It would be easy to write Showtime’s Homeland, which debuted to smashing ratings, off as a classic Cold War drama updated for the modern age; plucky, driven CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) believes the returning American hero, rescued prisoner of war, is not what he seems, turned by the
Russians Al Qaeda and preparing an attack against the United States. It’s a story about pursuing the case against all odds, including opposition from superiors (who is loyal? who is a double agent?) set against a background of tight camera angles and almost no music at all. Dark. Gritty. Artfully stark.
Except for two things.
The first is that it stars Damian Lewis, who excels in these kinds of ambiguous roles, as returning Marine Nicholas Brody. Lewis is not to everyone’s tastes, as numerous reviewers have made a point of mentioning in the wake of the show’s debut, but for those whom he suits, he is absolutely ideal in this role. His sparse, enigmatic acting allows viewers to project any number of motivations and realities onto him, which is key for the character. Brody walks a balancing line as someone read by a desperate public as a hero, a role model, a figure to admire, who also carries dark and unpleasant secrets that run far deeper than the savage scars on his torso.
The second is that Carrie is mentally ill. ‘I have a mood disorder,’ she says defiantly to her partner in crime. ‘It’s been under control since I was 22.’ This revelation is calculated to send viewers into a tailspin; in a drama that centers in part around her point of view and her perceptions, what is real? What is not? What is, as she puts it, ‘inside her head’? Viewers are forced to question the reality of the narrative because this is what they have been trained to do with mentally ill characters, but there’s an added layer involved in Brody’s reality, as well.
We see what she does not; the long hesitations that interrogators might read as reluctance to remember horrific events, weeks and months and years of abuse at the hands of his captors, cover up something else entirely. Brody lies. He has been lying from the very start, and it’s the images inside his head that provide the clues; perhaps Carrie isn’t so crazy. Perhaps she really does see something that other people can’t, driven by her past failures. Perhaps she really is on the verge of breaking through and unlocking the secret.
The show made sure to throw us a classic bone in the form of a scene that embodied every stereotype about mentally ill women, Carrie trying on top after top to find the slinkiest outfit she can before flinging herself out to a bar to pick up a man. She tells him she wears a ring to ‘weed out the people looking for relationships’ and his eyes light up as she says ‘you’re in control now,’ suggesting in no uncertain terms that they move things along. But then it subverts the trope when she’s distracted by the syncopated jazz that’s been treated as background music and she makes the connection, putting finger movements to rhythms to patterns, and vanishes into the night to triumphantly lay her discovery at the feet of her mentor.
There is a tremendous capacity here to challenge the preconceived notions of viewers as they are thrown into a funhouse where reality is shifting sand and their beliefs about the characters are at constant risk of being upended. Is Carrie driven and focused, able to see the patterns in things, because she’s an extremely talented agent living with the regret of her past failures? Or will readers buy into the red herring of her mental health condition and evaluate every action and every possible motive with that in mind? Has been Brody been turned? How many times and by whom? Is anyone on Homeland what they seem?
The very title is a play on reality, words, and preconceptions. It conjures up an image of the Department of Homeland Security, terrorists and threats and extrajudicial activities like placing surveillance on someone’s home without a warrant. But it’s also about the slipping, fractured homeland of the characters themselves; the Brody marriage and the mythology presented to the world, one of a loyal wife who ties a yellow ribbon around a tree and waits patiently for her husband for eight years, is a lie that fractures almost immediately in the pilot episode. It’s always a pleasure to see Morena Baccarin on the screen and she excels in the role of Jessica Brody, yet another character who is hiding secrets as she attempts to hold it together. Young Morgan Saylor in the role of Dana is also someone to watch, as both the actress and the character have deeper reserves to draw upon, I suspect.
Homeland is already being billed as ‘the 24 of the Obama era,’ a commentary for a changing society that feels very differently about terrorism, patriotism, loyalism, and the reach of the government than it did 10 years ago. I am hesitant to saddle the show with this burden although it is obviously part of the 24 legacy; it’s definitely a strong, ambiguous, and complex thriller that holds a mirror up to viewers, but it’s also walking a highwire that could potentially lead to a devastating fall. So much could go wrong so quickly with Homeland if it isn’t played perfectly, even with a stellar cast featuring stalwarts like Mandy Patinkin as Carrie’s supervisor Saul, a man clearly wrestling with some demons of his own.
Where Homeland will lead us is unclear. It could be a triumphant, aggressive social commentary with layers of meaning and complexity, or another fantastic opportunity thrown away. What is certain is that as Carrie tells us, ‘you’re in it now. You’re in it up to your fucking neck.’