The Showtime series Homeland, which returns for its second season on October 1st has little to recommend it at first to left-wing viewers. A drama whose main characters are a US Marine who was “turned” by al-Qaeda after eight years in captivity and the CIA agent who attempts to find out the truth about him, fits well within mainstream discourses of terrorism and imperialism. That it is based on an Israeli miniseries made this Marxist TV junkie doubly suspicious.
Yet there are rewards for watching the show. Being on a subscription channel, the writing and characters are several cuts above what you will find from network or cable series. Damian Lewis as Sgt. Nicholas Brady, the Marine and al-Qaeda operative, makes the tensions in his character come very much alive. In the first season, there were scenes of real drama as he fought between the love he has for his family and the convert’s zeal to bring down the US government in a terroristic fashion. Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, the CIA agent who is onto Brody, plays perfectly her obsession with Brody that bleeds over into insanity.
In the first season, Brody successfully played the role of a returned American hero to win access to the warmongering Vice President William Walden’s inner circle. Now as the second season starts, the drama is likely to focus on Brody using Walden’s presidential campaign and his own campaign for Congress as a means to carry out the desires of his sinister al-Qaeda handler, Abu Nazir.
There is much in the series to remind one of The Manchurian Candidate, the 1959 novel by Richard Cordon, later made into a classic thriller starring Frank Sinatra. In The Manchurian Candidate, Sgt. Raymond Shaw is captured during the Korean War and brainwashed by the Soviet Union and China. After being made to kill his comrades, he is returned to the U.S. as a sleeper agent who is well placed to manipulate American politics for the USSR.
Shaw’s stepfather, the fiercely anti-Communist Sen. Joseph Iselin, is the “Manchurian candidate” of the novel’s name. Controlled by his domineering wife, in fact a KGB agent, his rise as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate is part of a Soviet plot to generate mass hysteria that will serve to overturn the U.S. government from within.
As a novel and film, The Manchurian Candidate contains a not-very-thinly-veiled message about McCarthyism. Iselin, representing Sen. Joseph McCarthy, is actually a dupe for Soviet interests rather than an effective counter to them. Historically, McCarthyism was an incredibly effective campaign of fear that succeeded in smashing left-wing radicalism not only in the media, as has been recognized, but more significantly in organized labor.
In the world of The Manchurian Candidate, however, McCarthyism is a mistaken idea that opens the door to Communism by generating hysteria and power-hungry politicians who can take advantage of it. The novel and film assumed the same basic premise as McCarthy – that the United States had to be defended against Soviet infiltration. This liberal anticommunism merely disputed his strategy for doing so.
Much the same thing might be said about Homeland, with the threat to the United States displaced from Russia to the Middle East. The threat posed to the U.S. here comes from a supposedly small, but real, group of Islamic extremists that have infiltrated into American society. This is the global binary of the “war on terror” at work, a logic shared by liberals and conservatives. While conservatives may rant about an aide to Hillary Clinton being an agent of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood or a “ground zero mosque,” liberals downplay overtly anti-Muslim racism. But the result is the same: widespread deportation of Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrants, FBI and police profiling of Muslim students, imprisonment of Americans like Tarek Mehanna, and extra-judicial assassination of US citizens like Anwar al-Awlaki and his 14-year old son. These have not changed from Bush to Obama.
It would probably be interesting to compare Homeland to another show that takes the GWoT as its subject – the long-running Fox series 24. There is probably no better representation of Bush-era American imperialism in popular culture than Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer, a veritable cowboy who blows lots of things up, swears and complains about bleeding-heart laws which prevent him from torturing terror suspects.
In contrast, Homeland’s Carrie Mathison might be emblematic of the face of the war on terror during the Obama era. A strong-willed, independent woman whose battles with bipolar disorder we are allowed to see up close, she is haunted by the fact that she “missed something” ten years ago – which led to the tragedy of 9/11. She is driven like no one else in the service of the American government, but sensitive to the culture and politics of the Middle East, as well as to people who come from there – we see her covering her head as she enters a mosque, and browbeating her FBI colleagues into removing their shoes as is custom. Hers is a face of “friendly imperialism” – one who works with people rather than against them to defend the United States.
