Circumstances throughout history have forced people to hide defining aspects of themselves. Yet, there is a profound cruelty in denying the truth of one’s being, even if it is a means of survival. Based on the bestselling novel by Thomas Mallon and adapted for television by Ron Nyswaner, “Fellow Travelers” is a sweeping love story spanning three decades. It’s a narrative about what it means to simultaneously spend a life completely with someone while entirely separate from them. The Washington, D.C.- set drama series is told through the perspectives of two very different men. Hawkins “Hawk” Fuller (Matt Bomer) is a charismatic federal bureaucrat whose stoic demeanor and hypermasculine charm enable him to neatly tuck his sexuality away, mostly evading suspicion. In contrast, Tim Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey) is the boyish new assistant to Sen. Joseph McCarthy (an unrecognizable Chris Bauer), full of idealistic views and a desire to get closer to God.
A complex, intimate, captivating and visually stunning portrait of anguish and desire, “Fellow Travelers” is an expansive tale set primarily at the height of the U.S. government’s war on communists, “subversives” and “sexual deviants” and ending amid the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s. What begins as a helpless attraction and intense lust transforms into a lifetime of longing that never has a chance at a happy ending.
“Fellow Travelers” opens in 1986. Marcus Hooks (Jelani Alladin), a friend of Hawk’s, arrives at the Fuller family home to drop off a package and a message. As the men speak inside Hawk’s study, the barbecue outside becomes muffled, then fades completely. The viewer is transported to 1952 and dropped in the middle of an election party for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the event where Hawk and Tim initially cross paths. Immediately taken by Tim’s adorable naiveté, enthusiasm and enjoyment of milk, Hawk, who arms himself with his war medals and charm, quickly draws Tim into a sexual relationship. Though Tim is eager and determined to please the war hero, the reserved and aloof Hawk is shocked to find himself emotionally attracted to the tenderhearted young man.
The first five episodes of the political thriller slide back and forth between 1986 and the early 1950s, and they are undoubtedly the strongest. As Tim and Hawk push and pull against one another, “Fellow Travelers” spotlights the devastation and ruin caused by McCarthy’s rampant societal bigotry and homophobia. Moreover, viewers are given a look into the inner workings of the controversial politician’s office, including the machinations ofMcCarthy’s diabolical, closeted right-hand man, Roy Cohn (Will Brill), and Cohn’s lecherous obsession with wealthy hotel heir David Schine (Matt Visser), a chief consultant on McCarthy’s Senate investigations.
More than a laser-focused examination of Tim and Hawk’s experiences, the show expands outward. “Fellow Travelers” showcases Marcus, a closeted Black man working in journalism in the ’50s, and his lover Frankie Hines (Noah J. Ricketts), a graceful and dynamic drag queen who is clear about who he is. Their stories offer a perspective that is layered with homophobia and racism but also unveils the multicultural gender-bending underground world of the mid-20th century, one not often depicted on the big or small screens. Meanwhile, the women orbiting this world, including Hawk’s secretary, Mary Johnson (Erin Neufer), and his wife, Lucy Smith (Allison Williams), provide the viewpoints of people determined to experience a certain kind of existence, even if they have to pay the hefty price of pretending.
While the majority of “Fellow Travelers” is exceptional, Episode 6, titled “Beyond Measure” and set in 1968, feels like a mismatched puzzle piece. Despite the year’s turbulent events, the episode only touches briefly on the horrors of the Vietnam War and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Additionally, the 11-year jump between the fifth and sixth chapters is strongly felt, throwing off the tone and pace of the show. There’s an awkwardness in Hawk and Tim’s interactions that wasn’t present previously. The audience feels the men’s unease toward each other, causing the hour to drag instead of moving sharply along as in previous chapters. Still, by the penultimate episode, “White Knight,” and through the series finale, “Make It Easy,” the narrative rights itself. No longer subjected to the prying eyes of Washington and with the country and society in a very different place from the “values”-obsessed 1950s, Tim and Hawk are forced to face each other and themselves, as well as the devastating lies and truths they’ve told to endure.
The inherent heaviness of “Fellow Travelers” is alleviated by Bomer and Bailey’s electric chemistry. Hawk and Tim’s relationship shifts over the decades, but their erotic intimacy and attraction reverberate off the screen, showcasing a euphoric and profoundly moving connection despite its flaws. The historical drama moves well beyond the physical, forcing the viewer to look not just at some of the most atrocious moments in American history but at ourselves and the people who put our souls at ease. The inhumanity of others has no bearing on how we treat ourselves, the memories we carry or how we choose to live our lives. “Fellow Travelers” is a reminder of the cost of freedom and an homage to those who have sacrificed so that our lives might be free of shame and humiliation.
“Fellow Travelers” premieres on Paramount+ Oct. 26. The series will debut on SHOWTIME Oct. 29, premiering weekly on Sundays.