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The Diplomat Is Too Smart for That Cliffhanger

The Keri Russell-led Netflix series is an entertaining political thriller, despite an overdone twist

Kyle Fowle
Keri Russell, The Diplomat

Keri Russell, The Diplomat


It feels like it's been a while since television had a truly great political thriller. FX's The Old Man hit some high points but ultimately fell off after a few episodes; The Good Fight involved more than its fair share of politics, but its take on politics was seen through the lens of the justice system. In fact, the last great political show may have been The Americans, which ended its incredible run in 2018. So perhaps it's kismet that TV's next compelling political thriller is Netflix's The Diplomat, which also stars Keri Russell.

The new Netflix series, clocking in at a relatively tight eight episodes, finds Russell playing the driven, intelligent, scrappy Kate, a diplomat whose marriage is on the rocks but whose career may be hitting a new level. She's initially ready to make a real difference and help America leave Kabul in some state of order after decades of American interference and mess, but an attack on a British carrier leads the U.S. president (Michael McKean) to instead assign her to be the ambassador in the U.K. Kate balks at the new gig, thinking she'll be more of a political puppet than anything, but she has little choice. The president has made the decision for her.

Kate is more than capable of making sharp decisions even as she adapts to the intricacies of the job. By her side are her deputy chief, Stuart (Ato Essandoh), whose mission is to serve Kate and guide her in the new role; her husband, Hal (Rufus Sewell), a former ambassador himself; and a whole host of other political lifers who have various influences and contacts within the system. As the investigation into the carrier bombing unfolds, the lies and deceits pile up, leaving Kate wondering who she can possibly trust.


The Diplomat


  • Keri Russell leads a great cast
  • Tight plotting and genuine intrigue
  • Timely themes


  • Occasionally falls into the cliffhanger trap

What really makes The Diplomat tick across eight episodes is that it's so unlike anything else Netflix has put out there. Somehow, creator Debora Cahn (Homeland, The West Wing) has managed to shed the familiar Netflix formula and look and establish her show's own rhythm and pacing. While most Netflix shows feel stretched out at 50 minutes, as if every episode needs to arbitrarily be that length whether the plot justifies it or not, The Diplomat feels lean and mean at that size. There's hardly a dull moment after the premiere episode, which itself is a touch tedious in its setup, as the U.K. and America get ever closer to going to war with a number of perceived enemies. Add to that a twisty plot that never once tries to hold the audience's hand — again, a nice change from the usual Netflix formula of spelling everything out again and again — and you have an engaging drama that feels like it's made for adults.

[Warning: Spoilers for Season 1 follow.] 

As the episodes roll on, and after Prime Minister Trowbridge (Rory Kinnear) — a perfect British PM name, it should be said — has promised to rain hellfire on Iran for the attack, it's revealed that Iran was not involved, and that there may be Russian ties to the killing of so many British sailors. Meanwhile, the PM is often working behind the back of his own staff, Hal's loyalties are difficult to pin down, and Kate finds herself constantly one step behind, always piecing things together just a bit too late. When she learns that this job is being used to groom her to replace the disgraced vice president back home, the pressure only builds.

The Diplomat isn't perfect — it's not directed in a way that will garner much attention, and some of the plotting is a tad predictable — but the show is more than captivating for eight episodes. In fact, the main draw here is that the show is tightly scripted, well acted, and doesn't overstay its welcome. 

If there's one thing that bothers me, it's the finale's inability to avoid what I call the Netflix Cliffhanger Trap. Cliffhangers have been around for as long as storytelling has, but the Netflix Cliffhanger Trap is something else. What it means is that the natural momentum and flow of the narrative is interrupted not because it serves the story, but rather in a cynical effort to get viewers to watch more episodes. Most of the time, Netflix does this because, quite frankly, its shows don't have enough plot to sustain 50-minute episodes, meaning they need the last-minute cliffhanger to keep you engaged. But The Diplomat doesn't need this gimmick, because it's so beautifully plotted throughout. When we find out that Prime Minister Trowbridge has ordered the assassination of a Russian mercenary because he's eager to go to war with Russia, that's a fun, organic character twist, even if it's a tad predictable. But when you add in the rigged car bomb that leaves the audience wondering if Hal, Stuart, and Ronnie (Jess Chanliau) are actually alive, an answer that won't be revealed until a second season that hasn't even been greenlit yet, I can't help but roll my eyes. 

Still, while the very end of the season may lean into a trope that I find to be distracting and overdone, I can't deny that the journey there is exciting. Alongside Netflix's otherwise rather stale roster of shows, The Diplomat is a breath of fresh air. 

Premiered: Thursday April 20 on Netflix
Who's in it: Keri Russell, Rufus Sewell, David Gyasi, Ali Ahn, Rory Kinnear, Ato Essandoh
Who's behind it: Debora Cahn (Creator)
For fans of: The West Wing, The Good Wife, Scandal