PAMELA AUCOIN: How HOMELAND validates the war on terror

Television
by Pamela AuCoin
January 26, 2012 6:05 AM
6 Comments
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[EDITOR'S NOTE: The following piece about Showtime's drama Homeland contains spoilers for season one. Read at your own risk.]

Pop culture serves to entertain and reinforce cultural norms. Television shows have always done this; studying them and their attitudes towards authority reveals a lot about America.

One of the most well-received shows of the season is Showtime’s Homeland. The series features a fine cast including Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin, and was originally an Israeli TV show. While that may not sound exactly like the BBC, Homeland still has the allure of the foreign-produced, which suggests a less provincial background.

The New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum praised Homeland as “an antidote to NBC’s 24,” accused of glorifying torture abroad. Homeland is presented as a show with more liberal values, one which portrays a more nuanced C.I.A that's less likely to promote bigotry against Muslims and enhanced interrogation techniques.

This has not been my viewing experience. While Homeland is undeniably compelling, it is not a balanced show that seems very interested in presenting American intelligence services honestly. Rather, it is very validating. The all-star, critic-proof cast somehow sublimates the very undemocratic policies the show suggests need to exist in order for the Claire Danes character to succeed in her mission.

Danes' Carrie Mathison is a complicated character with an undisclosed mood disorder that may actually help her do her job; after all, what kind of sane person could reconcile leading the double life of the spy? Yet her actions are quite horrifying; she installs bugs on the home of a terror suspect, which she has been ordered to take down before she can gather any meaningful intelligence. Isn’t that convenient? Our civil liberties are what come between sniffing out Al Qaeda operatives, who just won’t allow well-meaning if somewhat psychotic spies to do their jobs properly.

The fact Carrie does not lose her job is telling; ultimately, Homeland’s C.I.A. bends the rules a lot. Carrie’s boss Estes is supposedly the “smartest guy in Near East, by a mile,” yet is short-sighted enough to allow a Marine P.O.W., Nick Brody (Damian Lewis), to visit a former jailer who is kept locked up in an interrogation room. Naturally, Brody attacks his former torturer and possibly slips him a razor blade.

There are many other slip-ups by Carrie’s boss, and Carrie herself; she even has a brief affair with said Marine, who she suspects is a sleeper agent. She also manages to inadvertently let it slip she’s been spying on him. All of this suggests that the C.I.A. is a rather sloppy organisation, but such criticism is not blatant in Homeland. Carrie is the rogue genius who might become occaissionally unhinged, but her unorthodox methods are what is needed, and can lead to results.

But do they really? Not according to interrogation research, which has shown time and again that torture leads to bad intelligence and creates even more terrorists. Yet Homeland embraces torture as a viable tool to get information. The captured Al Qaeda operative is tortured in a C.I.A. cell which is freezing cold (he is undressed), and plays bursts of heavy metal music and blasts strobe lights to unnerve him sufficiently to name names. Just before he is about the provide them with specific information, he manages to commit suicide. The subtext is not missed by the viewer. Geneva conventions be damned, torture works, and an exceptional America must be allowed to practice it.

It is also telling that when innocent Muslim bystanders are shot and killed in a mosque by American law enforcement, the issue is not dealt with; it is understood this will not create an international or even domestic incident. They are Muslims, and therefore expendable; this seems to be the show’s message.

Viewers of the far superior British program The Sandbaggers would likely notice that Homeland is a far less sensitive program. The show’s eponymous “sandbaggers” are a group of British agents who would fit in well in John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. They are low-paid civil servants who engage in highly dangerous, and certainly morally ambiguous missions to keep the KGB in check. What was brilliant about this show (and, to some extent, Le Carre in general) was how it questioned the sanity of the Cold War and those who ordered these excursions in the first place. The agency bosses are portrayed as careerists, all too willing to send the sandbaggers on highly dangerous and morally ambiguous missions while they wine, dine, and dream of knighthood.

Expect no such honestly from Homeland, which can admit no such complexity. Nussbaum mentions the program’s “deep characterization.” Certainly, the writers take their time detailing some of Carrie’s family background and inability to sustain romantic relationships. This is to appease critics, who cannot simply criticize the characters as one-dimensional Jack Bauers or James Bonds. It hints at it to woo critics just enough, but it would never go so far as to suggest that there is something rotten about the State Department, whose endorsement of internationally illegal prisons abroad has served to encourage the growth of terror cells and damaged our authenticity when we criticize other nations like China, Syria, and Russia for not respecting civil liberties. The show recently won several Golden Globes, lending even more credibility to the show’s dangerous message that the war on terror can, and should, indulge our “dark side.”

Pamela AuCoin is a freelance journalist living in New York City. She has written investigative articles on the Manhattan real estate market for New York Living magazine, and currently teaches world history and occasionally German in the New York City Department of Education. 

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6 Comments

  • Roy | September 22, 2012 3:39 PMReply

    I think the show is a little more complex than the review here gives it credit to be. There is some typical Islamic fear-mongering, e.g. the way Brody is shown praying - it seems like the very fact that he has become Muslim is some kind of horror. There are also no 'positive' Muslim characters in the show (aside from Brody!)

    Nevertheless, I would say that Brody's character successfully represents the complexity of the so-called War on Terror and the current battle of West vs Islam. Despite being a sleeper terrorist, he is not at all painted as a villain and the source of his anti-governmental motivations - the killing of children by US forces - provides a powerful justification of Islam's anger against the West. Whilst Brody is undoubtedly a victim, having been captured by terrorists, tortured and turned, the battle raging within him could easily be described as representing the conscience of the West.

    Perhaps the programme maker's intentions will become clearer after the second series.

  • Saul Tannenbaum | January 29, 2012 1:28 PMReply

    I don't think Homeland is anywhere near as liberal as some suggest, but I come to that for very different reasons.

    One of the underlying themes of the season is Al Qaeda's ability to launch complex terrorist operations on American soil. They have multiple sleeper agents and, in fact, when one set of those agents abandons their mission, they're able to trail and kill one of them. They turn not one, but two American soldiers, and manage to use them to almost kill the Vice President even when security is on the highest alert. This is playing the fear card in the most egregious way.

    And look what happens to Carrie. She commits multiple felonies but it's not her law breaking that takes her down. Instead, she's sabotaged by an Al Qaeda agent who manipulates her superiors into discovering her manic state and violation of CIA secuity rules. So, bringing home those pieces of paper:bad. Breaking and entering: patriotic. But more to the point, it makes her a martyr, a victim not only of her own brain chemistry but of Al Qaeda.

    Let me be clear: I love this show. I can see how some can read it as a show with liberal values. But rather than it been a nuanced piece of storytelling into which one can read many things, I think it's just a mess, confused rather than complex. It has otherwise brilliant characters do stupid things (sure, the first thing you're gonna do after you discover a Saudi diplomat is doing work for Al Qaeda is drive out to his house and park across the street, and if you're that Saudi diplomat, your signal for a meeting is absolutely a sign on the front door of your mansion which will be so easy for the agent - living as an apparently homeless person of color - to observe every day). But the show is compelling and I hope they figure it out for Season 2.

  • Robert Farley | January 27, 2012 8:00 PMReply

    Setting aside the general claim about Homeland, which I think is mostly (but not entirely) wrong, I must say that as a committed and enthusiastic viewer of Sandbaggers I have not the faintest notion of how you came to your interpretation of Sandbaggers. There's no embedded critique of the Cold War in Sandbaggers; if anything, it makes the process of fighting the Cold War (as opposed to the ideological struggle) seem altogether fascinating.

  • Steve | January 27, 2012 6:14 PMReply

    "The New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum praised Homeland as “an antidote to NBC’s 24,”"

    I see two things wrong with this sentence:
    1. 24 aired on FOX, not NBC.
    2. The quotation marks imply a direct quote of Nussbaum. The station identification was erroneously inserted.

  • Elliott | January 26, 2012 12:27 PMReply

    I think the series was at its most compelling in the early episodes, before Carrie and Brody's perfunctory fling, and while everything was still in "The Conversation" mode. I appreciate the author's point, but think that the motivation of the show's writers is as morally complex as their subject matter. They want to show that, though there are some good eggs in our ranks, there's something of an equivalency in our (the CIA's) actions and those of the terrorists'. That's why they hinged the finale on a rather cheap dramatic device: a bombing of innocent schoolchildren perpetrated by a VP with Biden's looks and temperament, and Cheney's value system. They really do want to be the anti-"24." But the real anti-"24" would (to continue with the John Le Carre comparison) look something like the BBC version of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" with Alec Guinness -- and though I don't think you could've kept up the interest of an American audience with that, the producers of "Homeland," if they wanted to keep their politics and artistic vision "pure," would've taken a cue from the Brits and released this show as a miniseries. I hate to sound like I'm "occupying" PressPlay, but capitalism almost always trumps criticism.

  • V | January 26, 2012 11:39 AMReply

    I disagree with the author's interpretation of the show - it's as though she went on a fault-finding mission and shaped what she saw to conform to her arguments.

    In the episode in which innocent Muslim bystanders are killed in a mosque by law enforcement agents, it is indeed understood that the victims are not going to create an international or domestic incident. The fact that this is portrayed so cavalierly is an indictment on how American society currently sees Muslims. Yes, "Muslims are expendable" in this case, but it seemed to me that the show's writers are conveying such state of affairs in a negative light. Perhaps its done more subtly than the author would have preferred - though I'd rather watch a show that makes its points understatedly than one that is preachy, or beats me over the head with what it's trying to say.

    Additionally, I'm surprised the author does not see the agency bosses in Homeland (when compared to those in Sandbaggers) do not come across as careerists? David Estes was the clearest, most obvious example of incompetent careerism (probably the least subtle characterization in the entire show), and the entire Washington apparatus - all the way up to the Vice President, for crying out loud - were painted as little more than careerists and political opportunists, with little regard to their underlings, or the people their actions affected.

    I would also disagree that the show's core message is one that pushes the notion that civil liberties or the Geneva Convention are mere hindrances to intelligence agents and patriotic Americans doing their job and saving the day. I think such tensions are debated, not always explicitly, in just about every episode of the show (and in the end, what good did Carrie and everyone else's rule-breaking bring about? Not much).

    My take on this article is that the author is displeased because Homeland does not make its points more explicitly, or indeed share the absolutism of her political positions. Fair enough. But if I want that, I'll read a column on The Guardian. I'll take my TV with a bit more nuance.

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