It's late December, which for the last few years has been the time for my annual Dexter write-up. That's not going to happen this year or, I suspect, any year in the future. If you've watched the last season of Dexter, you know why. If you haven't, do yourself a favor and avoid it. Watch Homeland instead! One of the biggest problems plaguing Dexter's sixth season was that it aired on the same channel, and back to back, with what is by now widely acknowledged as the best new show of the fall, if not all of 2011. The contrast between the two shows only served to highlight the fact that Dexter is over, and Homeland is where it's at.
The basic premise--CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) believes that rescued American POW Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) has been turned by his captors and is part of a planned attack on US soil--is fairly well known, but Homeland is nevertheless hard to talk about as a piece of storytelling because it takes its story through so many twists and turns over the course of a mere twelve hours. The season's opening episodes establish what seems like a framework for the rest of the story: Carrie has (illegally) placed hidden cameras and microphones in Brody's house (it's a little galling to refer to a female character by her first name and a male character by his surname, but hardly anybody on the show, not even his friends and family, calls Brody Nicholas) through which she searches for proof of his terrorist affiliations while observing his halting reintegration into his old life, and a family who have lived the last eight years of their lives without him.
These episodes establish Homeland as a sort of show-within-a-show, an espionage thriller coating surrounding a family drama interior. The latter, incidentally, is one of the few shows on TV to use nudity and sex in an intelligent way that advances our understanding of the characters, an effective counterpoint--and challenge--to Game of Thrones's sexposition. Brody's disastrous attempts at sex with his wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin) when he first returns home are graphically depicted--in one scene, she tries to seduce him only for him to become visibly distressed, then throw her on the bed and thrust into her for a few seconds, rolling away while the camera remains trained on her face, as it crumples with the realization that her husband has just used her as an aid to masturbation; in another, he rejects her renewed advances and instead masturbates in front of her, and an initially game Jessica slumps further and further as it becomes clear that she might as well not be in the room. The dysfunction and emotional sterility of these encounters drive home both the psychological damage that Brody has suffered and the gulf between him and his wife. Both are sharply contrasted with our first introduction to Jessica, in which she has enthusiastic, deeply affectionate sex with the lover she's taken in Brody's absence (who is also Brody's best friend), in the warm afterglow of which she receives the news that Brody is coming home, and with Brody's more intimate sex scenes, later in the season, with Carrie--whom the show positions from the outset as someone who understands his experiences because she's had similar ones, and has been similarly damaged by them--and act as a shorthand to our understanding of all three characters. (All that said, it is no doubt telling that Baccarin is topless in most of her sex scenes, while Danes is not.)
One could easily have crafted a twelve-episode season out of this scenario--the Brodys struggling to become a family again as Carrie watches, half embarrassed and half fascinated, gleaning clues to Brody's true affiliation--without wanting for interesting events, so it comes as something of a shock when Homeland overturns it after only a few episodes. Carrie's surveillance equipment is removed; Brody learns about Jessica's affair and leaves home; Carrie's pursuit of the master terrorist Abu Nazir heats up and she becomes part of a CIA task force pursuing him, her conviction that he and Brody are allies taking a back seat to more concrete intelligence. Homeland is characterized by these lightning-quick shifts in its storytelling. After she loses her insider perspective on Brody's life, Carrie strikes up a friendship with him, pretending to be a sympathetic ear, and this quickly turns into an affair. Again, we might have expected the show to draw this story out for the rest of the season, with Brody's realization that Carrie suspects him of being a terrorist (and Carrie's realization that she has genuine feelings for Brody) coming in episode 10 or 11. Instead, the show moves through all of these beats in a single hour, and remarkably, does so without feeling rushed and without shortchanging either plot or characters. Which is the season in a nutshell--a complicated, multi-stranded story with many different personalities and moving parts that constantly delivers shocking moments while building up towards a thrilling finale, and does all this so elegantly that it's easy to forget just what an incredible accomplishment it is.
