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.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

38 thoughts on “The Politics of ‘Homeland’ are Incredibly Squicky

    • Sigh. Willfully obtuse as usual. Your shtick never gets young. I’m not sure why I’m bothering to respond, but…

      Sure, if it’s explicitly known that what you’ve designed is a fiction used to convey some other thing. In fact, Battlestar Galactica (which wasn’t really aliens, but close enough) used that kind of fiction to have a much smarter conversation about the limits of state power than “Homeland” appears to be having.

      A show that takes basically the neoconservative worldview as a baseline for a “what if?” scenario gets held to a higher standard than one about things no one actually believes.

        Quote  Link

      Report

        • I think we should hold fiction to a higher standard of baseline reality if it posits a worldview subtly different from ours in service of an ideology that we consider dangerous. Do you believe that fiction does not have political content or that it cannot be a vehicle for political speech? Do you think there is something wrong with critiquing political speech you find dangerous?

            Quote  Link

          Report

          • “Do you think there is something wrong with critiquing political speech you find dangerous?”

            No, but I do find it wrong to impute political motives to an entirely fictional production based on window dressing.

            “Homeland” has the kind of “is he a sleeper” plot that Le Carre and Ludlum have done any number of times.  The only twist is that it uses names that a contemporary American would recognize due to them being in the news.  As BlaiseP points out, the CIA in the show has about as much to do with the real-world CIA as it has to do with the Knights Of Columbus; why would you assume that its presentation of al-Qaeda should be taken any more seriously?

              Quote  Link

            Report

        • The OP didn’t say that the show was more fictional or less fictional, just that the poster was made uncomfortable by the baseline assumptions.  I felt the same way about “24” — I could cede it as fiction (often good fiction, ocassionaly WTF? fiction) even as the baseline assumptions (“torture ALWAYS works” chief among them) made me feel “squicky”.

            Quote  Link

          Report

    • And what’s with all these shows about aliens invading?  There is no such thing as aliens.  It is completely silly to make shows about aliens invading!

      When a show appears to be pandering to the widespread belief that extraterrestrials are real, I will call it silly. (Included:  The X-Files.  Excluded:  Star Trek.)

      When a show appears to be pandering to the widespread belief that terrorists are an existential threat, I will likewise call it silly.

      Does that included Homeland?  Never seen it. But the distinction itself doesn’t seem out of bounds.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • I was, in fact, about to post something like this in response to Ryan.

        There’s a difference between “let’s suppose, for the purposes of this fictional narrative, that there does exist an existential threat to the United States of America as a result of the al-Qaeda organization” and “terrorists are TOTALLY REAL, y’all, and THIS is how you fight ’em”.

          Quote  Link

        Report

  1. Having recently seen the first 6 episodes, I feel like stepping in to defend the show.  All of the points you make about the conduct of the characters are, of course, valid.  However, I don’t know that I see this show as having the message that this conduct is a positive thing.

    Part of what is so compelling about the show to me is how deeply self-destructive all of the people in the CIA are – but none more so than the protagonist, Carrie.  As the series continues, the acts she performs become far more dark, and the black and whites become far more muddled and grey.  I agree that this being cable there has to be sex, but in the two scenes I can think of while the house is bugged, the point of one is just how damaged someone coming home from war truly is.  In the second, most of the scene is a shot of Carrie watching with a look of guilt and horror for what she is intruding upon.

    I think the show actually does a pretty god job of showing just how fished up everyone in the chain of command is under these new rules of Constitutional trashing, from the CIA operative to her superiors to the VP office that is using them for political points.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  2. I stopped watching Homeland after five episodes.  I just can’t deal with it.  It’s just too painful.  CIA and NSA have their problems, God wot, but nobody in the history of entertainment has ever gotten it right, nor will they, I’m convinced.   The reality would make for a far better story.

    Heroes never ask to be heroes.   It just sorta happens to them.  Villains weren’t always villains, either.   Sorting out truth from lies is a process we all understand, dimly aware of our own self-deceptions.  If we’re honest, we ruefully acknowledge our inability to see the world objectively.   It’s at that level where a meaningful story might emerge about the Central Intelligence Agency, one well worth telling, one we ought to be told.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  3. I loved the first series of 24, it was fast paced, tense and made good use of the real time gimick and if the idea of Serbian nationalists trying to kill a US politician was far fetched it wasn’t as far as I can see treated a serious comment on Balkan geopolitics.

