Spoilers below for season 1 of The Diplomat.
Keri Russell’s eyes say it all: The ending of the first season of Netflix’s The Diplomat is outrageous, and also the ideal argument for the series’ continuing existence. Showrunner Debora Cahn has crafted that elusive not-prestige-but-not-not-prestige political thriller, one that marries the addicting silliness Netflix has staked its claim upon with the sobriety of those other streamers-that-shall-not-be-named. By the time Cahn’s name flashes onto the screen of episode 8, “The James Bond Clause,” the stakes feel both ridiculous and real. Which is, of course, the perfect formula for a cliffhanger finale.
The episode opens with Kate Wyler (Russell) staring into the distance, fretting over the ways she believes she’s failed as U.S. Ambassador to the U.K. and might fail still. Prime Minister Nicol Trowbridge (Rory Kinnear) is furious over her inability to sway President Rayburn (Michael McKean) into supporting the so-called “Libya plan,” in which the Brits would attack the Russian Lenkov Group in Libya as retaliation for the (supposedly) Russian-backed bombing of the British airplane carrier HMS Courageous. The new plan is one Trowbridge suddenly supports the next day: British Special Forces will arrest leader Roman Lenkov himself in France, where he’s visiting his secret family in Cap d’Antibes. Trowbridge, who previously thought the plan cowardly, is suddenly its biggest fan.
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U.S. Secretary of State Miguel Ganon (Miguel Sandoval), British Foreign Secretary Austin Dennison (David Gyasi), Deputy Chief of Mission Stuart Heyford (Ato Essandoh) and Kate fly to Paris. There, Kate is expected to ask the French minister of the interior, Brielle Fournier (Micky Sébastian), for permission to use British Special Forces in the Lenkov arrest. But she has some issues at home: Her husband, Hal Wyler (Rufus Sewell), is scheming behind the scenes. In her own act of marital diplomacy, Kate has offered for him to join her in Paris; he turns her down, accepting another olive branch in place of the trip. Since Kate will be abroad, he’ll deliver a speech in her stead at the international relations think tank Chatham House.
The speech, like so much of Hal’s schmoozing, is a roaring success. He waives the so-called “Chatham House Rule,” which designates that speeches can be cited broadly but not credited to a specific orator. Hal wants to be seen, heard, and spread widely. In other words, he’s campaigning—and not subtly—for the role of secretary of state, a job that Hal’s former colleague revealed might be, uh, vacated imminently.
Even from afar, Kate knows her husband well enough to recognize when he’s manipulating relationships behind her back. At Chatham House, Hal meets a British MP named Merritt Grove, who urges they meet for dinner that evening. Although Hal tries to politely decline, he offers to connect Merritt instead to Billie Appiah (Nana Mensah), the White House Chief of Staff. Such a move is an enormous overreach, given that Hal is not currently an acting U.S. ambassador. It’s exactly this overreach that clues Kate into Hal’s ulterior motives. She’s livid, and once again decides their marriage must end.
Demanding that Hal cancel the meeting (and refusing to further help her husband oust Ganon as secretary of state), Kate leans instead on Dennison, who provides comfort and counsel as they speed-walk along the Seine. “I feel like the stand-up thing to do is to give a relationship every possible chance, right?” she says. “I mean, it’s the whole fucking definition of my life’s work.”
“Perhaps you’re just a decent person in a time when decency has lost its hold on the public imagination,” Dennison replies, which just might be the most romantic thing Kate’s heard in a good long while.
Meanwhile, Stuart and assistant Ronnie (Jess Chanliau) go into Hal Crisis Management Mode. They tell Mr. Wyler they’ll take the Grove meeting, so as to “prove to the world that the White House is not a fee-for-services organization,” but Hal—angered by the implication that he’s selling access—insists on a “five-minute handover.”