What grounds Homeland through all the twists and turns of its plot are its central duo, Carrie and Brody, two of the most complicated and fascinating characters to grace a television screen this year. I've grown quite tired, in recent years, of the fashion for "unsympathetic characters," which too often feels like an excuse for throwing melodramatic, over the top bad behavior at the screen and treating it like high drama (while decrying viewers who recoil from it as children who can't cope and are only looking for shining heroes). Carrie and Brody are something much rarer and more satisfying--they're deeply sympathetic people who do awful things for reasons that are depressingly mundane and understandable.
Carrie is smart, determined, and very good at her job, but her confidence leads her to reckless, heedless behavior, a profound impatience with anyone who doubts her, and a conviction that any action, no matter how hurtful, that she takes in pursuit of that truth (her illegal surveillance of the Brodys being but a mild example) is ultimately justified. Underpinning all of this the fact that Carrie suffers from bipolar disorder, which she self-medicates and has concealed from her employers in order to keep her security clearance. I don't have enough real-life experience with mental illness to know how accurate Carrie is as a depiction of a bipolar person, but she feels real, and the show's treatment of her is respectful and compassionate without losing sight of the damage Carrie does, to others and to herself. Homeland never suggests that Carrie's behavior is justified or mitigated by her illness, but it also doesn't allow us to dismiss her because of it. In the season's early episodes, Carrie's demeanor verges on manic; her utter conviction that Brody is a terrorist, on irrationality (though all without obscuring the fact that she is very good at her job). Later in the season, a head injury throws Carrie's brain chemistry out of alignment, and we get a glimpse at full-on crazy Carrie. After the initial shock, it's easy to see where the two states shade into one another, and the full tragedy of Carrie's situation becomes apparent--for a person whose job requires them to make connections, spot patterns, and rely on their intuition to suffer from an illness that renders their intellect and confidence unreliable. What the end of the season reveals, however, even as Carrie and the people around her become more doubtful of her abilities, is that she was always right--even in the grips of madness, she was making connections that no one else could see, and doing so despite the growing cost to herself, as her illness is revealed and she loses her job. So a person who starts out the season profoundly off-putting becomes deeply heroic without amending their behavior. Despite, in fact, growing more unattractive as they sink into their worst traits (Danes has taken some ribbing for Carrie's "ugly cry" face, but her work as Carrie loses her grip on sanity is the highlight of an all-around riveting performance).
What's most interesting about all this is, of course, the choice to make Carrie a woman. Insanity, and particularly the kind of irrational, hysterical insanity that Carrie demonstrates towards the end of the season, is often linked with women and used to dismiss them and their opinions. So much so, in fact, that perfectly sane women will work hard to suppress anger and high emotion, no matter how justified, knowing that these are often used as "evidence" of their irrationality. And yet Homeland gives us a heroine who is irrational, who is not in control of her emotions. What's more, it gives us a heroine who is tripped up by her heart and her sexuality. The beats of Carrie's relationship with Brody--which begins as a calculated maneuver and grows into genuine feelings that she recognizes too late--are familiar from a million romantic melodramas. Later in the season, Carrie pathetically yearns for Brody even as he reconciles with Jessica, and is then punished for their relationship when he uses it to discredit her with the CIA. Homeland never goes so far as to suggest that Carrie is persecuted for her gender (though it is telling that most of her professional confrontations are with type A men who obviously resent having to listen to her input, while many of her professional achievements are the result of gaining the trust or sympathy of women--the paid consort of a Saudi prince, the wife of one of Brody's fellow Marines, the wife of a recalcitrant imam, Brody's teenage daughter). What it does instead is create a character who revels in just about every cliché of the pathetic, irrational, emotionally driven woman, and makes her into a hero, who is very good at her job and who, by the end of the season, saves a lot of lives and is the only person willing to see the truth about Brody.