    Since then I found succesive series more and more unwatchable as the writers decided that ther protagonists character flaws were actually policy proposals and bought their own bullshit. I think I got to 3 or 4 so don’ t know where it goes from there, after a bit where terorists use a human rights lawyer to further their schemes by objecting to torture I turned off.

    How far into Sherlock are you? The Reichenbach Fall may be the best piece of TV drama ever made.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  4. I think that maybe you might view this as one might view the original version of The Wicker Man: everybody involved is largely awful, but tasked with their particular responsibilities which they attempt to carry out. I’m not going to try to talk you into liking a show that clearly doesn’t appeal to you because that’s silly but I would suggest that the show’s dramatic elements perhaps outweigh its more tenuous connection to what we might perceive to be the real world.

    (Arguably, comparing your viewing of this to the viewing of the original The Wicker Man is the nerdiest thing I have ever written…in my short presence on these threads.)

      Quote  Link

    Report

  5. Haven’t seen it, but I had understood the show to be primarily a critical portrait of our national security bureaucracy, drawn via the symbolic perspective of a mentally unstable young officer. What constitutes the portrayal of a terrorism threat that is A Really Big Problem as opposed to a portrayal of a national security apparatus which takes the terrorism threat to the United States to be A Really Big Problem?

      Quote  Link

    Report

  6. To some degree, complaining about the exaltation of a non-existent threat is complaining “why was this show made?” I agree with Bonneville that Al Qaeda is not an existential threat to the degree that the show makes them out to be. But, for the show to happen, they had to use something. And that something (Muslim terrorists, Russian Mafia, Eastern European enemies, white supremacists) would almost certainly fail the reality test. So I agree with Duck that this is analogous to complaining about the existence of aliens in a science fiction show.

    The Brodie plot might fall into the category of ridiculously complex and longballish, but that depends on what they plan to do with him (I am on episode three or four, so I am seeing this from the same timeline as Bonneville). If they’re going to use him to blow up the capitol, then yeah. If they’re going to use him to kill the President, then maybe. If they’re going to use him to get into the highest echelons of power, then a Brodie represents a once-in-a-lifetime sort of opportunity.

    Except that, and this is me picking nits here, one thing that I found kind of incredible is the notion that everybody except Danes would be so trusting of him. But, like the extaltation of the Muslim terrorists, it is necessary for the very plot itself to move forward. They could (and I probably would have) had a cadre of individuals skeptical and having their concerns ignored by the overenthusiastic administration, but Danes needs a bureaucracy to fight just as surely as an enemy is needed.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • I actually find the part where everybody treats Brodie as a hero perfectly reasonable. I mean, to large parts of America, including probably more Congresspeople than we think, the idea of a white Muslim terrorist makes little sense.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • On the general public, and even the congresspeople, I agree. The intelligence community, however, is paid to be paranoid. I would guess the actual response to a Brodie would be along the lines of “Sure, put him front and center, but sure as hell keep an eye on him.”

         

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • True. By the same token, most professionals on TV shows (lawyers/doctors/cops) shouldn’t walk into so many bad situations. Maybe all the idiots in the CIA in the show were appointed by Bush. :)[/partisansnarkIdon’treallymean]

            Quote  Link

          Report

            • I think there is some validity to the argument that TV shouldn’t distort reality so much that people think the real world is far different from reality because what they saw on TV.

              For instance, well the acting and plotting was worse, the latter seasons of Law & Order that changed from a more realistic TV show to a being more focused on ‘stripped from the headlines’ and rich people killing folks was probably a good thing.

              On the other hand, you can’t blame CSI for Casey Anthony getting off  or L&O:SVU for being people scared of child predators. In other words, I’m being mushy ’cause I like realistic TV, but I know it can have it’d downfall if it gets too popular. :)

                Quote  Link

              Report

  7. Just.  Wait.

    I’m not going to say that it stops straining credulity.  But the politics reveal themselves to be more nuanced than you’re currently giving them credit for.  I think you’ll find the show evinces a degree of empathy for many of the players that 24 wouldn’t dream of while remaining very entertaining.

     

      Quote  Link

    Report

  8. I hate to say, “Stick it through for the entire season!” if you’re miserable watching it, but because we can’t rely upon any of the things that happen in the show’s last 9/10 episodes (depending how far you’ve gotten in your viewing) because that would spoil it for you, this conversation feel premature.

     

      Quote  Link

    Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *