarding the sexualities of McCarthy, Cohn, and Schine. Hawk and Tim are forced to become even more secretive about their relationship than ever before, which tests them both to the point of implosion. Hawk marries Lucy despite his affections for Tim and desires that Lucy can never fulfill. Hawk continues leading a double life hooking up with men when and where he can, and through the years, he and Tim continue to see each other, though not always under the best circumstances. Marcus has what is arguably the most interesting storyline, but it’s pushed to the side to make way for everything else. At the underground gay club that Hawk and Marcus frequent, Marcus meets (and falls in love with) Frankie (Noah J. Ricketts), a drag performer who lives above the club and frequently sings backup for the now legendary Storme DeLarverie. Throughout the course of their on again, off again, and then permanently on relationship, Frankie continually pushes Marcus to embrace both aspects of his identity instead of choosing between them.
For a storyline so imbued with the politics of each era, the series does nothing to truly contend, question, or reckon with them. I realize it would be utterly impractical for them to treat the virulent anti-communism of the early period of the show with any sort of indictment because it’s an American show made by American people, but what we’re left with is a sort of apathetic liberalism about the whole matter that taints much of the first five episodes. In the 1950s storyline, Hawk’s character is a government agent but almost operates outside of it entirely. He takes the position that everyone has their problems, so there’s no point in caring about politics. His aim, then, is purely career advancement to the point where he can be stationed in a position overseas. Tim is political, but not in any way that is useful since he thinks the government has the right to root out communists in any way they see fit. There’s no doubt in my mind that gay men and women like Hawk and Tim existed during this time and still do, but it creates an almost troubling dynamic in the story: These characters have to worry about and deal with McCarthy and Cohn’s turn toward prosecuting people for homosexuality, but the show never gives them any space or time to truly examine the circumstances fomenting that witch hunt. In fact, Hawk ignores it all together, save for some subtle shots at McCarthy’s character, and Tim actively encourages it, even helping contribute to the cause by working for McCarthy. And then with that, the writers of the show lean a little too hard into the “Self-hating gays are the ones who are trying to destroy the gays” trope, an entirely too simple explanation for why McCarthy and Cohn did what they did in the first place.
This flattening of some of the ugliest parts of American history seeps into the rest of the show as it moves through the different eras. When Tim becomes a progressive seminary student in the late 1960s, we see him participate in a protest against the Vietnam War, but then him and Hawk’s interpersonal drama cuts short any possible engagement with that. In the late 1970s, when Tim, Marcus, and Frankie are all living more open lives in San Francisco, Harvey Milk’s murder is used as a prop to point towards the dangers of being queer and fighting for progress. Again, Hawk and Tim’s reunion during this time takes center stage, and no one – including the viewers – is given the time to hold or digest the tragedy of Milk’s death. When the mid-1980s come into full view in the show, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is treated similarly. The trauma is there, the characters seem to be experiencing it, but they still somehow float on the margins of it all.
The result of this, then, is that we’re expected to fully empathize with a bunch of characters, besides Tim, whose humanity is given to us piecemeal, if at all. Bomer’s and Bailey’s performances do the best they can with the material and produce some interesting results in their performances. Their chemistry is explosive, especially in the sex scenes that pepper every episode of the show. These scenes are, I would say, some of the strongest parts of the series as they are not only fairly graphic but also provide some visualization of play that is rarely shown on television. However, that becomes part of the problem with the show overall. I’m not one to accuse anything of having too much sex in it, but in Fellow Travelers, they are a little dependent on these scenes to do the kind of emotional heavy-lifting that is neglected in other areas of the series. Ultimately, Bomer and Bailey both fail to coax the full range of emotional relation, recognition, and identification out of their characters that you’d hope for. Although Alladin’s and Ricketts’s performances are stellar and much more affecting, Marcus’s and Frankie’s stories and the story of their relationship together are never fully fleshed out, which makes everything about their interactions with each other and the other characters feel incomplete. Williams is perfectly cast as the WASPy yet furtively sympathetic Lucy, but like Alladin and Ricketts, she is drastically underutilized despite having what is arguably one of the most important roles in the series.
At its core, the stories that structure Fellow Travelers are about sacrifice and compromise, with a heavy emphasis on the latter. These are stories about the power of shame and guilt and how those things can either be used to isolate us and destroy our beliefs in beauty and truth or can be subverted and turned into motivation for us to seek out our own versions of beauty and truth in all aspects of our lives. These aren’t uncommon stories for queer people – we all know them well and live them in our own ways because we live in a society that forces this reality on us without our consent. And that’s the major issue with how these stories are portrayed in Fellow Travelers: There’s rarely any conversation or consideration about the structural forces that make our lives as queer people so difficult, and when those conversations do come up, they end too quickly and neatly.
Of course, a piece of fiction dealing with the lives of queer people in the mid-to-late 20th century does not necessarily have to turn into a didactic lesson on the politics governing queer life during that time. Characters can merely be of history without being involved in every historical moment their fictional lives intersect with. But when has it ever truly been an option for queer people to not somehow be more actively involved with the political, personal, and interpersonal circumstances that rule over and sometimes control the trajectory of our lives? When have we ever been able to fully ignore the forces around us? When have we ever been able to just live without scrutiny, retaliation, and repression? Getting an unfiltered look at a queer romance on TV is definitely something that is much less common than it should be, but it feels like so much was discarded to center that narrative in a completely unrealistic way. The characters in Fellow Travelers never fully deal with the psychic toll of having to hold so much tragedy and sadness at once. They only cope with it. And it’s not until far, far too late in the series that they realize a different kind of survival is possible.