4 Things I Never Want to See on TV Again, Courtesy of The Diplomat

She’s not a regular ambassador, okay? Photo: Netflix

Spoilers follow for the first season of The Diplomat, which debuted April 20 on Netflix. 

Watch out, Prime Video, Netflix is coming for your deep-state mantle. Sarandos-land is steadily expanding into the same thematic space as Amazon, home of dad TV like Jack Ryan, The Terminal List, and the upcoming Citadel, series that center the CIA, Navy SEALs, and American-aligned ideologies. Netflix’s contributions to the genre include The Recruit, about a CIA lawyer thrown into the field; The Night Agent, about an FBI desk jockey thrown into the field; and its latest release, The Diplomat, about an international political operative thrown into — you guessed it — the field, this time a British ambassador’s palace worlds away from the war zones she’s used to.

Creator and showrunner Debora Cahn put in time on The West Wing and Homeland, and The Diplomat also features tons of wonky walking and gabbing, a “complicated” female protagonist whose romantic relationships are tied up in her work life, and a frankly exhausting amount of imperialism-excusing neoliberalism. How many times can one series use Afghan women as props for understanding how sad its powerful, wealthy white protagonist is? An embarrassing amount! Or act as if the American decision-makers who initiated the invasion of Iraq have been wracked with guilt ever since? Also an embarrassing amount! The Diplomat is full of othering and historical revisionism, which are irritating enough in how they position characters working on behalf of the American empire as tormented by the burden of their loyal sacrifice. When coupled with moments where Keri Russell’s Kate is simply too irresistible to her colleagues and her childish ways are positioned as empowerment, The Diplomat becomes a superficial slog of self-important “herstory.” None of these tropes is new for a series about the U.S. government’s international dealings post-9/11, yet The Diplomat makes them particularly exhausting. Here are four things The Diplomat does that I never want to see on TV again.


The Iran scapegoat

I admit my bias here: As an Iranian American, it’s pretty jarring to watch characters in The Diplomat, which starts off by suggesting that Iran attacked a British aircraft carrier, casually drop declarative statements about the country’s antisemitism and how its military is too violent even for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad (a man who used chemical weapons against his own people), and then refuse to apologize for the death of an Iranian ambassador (which, at this point in the story, the Brits and Americans might have caused) because Iran’s citizens are “hardly nuns.” This isn’t painting with a broad brush; it’s drowning the canvas in decades of the same axis-of-evil talking points. Kate is presented as an “Iran expert,” but the series never explains her unique credentials or what drew her to study the country (she speaks three words of Farsi over days of narrative time). Without that grounding, the entire first half of the season feels like an excuse for The Diplomat to deliver propagandist commentary — right before it’s revealed that Iran wasn’t responsible for the attack on the U.K. at all.

The Diplomat grasps for balance by portraying Kate as stunned when two members of an Iranian family are murdered outside a British mosque, the perpetrator inspired by Prime Minister Nicol Trowbridge’s (Rory Kinnear) inflammatory statements against Iran. Kate’s shocked response to the hate crime, as if it’s the first time she’s ever heard of such ethnically or religiously motivated violence, is unintentionally hilarious, since Islamophobic hate crimes have hovered in the thousands in the U.K. since 2017 and surged by 28 percent from 2021 to 2022. Kate is, again, supposed to be a knowledgeable political operator; she may be a newbie on the other side of the pond, but guess what? Islamophobia exists in the U.S. too! The series often falls back on “Kate feels bad” as a storytelling device, but it loses its efficacy when it makes her look uninformed or naïve about the impact (or lack thereof) of her attempts at diplomacy.

Plus, The Diplomat basically copies this entire plot from The Terminal List. In that series, Chris Pratt’s protagonist, James Reece — who believes the ambush of his fellow Navy SEALs and murder of his family were organized by Iran — decides to hunt down and kill those responsible, then realizes he was deceived by an ally who knew Reece’s time stationed in Syria means he would accept Iranians as villains. If The Diplomat isn’t even going to be creative in its xenophobia, what’s the point?


Using brown people’s pain for the character development of others

Basically every American-made movie or TV series about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq uses the framing of “we’re traumatized because we were forced to kill innocent men, women, and children,” from Causeway and The Card Counter to The Punisher and the second season of True Detective. That approach generally avoids portraying the brown people injured, displaced, tortured, or killed as onscreen characters, and so they effectively become anonymous victims in service of deepening and developing the people who invaded their countries.