Homeland, with its hushed conversations in darkened rooms, its spooky jazz soundtrack and artsy intro sequence, tries to be – and is – a much better show than 24. This is not only because it has much better acting and writing. Even at the level of the basic plot, Homeland is much better as a show because the politics of liberal imperialism, while they are equally as deadly in real life, allow more complexity in the realm of culture.
Firstly, this is because it happens to be more true to life. The world of espionage is far more realistically depicted by the cerebral novels of John Le Carré – where men and women live and are likely to die in the service of their country behind a desk – than by the James Bond movies, with all their explosions, one-dimensional villains and celebrations of imperial masculinity. Homeland is more in the vein of Le Carré, 24 in the vein of Bond.
Liberal imperialism also allows us to glimpse a facet of US intelligence operations that have been hidden by 24 and the rest of the war-on-terror industry, which glorifies the single-minded pursuit of justice by manly men like Jack Bauer and the Navy Seals who killed Osama bin Laden. In the world of Homeland, CIA operatives such as Carrie and her mentor, Saul Berenson, regard their skills as somewhat of a craft. They are jealously proud of what secrets they are able to discover, and deeply resent the intrusion of the overtly political into their trade by such men as the Vice President and Carrie’s boss, the director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center.
Being at the front lines, they may even have more sympathy for their opposite numbers in al-Qaeda than they do for their own bosses – as Carrie does for Brody. We also see Saul, without prompting and in complete sincerity, saying Kaddish for an al-Qaeda operative who commits suicide.
Homeland also does acknowledge atrocities that U.S. forces have carried out in the Middle East. These atrocities are, of course, regarded as tragic accidents in the course of pursuing a policy that is basically sound, rather than the horrors virtually guaranteed by the global system of imperialism. Along the way, it does acknowledge the repression that has taken place against Muslim communities in the United States – but once again, these are mistakes in a policy that can be adjusted rather than a necessary consequence of anti-terrorism efforts.
One side effect of the show’s liberal imperialist viewpoint is the implicit acknowledgement that Middle Eastern people may have reason to turn to the desperate methods of terrorism in order to retaliate against the United States. Of course, once again their agency is removed by showing them to be manipulated by al-Qaeda operatives.
However, this is definitely a step up from the typical media discourse that portrays terrorism as an inconceivable, incomprehensible violent byproduct of a perennially backward Muslim society. In one brilliant scene, Carrie asks Brody why he has become a Muslim after being held captive and tortured in the name of Islam. “If you spent eight years in the dark, you might turn to religion for comfort,” Brody says to her. “But the King James Bible was not available!”
Brody is one of the most well rounded characters on American TV today. We see the tension between his outward life as a returned soldier and aspiring politician and his inner life as a convert to Islam come alive in quite dynamic ways. It would have been easy to make a character like Brody a completely cynical manipulator of his family and the American people. Instead, his love for his wife (played by Morena Baccharin) and children is sincere. His desire to keep them safe gets in the way of jihad several times. Just like the thousands of returned soldiers who are not al-Qaeda operatives, he struggles to readjust to his life at home. It was a great strength of the first season that it did not reveal his real aims all at once, but in small doses through flashbacks across different episodes. His conversion to radical Islamism is depicted in a sympathetic and realistic way. He questions his new beliefs on many different occasions.
Of course, on the other hand, the fact that Brody, the only prominent Muslim character on American TV, is both a terrorist and a white, American military veteran is a particularly bizarre emenation of liberal Islamophobia that combines the stereotypes of “bad Muslims” as backward terrorists and “good Muslims” as normal, upright, Western and respectable (I owe this point to my comrade Laura Durkay).
Homeland is much more thoughtful about the politics of the war on terror than the vast majority of TV series and movies with similar subject matter. Viewers will benefit from watching it – as long as they keep in mind its political limits.