'Fellow Travelers' — Intoxicating and passionate tragic historical love story

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday November 14, 2023
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Jonathan Bailey and Matt Bomer in 'Fellow Travelers' (photo: Showtime)
Jonathan Bailey and Matt Bomer in 'Fellow Travelers' (photo: Showtime)

Scorching, jaw-dropping, steam-up-your-windows explicit, raw with unwavering honesty — and not just the sex, but the emotions and pathos — are all on display in one of the best new streaming series of the year, Showtime's "Fellow Travelers."

However, there exist a number of caveats that prevent this decades-long political thriller and doomed clandestine unapologetic gay love story — spanning the McCarthy years through AIDS —from all-time greatness. "Fellow" has an epic quality, which at times is chock full of tense intrigue, but is also tragic, infuriating, visually captivating, bittersweet, and ultimately, despite all its flaws, unforgettable and LGBTQ-appointment television.

Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey in 'Fellow Travelers' (photo: Showtime)  

Double lives
Based on Thomas Mallon's magnificent 2007 historical fiction, its center is 1950s Washington, D.C. with all its paranoia, double lives, persecution of gay federal employees amidst the fight against communism, and political backstabbing. Former WWII hero, State Department official Hawkins "Hawk" Fuller (Matt Bomer) works for Democratic Senator Wesley Smith (Linus Roache), who is critical of Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy (Chris Bauer).

Hawk is an ambitious, cunning political operative who meets younger lily white (in all senses) exuberant neophyte anti-Communist believer Tim "Skippy" (the nickname given him by Hawk due to his ingeniousness) Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey, "Bridgerton") over drinks at Eisenhower's 1952 election night victory party. Despite Skippy imbibing milk, and the revelation he's a former priesthood candidate but daily Mass communicant, sparks fly almost immediately.

Hawk is skilled at picking up tricks at public restrooms, rough trade in bars, parks, and cruising sites, or ingénues at parties, always keeping his distance emotionally, compartmentalizing his life. He's able to protect himself from any kind of intimacy (kicking guys out of bed in the middle of the night), with a veneer of utmost public discretion. Skippy is madly in love by the end of the evening, though tortured by his Catholic guilt for being attracted to other men. He tries to reconcile his sexuality with his faith.

Hawk, through his extensive connections, secures a job for Skippy in McCarthy's office because he can serve as a useful spy so as to protect Smith. Hawk will date and later marry Smith's daughter Lucy (Allison Williams, "Girls") as a cover for his gay liaisons. Both Hawk and to a lesser extent Skippy, survive by lying to others and themselves, but also cutting off anyone who even slightly endangers them, even if it's just gossip or innuendo. In the first four episodes, the series toggles forth between the 1950s and 1986 when Skippy is hospitalized in San Francisco dying of AIDS.

Erin Neufer in 'Fellow Travelers' (photo: Showtime)  

Aura of stealth
In 1953, Eisenhower's Executive Order authorized a witch hunt for any government employees engaging in sexual perversion, considered a threat to rooting out Communists, because they were perceived easy blackmail targets, hence national security risks. The result was usually the victims losing their families, friends, and jobs, even blacklisted, not to mention humiliation.

Some targets committed suicide because of the damaging publicity. This political context gives the series its suspense and aura of stealth, where the most innocent displays of affection can be disastrously misconstrued. Thus, the relationship between desire and anguish anchor the whole series.

The Mallon novel ends with the death of Joe McCarthy in 1957 with a brief 1991 postscript. The screenplay, written by gay scriptwriter Ron Nyswaner (Oscar-nominated for "Philadelphia") invents the second half, extending the Hawk/Skippy relationship into the 1960s and 1970s amidst the backdrop of Vietnam War protests, gay liberation hedonism, and the San Francisco White Night riots in the aftermath of the Moscone/Harvey Milk assassinations and subsequent trial. It becomes heavily message-driven and almost a tutorial on gay rights.

Skippy develops into a social worker and gay activist, finding salvation in community, while Hawk pursues a diplomatic career, fathering a son and daughter, the son killing himself with drugs. For Hawk, sex is a means to an end, but for Skippy it's the foundation for a relationship. Inevitably, they are bound to disappoint one another other, each yearning for what they can't have.

