‘Fellow Travelers’ Review: Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey Lead a Brilliant Mix of Sex, Politics and Manipulation

The Showtime limited series follows a decades-long affair set to the backdrop of intense political dangers and the burgeoning gay rights movement

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Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey in "Fellow Travelers." (Ben Mark Holzberg/Showtime)

It’s the 1980s. White picket fences line the most picturesque suburban neighborhood that Ronald Reagan could ever imagine. Hawkins Fuller (Matt Bomer) is celebrating a long-sought after promotion with his perfect family and friends when a familiar face drops by with a gift. Suddenly, Hawk flashes back to his past, to the night that President Eisenhower was elected when he met Timothy Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey), the idealistic Ike supporter and good Catholic boy who arrived in Washington D.C. to do some good. We know how their story ends before it’s begun, but what follows is a decades-long affair set to the backdrop of intense political dangers and the burgeoning gay rights movement.

Sadly, there’s never been a time where queer liberation hasn’t been smeared and used as a handy political scapegoat. Certainly, “Fellow Travelers” arrives at a particularly pernicious period for LGBTQIA+ people facing intense queerphobia amid a renewed opposition to trans rights across the political spectrum. Many have already drawn the parallels between the harassment and outing of queer people in teaching positions to the communist witch hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy six decades prior. “Fellow Travelers” doesn’t need to work too hard to make the comparisons, in large part because the red scare was already tinged with the presence of the lavender menace. Turning this time into a tight political thriller crossed with a tumultuous romance just makes sense.

Created by Ron Nyswaner, whose work often deals with gay rights and their intersections with politics, adapts the novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon with a sly eye towards a pre- and post-Stonewall America. Starting in the ’50s and moving through the Swinging ’60s to the hedonism of the ’70s and finally the AIDS massacre of the ’80s, the series covers a lot of ground with a light touch. As much a political drama as it is a romance, the narrative covers close to four decades of change, and the ways that the queer rights movement found itself in tandem, willingly or otherwise, with myriad shadowy forces and agendas. Finding community, and even true love, during this shift is shown as nothing short of a radical act.

At its heart is a rather classic love story: the cynical war hero meets his polar opposite, an earnest politico who drinks milk and wears a crucifix, and the pair must navigate a world that won’t let them be together in public. Matt Bomer, who also served as executive producer, seems tailor-made for the role of Hawk. Blessed with the Montgomery Cliff-esque face of a ’50s matinee idol, Bomer has often been saddled with roles that gave him little to do beyond look pretty. But here, he’s so naturally charismatic that you barely notice the shift to sadness and paranoia that plagues Hawk later in life. He’s an opaque figure who keeps his cards close to his chest, a former soldier turned cog in the Washington machine struggling to show true vulnerability lest it be used against him.

Jonathan Bailey, the “Bridgerton” scene-stealer, is a touch too dweebish in his first episode (which is made all the funnier when he takes his shirt off and reveals the body of an Olympic swimmer), but his evolution makes for some of the most heart-wrenching parts of the saga. It’s Tim who has the most to lose and lose it he does, but not without earning some true self-respect.

The series is a potent reminder that LGBTQIA+ people have always been around and participating in matters of historical worth, and that it wasn’t always in the name of the greater good. Tim hates commies and practically skips into his interview for a position with McCarthy, although his burgeoning romance with another man puts him in harm’s way. Will Brill, best known for playing Noah Weissman in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” is appropriately smarmy as Roy Cohn, the infamous lawyer and chief counsel to Senator McCarthy who everyone knew was gay. He helped to connect the mere idea of homosexuality to the seeming threat of communism, even as he openly fussed over young aides like, as one character sneers, a newlywed. When one Senator says the sight “turns a man’s stomach,” Hawkins agrees, albeit for very different reasons.

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Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey as Tim in “Fellow Travelers.” (Showtime)

This is a story of hypocrisy. Senator McCarthy laughs about the joy of committing sins because, as a Catholic, he knows they’ll be excused by his faith if he confesses them in church. Cohn purges the State Department of gay and lesbian people under the guise of anti-communist duty, but never stops leering after his own staff. Washington D.C. seems to be a hotbed of gay male sexual encounters, from public toilets to the offices of the Senate, all while the system collectively throws the entire community to the wolves for an easy vote. When one secretary sneers that Tim seems “very artistic”, everyone knows what she really means. As the decades pass, one political scare is merely replaced with another and the cycle begins anew.

It’s also inevitably about power, political and sexual. Tim and Hawk’s first romantic encounter sees Hawk instruct the younger, meeker man in undressing him and folding his clothes. It’s a harbinger of things to come and a see-saw of dominance between the pair. It’s also, it must be said, gorgeously shot and brimming with passion, with Bomer and Bailey mining their intense chemistry for all its worth amid a sea of knowing stares and some truly titillating sex scenes. The “sex scenes are never relevant to the plot” crowd on social media might have to change their minds after seeing “Fellow Travelers,” which understands how sex works as a tool of both indulgence and manipulation.

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Jelani Alladin and Jonathan Bailey in “Fellow Travelers.” (Ben Mark Holzberg/Showtime)

Another strand of the narrative follows Marcus Hooks (Jelani Alladin), a queer Black political journalist whose idealism and work is hampered by the dual abuses of racism and homophobia. We see the places where queer solace and safety, however brief, could be found in the likes of Fire Island and San Francisco (all of which is shot in the Toronto area, although the production design is so detailed that you’d never know.) The nuances of Tim and Hawk’s relationship, which veers between tender and volatile, mirrors the most publicly intense period of queer visibility coming to the forefront. “Fellow Travelers” is a keen reminder of an oft-forgotten truth: LGBTQIA+ history is American history.

“Fellow Travelers” premieres Friday, Oct. 27, on Paramount+ and Sunday, Oct. 29, on Showtime.

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