The Diplomat’s central marriage, between Keri Russell’s Kate Wyler and Rufus Sewell’s Hal, is, well, complex. Kate is a career diplomat comfortable in war zones and used to taking the career back seat to Hal, a charismatic political star. In the first episode, Kate is surprisingly named ambassador to Britain, a largely ceremonial position that forces Hal to live in his wife’s shadow. Hal’s charm is irresistible: He “makes a lot of magic,” Kate says in the first episode. “He’s like a drug. You can’t say no.” That also makes the fact that he can be a walking liability easier to swallow. (In an interview with Vanity Fair, The Diplomat creator Debora Cahn says that Bill and Hillary Clinton were among a long list of inspirations for the couple.)

In the first episode, Kate vows to send Hal packing one minute and looks to him for support the next. Hal, meanwhile, schemes behind Kate’s back and undermines her, only to then brilliantly tee her up for success. Russell and Sewell seem to thrill in their characters’ rat-a-tat back-and-forth and marital tension. Though the circumstances of their relationship seem preposterously heightened—thanks in part to a plot twist that keeps them together—Kari Amelung, a former CIA official and consultant for the series, says that the predicament of unhappily married overseas officers sticking it out is more realistic than it might seem.

A 33-year CIA veteran who spent the majority of her career overseas and undercover, and was so crucial to the development of Showtime’s Homeland that the Claire Danes character was reportedly named for her, Amelung tells VF that many “tandem couples” in the agency put off divorces. Once they begin legal proceedings, she explains, agents will be forced to forfeit coveted overseas assignments to return to the States. “A lot of times, because they don’t want that to happen, or want their careers to be affected, they would just live in hatred [with each other].”

Like Russell’s Kate, Amelung “was always that person who wanted to be in a war zone and wanted to go to the hard places. I didn’t want to do the ceremonial job.” She began working with the CIA after finishing college in the mid 1980s, against the backdrop of the Cold War, and says she stubbornly refused the agency’s attempts to shoehorn her into an analyst role. (“There weren’t many women back then that did operations,” she explains.) She spent most of her career abroad, and was stationed in three war zones. “I would come back to headquarters kicking and screaming because the action is obviously overseas,” she says. Toward the end of her career, Amelung accepted a less sexy post within the agency—working as the head of European operations. “It was a lot of stuff that wouldn’t make for good TV,” she deadpans.

On The Diplomat, the status of Kate and Hal’s marriage is almost immediately put under the microscope by their new coworkers. In part, that’s because of the plot twist demanding they stay together. It’s also, Amelung explains, because the relationships of so-called “tandem couples” are of occupational interest to agency higher-ups.

“The personnel stuff becomes some of your biggest issues because if the spouse has a problem, that’s a problem for the officer, the security of your operations, everything,” she explains. “If one gets promoted faster than the other, the more junior one can’t work for the other. If one person becomes a supervisor, you [might] have to restructure your office so that two people can both have jobs—but one of them undoubtedly is not going to have the optimal job. Everybody’s trying to get overseas all the time, so a lot of times, partners will have to live in different countries…. It’s tricky. And it’s the same story for state department people too.”

Understandably, there are a lot of rules about what a CIA agent can share with their romantic partner—if they are not already colleagues—before getting married. Insiders advise agents not to tell their partners their real job “until you’re walking down the aisle,” says Amelung, who ended up marrying a man who worked for the World Bank. “I thought that was ridiculous, so I told him when we got engaged.” (His reaction: “I always wondered how you knew all of these weird shortcuts driving through Washington.”) Among the other less romantic subjects they discussed post-engagement: the fact that her husband, who was born in Europe, would need to take a polygraph test to confirm that he was not an agent working for another government. “And if you don’t pass, I can’t marry you.”

There were other strange romantic obstacles as well. When Amelung was stationed overseas under an alias in a war zone during the engagement, she could have no contact with her fiancé for a period of three or four months. “I could have been doing anything, including being unfaithful,” says Amelung. “But we trust each other and have given each other space to do what we needed to do.”

There is a serious trust problem in Kate and Hal’s relationship, but it has nothing to do with infidelity—a subject that Cahn adamantly wanted to avoid, since it’s the reason for most marital breakdowns onscreen. The main fissure in Kate and Hal’s marriage, explains Cahn—an Emmy-nominated writer-producer on The West Wing and Grey’s Anatomy—is “they both want to save the world, but they have very different ideas about how to do it.” On a separate phone call, Amelung adds, “Kate is distrustful because Hal’s unpredictable and, to some extent, she knows that he is going to do spectacular. He’s always going to make big moves. He’s already gotten himself in trouble. Now [given her high-profile job] he can get her in trouble to a greater extent. He’s like a grenade. Somebody’s pulled the pin, and at some point someone’s going to let go and it’s going to go off.”

Speaking about Hal and Kate’s relationship, Amelung says, “I found that marriage dynamic very realistic. Because you’ve worked really hard to get to be an ambassador. Clearly in her case, she has had to take the back seat to him all along. With the flip of roles, for somebody with an ego like Hal, it’s going to be really hard.” 


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