The Politics of ‘Homeland’ are Incredibly Squicky
(Spoilers for the first three episodes of ‘Homeland’ follow. Be warned.)
I’ve been working on catching up with the Showtime series “Homeland” for the last couple days on the recommendation of basically everyone on the entire internet. It’s an entertaining show, although I’m not convinced it’s quite as entertaining as I’ve been led to believe. More importantly, though, I’m getting the growing sense that some of the basic assumptions of the show are just really gross.
First, let me say that I am only three episodes in, so it’s possible I’m completely wrong about all or most of this. Maybe I’m not supposed to identify with any of these characters. Maybe they are all supposed to strike me as incredibly horrifying little tyrants. There is plenty of season left for the show to do something very smart and change my mind. But I’m not betting on it.
Let’s start with one of the basic metaphysical facts that seems to be underlying the whole show: there is a large (or powerful, or something) terrorist organization that represents a serious threat to the United States. This is false. Just completely and totally false. Al Qaeda represents as much of a threat to the United States as an angry PTA. Probably less, actually. Again, the show may be misleading me on this count, but the complicated money laundering scheme at the end of episode three (in which a CIA informant is killed so that her necklace may be stolen and converted into a house that will somehow eventually be used for terrorism) makes me think I have the basic handle here. Terrorism is A Serious Problem that we have to do something about.
The main plot of the show – that a returned soldier (Brody) who was tortured for eight years might be a sleeper agent for Al Qaeda – is utterly preposterous, but it’s not any more preposterous than the notion that Al Qaeda is A Serious Problem once you filter that through the lens of TV. Using the logic of TV, if Al Qaeda is a clear and present danger to the US, then of course they would use an insanely complicated Manchurian Candidate-level plan eight years in the making. It’s stupid, but it’s not especially problematic.
What is problematic is what every single government-employed character does. The deputy director of the CIA, along with some other military fellow whose rank I missed, try to pressure one Brody’s friends into getting him to re-enlist, go on TV, and sell the war. They know Al Qaeda is a real problem, they think the American people are too stupid to keep supporting indefinite war, and they need some way to turn the dials of public opinion. This is fine for what it is, I guess. It’s played fairly transparently as a ploy by some self-serving politicos to drum up support for their little project. It’s enough to make you lose faith in government, but it’s not enough to make you worry about the basic morality of the people who made this show.
Then you have the lead, Carrie, an agent for the CIA. She is the one with the notion that Brody is a sleeper agent, and she is determined to prevent him from “hitting us again” (she even uses that timeless phrase of the neoconservative agitator, in case you were in danger of not being made completely uncomfortable by this show). So, before he gets home and rejoins his family, she has his entire house bugged. She can watch most (not all, which becomes a plot point) rooms in his house, with full sound. She mostly uses this power to watch him have incredibly uncomfortable sex with his wife, because this is pay cable. Again, this could all be a subtle critique of the surveillance/anti-terrorism state. Carrie is even mentally ill, leaving that particular door wide open.
The final nail for me, though, was what happened when her boss/mentor/whatever discovers that she is illegally spying on Brody. He initially reacts with horror, threatening to run it up the chain of command and get her fired. She, of course, throws herself at him, and he (admirably) reacts with revulsion and horror. So far, so good, but then… He decides to go to a FISA judge and use some unrevealed indiscretion in the judge’s past to leverage a warrant making the surveillance legal for four weeks, so Carrie will have a chance to prove her suspicions.
The whole thing adds up to just an incredibly gross worldview. This is basically 24 for smart people. Terrorists are a major threat to the United States, and when the government is overzealous or, you know, commits felonies in the process of uncovering their insanely complicated plots, we can just tweak a couple things and make their actions retroactively legal.
Again, maybe I’m badly misreading this. I will watch the rest of the season and report back.
EDIT: All that said, the other show I am trying to catch up on is the BBC version of “Sherlock”. I agree 1,000% with Alex Tabarrok: it is absolutely perfect.