Brody's character arc, meanwhile, takes the opposite journey. At the beginning of the season, it's hard not to pity him, not just for his ordeals in captivity but for the difficult welcome that greets him at home, and for the near-total lack of support he receives from his superiors, who seem eager to exploit him as a propaganda tool (though this part of the story strains credulity--I know that the lack of adequate support services for returning American soldiers is a serious issue, but is it really likely that a man who spent eight years in brutal captivity would not even receive counseling for post-traumatic stress?). Lewis is an actor who knows how to elicit sympathy without being showily damaged or pitiable, and it's impossible not to want good things for Brody, and thus to hope that Carrie is wrong about him. Which puts us into conflict with ourselves, because as viewers of Homeland we know that for Carrie to be proven wrong would be a bit of damp squib. Still, when, at the season's midpoint, Homeland seems to confirm that Brody is innocent, it's hard not to feel a bit of relief. Which is of course the perfect moment for the show to pull the rug out from under us yet again. The brilliance of Danes's performance is that she is so demonstrative that we think we know everything about her, even as the true depths of her character, and her dedication, remain hidden. Lewis does something similar with very different tools. He's so reserved about such obviously hurtful things--his wife's affair, his children's estrangement from him, his government's exploitative attitude towards him--that we think we know what's going on beneath the surface. The truth is that we have no idea.
Just as Carrie embodies a stereotype of damaged, hysterical femininity that belies her strengths, Brody performs a type of hyper-masculinity that conceals not just the extent to which he has been emotionally compromised by his captivity--during which, as we learn, he became attached to Nazir, who showed him kindness, a part of his household and tutor to his young son (he also converted to Islam, a potential pitfall that Homeland is clearly aware of and manages to sidestep by separating Brody's religious belief from his political ones, but which also stresses the ways in which he's rejected the all-American stereotype)--but also a shocking cruelty. Homeland gives us some justification for Brody's choice to become a terrorist--when the boy he taught and grew to love was killed by an American drone attack, he swore revenge--but the truth is that blowing yourself up is so irrational an act that no rational reason can truly explain it. This in itself is not a problem--the very fact that what Brody is doing is inexplicable justifies Homeland's failure to explain it. But the smaller acts of cruelty that Brody performs as he prepares for his attack--the lies he tells his family and the manipulations he performs on them, and even worse, the way he steps back into the role of loving husband and father in the full knowledge that he is about to kill himself and destroy his family's lives--are hard to fathom.
Brody's greatest moment of hypocrisy comes at the end of the season when he meets Carrie for the last time and berates her for coming to his house, half-deranged, and confronting his daughter Dana (Morgan Saylor, who starts out as a typical annoying teen and becomes the season's breakout character) with the information that her father is a terrorist, in the hopes that Dana can contact Brody and dissuade him from going through with his plan. "You broke into my house. You terrified my daughter. She's sixteen years old, by the way. Sixteen." What Brody knows and Carrie doesn't is that her plan worked. Carrie not only saved the lives of Brody and his would-be victims, but she saved Dana--for the time being--from the shame and horror of living the rest of her life as a terrorist's daughter, the fate to which her now so-concerned father was willing to subject her to. Carrie is so steeped in self-doubt at this point that she accepts Brody's censure, and Brody takes advantage of that to grind her even further into the ground--all in the service of his mission.
And yet for all that, it's impossible to hate Brody entirely. We know that he loves his family, that for all that what he's doing is evil, he has non-evil reasons for doing it, and that he is genuinely conflicted about his choices. I was talking up Homeland online a few weeks ago and someone replied that their hesitance about picking it up was rooted in the concern that "no possible outcome would really please me: either that the female lead is CRAZY or that the convert to Islam is a TERRORIST." As I predicted at the time, what the show has actually revealed is that the truth is both and neither. Carrie is crazy. Brody is a terrorist. But both are more complicated, and more sympathetic, than these one-word descriptions imply. There's a hidden center to both characters--the line between who Carrie is and what her disease makes of her, the justifications that Brody gives himself for his terrible acts--that makes them more fascinating, and more human, than I could ever have expected. At the end of the first season, Brody and Carrie are irretrievably opposed to one another--one's success will inevitably mean the other's failure, and probably their complete destruction. It's a testament to how well Homeland has constructed and taught us to love both characters that it is impossible to know who to root for.
