Netflix Studios, 2023-
📷 : Used with permission, Netflix
Movies and TV shows with a lot of dialog
The age of big-budget, effects-driven media tends to offer us very willing and/or vengeful protagonists. Many superheroes either immediately accept their responsibility to protect the innocent or seek payback for loved ones that have been hurt. Even Spider-man, who at times desires a regular existence, dons his suit to pursue retribution for the murder of Uncle Ben (I would say spoiler alert, but we are about 50 Spider-mans in at this point).
While revenge and righteousness are two motives easy to convey to the audience, there has been a decrease in another kind of main character to follow: the reluctant hero. Occasionally, viewers watch a disinterested but capable protagonist get dragged into a situation they want little if anything to do with (think Robin Williams in Man of the Year). It not only creates curiosity about how they will solve the problem despite the lack of motivation but also adds humor to the story. If you’ve ever been the last to touch your nose or shout “Not it!” you can probably relate to the reluctant hero of the new Netflix political drama, The Diplomat.
Keri Russell (The Americans, Cocaine Bear) stars as Kate Wyler, an ambassador who is thrust into the middle of a muddy foreign affairs situation after a British aircraft carrier is attacked. The assailant is unknown, though many suspect that Iran is to blame. Kate initially has no interest in playing the mediator, but her presence in Britain is requested by the President of the U.S. and the White House Chief of Staff. Thus, she accepts her assignment and heads to London with her husband Hal (Rufus Sewell, The Man in the High Castle), also an experienced diplomat. She works closely with Stuart Hayford (Ato Essandoh, Chicago Med) and CIA operative Eidra Park (Ali Ahn, Raising Dion) to put out the various mini-fires between government officials, including the British Prime Minister (Rory Kinnear, Penny Dreadful), that could spark a preeminent but costly reaction.
As a character, Kate has the perfect makeup for a reluctant hero. She has too much experience in the world of politics to be intimidated by anyone in the room, regardless of rank. Unlike characters such as Frank from House of Cards, her motive is not to climb the ladder to achieve any particular office or possess any power. The lack of desire for upward mobility, along with the amount of conflict resolution that she has overseen, makes Kate disgruntled with the superfluous aspects of her job. The audience sees this very early and often, specifically when she is asked to wear “ladylike” attire for events and photo shoots. Even when she begrudgingly acquiesces, it is less for the sake of good PR and more to stay on schedule.
The biggest contributing factor to Kate’s attitude is not the direction of her career or disdain for the field, but the extremely rocky relationship with her husband. Hal is also highly intelligent, connected and accomplished in the same field as Kate. The gracious approach for him, given the stakes of Kate’s current task, would be to lay low and provide emotional support. Instead, his expertise, along with his exceedingly confident personality, allow him to be meddlesome and dishonest with her. Rather than having the source of tension between them be a secret or tangential to the story, Hal’s overbearing behavior directly impacts the chain of events, making it obvious why he and Kate are having issues. With the context of an interfering spouse, Kate’s reluctant hero persona comes off not only as understandable but relatable. An ordinary day job is tough to be invested in while experiencing marital issues, much less a job requiring you to settle volatile disputes between countries.
In addition to being ethnically diverse, The Diplomat displays varying personalities, always a necessity in political dramas since everyone is wearing the exact same clothes (I kid; but really). For instance, the UK Prime Minister is crass and prickly, frequently exhibiting misogynistic behavior towards Kate. Other characters are overly self-aware and are afraid to criticize or shoot straight with her, fearing that they will come off sexist. In spite of her many years in the field, Kate still endures both dismissive and overly sensitive attitudes from other characters. As the episodes pass, she develops a rapport with the others, convincing her advisers to be direct and leaders to be respectful. The show effectively avoids being too on-the-nose with its social critique but clearly hints at what many female government officials likely tolerate on a consistent basis.
The 8-episode drama’s dialogue-heavy nature feels most reminiscent of series like The West Wing and Madam Secretary. It is not as melodramatic as Scandal was at times but instead maintains an even-keeled and at times comical tone. For instance, as Kate sits down with a group of government officials in one scene, she has to drag her chair forward loudly and is embarrassed when her aides try to swap the chair out for her. Where The Diplomat differs from the aforementioned shows is that it presents a highly skilled protagonist who is not as emotionally invested as Jed Bartlett, Elizabeth McCord, or Olivia Pope. Kate is instead a reluctant hero, making her biggest antagonist her own lack of enthusiasm.