[Co-published with Geek Vibes Nation.]
How does love flourish in a world openly hostile to it?
If one asked Hawkins Fuller of Fellow Travelers, he would likely say it doesn’t. His skepticism is understandable. The Showtime limited series follows Fuller (Matt Bomer) as he treks through the political murk of 1950s Washington as Senator Joseph McCarthy wages a political war against communists and LGBTQ individuals. Fuller is a closeted gay man who’s amassed substantial political capital as a war hero and Senate Affairs dealmaker, shaping policies and people to suit his needs. He approaches his sexual encounters with a clear-eyed cynicism that reflects D.C.’s inner workings. Hypocrisy is the city’s common language; authenticity is impractical. Being casual and opaque – with lovers, religion, and politics – is how one thrives and stays alive.
Political neophyte Tim Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey) is everything Fuller isn’t, which is part of the attraction. Laughlin is staunchly Catholic and anti-communist, regarding McCarthy as a beacon. After meeting at a political function, Fuller and Laughlin begin an affair. Fuller secures Laughlin a job in McCarthy’s office to keep tabs on the senator’s rapidly growing investigations, aided by lawyer Roy Cohn. Despite their challenges, the two lovers weave in and out of each other’s lives through the Red Scare, the Vietnam War, the ‘70s gay rights movement, and the burgeoning AIDS epidemic. Their decades-long romance is further complicated by Fuller’s public relationship with a senator colleague’s daughter, Lucy Smith (a lovely Allison Williams), and Laughlin’s complicated relationship with God, among other factors.
The limited series’ storytelling breadth is remarkable. Fuller and Laughlin’s romance consumes the most space, but showrunner Ron Nyswaner builds a rich world around them, exploring the intersecting dimensions of queer and political life. He could’ve easily limited the series to late-night pillow talk and clandestine, risky office hookups. Instead, Nyswaner explores the Cozy Corner, an integrated speakeasy featuring Black drag performers that Fuller and his longtime acquaintance Marcus (the quietly compelling Jelani Alladin) frequent. We see queer life when it is joyous, like a cozy gathering of lesbian women playing charades with Laughlin, and terrifying, like the police raids of gay establishments. The level of detail is consistently intricate, even when a specific era encompasses only one episode. It makes for a thrilling and engagingly complete series.
The series’ approach to sex is similarly and thoughtfully comprehensive. It’s unsparing in depicting its couples in various sexual situations throughout their lives. It doesn’t flinch from showing different types of sex – from light BDSM to group encounters – and doesn’t conceal its explicitness. Sex scenes were hotly debated this year, with the opposition often claiming they are gratuitous and unnecessary. This series reveals the fallacy of the argument. Every intimate scene reveals crucial insight into its characters. Fuller’s dominant bedroom persona reflects his formidable political power and a protective shield from emotional attachments. The deeply devout Laughlin gets to shed his inhibitions with Fuller, finding his own power in his more submissive role. Their physical actions often reveal what they can’t express in words, making them invaluable to developing their relationship.
The series achieves its ambitious scope with a powerful thematic core that feeds into every storyline. Fellow Travelers is as much about surviving cynicism as falling in love, particularly in environments that actively thrive on it. The central tension of Fuller and Laughlin’s relationship is jaded realism versus fierce idealism. Fuller firmly believes in his philosophy of not having one, but Laughlin’s desire for a better world charms him. Laughlin is intrigued and terrified by Fuller’s conviction-free life, forcing him to grapple with whether he wants to change. Fuller hurts Laughlin several times, but what causes their longest separations is Fuller’s inability to set aside his refusal to commit – to Laughlin, Lucy, their children, and the political issues restricting their lives. As much as he might want to, Fuller refuses to take any risk that might pierce his bulletproof persona. That is his sacrifice for living in the real world.
The series fully contextualizes the craven hypocrisies that shape Fuller’s “real world.” The status quo may make everyone miserable, but it is easier for them to navigate. Every character often chooses the path of least complication. Fuller uses his connections to protect those closest to him, but he’ll gladly let others fall to Washington’s homophobic and anti-communist crusades. Marcus regularly prioritizes his Blackness over his queerness, even as Frankie shows how they intersect. Cohn is an egregious coward who flaunts his queerness while ruining the lives of gay government workers. Lucy tolerates decades of Fuller’s affairs because it’s “what women of her generation did” for their families. The show indulges in the occasional throttling of cruel hypocrites, like a Phyllis Gladfly-esque secretary who tries to report Fuller. Still, it is painstakingly candid about the Faustian bargains required to exist somewhat peacefully.
Despite the harsh realities surrounding them in the ‘50s and beyond, Fuller and Laughlin persist. Fellow Travelers weaves an epic love story that sustains momentum despite its decades-spanning length and relatively limited episode count. The series follows the standard structure of telling its story mainly through flashbacks but smartly avoids concealing important plot details to manufacture suspense. It mirrors a tender recollection of transformative love, and Fuller and Laughlin’s shared memories deepen the urgency of coming to terms with their relationship in the present. The AIDS epidemic plays a role, but the series is too rich to paint itself as a romantic tragedy. Even with its heartbreaking conclusion, it points to a hopeful future that still feels frustratingly rare in queer stories.
Fuller and Laughlin’s relationship also benefits from Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey. Bomer was born to play Hawkins Fuller, elevating his White Collar work into an irresistible, effortlessly sophisticated performance. He’s even more appealing playing within Fuller’s darker shades, his naughty wink hinting at something more sinister and pulse-quickeningly sexy. Bomer makes being unflappably suave look so easy that seeing him discard it for true vulnerability is disarming. Bailey completely erases his own inherent elegance for Tim Laughlin, an awkward but forcefully intelligent and idealistic man. Bailey wears Tim’s heart everywhere, his eyes conveying fierce adoration, shock, disgust, and arousal, sometimes simultaneously. As formidable as Laughlin can be, Bailey never lets us forget the storming internal conflict threatening to rip him apart. Bailey and Bomer are terrific together, possessing chemistry that smolders even in their tender moments.
If you asked Hawkins Fuller about love flourishing in an openly hostile world, he would probably warn you away from it. Fellow Travelers doesn’t discount his pessimism. The series is unsparing in displaying slices of life that villainized queer identities and genuine compassion while valorizing superficial values and craven posturing. It also shows how love can transcend cruel cynicism and nourish a weary soul. The series’ honesty is its greatest strength, offering its romance a sweeping emotional heft that is equally realistic and idealistic. Despite his protestations, Fuller’s love story with Tim Laughlin does flourish. It is one for the ages.
Fellow Travelers will make its streaming debut on Paramount+ with Showtime beginning Friday, October 27 before its linear debut on Sunday, October 29 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime.