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Homeland Insecurity

March 18, 2012

The Showtime series Homeland, starring Damian Lewis as a US prisoner of war coming home following years of captivity, has been described as the best thing currently on UK television. It’s also been described, by me after I raced through the whole series in January, as “a NeoCon penis pump“. Here, without any spoilers past the first two episodes, is why.

The hook of the show is that Lewis’ marine sergeant Nicholas Brody may or may not have been recruited as an enemy agent during his time in captivity. At the end of the first episode we see him beating the face off a fellow prisoner and collapsing in a bellowing heap into the arms of his torturers. At the end of the second we see him performing a muslim prayer. An “is he, isn’t he?” pattern is established encouraging audiences to flip from one side to the other. Hero! Terrorist! Hero! Terrorist!

This central premise is brilliantly dramatic, yes, but also designed to provoke insecurity. While we’re all used to watching television shows predicated on mystery (who killed Laura Palmer?) or the success of a mission (every iteration of 24, which shares producers with Homeland) this is a series-long arc defined by doubt. Whatever the final truth of Lewis’ character, one definite outcome is that we feel anxious and mistrusting. We all become a little like Claire Danes’ fractured CIA heroine – desperate to do the right thing, barely able to trust her own mind, open to illegal methods to get it done.

In this way Homeland continues the work carried out by 24. Homeland was developed by Howard Gordon and Alex Ganza, who also produced on the long-running real time terror circus (although they’re far from the lunatic fringe of 24 producers, a territory militantly occupied by Joel Surnow.) I remember the first time I saw Jack Bauer resort to torture – threatening to force a rolled towel down the throat of a suspect before withdrawing it to turn the bastard inside out – I was shocked. The dynamic in the early series was ‘How far can Jack go and still be in the right?’ By the later series it had become ‘How badly will Jack fuck up the terrorists this time?’

The debate had moved on – and, dangerously, 24 played its part in normalising torture as a miltiary act. Forget the fact it’s still illegal – it’s on TV! “That our own administration borrowed ideas from 24 is such a tragedy,” said one its own stars, Janeane Garofalo. And now, with the collective debate having moved into even more depressing territory – a bill giving the US military the right to detain citizens indefinitely without trial was signed into law during the series’ initial run – so in Homeland tracking potential terrorists through illegal surveillance which mock the rights of citizens isn’t even a major point of drama. It happens almost immediately. It is our starting point.

At the same time, Homeland invites us to be openly xenophobic. Take that episode-closing prayer scene, where the sight of Lewis performing ritual ablutions, rolling out a prayer matt and speaking Arabic is deemed horrifying enough to serve as a climactic cliffhanger. Take a second to think about what you’re reviled at there. A white guy who’s converted to Islam? An American soldier who’s converted to Islam? Positing the two as incompatible creeds posits Islam, rather than terrorists or violence, as the enemy of America.

One defence of Homeland is that it’s just following the lead of its source material, the Isreali series Hatufim. “The shock value of seeing a returned Jewish Israeli soldier reciting a Muslim prayer would have been twice as intense” ponders Jonathan Freedland emptily in a vacant Guardian piece. Yes – except the hook of betrayal and conversion is an American invention. The original is a straight take on the already plenty controversial subject of Israeli/Palestinian prisoner exchanges and the struggles of settling back into regular life. (“The more I researched it, the more I understood how rich it was in drama,” says creator Gideon Raff, who also worked on the US version.) The poisonous sleeper agent storyline is one made just for the US – stroking fears and whispering of an invisible menace. Who is our enemy now Osama Bin Laden is dead? It could be anyone. It could be the very heart of us. Stay vigilant. Do whatever we must.

As a final kick in the balls, I object to the use that Homeland makes of the excellent Damian Lewis. Lewis is terrific and I’m very glad to see him headlining a successful show. But he comes with a very particular set of on-screen baggage. It’s not just that he’s most familiar from the World War Two series Band Of Brothers, giving him immediate credentials as an American hero. It’s that in that series Lewis played a real man, Major Dick Winters – and that through Band Of Brothers’ unique structure, featuring the testimony of surviving Easy Company members including Winters at the beginning of every episode, the actor and the man were bound to one another in a unique way. His role in Homeland doesn’t represent a heroic leading man playing against type – this is a something more, bringing the memory of a past conflict and the people who fought in it to bear on a slanted justification for American foreign policy.

Band Of Brothers was first broadcast two days before 9/11, an event which is the dividing line between its compassionate patriotism and the scared, insular justifications of 24 and Homeland. Ten years after those attacks, with the war on terror more directionless and open-ended than ever, Homefront fuels fear, fuels doubt, and posits a weakening of the self as America’s greatest enemy, a decade-old echo of the shameful “You’re either with us or against us” rhetoric. It’s a brilliant TV show, but it’s also the confused ravings of a troubled, fading power.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. admiralneck permalink
    March 18, 2012 8:25 pm

    I agree with everything you said (especially the Dick Winters thing; that bothered me greatly as well), and yet I still really enjoyed the show. It was the same mental disconnect I experienced while watching 24; this is poisonous stuff but I’ll just watch another to be sure. There are also problems with the occasionally clunky writing, and a dozen other little annoyances. But I finished it in almost no time & will watch the rest of it. I need a bath.

    • March 18, 2012 8:42 pm

      Totally agreed. I ‘hated’ it so much I watched the entire thing in 5 days. It’s also hard to know how much it’s adopted a position or is just reflecting a wider one (although whatever the truth, it’s a pretty depressing position).

      • admiralneck permalink
        March 18, 2012 9:03 pm

        There was an interview with Alex Ganza on the AV Club where he talked about how he was more liberal than Joel Surnow, then in the next breath he acted like the “prayer mat as possible indicator of terrorist sympathies” as if that was perfectly understandable. If that’s what counts as liberal thinking in TV, I’ll stay away, thank you very much.

  2. March 19, 2012 9:36 am

    One thing: I think it’s legitimate to find it shocking that a US soldier captured by Islamist terrorists and apparently tortured for eight years has converted to Islam – especially since he’s clearly going to some lengths to keep it secret from his family. It did show there was more to his time in captivity than we had learned.

    Also, I thought the moment of his conversion (the sunlight falling on the prayer room, etc) was shown in a rather beautiful way, and his moments of solitary prayer were shown as solemn and dignified.

    Otherwise largely agree with you.

    • March 19, 2012 11:51 am

      You’re right about the moment of conversion, and the dignity in prayer. And there are moments later in the series which show some further degree of sensitivity and intelligence about what prayer might have meant to Brody during his time in captivity.

      Whether it’s legitimate to be shocked – yes, but the show has deliberately constructed the situation in which that’s our instinctive reaction (the secrecy, the unspoken suggestion of what it might mean). It doesn’t invite us to understand his ordeal and the solace it might have offered, at that point. It’s illicit, and by extension dangerous. I don’t think it justifies the show’s relationship with Islam, it just reveals it.

  3. March 19, 2012 10:52 am

    I think my main problem with Homeland has been the deliberate misrepresentation of it by some of the media. Previews mentioned what a great and essential drama it was, implying that it had something important to say. It really doesn’t have anything to say about anything.

    It’s really just a solid burger and fries drama concerned with getting its characters from A to B, with a bit of ambiguity thrown in for good measure. Characterisation is paper thin, and some of the plot devices (the mugging in particular) are shoehorned in while any immediate potential for disrupting the drama is just conveniently ignored. The construction of it is shoddy and just plain lazy.

    Your point about the unease and insecurity sown by the show is well made. My contention is that this is more a product of Homeland’s roots as a dumb but polished looking drama than any well thought out intent on the part of its creators.

  4. March 19, 2012 11:57 am

    I guess that’s worth addressing – I don’t think the show is necessarily political by design, from what I’ve read from the producers. But the fact these are things it doesn’t feel the need to question or justify – the view of Islam, the abuse of rights – is maybe even more cause for concern.

  5. Ian permalink
    March 19, 2012 2:08 pm

    I have decided to start being more active on your blog, leaving insightful comments on your articles.

    I thought Homeland was good but could have done with more tits.

  6. Ms. Ahmad permalink
    April 16, 2012 3:53 pm

    My comment is that if you are going to portray a Muslim convert, then consider what sets him apart here in the context of Homeland’s location? Not the colour of his skin, not the linguistic other but actually his rolling out his mat, ablutions and getting ready for the Muslim prayer. They show him going through the ablutions and then standing for prayer…. and then they get it all wrong linguistically!

    For goodness sake how difficult is it to get someone who is Muslim or the “Imam” from the local mosque… since “imam” is a favoured word that comes up often enough to demonstrate the physical method and the key words at the start of the Muslim prayers which are universal (i.e all Muslims whether African, Arab,Turkish, English, Chinese, Russian, Spanish say the same thing in the same wording regardless). Even the Christian Lord’s Prayer remains in essence the same through time universally despite being tweaked by different denominations and being “modernised”. Muslim prayers or method however cannot be changed or tweaked because intrinsically words must be said only as given and in Arabic no matter who you are or which sect you belong to within Islam – which are over 73 sects, (main one’s being Sunni and Shia).

    Ref: Show on 16th April – We see Damien Lewis here in prayer with a little Arab boy who copies him in the actions, starting off with Allahu Akbar, folding his arms and then getting step 2 confused and here the script has the prayer words totally and foolishly wrong!

    This is unfortunate because wrong can lead to more trouble…when there are other “Muslims” watching the show … of various inclinations… some who will be offended and consider it a mockery or others who will pass it off as just stupid ignorant “unbelievers” and hypocrites who are trying to mess about, and, then the extremists who will react angrily as a mockery of the words of God because it is believed that these words said during prayers came as instructions from Archangel Gabriel who brought them from God/Allah directly.

    Authenticity of content and value is also degraded where should remarkably be spot on.

    We live in techno savvy times where information is at one’s finger tips so it just doesn’t behove the producers, their researchers and the editors to get it so wrong audio-visually. Xenophobia, ignorance compounded and other elements being components of the discussions above but prayer method is what sets Islam apart from other religions. Here Islam remains the bogey man, something to distrust and be threatened by particularly when someone crosses over… but its foolish when you can’t even get the subject of study accurately portrayed!

    Thank you.

  7. Roger Cole permalink
    October 14, 2012 9:49 pm

    Thanks for this very interesting and provocative article, Nathan.
    I think it’s possible to make too much of the effect of series like Homeland and 24 on real life. In part (as with the current spate of Homelandmania), the idea that Bauer or Brody have real social influence is largely down to the pack culture of reviewers, critics and their Twitter selves and followers. Right now, Homeland is this season’s go-to knee-trembler. Not long ago this evening, a prominent journalist posted “I want Homeland to be on all the time” on Twitter. Just that. Nothing else. I love this journalist for her insight and acerbity but this is fairly typical of the free ride that Homeland is getting from people who maybe should apply more caution.
    First: it’s intelligent, thought-provoking entertainment in the same way (but nowhere near as good) that The Manchurian Candidate (first film) was. There, the unspeakable ghost in the cupboard was Communism. Now it’s Islam. Remember that Brody is being run by terrorists as the plot has it. I think it’s by no means certain after two episodes that Islam is going to be made to sit down on the Villainy step at series end. Brody’s wife’s outright condemnation suggests a row-back may be coming. Wait until she and the daughter, who is definitely sympathetic, get to talk. A story is being told reasonably well but often with clunking holes in it. I don’t think it set out to be subversive any more than it wanted to be clumsy.
    Second, how really do you get to that point where, as in your 24 example. TV series are affecting government and military policy and behaviour? I’m always very dubious that this is true or ever likely to be true anywhere except in the preening minds of the writers, directors and actors themselves. In a current example, I’ve been saddened recently to note how the whole crew involved in the present series of The Thick of It have appointed themselves seers and political commentators, capable of noteworthy pronouncements on current events outside the comedy itself. It’s almost pathetic to see the weight they apply to their po-faced and lofty analysis. Surely the process is reflective and entirely the other way? Real life gets copied or exaggerated – and that’s fine.
    Coincidentally, being a worshipper these long years past at the shrine of He Who Is Jack Bauer, I decided this week to catch up on my appalling neglect of 24 – I stopped watching for no good reason at the end of Day 6. Having got so far to Hour 4 in Day 7, I note that Jack has not let me down. In Hour 2 he tried to gouge out someone’s eyeball with a pencil. He turned over a table and shouted very loudly and repeatedly in Hour 3 ( many “Dammit!”s and one “If you don’t tell me I WILL kill you.”). He crashed a car through a wall onto parked cars below having crushed himself under the steering wheel and gritted “This is gonna HURT!” I didn’t get from any of this the awful scent of Dick Cheney rising from the grave. It was just Jack and it was fantastic.
    Behind me as I type this sits a still-cellophaned boxed set of West Wing. I got as far on the telly as when they sat on the front stoop after 9/11 being gloopy and God Bless America-ish. I have promised myself if I can work out how, that one day I will watch it through to the end. But when it was running for so many years, did Josiah Bartlett and his liberal cohorts materially change the world. No they didn’t.
    Any more than Jack did.
    Or Homeland will…

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