There’s a moment early on in Showtime’s limited series Fellow Travelers where Jonathan Bailey (Bridgerton) has dark-rimmed nerd glasses on, hair flat, covered up and looking like Clark Kent just stepped out of a haberdashery. You know you’re going to get that ‘high school girl in a late 90s/early 00s teen rom com’ moment where she takes off her glasses and everyone sees that she’s been pretty all along. Bailey more than gets that moment here but while it’s a bit funny and cheeky to deglam him to make us think he’s not one of the most attractive people on the planet, the same visual metaphor is at play and is one of the central themes of this story; that people aren’t always as they seem on the surface, often hiding the truest nature of themselves, needing to, especially if you were queer in the 1950s at the height of the Lavender Scare.
Based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon and created for television by Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia), we actually start our top-hopping saga where we end it, in 1986. Ronald Reagan is in the sixth year as President of the United States, just about the same number of years the AIDS crisis was raging on. He would still not even utter the word for another year even though 16,000 Americans had already died of the disease. Hawkins ‘Hawk’ Fuller (Matt Bomer) is living a traditional nuclear family life in D.C. with wife dutiful but all-knowing wife Lucy (Allison Williams) and their two children when his life is jolted to his past; mutual friend Marcus Gaines (Jelani Alladin) delivers news that Tim Laughlin (Bailey) has AIDS and not long to live. “I’m just tired of going to funerals,” he says, a common refrain from gay men in the 80s who found their friend circles getting smaller and smaller by the day.
Flashback to 1952. Devastatingly handsome State Department official Hawk makes a beeline to a men’s restroom, a cruising hot spot in a D.C. park littered with men outside and in. He spots a leather-jacketed young man and they make quick haste to a stall; slapping, pulling hair, fucking rough and expeditiously as to not give time for undercover cops or a sting operation to foil their carnal needs.
But it’s at an election night party celebrating Eisenshower’s win where our ill-fated lovers meet. Locking eyes across the ballroom, a furtive glance that turns into a knowing stare that for the time had to be perfectly calculated lest you flirt with the wrong man. Enter Laughlin, deeply Catholic and a political neophyte with the eagerness of a golden retriever. He’s a Pollyanna who wants to work in politics after working on Eisenhower’s successful New York campaign, drinking a tall glass of milk and loose with his lips and intentions. The next day they randomly meet right outside that same men’s room, with protective Hawk making sure do-gooder Tim doesn’t find himself in a sticky situation with park police, creating an understanding between the two, both as to who they are and their intentions. The two couldn’t be any more opposite; Hawk is a war hero, a political swordsman whose relationships in Senate Affairs can change lives with one phone call and who approaches sex and deal making with the same type of cynicism and attention. Hawk pulls strings, both politically and emotionally for Tim, and gets him a job in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s office at the height of anti-communism HUAC hearings headed up by malevolent goon Roy Cohn. Chris Bauer (The Wire) plays McCarthy with a handsy gruffness and Will Brill as Cohn is spectacularly slimy and on point as one of the most dangerous and powerful men in politics of the 20th century. The two turn their eyes to insidiously rooting out queers in D.C. and the military all while rumors of their own sexualities constantly boil under the surface. While McCarthy’s dalliances weren’t proven, they are given tremendous weight here with a blackmail scheme in place to deride his political takeover. Cohn’s notorious anti-gay surface was fully revealed when he himself died of AIDS in 1986.
The opposite dynamics of Hawk’s Don Draper-like savoir faire and Tim’s sheepish naiveté play equally as well in the bedroom as they do in the office. Their sex scenes are raw and hot and gorgeously shot by Simon Dennis in lighting I can only describe as the hue of a single malt whisky. They’re full of dominant/submissive roleplaying, toe sucking, armpit licking, fucking, and exactly the kind that make the online puritanicals cringe. Good. “Who do you belong to?” Hawk demands of his new puppy, as Tim loosens the shackles of his religious shame and guilt. Bomer is very good here, playing on the strength of his matinee idol looks and finding nuance between the lines. But it’s Bailey who’s a real revelation. He plays his voice and American accent like a musical instrument and gives Tim a true arc of triumph and change.
Alladin’s Marcus was created by Nyswaner for the series, he’s not in the book, and you can see why. Covering decades of LGBTQ+ suffering and suffrage and bypassing the impact, importance and mere existence of people of color in the diorama of queer life would have felt as erroneous as it does in the novel. For Marcus, a reporter at the Black newspaper The Philadelphia Journal, he often acts as a bit of an audience guide through the periods, one of the few stalwarts in Hawk’s life outside of his marriage. When he meets drag performer Frankie (a smart and sassy Noah J. Ricketts), he’s given his own yin to his yang, mirroring much of Hawk and Tim’s push and pull energy, the romantic and the realist, as their relationship equally spans decades.
The series dips a bit when it pushes through the 60s and 70s, feeling less like a deep examination of a period and more of a greatest hits catalog of everything from Vietnam to Fire Island to the assassination of San Francisco Board of Supervisors icon Harvey Milk and the subsequent White Night Riots that followed the manslaughter verdict of his murderer, fellow supervisor Dan White. It’s strongest when its focus remains in the 50s and 80s, less didactic in its dialogue and language where much of the middle decades can feel like a bland, by the numbers tutorial.
It’s a relatively minor quibble as those episodes do add depth and context (albeit also some questionable aging makeup) but its final episode returns to form, focusing on the incredible chemistry between Bomer and Bailey, the ability to find tenderness amongst turmoil, and giving us a love that can stand the test of time in the only version it knows how to.
Fellow Travelers begins streaming the first of eight weekly episodes on Paramount+ with Showtime plan beginning Friday, October 27 before its linear debut on Sunday, October 29 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime.
Photo: Ben Mark Holzberg/SHOWTIME