‘Fellow Travelers’ Premiere Recap: The Hottest Television Episode This Year
We are suffering from a catastrophic dearth of horniness, dear reader. The need for sex scenes is being discoursed to high hell. Films where sex—explicit sex, in particular—is an integral part of the storyline are being slapped with NC-17 ratings, forcing the likes of Passages and Blonde into brief runs in small arthouse theaters before landing on streaming services. For god’s sake, men are hardly even showing nipples anymore, let alone getting cheeked-up on camera!
Blessedly, Showtime’s limited series Fellow Travelers has arrived to provide an antidote for this chronic sickness, just as the anti-sex poison was threatening to shut down our systems entirely. (Not 10 minutes into the premiere, there’s already full-on fucking.) The scintillating drama is heavy on the fornication, but it’s not just in the interest of showing sex on screen, either.
Instead, it’s a series that effortlessly straddles its hot-and-heavy love scenes with dramatic tension that’s equally as scorching, and there’s no example of that so fine as the series’ premiere episode, which is inarguably the most sweltering episode of television this year. Each sex scene is rife with the kind of passion that all of the great novels, plays, and poems are written about. But sex without love is just porn, and while the more conservative viewer might jump to equate the two in this context, Fellow Travelers is careful to keep the balance in its first episode to begin crafting one of the most compelling televised love stories in recent memory.
The series premiere opens with its narrative jumping between the ’50s and ’80s, with the series exploring the events of both times in parallel.. The first finds Hawkins Fuller (Matt Bomer) in 1986, throwing a party at his massive estate alongside his wife Lucy (Allison Williams). It’s there where he’s approached by his old friend and colleague from Washington, Marcus (Jelani Alladin), who asks to speak with Hawkins privately. The two of them depart to Hawkins’ office, where Tim tells him that their mutual friend—and Hawkins’ longtime lover—Tim (Jonathan Bailey) is dying, presumably of complications from AIDS.
Marcus gives Hawkins a present from Tim: a paperweight with the image of the Lincoln Memorial set in its resin. Momentarily, Hawkins drifts back to their first meeting in 1952, the year in which most of the episode is set. The two men lock eyes at an election night party in 1952, celebrating Eisenhower’s win. Hawkins, being the charismatic and well-respected war vet and government hobnobber that he is, has no trouble securing a drink at the crowded bar where Tim is struggling to even get the bartender’s attention. Hawkins kindly offers to grab Tim a drink, and when Tim orders a glass of milk—like the good Catholic boy that he is—it immediately signals to Hawkins that this shy, sweet boy has something corruptible about him.
If there’s anyone who knows anything about corruption, it’s Hawkins, who leaves the election party to cruise at a local men’s room. The handsome gent that he is, it’s no time at all before Hawkins is bareback-fucking another man from behind, pulling the bottom’s hair, and spanking his ass. As soon as he finishes, Hawkins pushes the man onto the bed and all but dashes home; to him, sex is sex, and any romantic entanglement only makes the separation of his private and public lives all the more difficult.
Unfortunately for Hawkins, Tim does not operate the same way, and when the two of them meet again, their differing approach to companionship only makes their chemistry all the more rich. Both Hawkins and Tim know that the other man will be bad for them, and that’s what makes their budding relationship so exciting. Bomer and Bailey are complete naturals at this—no doubt partially thanks to their own real-life queerness. Every time the two of them gaze into each other’s eyes, sparks become fireworks in seconds. Both actors understand how to display real, effective passion, and it only makes the events that follow all the more steamy.
Hawkins finagles a job for Tim in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s (Chris Bauer) office, essentially placing him right under the nose of the enemy. This way, Hawkins can ensure that Tim is able to return the favor by digging up some dirt on McCarthy whenever he and his boss, a Democratic senator opposing McCarthy’s agenda, may need it. It also means that Tim and Hawkins have reason to meet under the cover of their jobs—and get a little bit frisky from there.
