Kind of like Brokeback Mountain set in 1950s DC, Fellow Travelers takes on a more political and historical stance in recounting a love affair spanning decades between two men. Inspired by Thomas Mallon’s novel, it stars Matt Bomer as Hawkins Fuller, the subordinate of fictional State Senator Smith, and Jonathan Bailey as devout Catholic Tim Laughlin. The series covers the intense back and forth of their longstanding romantic tryst, weathering post-Stalin Communist rule, Vietnam and the Cold War, and the AIDS epidemic. Fellow Travelers also takes a look at hedonism and hookup culture in the late 20th century, especially between married men, the hypocrisy in religion regarding LGTBQ+ treatment, and racial discrimination amidst early desegregation laws.
Unlike the 2005 film inspired by Annie Proulx’s short story, Fellow Travelers is bigger than just two people falling in love amidst a homophobic era in time. The series delves deeply into how the surrounding political climate affects Hawkins and Tim’s relationship and the struggles they face with their identity. It’s explicit, showcasing BDSM dynamics, yet tender and loving. Even as Hawkins and Tim’s attraction for each other grows beyond something physical, the rough and volatile sexual activities don’t fully disappear. Furthermore, Fellow Travelers also has a huge cast of LGBTQ+ characters, from Marcus and Frankie facing both systemic racism and homophobia to Mary’s side story, which questions how far love can take a person when their safety is on the line.
Bomer isn’t quite effective in his role as Hawkins. There’s a very “Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne”-like quality to his performance that reads unsteady, especially in the gruffness of his voice and chosen cadence for the role. There’s something poetic about the parallels between secret identities and being a closeted gay man. But there’s a balance in Hawkins’ character that is stoic, edgy and mysterious, but also soft and conceding, that Bomer’s execution falls short of giving. Bailey, for his part, channels that same deeply in-love energy he has mastered to perfection in Bridgerton. Still, he maintains a sanguine back-and-forth between his sexual identity and religion. Their overall chemistry fails to carry the show during the politically charged and traumatic parts, which can be difficult to power through, especially for those only interested in their romance.
The visuals revel in mirror shots with a lot of focus on glass and clear surfaces as a sign of self-reflection, especially in Hawkins’ case as he tries to keep appearances up, while simultaneously longing for Tim. It also leans heavily into Tim’s rose-coloured glass approach to life and romance – fitting, as he himself wears glasses. All of that is underlined by a score that heavily features violins to strum up suspense. Yet the retrospective narrative that oscillates from past to present asserts an ending that undermines any intensity built throughout the series’ most dramatic moments.
Fellow Travelers is a thought-provoking piece, but certain shortcomings prevent it from truly becoming more than just a love story with a side of politics and history.
Fellow Travellers is released on Paramount+ on 28th October 2023.
Watch the trailer for Fellow Travellers here: