Terrorists have backstories, and American politicians play dirty in the “war on terror”. These revelations are what propel the Showtime’s hit series, Homeland, seemingly setting it apart from other pop culture representations of post-9/11 America. “How do you tell a thriller in the post-9/11, post-Abu Ghraib, and post-Guantanamo world?” asks Howard Gordon, one of the show’s creators. “Homeland will challenge people’s notions of what a hero and a villain are. The show lives in that complexity and lives in that uncertainty.”
Throughout its first season, viewers wondered if the central character, Nick Brody, is a patriotic war hero who bravely survived eight years as a prisoner of war or if proximity to Islamic terrorists during his time in captivity turned him into one of them. How much of his behavior can be explained as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and how much of it is a signal of extreme radicalization? Los Angeles Times critic Mary McNamara wrote that Brody is “a whole new breed of lead character, neither antihero nor villain”. The show seems to unravel the central thesis of the Bush era’s “war on terror” that divided the world clearly into “us and them” (i.e., good versus evil). By creating a space for moral ambiguity in mainstream culture, the show has won critical acclaim and a devout viewership that includes the leader of the free world.
Talking to People magazine in December 2011, President Barack Obama confessed his television viewing habits veered towards the “darker” shows, with Homeland being a favorite. The media ran with the story. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote, “I was intrigued to learn that the president and I have the same favorite new TV series: Showtime’s spectacular Homeland set right here in the capital. One National Security Council official told me he wants to watch the series because ‘the boss’ loves it.” The rest of her column slammed Republicans for ending the war on Iraq as badly as they had started it. Homeland clearly resonates with liberal politicos.
Acting Out Ambiguities: War Hero or Terrorist?
The series begins with a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative, Carrie Mathison (played by Clare Danes), driving through the dusty, narrow streets of an ochre-colored town that stands in for Baghdad. She learns from a source that an American prisonwer of war (POW) has turned and now is working with a top commander for al-Qaeda named Abu Nazir, who is planning a terrorist attack on the United States. Ten months later, Carrie is back in Washington, DC, where her living room wall is a bulletin board covered with photos of and clippings about Abu Nazir. In 2001, she had missed the signs of an impending terrorist attack on the homeland; this time, Carrie is determined to uncover the plot. At a briefing, Carrie learns that a missing-in-action (MIA) American marine was found during a raid on an abandoned al-Qaeda compound.
Carrie becomes convinced that the POW is not a war hero but the terrorist her Iraqi source had warned her about. She confides in her CIA mentor, Saul (played by Mandy Patankin), who tells her that she needs to find evidence to back her improbable suspicions. Brody’s behavior is erratic—but is this not to be expected from someone who has been imprisoned and tortured for eight years? The only person who seems utterly convinced of his guilt is Carrie, who listens obsessively to jazz, lives on Chinese take out, drinks too much, sleeps around—and is bipolar.
Meanwhile, Brody is courted by the Vice President to be the symbol for his upcoming presidential campaign, whose slogan is “rededicating America to the war on terror.” The television series becomes a cat and mouse story, with Carrie compulsively searching for evidence that Brody has indeed turned. She decides to interact with him directly, prying for information, and they inevitably end up sleeping together, which inevitably means that she falls in love with him. Carrie then becomes a jazz-loving, heavy-drinking, bipolar CIA agent gone rogue who loves a marine-turned-al-Qaeda terrorist…who is just not that into her.
With each episode, we learn more of Brody’s story. He was captured, it turns out, in May 2003 by pro-Saddam loyalists who then traded him to al-Qaeda. Brody was held captive and brutally tortured. One prison guard pissed on his face. Another time, he was forced to beat his marine partner, Thomas Walker, to a pulp and thought that he had actually killed him. One day, Abu Nazir decides that Brody would make a good English tutor for his beloved son Issa. Brody is cleaned up and taken to Abu Nazir’s home. After a time, he bonds with the awkward boy, who flourishes under Brody’s tutelage—learning not just to speak and read English but to giggle and play like a normal kid. Brody meanwhile grows comfortable wearing a dishdasha and praying to Allah.
The bond between him and little Issa is shattered by a drone attack, aimed at assassinating Abu Nazir. Instead, the attack killed Issa and more than eighty of his other friends at their school. Brody and Abu Nazir work together to prepare Issa’s body for burial, bonding over their grief. As the series unfolds, we learn that the Vice President, Secretary of Defense, and the head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center had approved the drone attack knowing the children would be collateral damage.
