At the Real Embassy, Netflix’s ‘Diplomat’ Draws a Diplomatic Response

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This article includes spoilers for the Netflix series “The Diplomat.”

On a tranquil Friday morning, Jane D. Hartley was sitting in the garden room at Winfield House, the baronial residence of the American ambassador to London, listing the many ways her life is different from that of Kate Wyler, the fictional ambassador played by Keri Russell in the popular Netflix drama “The Diplomat.”

“The concept that you could fly from one country to another without ever raising your hand on Capitol Hill,” Ms. Hartley said, noting that Ambassador Wyler never had to undergo Senate confirmation. “Sorry, that doesn’t happen.”

“I also don’t have a D.C.M. who brings racks of clothes into my office and tells me what I should wear,” she said, referring to the deputy chief of mission, who in the series acts as the ambassador’s fashion stylist. “I wear my own clothes.”

A gauzy mix of spy thriller and soap opera, “The Diplomat” debuted last month as the most-watched series on Netflix, and remains in the top 10. It has become compulsive viewing in foreign-policy circles — easy to mock for its Bond-meets-Bourne plot twists but also a source of gratification among diplomats, who feel Hollywood is finally showing them the recognition it has long given C.I.A. agents (though the series has one of those, too).

“It’s about damn time that we’re the heroes,” said Matthew Palmer, the real-life deputy chief of mission in London.

Suddenly, Ms. Harley finds her job the object of fascination, even at the highest levels of the State Department and White House. She said Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, had both quizzed her about the fine points of the eight-part series, having watched it.

As Ms. Hartley’s meeting with a reporter was winding down, her husband, Ralph Schlosstein, passed quietly through the front hall, on his way upstairs. A Wall Street investor, he divides his time between New York and London.

But he neither sits in on Ms. Hartley’s meetings with British officials nor wrestles with her in the garden outside Winfield House during a visit by the American president — as did Ambassador Wyler and her husband, Hal, a jealous, high-octane fellow diplomat played by the British actor Rufus Sewell.

“I think my security might do something if that were to happen,” said Ms. Hartley, 73, a good-humored, well-connected Democratic Party fund-raiser. She is on her second plum assignment, having served as ambassador to France from 2014 to 2017 (John Adams is the only other U.S. ambassador posted to both Paris and London).

With a background as a television executive, Ms. Hartley is sympathetic to the creative license that Hollywood often takes. On Tuesday, she will welcome Ms. Russell, who memorably played a Russian sleeper spy in “The Americans,” and the show’s creator, Debora Cahn, whose credits include “Homeland” and “The West Wing,” to Winfield House to talk about how the “The Diplomat” stands up against real diplomacy.

“Diplomats in pop culture are typically bit players,” Mr. Palmer explained. “In the movie, we might be the ones who come in during the meeting and say, ‘But what about the risks to the long-term relationship?’”

Mr. Palmer’s fictional counterpart, Stuart Hayford (played by Ato Essandoh) doesn’t just help dress the ambassador. He is her constant companion, advising her on the president’s plans to recruit her as vice president and helping hatch harebrained schemes, like when she sneaks into the British foreign secretary’s office to meet an Iranian envoy, who promptly falls dead. The Hayford character is also dating the C.I.A. station chief.

In real life, Mr. Palmer does none of those things. Instead, he manages the embassy, one of the largest American diplomatic facilities in the world, with 1,100 employees. But in his spare time, Mr. Palmer has written four diplomatic thrillers, which gives him an appreciation of both the accurate details and the faux pas.

The portraits of Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower in Kate Wyler’s office are copies of those in Ms. Hartley’s. Aaron Snipe, the embassy’s spokesman who posted a gentle fact-check of the series on Twitter, noted that although the producers rented a stately mansion outside London as a stand-in for Winfield House, they used digital technology to add the BT Tower, which is visible from its rear windows.

The far-fetched parts start with the show’s premise, and its emphasis on a sensitive national security role for the ambassador.

Kate Wyler, a career diplomat with a history of derring-do assignments, is diverted to London from Kabul, Afghanistan, after a deadly attack on a British aircraft carrier. She fears she will have to throw garden parties, but instead finds herself at the beating heart of American and British foreign policy during a Tom Clancy-grade geopolitical crisis.

None of this, diplomats say, resembles the actual job of a political ambassador, particularly to a close ally like Britain, when each side’s top national security officials have the others’ cellphone numbers on speed dial.

“The reality is that Jake Sullivan will pick up the phone and call his counterpart, and the ambassador will hear about it afterward,” said Lewis A. Lukens, who served as deputy chief of mission under Ms. Hartley’s predecessor, Robert Wood Johnson IV.

That doesn’t mean Britain’s foreign secretary, James Cleverly, hasn’t cultivated friendly ties with Ms. Hartley. He chatted with her, while sipping a whiskey, at the ambassador’s Christmas party at Winfield House. The Foreign Office gave the producers of “The Diplomat” rare access to film inside its grand headquarters on Whitehall. Mr. Cleverly is even planning to tape a video for Netflix to promote the series.

“The show gets the informality of really good meetings in the foreign secretary’s office, minus the people dropping dead,” said Matthew Barzun, who served as ambassador during the Obama administration.

The key to keeping one’s sanity, Mr. Barzun said, is not to worry about being in every critical meeting. During his posting, he visited British high schools, where he engaged with students about what they admired, and distrusted, about the United States. With her business ties, Ms. Hartley said she planned to focus on apprenticeship and training programs for young Britons — reviving a project she began in Paris.

The last ambassador whose career even remotely parallels Ms. Russell’s character is Raymond G.H. Seitz, sent to London by President George H.W. Bush in 1991. A career diplomat who had served there twice before, Mr. Seitz heard about his new post when he was called out of a bar in Brussels after attending a NATO meeting. On the phone was the president.

“When I came in, I knew half the cabinet,” said Mr. Seitz, now 82, from his home in New Hampshire. “Coming from Washington, I also knew what the thinking was on Europe. Plus, I was charming. Let’s not overlook that.”

So winning was Mr. Seitz that President Bill Clinton decided to keep him on after entering the White House. That meant Mr. Seitz dealt with the fallout from Mr. Clinton’s decision to issue a visa to Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, a political party with ties to the underground Irish Republican Army. Prime Minister John Major, a friend of Mr. Seitz’s, was so infuriated that he refused to speak to Mr. Clinton.

Last week, Mr. Biden ruffled more feathers when he said at a Democratic fund-raiser in New York City that he had gone to Belfast to make sure “the Brits didn’t screw around” with the post-Brexit trade status of Northern Ireland.

It wasn’t a lethal attack on a British warship, as in “The Diplomat,” but for Ms. Hartley, it was a distraction in a “special relationship” that she says is closely aligned on Northern Ireland, as well as the war in Ukraine and other issues.

“I’ve known him for a long time,” she said of the president. “His roots are in Ireland.” Then she added diplomatically, “Biden has English roots as well.”


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