There is a danger, however, in focusing too much on Carrie and Brody--it can lead one to forget the fact that Homeland is a series about important, timely issues, and to ignore the question of how it handles them. Homeland was created by Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon (based on the Israeli series Chatufim), best-known for executive-producing 24, and the series often feels not only like penance for that reactionary, torture-happy show, but as a deliberate response to it. Some of Homeland's plot points seem lifted from Gansa and Howard's earlier show, but with a twist that thumbs 24's nose in its simplistic assumptions. A mid-season plotline involves a possible associate of Nazir's, a Saudi-born academic, whose white, American girlfriend turns out to be the actual terrorist. This recalls Marie Warner from 24's second season, but where her story ended with her sister sadly telling their father that there is no possible explanation for Marie's decision to become a terrorist, and with the show concluding that she is simply evil, Homeland's analogue, Aileen, turns out to have painfully mundane reasons for her actions. Over the course of a long road trip with Carrie's mentor and sole ally Saul (Mandy Patinkin, in a performance that is a revelation, not least because it's a rare instance of a character whose Jewishness is neither downplayed--Saul looks more like a rabbi than a CIA agent, and one almost expects to see the fringes of his prayer shawl peeking out from under his shirt--nor the sum of who he is), Aileen first retreats behind sullen superiority, then slowly reveals that it was really anger at her father's racism, and sympathy for her Saudi boyfriend's impoverished background, that led her on a path that has destroyed both their lives.
Later in the season, Carrie tries to secure the cooperation of a Saudi diplomat who has been helping Nazir by threatening his children. This was a familiar ploy from 24--one of the most shocking moments in the first season involved Jack Bauer killing a terror suspect's child, then revealing, once the man had broken, that the death was a fake. What Carrie does is at the same time more civilized and more cruel. She threatens to have the diplomat's daughter, a promising student at an Ivy League university, deported and made unwelcome at all Western institutes of learning: "We would make sure that she had no choice but to go back to Saudi Arabia, and get fat and wear a burka for the rest of her miserable life." Even when it's not deliberately recalling 24 (though I dropped out of that show after two seasons so it's possible there are other references I've missed) Homeland repeatedly challenges its ethos--that people are either good guys or terrorists, that torture is not just an effective means of getting information but the best, that terrorists are an all-knowning, all-seeing menace who have penetrated to the very heart of Western civilization, lying in wait for the moment when their triumph will be at hand.
This is gratifying as far as it goes, but it also has the effect of making Homeland seem a little schematic, and worse, of its having little to say besides that counterpoint to 24. When one considers how much of American entertainment in the last five years has concerned itself with doing just that and how uniform those responses have been--all hitting beats quite similar to Homeland's, most notably pointing the ultimate finger of blame at shady American politicians and their strong-arm tactics in the Middle East--it's hard not to feel that Homeland's distinction is not in what it says but in the fact that people are actually listening. It is an undeniable hit after years in which film and TV dealing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the War on Terror, in a less than entirely gung ho way have failed to find audiences. Which may mean that its points are landing on some ears for the very first time, and that is no doubt a worthwhile thing. But for those of us to whom its arguments are not new, Homeland--for all that it is an excellent story and a truly magnificent character piece--seems to have very little to say about terrorism, the US's involvement in the Middle East, and global politics.
Perhaps it's asking too much, at the end of such a thrilling and successful season that got so much right on the plot and character front, for a show to also have a meaningful and original statement. What I'm thinking of, however, is Homeland's longevity. With the example of Dexter before me it's impossible not to be aware that brilliant series often devolve into terrible ones, and that this is a particular danger for shows that allow themselves to become consumed by a story, or a character arc, without a strong awareness of what they are actually about. Homeland's first season ends as a chapter, not a complete story. Carrie has lost her job, her reputation, and her confidence in her abilities, and discovers a concrete piece of evidence linking Brody to Nazir's son just as she's drifting into unconsciousness, about to undergo electroconvulsive therapy. Brody has failed in his mission but has convinced Nazir that his burgeoning political career is an opportunity to sow even greater mayhem. This is clearly just the middle of the story, and assuming that the writers can maintain their high standard of quality, the second season will probably be just as satisfying as the first. But after that? Will I be sitting here in five years' time, lamenting how far Homeland has fallen at the end of its sixth season? Maybe that doesn't matter--most TV series die too soon or too late, after all--but I'd like Homeland to have a long, successful life, and in order to do that, it has to figure out what it wants to say.