“People say I was broken, I was brainwashed,” Brody explains in a confessional video as he prepares for his suicide-bombing mission. “People say I was turned into a terrorist, taught to hate my country. I love my country. What I am is a marine… As a marine, I swore an oath to defend the United States of America against enemies both foreign and domestic.” Brody has his sights on America’s domestic enemies—the Vice President and Secretary of Defense. Ultimately, what saves him from committing murder is his love for his daughter. So it is his basic humanity—loving Abu Nazir’s son—that turns him into a terrorist, and love of his own daughter, that keep him from committing mass murder.
Ken Tucker, a critic for Entertainment Weekly, paints Brody as a sympathetic protagonist. Brody is
"a patriot who feels his country, has committed war-crime atrocities and must be brought to justice, or at least exposed. His conversion to Islam and the sentimental attachment to Nazir’s son resulted in a deep radicalization: Brody is able to justify his actions not as terrorist acts, but as acts of moral and political protest. I can’t think of a TV character in a weekly series to whom we’ve ever been asked to relate to as a sympathetic protagonist whose politics are so extreme, which only deepens my admiration for the producers behind Homeland."
Homeland is loosely based on an Israeli television series, Hatufim, about three Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers captured during the Lebanese war. The producer of that show, Gideon Raff, worked with the producers of 24 to create Homeland. In an interview with Outfest, Raff explained,
"One of the reasons that Homeland strikes a chord is that the paranoia is so relevant nowadays when you don’t really know who the enemy is and if we are doing the right thing, if the ends justify the means. Just after we have gone through a war that didn’t justify anything and found out we were lied to or under false pretense, well at least a lot of the population thinks that, and suddenly there’s a show where a hero comes back home but is he a hero or not? I think it’s very relevant."
Clearly, by pointing to moral ambiguities in the “war on terror”, the show has struck a chord, especially among liberals. Alyssa Rosenberg, a blogger on ThinkProgress, celebrated news that Showtime had picked up the series for a second season: “The prospect of more of a show that’s smart and canny about Islam, what our fears of terrorism have lead us to do to ourselves and to other people, and is brave enough to have a fascinatingly unlikable female main character makes me extremely happy.” The writers do push the envelope—even sending Brody to Gettysburg on a family vacation where he tells the story of America’s Civil War heroes through the lens of his own experiences in Iraq. In the new twisted post 9/11, post-Cheney world, the show seems to say, it is possible to imagine a soldier emerging from eight years of torture to find salvation in Islam and purpose in becoming a terrorist avenging innocent victims of war crimes.
For these very reasons, some conservatives have blasted Homeland. Midway through the series, conservative blogger Kregg Janke chimed in on Big Hollywood, “For now, the show is an apolitical look at the War on Terror.” In the comment section, one of his readers dubbed the show a “PC fairytale." He continued, “What this series says, is pay no attention to the ugly reality that terrorism comes from non-White Muslim guys, and that women have no real role to play in it.” In the end, Janke concluded Homeland was “anti-American to the core.” Having watched the entire first season hoping the show might redeem itself, he announced, “I have no interest in continuing to watch a show that paints Islamic terrorists as the good guys and the Vice President and CIA as the bad guys.” A blogger on David Horowitz’s Frontpage concluded Homeland “confirmed that Hollywood is still not ready to take an unequivocal, pro-American stand against our jihadist enemy.”
While the conservative bloggers played a central role in rationalizing, justifying, and extending the “war on terror’s” rhetorical frame, many of America’s culture workers have famously struggled with 9/11. The moment has produced no Guernicas, no poems like Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” This war has no John Wayne, always fighting with honor, always getting the bad guys before the credits roll.
Television is this war’s medium. After all, most of the world saw 9/11 unfold live on their television sets. It was the journalists, the passersby speaking to reporters who told the story. It was that perfectly blue September sky on all our television screens, dissected with a horrible flash that is the enduring image of this war. It makes a certain sense that it is television that introduces the fissures into that war’s official narrative. But if Homeland is a measure, we have a long way to go in our reckoning.
24 in Liberal Drag?
New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley dubbed Homeland “a ‘24’ for grown-ups.” Indeed, the show is much more akin to 24 than a lot of its liberal fans might care to admit. The shows are conjoined twins, produced by Howard Gordon. The company behind the series is Fox21 Production, part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.
