Television After 9/11: A Continuing Series
Part 5: Homeland, the Anti-Heroine, and the New Look at How We Fight The War on Terror
Many critics and viewers looked at Homeland pretty much from beginning to end as Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa — the series’ showrunners who had been at the center of 24 and recruited many of that series writers — as an apologia for every Jack Bauer and CTU had done during the past decade. Gordon and Gansa fervently denied it and I can understand why because pretty much from the beginning it was clear that the series had completely different approaches and attitudes. 24 was basically an expanded action series; Homeland was essentially a thriller. 24 did everything in service of immediate action; Homeland was all about the long game. The characters on 24 saw things almost entirely in black and white; Homeland was entirely about the grey areas. And never was this clearer then with their choice of lead character.
It’s easy to consider Carrie Matheson, who would be magnificently be played by Claire Danes for eight seasons, the first real example of what I and other critics have called the ‘anti-heroine’ This is an exaggeration. I’ve already made it clear that Damages featured the struggle between two such characters, and simultaneously TNT developed the series Saving Grace, a show centered on an Oklahoma City detective (one of Holly Hunter’s greatest performances) with much of the same flawed moral compass and hard living behavior that Carrie Matheson would demonstrate a few years later. Nor were even these characters the first examples — Showtime would develop a series of dramedies featuring female characters whose behavior ranked from hard-to-handle (United States of Tara, The Big C) to downright criminal (Weeds, Nurse Jackie). And the critics and audiences were favorable to most of them — Glenn Close and Holly Hunter would dominate the Best Actress Emmy nominations with Close winning two awards, and all four Showtime series would earn multiple nominations for the lead actresses (Toni Collette, Edie Falco and Laura Linney would end up each winning a Golden Globe and an Emmy for their work in their series, while Mary-Louise Parker would end up taking a Golden Globe for Weeds) What makes Carrie the most radical of the bunch is that pretty much from the beginning of Homeland to its end is that she is willing to do whatever takes to get what she wants, no matter how much of an outcast it makes her among her peers.
Carrie is convinced in the beginning of Season 1 that Nick Brody (Damian Lewis) an American prisoner of war retrieved in Afghanistan is working for a terrorist leader named Abu Nazir. She almost immediately begins an illegal surveillance of him, despite the open hostility all of her higher-ups at the CIA believe. The only person who supports her is her mentor Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) and even he doesn’t believe in what she is doing much of the first season. For most of the season we have every reason to think Carrie doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing and for good reason: Carrie is a hard drinking, sexually promiscuous woman who has already ruined her immediate superior’s marriage by having an affair with him. There’s also the fact that she’s bipolar and is very reluctant to take her medication — a fact she has gone to great trouble to keep the Agency unaware of.
Her obsession with Brody becomes more and more reckless as the season unfolds eventually lead to her having encounters with Brody, which finally becomes a full on affair. The writers are very smart and don’t tip to their hand for more than half the season — Brody’s erratic behavior can be explained by his trauma and trying to fit into a world that has painfully moved on without him. His wife has been having an affair with his best friend for the past three years (they’re actually in a middle of a tryst when she finds out he has been rescued), his children are strangers to him (indeed, the son barely remembers him) and while he denies knowing Abu Nazir and what happened to a fellow prisoner Tom Walker, we know he’s lying — because we saw that he beat Tom to death in the Pilot. Brody can’t connect with the real world and finds it easier to connect with Carrie.
This leads to what I consider Homeland’s greatest moment: ‘The Weekend’ (I ranked it as one of the fifty greatest episodes of the new millennium a few years back). Carrie and Brody are off the grid in a cabin, in the glow of a sexual affair, and Carrie reveals inadvertently about the surveillance. Brody is incredulous, especially when he learns that it is Carrie, not the government that thinks he working for Al-Qaida. They detail every one of his ticks and he seems to have a plausible answer for all of them. But it ends with Carrie no more satisfied than the viewer — until there’s one more revelation.
This actually leads me to the character I actually found far more intriguing. Saul is the most jaded character who knows everything and who no one seems willing to listen to, neither his superiors nor his inferiors. But it’s clear from the beginning he’s the wisest member of the cast, and the series’ greatest decision was to make the crux of the series the relationship between Saul and Carrie.
While Carrie and Brody are having their encounter, Eileen Faisel, an American woman who was radicalized and is central to the plot is captured trying to escape. Saul persuades his boss to go down to Texas to pick her up and question her. Deliberately he chooses to drive which he knows will take nearly two days. He spend much of the next episode trying to establish a rapport with Eileen, not interrogating her, not even asking her question, just talking. Halfway through the trip, he stops at a school in Ohio where he group — where he was raised an Orthodox Jew and couldn’t even acknowledge his fellow student or play ball. He mentions his marriage to an Indian woman, which is clearly on the verge of collapse. At this point Eileen — who has said barely two words — asks him about his marriage. Saul is honest with her. Finally, he asked her what her radicalization is about: “If this is geopolitical, if this is religious, I can’t help you…But if this about a girl who fell in love with a man with dark skin, maybe I understand.”
In the next scene, Saul calls his boss with the simple statement: “We have a deal in place.” Saul, in essence has cracked the plot, and revealed that an American prisoner of war was turned — Tom Walker, the man believed dead. In what will become a standard for him, he somehow manages to arrange things so that Carrie gets the credit for it.
In Homeland’s first season, the show would win Emmys in every major category, including Best Actor and Actress for Lewis and Danes respectively. Yet though Patinkin would receive five nominations for his work on Homeland he would never win an Emmy. Considering Homeland’s overall record with the Emmys and the fact that Patinkin had won years earlier for his brilliant work on Chicago Hope, it may be a bit touchy of me to still be a little pissed by this. But for this episode at least, Patinkin certainly deserved a prize.
As for the Brody storyline as a whole, perhaps it would have been better for the show had the writers decided not to make Brody a terrorist as well. That said they did a superb job showing the level of manipulation that everybody was always putting him through. Abu Nazir and his followers were trying to use Brody for their own ends, but the show made it perfectly clear that everybody in the government — from the powerbrokers to the Vice President (a man whose career and behavior was clearly modeled on George H.W. Bush) was using him for the exact same things. And in what was the clearest example of this, the series made it clear that Nazir had become more amplified in his attacks on America after one that killed his son as will as innocent civilians… an attack the Vice President had advertised as being a model strike for the War on Terror. It was a bit heavy-handed, but I don’t know any other series that would have bothered to try and make the point at all.
While I thought the second season was far better than many critics thought, I will acknowledge there were way too many heavy handed moments. Most of them involved Dana, Nick’s teenage daughter in storylines that made it seem that not only had Gordon and Gansa learned nothing from Kim Bauer, but were doubling down on the worst aspects of Day 2. And the plot which ended up with Walden being killed was pretty ludicrous. But the larger storyline — that Brody was serving so many masters that he was no longer sure he could handle it — was still very powerful. And the overarching plot of Walden trying to use Brody for his own political gains much the same way as Abu Nazir was was particularly intriguing.
Still, I think it’s safe to say that every fan of Homeland was relieved when Brody was killed off in the season 3 finale. Thanks to the decision to end this arc, the show was able to go in directions that no one would’ve thought possible, certainly not me. In order to explain these arcs and why they worked so well, in the next article I will discuss the two characters who, with the exception of Carrie and Saul, lasted the longest on Homeland and what their characters brought to the stories that would follow.