Airing on Sunday nights is a new TV drama, Homeland, which explores the phenomenon of ‘sleeper cells’. Understandably, this show seeks to position itself as something other than an alarmist Bush-era program about terrorists. In this case the potential sleeper agent is a serving marine. Ultimately, however, this plot innovation is really just an elaborate attempt to provide a seemingly reasonable justification for the kind of security policies associated with previous shows like 24.
First off, a comment on the marketing of the show for Australian audiences: it’s awful. The attempt by the writers of Homeland to negotiate complex politics through a multi-layered plot-line has been erased completely from the Australian promotional material released by Channel 10. Here they are selling a complex psychological/political thriller as tawdry pap.
I’m not sure if this should be taken as a comment on the the likely viewing audience, but we can say at the very least that someone in Channel Ten’s marketing department seems to think we are not very clever. Clearly we are not judged ready for the sophisticated style of storytelling that have graced our TV screens (and laptops) thanks to US cable television over the last decade.
Then there’s the absence of ‘our’ Claire from these promotional ads. What’s with that? Claire Danes (‘ours’ via Ben Lee through the transitive properties of dating) is the lead actor in the show and gives an, at times, all-too-believable performance as Carrie Mathison, a driven CIA agent trying to hide a fragile mental state from her superiors. She is the only one who suspects the decorated marine is potentially a sleeper agent and the audience is left to wonder whether it is her autism spectrum-style super-focused insight that allows her to see what no one else can, or is it just paranoid delusions that sees conspiracies at every turn? If this sounds a little tasteless, it kind of is. The show walks a fine line between glorifying the tumultuous terrain of mental illness and patronizing portrayals of female hysteria.
The promos for the North American airing of the show are much better than the Australian ones and bring out the complex plot-lines you’ll encounter.
Rather than focusing solely on the grainy flashes of T&A and marital infidelity (keepin’ it classy Channel 10!) the Showtime promo highlights the more interesting inversion of traditional terror threat style plot structures. This is very much a literal case of the war on terror come home. It’s not a quite home-grown terror plot-line, as the potential threat comes from overseas. But neither is it a stereotypical person of ‘middle eastern appearance’. In distinguishing it from previous shows such as 24, Sleeper Cell, Alias et al, I shouldn’t overstate its innovation as it still relies on some tried and true terror threat tropes. In fact, an issue I take with Homeland is that it goes some way to reaffirming them.
An example of this is the attempt to capture the psychology of an individual ‘converting’ to extremism. A series of flashbacks to time spent as a captive in Iraq are used as a central plot device to flesh out the rugged moral landscape of the sleeper agent. These scenes portray the treatment experienced at the hands of his captors and, over time, a series of events that he experiences firsthand that provide him with an insight into the worldview of his captors. It is more than Stockholm Syndrome that drives the sleeper agent. Rather it is a process of moral reckoning that comes when faced with the unintended consequences of US foreign policy. From this we are meant to gain an insight into the personal and political processes that might propel even the most patriotic person into wanting to turn on their country. If it can happen to him it can happen to anyone. It’s real, Homeland would have us believe.
There are revealing insights to be had from these flashback scenes. Homeland makes a genuine attempt to humanise the lives of the Iraqis and tries to show that there are good people living normal lives in Iraq, good people whose lives are devastated by an extended period of occupation and wayward counter-insurgency operations. It portrays deep familial and social bonds that are ripped apart by the interventions of US foreign policy, in particular by a drone strike that was directed at insurgents but instead results in the deaths of many innocents. In this respect, Homeland demonstrates strong left/progressive credentials, critical of US foreign policy.
Despite this seeming willingness to explore the ambiguities of global politics, the grey areas beyond good and evil, Homeland features a small numbers of identifiably bad guys. Such bad guys are figures whose ill-intentions and desire for murder and destruction exist separately of the impact of the tragic events portrayed in the series. This is the kicker. They were seemingly born evil and operate according to a moral equation that would be satisfied only by the blood of the US and its allies. These bad guys are pivotal in the process of converting good Iraqis and good Americans to their evil cause and they manipulate the pain and anguish stemming from the misadventures of US foreign policy to convert unsuspecting good guys to their cause.
It is this sense the links with a show like 24 become more clear. Homeland shares production credits with the now concluded ratings bonanza that features sociopathic vigilante good guy Jack Bauer. 24 rose to prominence during the debates over the use of terrorism against suspected al-Qaeda members for its unapologetic portrayal of the effectiveness of the use of torture. The influence of the this show is hard to deny. The actions of the central protagonist of 24 were frequently cited by politicians and policy-makers to justify the use of torture. Even the dean of West Point military academy visited the set of 24 to personally request the producers reign in the torture scenes due to the detrimental effect it was having on students. The harm of a show like 24 is clear and extensive, and probably requires an entire post of its own.
The New Yorker has described Homeland as an antidote or an apology for 24 but I would tend to disagree given the show’s portrayal of the real danger posed by scheming bad guys. The insidious evil of the bad extremists is highlighted in the show as being wholly inadequately addressed by the traditional force structures of US military power, foreign intelligence, domestic intelligence and domestic law enforcement agencies. In fact terror plots such as that which drives the narrative of Homeland would entirely slip the net of all existing counter-terrorism measures were it not for the tendency Danes’ character Carrie Mathison to ignore constitutional guaranteed liberties. While Mathison is less of an overtly hyper-masculine one man army torture machine than Jack Bauer, the take away is the same as her approach to intelligence gathering and counter-terrorism is still necessarily vigilantic in order to solve the crime. Without her willingness to flout the law there would be major consequences for the safety and security of the United States.
As entertainment Homeland is great; as a generalised prescription for achieving security (which is predecessor 24 very much was) it is quite worrying. If 24 captured the Bush-era zeitgeist of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the equivalent from the Obama-era of secret drone strikes and quietly expanding powers of indefinite detention would be Homeland.