Media outlets controlled by Murdoch were staunch propagandists for Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld throughout the “war on terror.” Has Murdoch seen the light of a bad war-of-choice for all the wrong reasons? Hardly. He recognizes that while the show is provocative, it reinforces the basic outline of his political allies’ official narrative. Importantly, at a time when many openly criticize Bush’s handling of the “war on terror,” the show channels those critiques into political wastelands. The show seamlessly weaves together the war in Iraq with the battle against al-Qaeda, retaining the original myth (i.e., the “mushroom cloud”) woven by Cheney, Rice, Powell, and other officials in the lead up to the 2003 war on Iraq. Ultimately, viewers are persuaded to remain convinced that Islamic terrorism is an existential threat to the American way of life. Like Carrie, the crazy heroine, we must remain perpetually vigilante lest our lowered walls allow the enemy to “do it again.” Cheney’s forever war becomes embedded in liberal mainstream culture.
Homeland perpetuates the paranoia essential to maintaining the culture of securitization, a central feature of the Bush-Cheney “war on terror.” In a bipolar-induced rant, Carrie warns, “We have to code it, collide it, collapse it, contain it.” As viewers, we know that she is the only one who sees the truth and perceives the threat. What, ultimately, is the “it” that must be coded and contained? Terrorism. And in the world of Homeland, the only terrorists are Muslims, Arabs, and anyone who brushes up against them. Indeed, every Muslim and Arab in the entire first season of the show is somehow involved with terrorism. The biggest hint the show’s writers give us that Brody has turned is when they film him sneaking into the garage, bending in prayer, and uttering a perfectly enunciated, “Allah-o Akbar.”
The show rehearses some of the standard tropes of the Arab-as-terrorist genre. Aileen Morgan is a pretty blonde upper crust Princeton grad turned jihadi. Where did she go wrong? As a teenager, she lived in Saudi Arabia where she was exposed to the corruption of expatriate compound living. This made her hate her dad and all he represented, i.e. the United States of America. Peering beyond the compound walls, Aileen fell madly in love with a nice working-class Saudi boy. This childhood brush with inequity was like a gateway drug that led her to join the Peace Corps, then study in Jordan, and inevitably become the Saudi’s lover and a terrorist. Think Little Drummer Girl or Half Moon Street.
A Saudi diplomat, Zahrani, turns out to be a closeted gay whose out of control debt leads him to collaborate with Abu Nazir in return for payments to Swiss accounts. Trying to get Zahrani to turn, Carrie first reasons with him: “You’re obviously not a zealot. You don’t believe in radical Islam, you love the West.” As he remains unmoved, she threatens to expose compromising photos of him in Dupont Circle bathhouses. Go ahead, he scoffs at Carrie, my wives know I am gay and accept it. Ultimately, his Achilles’ heel turns out to be his daughter Janine. She is a sophomore at Yale, majoring in politics, who loves to spend long hours admiring Impressionist art at the Phillips Collection alongside her loving father. All this will be taken from her if Zahrani does not collaborate with the CIA. “We would deport her,” Carrie barks at the now frightened man, “and we would make sure she was not welcome in England or Germany or even the all-forgiving Scandinavia. We would make sure that she had no choice but to go back to Saudi Arabia and get fat and wear a burka for the rest of her miserable life.” If liberals think having an “unlikable” female lead is a feminist gesture, do not expect Homeland to provide any nuance when it comes to gender relations in the Arab/Muslim world.
In a pivotal scene, Mandy Patinkin’s Saul confronts the Vice President and CIA Counterterrorism Director about their war crimes. “Coercion, cruelty, outright torture. You gave the orders,” he spews, full of liberal rage. He chides them for compromising US national security with the subsequent cover up, threatening to expose them. These revelations in the New York Times would be the best recruitment tool for al-Qaeda since Abu Ghraib, he is told. “The world changed, Saul, right under your nose,” the top ranking CIA man tells him. “We’re about projecting American power now.” In this war, accountability for war crimes seems a luxury, honest and transparent governance a quaint relic of the past. Force is the language these terrorists understand.
In the end, that is the lesson Saul and Showtime subscribers learned. Homeland beautifully repackages the Bush-Cheney “war on terror” for liberal consumption. It does this so well; I will be tuning in for the second season.