The Lavender Scare and the AIDS crisis provide the backdrop along with some explicit sex scenes…
Fellow Travelers, the new prestige drama currently streaming on Paramount + (the premiere episode of which premiered October 27th) takes viewers on an epic journey as fictional characters navigate their way through very real events and moments in queer history.
When Fellow Travelers picks up, we are in 1986 and are introduced to Hawkins “Hawk” Fuller (played by Matt Bomer), a government official with a wife and two kids who is celebrating his imminent transfer to Milan, Italy. We’re at Hawk’s family’s farewell party when Marcus, a man from his past appears with news that Tim, another man from their past is dying of AIDS (this is Regan era America, after all) It becomes immediately clear that Hawk has some secrets and some sort of tragic unrequited love story lurking beneath the surface of this successful family man.
From there we are taken back to early 1950s Washington and McCarthyism is giving way to the Lavender Scare – a parallel panic where gay men and lesbians were thought to be “sexual deviants” and national security risks, leading to a call to have them removed from state employment. As this is happening, Hawk, working in the state department, meets Tim (played by Jonathan Bailey) at an event and the two begin an illicit affair in the shadows of the rampant homophobia.
While the affair may be happening in the shadows, the sex scenes are definitely happening on camera. And while they aren’t graphic, they are certainly explicit. One scene in the premiere episode features Hawk having rough sex with a random pickup while another sees Tim nearly taking Hawk’s entire foot in his mouth – an impressive feat, pardon the pun. The sex is unapologetically in your face which feels important given the institutionalized homophobia of the time. In our present day where the value of sex scenes in pop culture is being debated online, the makers of Fellow Travelers definitely let it be known where they stand on the subject. And it works.
But of course, the sex scenes aren’t the only feature of the series. It’s a beautifully shot series, feeling very cinematic as many prestige television offerings do. And despite hopping between the 1980s and the 1950s, it sadly still feels relevant – it was just over a month ago that parents were marching in the streets across Canada protesting gender ideology in schools, asserting that accepting trans kids or having any conversation around gender is akin to grooming.
In addition to the politics, Fellow Travelers touches on the importance of living an authentic life. In episode two, while at a secret underground gay bar, Hawk’s friend Marcus, a Black gay reporter says, “you know the difference between you and me, aside from the obvious? Some time, somewhere, I’d like more than this,” referring to living life in the closet. Hawk, as we see in the 1986 scenes, has gone on to marry a woman, a senator’s daughter who is all but assigned to him. His life is in stark contrast to what we see him tell Tim about what his ideal life would be – while it didinvolve being posted overseas, it did not include a wife and kids, rather “a villa, some place by the water where I can eat what I want and fuck who I want without giving a damn.” If only it were 100% safe to do so in the era of Fellow Travelers and in our present day as well.