Each week Joe and Terry discuss the most recent episode of Showtime’s adaptation of Fellow Travelers, alternating between our respective sites.
Spoilers follow for Episode 5 “Promise You Won’t Write”
Well Terry, the consequences of everyone’s actions have finally caught up with them.
As Marcus (Jelani Alladin) and Frankie (Noah J. Ricketts) continue to exist on the periphery in their own show, Chekhov’s Red Light of the Speakeasy that you called back in episode one finally pays off. This sets in motion a series of events that include: Lucy (Allison Williams)’ brother Leonard (Mike Taylor) being busted in a police raid, being sent off to an asylum for aversion therapy, Senator Smith (Linus Roache) being blackmailed – first off the Cohn/McCarthy hearings, then to resign – prompting him to ultimately die by suicide.
It’s a lot in a very short amount of time and that’s not even factoring the David Schine (Matt Visser)/Roy Cohn (Will Brill) “break-up”, Tim (Jonathan Bailey) quitting his job and enlisting in the Army, or Hawk (Matt Bomer) deciding to ask Lucy to marry him.
Perhaps it’s because it is based on real people, but I most liked all of the hearing stuff. Watching Cohn try to unsuccessfully pull off his doctored photo ruse to justify making special demands for Schine was amusing, and Tim finally taking a stand (of his own prerogative) and fucking over Cohn and his boss McCarthy (Chris Bauer) felt like the character shaking off his naivety. And while we should have anticipated him enlisting considering he mentioned his medical training in the 80s timeline, it still caught me by surprise.
But it’s the stuff with Senator Smith, Leonard and Hawk that I need to comment on. Because regardless of what happens in the remaining three episodes, I won’t be able to cheer on or invest in Hawk any more after this episode.
Yes, I recognize that Leonard isn’t a proper character. He’s really only appeared once before (in episode three) when we debated his queerness, and even after “Promise You Won’t Write” we still don’t know anything about him except his pain at being replaced by Hawk.
So when he gets pinched and his arrest record becomes political ammunition to take down Smith, it makes sense. The queer son of a powerful figure becomes collateral damage because his life ultimately isn’t important to someone like Cohn, with whom Tim compares Hawk to (unfavourably) in this episode.
Narratively this is all good stuff. Cohn and Hawk are positioned as people who will do and say anything to protect a) themselves and b) the ones they love, regardless of who else is hurt in the process. (Blame internalized homophobia for not helping out their fellow queers who get taken down in the crossfire).
But I can’t emotionally invest in Hawk’s future happiness after what he does to Leonard. We can argue that he didn’t fully understand what is involved in aversion therapy (he briefly looks startled with the doctor mentions electroshock treatment), but it still doesn’t prevent him from insisting on no calls or visitors or brushing off a previous sexual encounter with Leonard as something “All boys do…Normal men grow out of that.”
And yes, I realize that my outrage is unearned because Hawk has done this before. He threw his hook-up Eddie (David Tomlinson) under the bus to save a friend back in the first episode, so this isn’t new behaviour by any stretch. But ruining a man’s career is different from actively advocating for another to be physically tortured and irrevocably harmed.
As I said: this fits a pattern of behaviour for the character and it serves the (temporary) narrative purpose of making Smith think that he has escaped political damage before dealing him a crushing blow. But I can’t forgive Hawk for these actions, regardless of his intent or his motivations to protect his mentor, because they’re reprehensible and he, by extension, is now reprehensible. I realize the character isn’t meant to be easy to love and that he’s only now in the 80s learning life lessons that have prevented him from being in a real, happy relationship with Skippy for the last thirty years. I get that, but I can’t reasonably be expected to swoon over his doomed romance when he’s proven himself to be a monster.
So yeah…my emotional stakes in the central plot of this series have now evaporated. It’ll be interesting to see how the remainder of the series goes as a result.
Terry, what about you? A lot of harsh, mean-spirited remarks get thrown around in this episode, including Leonard accusing his father of making him “this way” and Schine telling Cohn he’s not like him, he’s “normal.” How do those kinds of comments land for you? Are you still invested in Marcus and Frankie’s relationship despite this week being a rinse/lather/repeat of last week (Marcus running away when Frankie is in need, then patching things up)? And how do you feel about the fact that we’ve barely made any ground in the 80s timeline?
I’ve been waiting for an episode like this to happen, Joe. And it wasn’t pleasant. Fellow Travelers has done an excellent job of creating the fantasy of a relationship, pulling us along in the wake of Tim’s enamored glances and secret smiles.
He was doomed from the beginning and even though we know where it would eventually lead, “Promise You Won’t Write” still manages to pull the rug out from under us. It’s a confronting episode and I can’t argue with your feelings towards Hawk because I grew colder and colder throughout the episode.
“Promise You Won’t Write” is the episode where we must start to talk about the theme that creator Ron Nyswaner and his team of writers want to explore and what Fellow Travelers is ultimately trying to say…if anything.
Because, you’re right, the real life angle of this episode (and this series, if I’m being honest) has drawn most of my attention as well because it’s about a time and a place and about people I’ve had maybe a passing knowledge of, at best. I was enraptured with the hearing and the political machinations and twists and turns throughout.
But Fellow Travelers isn’t just a document of a horrific period in time for queer people; it’s historical fiction grounded in the relationship between Hawk and Tim and that has broken our hearts from the sound of it.
From the beginning, I’ve thought of Fellow Travelers as a coming of age story for Tim much in the same way that Call Me By Your Name destroyed Elio’s innocence. The parallels are too apparent: an older man taking a younger man under his wing, exposing him to love and lust and then running away to his fiance and leaving a destroyed young man in his wake. By the end of that book and film, I hated Oliver and, by the end of “Promise You Won’t Write”, I also hated Hawk.
If there’s one thing I don’t think Fellow Travelers has done particularly well it’s humanizing Hawk and showing the dire situation he’s in. Sure, we understand on a purely intellectual level that Hawk’s career would be ruined if the world discovered he’s gay. But with all of the supporting characters, whether it’s Marcus, Frankie, Leonard, or McCarthy’s team, it’s been hard to completely understand Hawk’s position besides, again, on an intellectual level.
Hawk is caught in a Catch-22. It’s a situation in which no one wins and that’s a hard thing to portray in a way that makes us empathize with Hawk. He says some pretty horrible things, which you’ve cataloged. He’s shown utter disregard for everyone except himself – even the way in which he attempts to help Senator Smith is solely to further his own protections. And anyone who gets in the way or has the potential to uproot his own existence gets put in an aversion center, turned into McCarthy’s probe or cast aside.
That’s a tough character to portray in an empathetic light.
When he showed up at Tim’s apartment at the end of the episode and asked Tim to go with him for one hour, my heart broke to still see Tim’s secret smile. Fellow Travelers quietly contrasts Hawk as a pseudo father figure to Tim with Senator Smith’s relationship with Leonard. From Hawk’s somewhat infantilizing pet name for Tim to him telling Tim that Hawk didn’t raise him to join the military, Hawk has been the father figure that Tim thinks he needs.
It makes the Senator an intriguing character foil because, while Hawk continues to struggle with internalized homophobia, Smith is overrun by society’s homophobic views even though he says he loves his son. Ultimately, Smith gives up his own life to spare his family “embarrassment” while Hawk cuts his losses and latches onto Lucy as his selfish salvation.
“Promise You Won’t Write” is about disillusionment as much as it’s about the horrors that people can inflict on their communities to save face. From Cohn’s realization that David has no interest in him outside of furthering his career to Marcus’s realization that the Post doesn’t see him as a real person to Leonard’s disillusionment with his family to Tim’s dissolution of naivete towards how McCarthy (and Hawk, for that matter) operate…we have a crucible for the characters and this episode shows that not everyone rises from the flames.
You mentioned Marcus and Frankie. I’m disappointed in the way in which Fellow Travelers uses their characters to say “…also racism” instead of actually painting a complex picture of race and sexuality. You’re absolutely right to call out the rinse/lather/repeat narrative he and Frankie are in–from the continued homophobia of his fellow black journalists to the racism at work and Marcus’s internalized fears.
What I found intriguing about this story, though, is the way in which Marcus ultimately rejects the box the world wants to place him in and embraces his love of Frankie and Frankie’s painted nails. Unlike Hawk, he has gone through this gauntlet and come out a changed man.
From that perspective, Marcus’s story works for me…but he still exists mainly as a foil to Hawk and Tim; a secondary experience. And that’s frustrating.
Finally, the 80s…woof the 80s. It seems obvious at this point that Hawk isn’t well. When he shows up at the hospital to find Tim, the nurse even asks him if he needs to see a doctor, perhaps seeing the spot on his forehead. I’m not exactly sure of the purpose of these scenes, five episodes in, other than to further hone in on the tragedy.
So as we approach these final three episodes, I’m wondering what it is that Nyswaner and co. are building towards, thematically. Because we’re in the thick of it now, and for Fellow Travelers to fully work, it needs to be building towards some kind of statement…
Next week we’re jumping ahead in the story to the 1960s and I’m curious to see what “Beyond Measure” has to say when we go back to Gayly Dreadful.
Fellow Travelers streams Fridays on Showtime