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 7 “White Nights”
You were kinder to last week’s episode than I was, Joe, and that feeling continues for me as the penultimate episode of the series doubles down on the kind of slight storytelling the first five episodes avoided.
Like the previous episode, “White Nights” feels like a glimpse of a much larger and unseen history and I found it wanting. Maybe it’s because the first five episodes were so self-contained to a time period that the show could really dig into the themes, real life people and characters that these last two episodes feel lacking. There’s a lot of story here that Fellow Travelers has no time–or, maybe desire–to explore. Whereas 5/8ths of the series has gone into deep details of the political landscape of a time period, these two feel more like brief forays.
I could kind of forgive “Beyond Measure” for devoting a single episode to the 60s…but “White Nights” is a fascinating mirror of the stories and themes set in the 50s that I just wanted more.
It’s 1979 and TIm (Jonathan Bailey) and Hawk (Matt Bomer) are living pretty separate lives, after Tim follows Marcus (Jelani Alladin) and Frankie (Noah J. Ricketts) to the Gay Mecca of San Francisco and Hawk struggles with his internalized homophobia. The two have become complete foils of their earlier selves, as Tim embraces being openly gay (even coming out to his family) and living without shame while Hawk continues to struggle with his feelings of sexual desire.
There’s a lot to catch up with.
It’s hinted that Hawk’s son Jackson (Etienne Kellici) was queer and, like his father, struggled with it until he died from an overdose. Marcus continues to struggle with being a gay black man. Frankie continues to be upset that the man he loves doesn’t seem to want to love himself. Hawk has fled to Fire Island to party and slowly kill himself with drugs, alcohol and bad decisions. Lucy (Allison Williams) gave him an ultimatum of giving up alcohol or leaving, so he left, making her responsible for the care of their pregnant daughter Kimberly (Brittany Raymond).
As the episode begins, Harvey Milk has been killed and San Francisco sits with bated breath as a jury decides the fate of Milk’s murderer, Dan White. This is where the show continued to remind me how much more meaningful and powerful Fellow Travelers could have been. Like “Beyond Measures,” this is a solitary episode that gives us a CliffsNotes overview of the intervening years, but unlike that episode, the decade it’s set in feels like a perfect foil to the 50s. And, like those early episodes, we have characters who were part of the scene. Frankie mentions knowing and working with Milk, for example.
And I can’t help but wonder what Fellow Travelers would have looked like if it gave as much time and attention to this decade as it did the 50s.
Instead, we have another mostly contained episode where Tim’s role flips from being the subservient, naive one to a world-weary, openly gay man who has to take care of Hawk. That’s an intriguing dynamic, considering where we started with Fellow Travelers and I would have loved to see more of it. In particular, I would have loved to see Tim’s journey towards self-acceptance mirroring Hawk’s downfall.
“White Nights” has a few intriguing moments, like the fact that Hawk can’t call himself gay and instead prefers the word homosexual. The way he defines it (“homo” as in man and “sexual” as in…well, sexual) perfectly encapsulates him as a person. That internalized homophobia has done him–and his family–dirty over the years and the fact that Hawk, surrounded by gay men, still can’t accept his sexuality is truly heartbreaking.
This is also the episode that made me realize just how over queer pain I am. This show might have broken me, in that regard.
Last episode you also mentioned that you enjoyed the time spent with Lucy and I agree that Allison Williams hasn’t been fully utilized in this show. Here we get another few scenes of her and Kimberly coming to terms with their husband/father’s sexuality, and it’s moving.
But when we only have two or three episodes spread across decades to deal with her grief and internal struggles, it comes across rather perfunctory and muted for me. If this were simply a story of Hawk and Tim, it would work. But it’s not and it hasn’t been, since the very beginning. So the other characters end up getting the short end of the stick.
I will agree with you, though, that the acting is what carries Fellow Travelers and “White Nights” is no different. Everyone is giving their best. But I’m curious about your thoughts, Joe, as someone who appreciated “Beyond Measure” more than I did: did “White Nights” work for you? Were the arguments between Hawk and Tim cathartic or melodramatic for you? And what about Marcus and Frankie, two characters who continually are sidelined for our protagonists? Did the protests involving the two of them and their soon-to-be-adopted son Jerome (Jude Wilson) do enough?
We’ll start with Jerome, Marcus and Frankie (it’s the last we can do since the show always puts them last). My answer is no: I don’t mean to sound like a broken record because I’ve made my piece that these characters only exist on Fellow Travelers for a single reason. But yeah, no, their struggle could have been it’s own whole episode; hell, it could have been its own series!
Talking about the unhoused black queer experience in San Francisco in the moments leading up to and following the murder of Harvey Milk sounds fascinating. And the brief glimpses that we see of it look intriguing, particularly since we know how important Jerome will become to them.
Which only makes it more frustrating when the show raises the issue and then almost immediately moves back to how hard it is for Hawk, a white privileged man, for the vast majority of the episode. And I get it: it’s not their show…but I also still don’t know why Fellow Travelers bothered to include these characters if it only had a passing interest in unpacking their stories.
I like the idea of this show and this episode, Terry, but I agree with you that “White Nights” is doing both history and its characters a disservice by only exploring them in passing.
Once again, there’s an assumption that the audience not only knows Harvey Milk, but understands how vital his life and death were to the queer community. There’s the depiction of the six hour raids in San Francisco, which are less commonly known than the Stonewall riot. These are pivotal figures and moments in gay life, which is only underscored by the use of historical footage of news reports (used here in greater detail than any other previous episode), but it is CliffsNotes, as you said.
And then there are the characters. Who are these other men in Hawk’s Fire Island house? We see their (presumably AIDS-related) obituaries and letters in Tim’s place in the 80s, and we see how Craig is a kind of mirror to Tim’s own experiences trying to chisel away at Hawk’s self-protection armour.
But Fellow Travelers never goes deeper than that. Hell, even Jackson’s death feels like little more than a character beat that the show doesn’t want to pause to explore. Sure we see his picture, and Hawk can’t bring himself to discuss it, and Lucy and Kimberly watch a home video, but their grief feels insubstantial to the point of performativity because we were only introduced to the character last episode and – again – only in passing. Imagine how much more impactful this moment would have played if we spent a few episodes with Jackson and saw all of the struggles that Hawk tells Tim about on their one confessional night.
Instead Fellow Travelers insists on showing us Matt Bomer’s (admittedly great) ass, gay cruising dick, and plenty of slow motion shirtless dancing at the Rack. Yes, it’s delicious eye candy, but it’s all hollow emotion that fails to pack the emotional punch that I think the show is aiming for.
This is the biggest prestige queer series of the year, but it feels.So.Hollow. I don’t feel anything for these characters anymore…and that’s shocking considering the pedigree in front of and behind the camera.
Obviously we’ll be back next week to discuss the finale and how it all wraps up, but the expediency of this episode is giving me pause. We better really get into it next week, and it better not just be the “Hawk has AIDS/Tim dies of AIDS” developments that we’ve been waiting for.
‘Cause that would just be a shame.
We’ll see when we jump back to Gayly Dreadful for the finale, ”Make It Easy.”
Fellow Travelers streams Fridays on Showtime