My opinion of the show Homeland, which I’ve previously written about, varied dramatically across the second season, which ended with a bang last Sunday. My general assessment of the show’s politics has not changed – it was and remains the liberal side of 24, war-on-terror imperialism given a shave and some perfume for the Obama era.
Many spoilers lie ahead. If you haven’t seen the second season, you may want to stop reading.
One thing I was fairly pleased by was the termination of Brody’s “Manchurian candidate” status. They prolonged it a bit, but it was obvious from episode four with his arrest and interrogation by the CIA that he was never going to hold high office. They made him a Congressman, which is unlikely enough given his character, and thankfully they decided that was enough. I don’t think I could have continued watching the show if he had ascended into higher office. I have a certain tolerance for kitsch, but I have been extraordinarily generous to this show given its awful politics and Brody the vice-president would have certainly tipped the show over the edge.
In fact, season two passed without any major changes in our main characters, which I was pleasantly surprised by. In the case of Brody, I was afraid that he would be flipped back to “our side” and become unrealistically repentant. Fortunately, the season ends by showing him still a faithful Muslim, and still holding certain anti-American political beliefs which I’m guessing both the show’s creators and much of its audience find rather discomfiting in their reasonableness.
He showed himself to be a free agent when he participated directly in the assassination of VP Walden, and though I think this is left ambiguous, I’m pretty sure the episode which shows his conversation with Abu Nazir points to a role in the attack on t
he CIA in the finale. Of course he would deny this in front of Carrie – but the show’s writers are good enough that Brody doesn’t necessarily have to necessarily be on one side or the other. He can have strong feelings for Carrie while remain perfectly convinced an attack on the CIA is the right thing to do, and I’m not sure how much I would disagree with him given the character history.
While we’re on the subject, I thought this article by Laila al-Arian, a wonderful Palestinian-American journalist and activist (who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in DC) was pretty much spot on in terms of the show’s overall Islamophobic content. I do disagree with her a bit in that I think the characterization of Brody – I think the show allows for him having motivations that may have nothing to do with religion. That said, I do agree with Laila that Islam is the show’s “other,” if in a slightly more dynamic way than in 24 or Zero Dark Thirty, and that this justifies indefinite detention, racial profiling, and so on. I can’t say this enough times, so please don’t misunderstand me when I praise the show’s relative merits within its genre.
On the subject of Carrie I don’t have much to say, as she has not changed one bit that I can tell – she remains both insane and practically clairvoyant, a sort of demented Cassandra thrust into the war on terror. We saw her obsession with Brody retreat a bit, then come back full force, with all the gratuitous sex scenes that entails. One of the reasons I was particularly happy with the ending of this season was that it ruled out pretty definitively the idea of Carrie and Brody being “happy together” – as if they could even conceive of what happiness is. Though once again, they rolled out just enough string for us to see this as a possibility.
(While we’re on the subject, I don’t really care that much for Saturday Night Live, but this sketch taking on Homeland was AWESOME. “She’s downing pills with white wine… her eyes are pointing in five different directions… great, now she’s going into one of her jazz freakouts” (Estes). “David, she’s only violated my trust every time I gave it to her. Give me one good reason I shouldn’t trust her again” (Saul.)
If there was one character whose trajectory I find questionable in this series, it is that of the Brody family collectively. His son was never really a character to speak of, and Morena Baccharin remains the beautiful, tormented wife who finally jumps ship for Mike as we all knew she would, but Dana was the one who really had potential as a character, with her bond with Brody over his faith and her skepticism toward all things Washington.
Unfortunately the storyline with her and Finn Walden in which they kill a random working-class woman and then have their political connections cover it up for them got pretty cringe-inducing at times, and her guilt and naïveté never really came through in a coherent way to overcome that – the story just sort of meandered along and then was dropped, with the attack on the CIA forming a convenient deus ex machina to kill off Finn so it can’t be brought up again. I don’t see much room for any story left in the remaining Brodys now that the sergeant has departed.
I’m also concerned about the character of Saul a little bit. Throughout, he has been just barely believable as the only person with a conscience in the Agency (OK, Carrie has a conscience too, but she doesn’t let it get in the way of any major decisions, such as having sex with Brody, again). Saul’s Jewishness makes him into sort of the Old Testament prophet of the series, the sole moral voice crying in the desert of sin. He even has the thick beard and a voice that can go from gravelly to shrill in seconds to go along with it.
But to appropriate Spike Lee’s famous phrase, at a certain point he turns from the moral conscience of the show into the “magical Jew” who guides Carrie’s and everyone else’s behavior while shaking his head silently about their faults. Nevertheless, it seems that Saul may become at least the acting head of the Agency with the death of Estes and other bigwigs in the attack that ends this season, so I am interested to see if his moral qualms about the dirty business of American empire will be affected when he is in charge.
Some interesting politics are also thrown up in the course of the second season as well: we find out that both Abu Nazir and Roya Ahmad, Brody’s al-Qa’eda master and his handler respectively, are Palestinian refugees whose families fled the Nakba in 1948. I noted in my last article about Homeland that its original inspiration was the Israeli series Prisoners of War; it seems that show’s creators are also onboard as executive producers in our version. Israeli cinema and television have a long and storied liberal strain in their pro-genocide material that experts on the matter have called “shooting and crying,” which this show certainly owes a great deal to.
In any case, it is rare enough that the Nakba is mentioned in American media, and when it is, people are not bold enough to come out and say the Palestinians were chased from their country without a quick addendum being added about the Arab armies having told them to flee or the Mufti of Jerusalem’s collaboration with Hitler. I was shocked to find mention of 1948 not once, but twice or more in Homeland this season without any of these typical justifications – just sort of set alongside the attack that killed Isa, hinting that maybe those Muslims do have some kind of reason to turn to terror. Unfortunately this was not developed into anything at all, just left hanging there. Something that was clearly such a formative experience in the life of the show’s main nemesis you would have hoped for something a little more concrete, but I guess the Israeli origins of the show make it incredible enough that the Nakba was even mentioned.
While we’re on the subject of Abu Nazir: very, very sloppy, as Laila writes in the article I linked to above. This is not just limited to his long arm that commands a force equipped with helicopters and death squads in the mainland United States, although I spent a lot of time cursing at the screen for those. In the first episodes, we have him meeting with Hezbollah commanders – while later on in the season we have Carrie reminding him as she is his captive about a certain occasion in which his soldiers massacred a large number of Shia children.
Now, I am not an expert on the finer points of political Islam, nor do I expect the show’s writers to be. Nevertheless, a little bit of fact-checking might have made them aware that there is no love lost between Salafism (the puritanical Sunni strain of political Islam dominant in al-Qa’eda and such related groups, and presumably Nazir’s affiliation) and the Shia revivalism in Lebanon that finds its political expression in Hezbollah. Not to say that Sunni and Shia Islamists would categorically never work together, but I think it is quite unlikely a man who is known for sectarian killings of Shia children would ever find himself breaking bread with the leadership of Hezbollah unless they were planning on putting a bullet in his head.
These kind of moments don’t just make me cringe. They are an expression of the limits of the Homeland brand of liberal imperialism that we know all too well. It may play kissyface with “good Muslims,” but at a certain point the mask falls off and it becomes clear the show neither knows nor cares about Muslim people, which is pointed out all too well by the fact the writers apparently don’t care enough to get their facts straight on the inherent complexities of Middle Eastern society. The show can never rise above this fundamental limit, and I can pretty confidently predict these banalities will spell its demise.
Overall a good season. It skated pretty close to the edge sometimes, but held back. We’ll see how they do next year.