Jelani Alladin and Noah J. Rickets in 'Fellow Travelers' (photo: Showtime)  

New characters
Nyswaner, presumably to make the series more diverse, invents a story line of Hawk's ex-trick Marcus (Jelani Alladin), an aspiring journalist, who falls in love with a femme nightclub drag performer Frankie (Noah J. Rickets). They both encounter racism as well as homophobia.

Unfortunately, their combustible tale pales in comparison with the Hawk/Skippy melodrama and actually drags down the series. The plot seems like an afterthought and neither character is well developed. In fact, the second half of the series is weaker, as we are treated to a greatest hits medley of LGBTQ history, similar to the very mediocre "When We Rise" mini-series six years ago.

Also concocted is Hawk's lesbian secretary Mary (Erin Neufer) and confidante to Skippy. In the novel, she's straight and gets pregnant after having an affair with a married man. In this series, she lives with another woman. But when that woman is threatened after refusing to date a heterosexual employee, Mary outs her to an investigator in order to save her own career.

Again, both women are sketchily portrayed because there's not much to work with in the script, which treats them subordinately. Mary has been reduced in importance from the book. Their existence in the series serves to show how cutthroat relationships could be, easily sacrificed when survival was the name of the game.

Jonathan Bailey and Matt Bomer in 'Fellow Travelers' (photo: Showtime)  

Electric alchemy
The sex in "Fellow Travelers" between Hawk and Skippy is not gratuitous (okay maybe in one or two scenes, but I promise you won't mind), but essential. The key is that in a world where they can't express themselves publicly, their private moments become crucial because they can be who they really are, revel in the urgent overpowering nature of their pent-up desires and ardor for each other, even if it's a dominant/submissive power dynamic.

Only behind locked, closed doors can they be a couple and here sexuality gives insights into their characters, gamesmanship, and emotional resonance, as they live apart.

None of this would work without the electric alchemy between Bomer and Bailey. Bomer may very well have the greatest role of his career, the gay Don Draper, a political Mad Men scenario, thrilling with his handsome charisma, stoic charm, and an uncanny smile. Bomer proves once and for all that he is more than a gorgeous face.

There are times when you will loathe Hawk in his treachery, deceit, and recklessness and other times pity and cry for his inability to love, his turmoil of living a straight life, and the underlying sadness hidden behind a seductive persona.

He's matched by Bailey, buoyed by his optimism in only loving Hawk, while remaining entirely separate from him. He remarks that he'd spent his whole life trying to make God love him, but in the end all that mattered was that he loved God. And it's the same situation with his love for Hawk.

Chris Bauer and Will Brill in 'Fellow Travelers' (photo: Showtime)  

Truth and fear
Alison Williams is a revelation as Lucy Smith, managing to portray pathos and eventually the freedom to live the life she wants to lead. She's underused, which is a shame. Her final scene with Skippy is heartrending. Sadly, the makeup in this series is poor, since all the characters must age over 30 years. With such a large budget for a prestige production, more money should've been spent on believably maturing these characters with more quality prosthetics.

The series wants to be relevant, even though it ends in 1986. The Senator Smith character says, "Our democracy is under attack by those who at times preach the loudest, hoping to sew fear within our imperfect but always striving union, a union defined by ideals which we hold to be true and self-evident that all men are created equal. That truth has been replaced with fear. It is fear that rots the bones of our American body. If we do not have good men and women seeking truth, then we do not have America."

It's worth noting that this series profiles Roy Cohn (Will Brill), lawyer for Joe McCarthy who also mentored Donald Trump. Smith's description couldn't be more timely in 2023, as we seem bent on ignoring the lessons we should've learned in the 1950s.

Both Bomer and Bailey present the strongest case yet for gay actors playing gay roles, bringing a raw authenticity, believability, and smoking hot passion that elevates this material to another creative level. Their story touches aspects of every LGBTQ person's story.

With all its inconsistencies, "Fellow Travelers" is easily in the top ten of television's most memorable queer limited series. You cannot miss it. Just keep some Kleenex nearby, for the tears, of course.


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