As a rabid consumer of queer content, one would reasonably assume that AIDS-related materials have been fully exhausted by this point. What more could another entry in the depressing (but fiercely important) time period have to say? Are we not past the type of tearjerking movies and shows that use gay folks as cannon fodder for manipulative storylines? Showtime’s Fellow Travelers emerges on the heels of two of my absolute favorites—Broadway’s The Inheritance and Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: NYC—and proves very early on that it has so much more meat on its bones than just being yet another tired story of gay trauma. Led by Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey, Fellow Travelers already builds goodwill upon its inception by including two gay actors at its core. Created by Ron Nyswaner, based on the book by Thomas Mallon, this vital, decades-spanning saga is destined to go down as one of the greatest love stories ever told.
Set over multiple time periods, Fellow Travelers juxtaposes the unfolding of AIDS-addled 1986 against the McCarthy-era Lavender Scare, and subsequent decades of queer culture. Described as both a political thriller and an epic love story, the two extremes fold together for one seriously engaging watch. In McCarthy’s Washington circa 1952, “good Catholic boy” Tim Laughlin (Bailey, Bridgerton, upcoming musical Wicked) meets gorgeous, over-confident Hawkins Fuller (Bomer, The Normal Heart, American Horror Story: Hotel) at a political party. As Hawkins tries to grab a drink, he offers Tim one. Funny enough, the only thing Tim craves is a glass of milk. From this clandestine first meeting, a spark ignites, promising more.
On the side, Hawkins pursues random hook ups. The next time he bumps into Tim, he offers up the opportunity of a lifetime: a junior assistant in McCarthy’s office. Hawkins works in the state department, under the Bureau of Congressional Relations. This definitely makes for some prickly scenarios as the episodes progress. Tim is far more flamboyant than Hawkins, and typically causes friction due to this very fact. The change happens in each of them in very different ways; Tim struggles with his faith, and Hawkins has clear attachment issues. The chemistry between Bailey and Bomer heats up the screen as one of the best aspects of Fellow Travelers quickly becomes apparent—they are truly not dicking around when it comes to the sex scenes, pardon my French. Both leads are frequently in a state of undress, and their wildly varied sexual encounters feel intimate and real in a way few cinematic gay love scenes genuinely do. Contrasting their lustful past relationship against their distant present is a clever way of pulling us into the story.
With communism running rampant, the duo appear to have started a love affair that grows more dangerous and volatile by the second. At any moment, they could be discovered, and permanently removed from state employment. The norms of decades past can be jarring to digest, what with rampant racism, sexism, and homophobia being nakedly displayed without a care. The series treats other characters with nearly as much importance as ‘Hawk’ and ‘Skippy.’ Hawk’s eventual wife, Lucy (Allison Williams, Girls, Get Out), and close friend, Marcus (Jelani Alladin, The Walking Dead: World Beyond, tick, tick… BOOM!), are among the most intriguing, even if the former is borderline unbearable by design.
What stuck out to me most here is just how tragically self-hating so many gay men seemed to be back in the early years. If you were “out,” you were basically ostracized from society at large. Being your true authentic self was out of the question. And yet, in the race to throw others under the bus, one’s own morality is called into question. Going through the motions and marrying a woman was a necessity, barely optional. The series does not examine or breathe into existence bisexuality as much as it hones in on the gay experience of years’ past; however, bisexuality really wasn’t a normal phrase in the vernacular back then either. As Hawk and Skippy ache for one another, suffering love and loss, Marcus struggles with coming to terms as an actual gay black man rather than just a black man. Neither struggle is given more weight than the other, but I did find it interesting that Marcus in particular gets called out for not willing to embrace that part of himself.
So many tragedies leap out at the viewer over the course of these eight episodes. Reaching for a tissue became a regular occurance. By the time the finale rolled around, I was a sobbing mess. While I had assumed the episodes would start to feel bloated after awhile, the leaps forward in time and exploration of different character’s private lives keeps Fellow Travelers from growing stagnant. Above all else, yearning for Hawk and Skippy’s love story to somehow work against all odds will be the overwhelming sentiment. Amidst all the noise, these are just two men in love, trying to make a life together no matter the cost. Authentically, neither men are perfect—more like perfectly flawed. Warts and all, both feel genuine. An all-consuming love that echoes this powerfully will be difficult to shake. Fellow Travelers burrows deeply into the soul, and reminds us to treasure each moment we have been given.
Fellow Travelers screened the first two episodes at 2023’s NewFest, and debuts exclusively on Paramount+ with Showtime on Friday, October 27th.