The Diplomat presents Kate and her colleagues in the CIA as uniformly defensive regarding the wars, misled into believing the “Iraqi weapons of mass destruction” lie (which millions of protesters around the world objected to at the time) and failing to get all their Afghan allies out of the country before the U.S. withdrew — but not awful enough that they stopped working for the American government. They believed in America, and what’s wrong with that? (This is where Cahn’s time on The West Wing feels most obvious.)

Maybe all this contrition would feel genuine if The Diplomat made space in its story for some — even one — of the millions of Middle Eastern people affected by the post-9/11 wars. In one scene, Kate eats pastries in bed in her underwear, lamenting about missing calls from one of the Afghan women she worked alongside who’s now stuck under Taliban rule. It makes her feel “like everyone else” who “dumped … every democracy-oriented Afghan throughout time.” Uh, maybe start by actually calling back the woman you abandoned in a war-torn country? Instead, the U.K.’s foreign secretary and Kate’s new love interest, Austin Dennison (David Gyasi), tells Kate that she’s “a decent person at a time when decency has lost its hold on the public imagination.”

The Diplomat feels like it’s trying to convince us of Kate’s moral superiority by saddling her and her allies with dialogue dumps about their regrets, but it never provides the full context for those regrets. When the American president says, “Fifty thousand British soldiers marched on Baghdad because we asked them to, and we chased that with an era defined by a profound lack of interest in anybody but ourselves,” he’s erasing the drastic increase in American drone warfare in the Middle East in recent years, including the hundreds of civilians killed, as well as the country’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. The Diplomat’s inability to see the Middle East as anything other than a place to attack or save is a mimicry of the very approach it claims to be critiquing, and no amount of passionate speech-ifying can change that hypocrisy.


The girlbossery

Speaking of leaning in: Can we stop with female protagonists who are really great at one thing but terrible at everything else? Kate is hyped as an intelligent, no-bullshit reader of people and rooms. She’s not a regular ambassador who got the job because she donated money to the president’s campaign; she’s a cool, savvy political operator who really deserves the gig (because of a bunch of unexplained stuff she did in the Middle East). Kate is so intent on saving the world that she has no time for manners (biting directly into a gigantic quiche stolen from a country estate’s kitchen), clothes (screaming at an underling, “Pants, no fucking dresses!”), or office niceties (“This generation of women apologize for everything. Gloria Steinem must be rolling in her grave.”). Her colleagues talk about having crushes on her, because, finally, a woman is telling it like it is — somehow, even her ignorance of Steinem is big-F Feminist.

You can tell The Diplomat wants some of these moments to be GIF’d, like when a fed-up Kate rejects her meddling husband, Hal (Rufus Sewell), with a pointed “Sweetheart, it’s fucking classified,” but the exchange feels straight from the mouth of a Strong Female Character(TM). Must all women in positions of power be so infuriatingly neurotic that they can’t control themselves around their attractive peers, refuse to brush their hair, and mock women’s media? (“What advice do I have for little girls?” she scoffs when pitched the idea of a Vogue profile.) Of course sexism exists in the highest echelons of power, and of course it sucks that Kate has to deal with that as part of her job. But her boorishness and sloppiness don’t feel like realism — they feel like stuff we’re supposed to find charming because a Woman Politician does it.


Rory Kinnear as the bad guy

Perhaps Rory Kinnear is a lovely person in real life, but in TV and film? This guy’s characters are the worst. Kinnear’s a great actor, and every time he shows up onscreen I get a stomachache. As soon as his sexist, xenophobic, arrogant prime minister starts popping off about war with Iran and then Russia, it’s clear Trowbridge doesn’t exactly have his country’s best interests at heart. That little tell from Kinnear’s typecasting makes the season’s double-cliffhanger ending — in which Kate figures out that Trowbridge secretly attacked the aircraft carrier to draw the U.K. into a war that would define his legacy, and likely planted a car bomb that maybe killed Hal and one of Kate’s advisers — somewhat anticlimactic.

And just like the similarities between the initial Iran setup of The Diplomat and The Terminal List, it ends just like that series, too, as well as Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse and The Night Agent. All of these projects start out with seemingly international (often Middle Eastern or Muslim) foes targeting western service members before eventually ending with a “the betrayal was coming from inside the government all along” reveal. That approach — setting up the rest of the world as universally bad and the turncoat government official as a lone bad actor within a well-intentioned institution — is evermore stagnant. The Diplomat, despite all its insistence otherwise, is having the same old conversation.

4 Things I Never Want to See on TV Again, c/o The Diplomat