Their first meeting is at Tim’s apartment in a shared boarding house. Naturally, the proximity to danger in that situation only heightens the sexual tension that has been lingering in the air since Hawkins told Tim, “I’ll be imagining you kneeling in prayer” a few days prior. It’s not long before their conversation turns from work to sex, with Hawkins guiding the more inexperienced Tim. He instructs Tim to remove his socks (only the beginning of Fellow Travelers’ erotic footplay) and slacks, before telling Tim to fold them. A hard cut sees the two of them collapsing onto Tim’s bed, with Hawkins’ tongue buried in Tim’s armpit before he reaches forward to pleasure his lover. “Who’s my boy?” Hawkins asks, causing Tim to come in his hand.
While in a post-coitus haze, Tim asks to know more about Hawkins’ first lover, which makes Hawkins suspicious that Tim wants more than just sex. Hawkins tries to tell Tim that their relationship will stay purely sexual, but just like Hawkins, Tim has his own ways to get what he wants. When Tim shows up at Hawkins’ apartment unannounced to discuss something about a developing executive order he overheard in McCarthy’s office, Tim puts his plans into action. He sits on Hawkins’ lap and seduces him with information, and though Tim gives up what he knows without a fight, he’s already got Hawkins in his clutches.
When Hawkins attempts to kick Tim out so he can get ready for a party his boss is throwing, Tim insists on accompanying him. “This is the real world, Skippy,” Hawkins replies, giving Tim his pet name that will endure for the decades that their relationship spans. “I’m your boy, right?” Tim responds. “And your boy wants to go to the party.” The two continue their push-pull, with Tim sitting back on his knees, as Hawkins puts his foot on Tim’s chest. Once again, Tim removes Hawkins’ socks, before he starts to lick the ball of his bare foot. When Tim hesitates a bit as his tongue gets closer to Hawkins’ toes, Hawkins encourages him: “Open up.”
Ladies, gentlemen, and my dear non-binary audience: Did you gasp along with me? I can’t quite remember the last time I saw legitimate toe-sucking in any movie, and I’m certainly sure I’ve never seen it in a television show. And it’s not just a brief second, either; we get a full 20 seconds of footwork here. And if I gasped at that, you can bet I audibly yelped when Bomer said, “Now, show me what my boy really wants,” before Bailey does a swan dive into his crotch. This is pure, unapologetically gay eroticism, the kind that could make just about anyone hot under the collar. In fact, you show me a gay man that has never thought a single sexual thought about a foot in his life and still claims that hasn’t changed after watching this scene, and I’ll show you a damn liar.
The episode wraps up with Tim and Hawkins attending the party together, before grabbing a nightcap at an underground gay bar. Tim, a little too liquored-up and still feeling the raw intensity of their dynamic, leaves in a huff when Hawkins once again tells him that they can never have a romantic relationship. “When I committed this sin, I felt pure,” Tim later confesses to a priest. “More pure than I ever have in my life. How can I be sorry for it?” It’s here where Fellow Travelers affirms that its emotional narrative is just as alluring as its sexual one, effectively juggling the loss of faith and the struggle for self against the backdrop of the Red Scare.
This installment concludes with McCarthy reading his executive order to root out sexual deviants in government positions, against a montage of Hawkins letting his guard down for Tim, finally telling him about his first lover, before Tim tells him that he’s afraid Hawkins will break his heart. Parallel to this, Hawkins flies to San Francisco in 1986 to try to see Tim, who doesn’t want to meet with him. As the episode closes, Tim has his own moment of vulnerability across both timelines, letting Hawkins in his apartment in 1952—not for sex, but for a loving, tender embrace—and returning his call in 1986.
In these final moments, a premiere that was so fiercely carnal settles into a more realistic, romantic rhythm that I’m eager to watch the show settle into as it goes on. That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of scorching sex to come, just that it’s paired with the kind of quixotic tension that will enrapture viewers over and over again, just as this excellent premiere does so many times.
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