In Paris, Kate’s version of HCMM is slipping into the kind of red silk gown that’ll drop Dennison’s jaw, even if her real mission for the evening at the Louvre is convincing Fournier of the British Special Forces stipulation. Ultimately, she succeeds: Fournier grants permission, but tacks on another tidbit. “One must register surprise that the present U.S. administration, after pointedly proclaiming a break with the past, would so strongly lobby for an extrajudicial assassination,” she tells Kate, to the latter’s great confusion and shock. Translation: Trowbridge has no intention of arresting Lenkov; he’s going to have him killed.
Kate flees the party, certain that Dennison has taken advantage of their flirtation and deceived her about Trowbridge’s true plans. He follows her outside to the street, where she whirls on him, demanding the truth. But Dennison is just as floored by the assassination news as Kate herself. “Trowbridge wouldn’t,” he says. “It would bring down his government.” By the time he says this, Kate has already connected the dots in her mind, and so she snatches Dennison’s phone, switching on loud music and tossing the device to their bodyguard so as to ensure their conversation isn’t overheard.
“Listen to me,” she says, grabbing Dennison’s shoulder and staring at him, pleading for him to understand. “A dead Lenkov is only good for the people who hired him. If Prime Minister Nicol Trowbridge wants him dead—”
Finally, Dennison gets it. “Nicol Trowbridge hired him,” he says.
Their realization comes too late; the plot is already underway. Stuart pulls up to the site of the Grove meeting, unable to get in touch with CIA chief Eidra Park (Ali Ahn), now his ex-girlfriend. (To summarize, Eidra learned of his plans to follow Kate to D.C. should she become the next VP, even after Stuart told Eidra herself to reject a job in Cairo…so they could be together in London. Not cool.) Ronnie runs inside to alert Grove of his new guests while Stuart battles it out with Hal on the phone. Grove is pissed about the ambush, insisting he meet specifically with Hal. As he attempts to get into his car and depart—with Ronnie, Stuart and Hal all colliding with him outside the restaurant—the vehicle explodes.
Outside the Louvre, Kate and Dennison learn of the attack. Kate’s eyes fill with tears as the camera spins around her, echoing her terror and disorientation. Watching, we know she’s asking the same question we are, even if she doesn’t vocalize it: Are Stuart, Hal and Ronnie alive?
The answer is, likely, yes. There’s little to no chance The Diplomat will kill off two of its central characters that quickly, especially as the conflicts around them have finally crystallized into something robust and compelling. Sewell’s Hal is not only a source of comic relief and charisma, but he’s often the mechanism spurring Kate forward, even if she’d care not to admit it. And Stuart is a kingmaker-in-the-making, with far too much potential as Kate’s right hand for Cahn to squander it on shock factor.
As for Ronnie…well, sadly, that seems a far more likely loss. Not only was Stuart’s assistant directly in range of the blast, but they’re enough of a side character for a hypothetical death to resonate emotionally without stripping the plot of its propulsion. Grove is almost certainly dead, too. And if that’s the case, Kate will be after not just recovery but retaliation—or her form of it, which is intelligence.
So, who ordered the car bombing? It seems possible that Grove, part of Trowbridge’s Conservative Party, somehow had information about Trowbridge’s involvement in the HMS Courageous attack and wanted to tell someone he could trust: a diplomat like Hal. But if Trowbridge caught word of this deception, he could have stopped the leak by orchestrating a hit on his own MP. And perhaps he didn’t exactly plan for three Americans to get caught in the crossfire.
So, why did Trowbridge order an attack on his own people in the first place? Remember, he’s trying to win a by-election. If he could make it appear as though Iran had sparked a war with the U.K.—and then bravely enact vengeance upon them—he’d maybe win over the nationalist voters he needs. In one fell swoop, he’d mimic the post-9/11 battle cry of the early aughts.
That’s a potent premise in an era of Brexit nationalism and xenophobia, especially when Kate herself was initially drawn under Trowbridge’s spell. Moving into an all-but-certain second season, the question is not only who will survive, but who they’ll choose to trust when they meet again.
Lauren Puckett-Pope is a staff culture writer at ELLE, where she primarily covers film, television and books. She was previously an associate editor at ELLE.