Breaking: Showtime Series Not As Radically Critical of US Foreign Policy As Possible, Local Girl Bummed
This year’s Emmy voters seem pretty convinced that Homeland is the best show on television, and I wouldn’t put up much of an argument. It’s plotty and fast-paced and deftly shot and, yeah, phenomenally acted. Damien Lewis has been the major of my heart ever since Band of Brothers, and while it sort of pains me to watch my Dick Winters going all dark and twisty it sure does suit him. The permanently clenched jaw, the hellpit eyes, the kind of forearm veins you only get by maintaining a constant low-level rage stroke—it’s all kinda hot and kinda scary and totally, totally watchable. I even like Claire Danes’ weird bug-eyed scenery chewing:
(though that’s mostly because it’s just so refreshing to see a female character who’s smart and sharp and kind of hates everyone, not to mention a portrayal of mental illness that’s neither infantilizing nor played for laughs.)
So yeah, whatever, give them all the Emmys, I won’t stop you. But I’ve got a bigger bone to pick with the show, one that goes beyond its quality as an aesthetic object, one that can’t be patched over by the bizarrely rad faces its leads make from time to time.
I have a problem with what is basically the central feature of the show’s concept—that “an American POW has been turned,” and more specifically the motives for that defection. Towards the end of last season, we discovered that the real reason Brody, a Marine held prisoner by al-Qaeda for eight years, agreed to join forces with his former captors is the death in an of Issa, the son of al-Qaeda kingpin Abu Nazir. Issa’s a doe-eyed mocha sundae of a kid who Brody bonded with while teaching him English, and when Issa is killed in an American drone strike Brody vows to bring those responsible to justice, a commitment that spirals into his broader involvement in al-Qaeda’s operations on U.S. soil. My issue isn’t that the motivation isn’t believable, although is sort of isn’t—he SERIOUSLY decides to betray his country and work for the EXACT SAME GUY who tortured him for MONTHS solely because a kid he’s known for like six weeks gets killed? Give me several breaks. And it’s not that the whole Good Man Goes to War FOR ZE KINDER thing is an old trope, although it is (see, e.g., Man on Fire; Taken; Taken 2; oh, right, that Doctor Who episode “A Good Man Goes to War”). It’s not any of that! My deal with this show is that making the reason for Brody’s turncoating personal and broadly sentimental depoliticizes what could have been a profoundly political narrative. With the positioning of a cute dead kid at the locus of its main character’s desertion, what could have been a complicated interrogation of the ethical validity of patriotism in an increasingly transnational world dissipates into simple melodrama. The Issa plot point transmutes political violence into emotional violence, and with that Brody becomes just another Shakespearean papa bear who will rewardeth us as we hath served him.
This is not to say that Homeland isn’t a more honest portrayal of the American national security apparatus and the realities of our presence abroad than, say, 24. It is. And unlike maybe 95% of images of “terrorists” that we produce and consume, at least in Homeland the people trying to take down the U.S. government have names and humanity and a narrative function other than “facilitators of the wanton violence that puts 12-year-old butts in seats”. But still. For a show that started out with such promise of nuance and realism, it’s a shame that Homeland has thus far backed away from every opportunity to truly challenge American viewers. And I don’t just mean the Issa backstory. There’s also the collapsing of what is in reality a massive drone program into just one strike. There’s the attribution of responsibility for that attack not to a charismatic and rousing president but to a sneaky ex-CIA veep whose callow pronouncements on collateral damage clearly mark him as the show’s Big Bad. And, maybe most crucially, there’s the fact that Brody chose not to go through with his suicide attack, a development the show has now cemented in season 2 by making Brody a senator charged by Abu Nazir with killing ideas instead of men. In pulling its protagonist back from the edge of murdering innocents for his cause, Homeland enables us to continue sympathizing with Brody without feeling like, you know, a sympathizer.
Which is fucking frustrating! How much better would the show have been if it had gone the other way on those choices? If it had explored how the drone strike that radicalized Brody was only one of thousands ordered by a leader we could all see ourselves supporting? Or if it had built up a deeply appealing character in Brody, only to introduce through him a fundamentally ideological opposition to American power? Or—and seriously, if they had done this people would have lost. their. shit.—what if we had watched Brody blow himself (and a bunch of other Just Folks) to bits? If it had done even one of those things, Homeland could have become the first show to use television—the medium most frequently maligned as placatory and anodyne—in a truly destabilizing way. We need more truthful depictions of political violence because it is a force that shapes our world all the time, and yet we as Americans, far removed from the lives and deaths of those our wars affect, just really do not get it. At all. (For a recent example, how about our media’s obtusely baffled reactions to the protests following The Innocence of Muslims). I find Homeland so disappointing because it could have been a story like that, a necessary story, a story that could have pushed in past our pleasure centers and gotten its grimy little fingers into our thought. Instead, its creators chose to placate an antsy American audience that would generally prefer not to confront the reality of the crimes our government commits in our name. Instead of following the difficult questions it raises to their conclusion, Homeland backs off, allowing us to sit back and relax in the knowledge that we are not implicated in Brody’s anger, in Issa’s death, or in the deaths of this kid or these ones or this one.