‘Homeland’ has been critically praised for its intelligence, but its reliance on weary stereotypes often makes it feel like ‘24’ in drag.
Writing in The Guardian, Rebecca Nicholson has praised ‘Homeland’, a new Showtime TV series, as “a grownup thriller” that “feels like it’s addressing the moment.” The very fact, however, that the series presents a world preoccupied with the War on Terror and still fixated on the possibility of a surprise terrorist attack on U.S. soil undermines fatally the argument that it addresses the moment. In the current reality, our fears centre on the concrete effects of economic stagnation and the ongoing failures of the markets, not on the remote possibilities of terrorist infiltration. The vocabulary of dread has shifted from sleeper cells and jihad to unsecured bondholders, stagflation and quantitative easing. In terms of ideas that trouble the collective psyche, waterboarding has been displaced by the double dip. Moreover, it is eight years since the first broadcast of Adam Curtis’s ‘The Power of Nightmares’ brilliantly uncovered the War on Terror and the great threat of al Qaeda as “a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the security services and the international media.” Homeland strives to perpetuate that increasingly shaky illusion, and allies it to other older, equally suspect ones.
In her piece, Nicholson asserts that “Homeland stands out among a glut of excellent shows because it continues US television’s current and welcome fixation on complex and flawed women.” This must be taken as a reference to the show’s central protagonist, CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Clare Danes), who comes to suspect that Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), a U.S. Marine liberated from captivity in Afghanistan after eight years, has been ‘turned’ and now represents a sleeper threat to U.S. national security. While there is something novel in having a woman as the audience surrogate in a 24-like story, Mathison is scarcely a measure of gender progress. Rather than representing some new high-water mark in the depiction of women on television, she is presented in a disturbingly old-fashioned manner as an imbalanced, unreliable, even hysterical woman, whose judgment is not to be depended upon completely. We are informed of this quite quickly when one of her colleagues discovers her antipsychotic medication. Mathison is shown to be obsessed with her investigation to an unhealthy degree, even coming on to her own boss (who naturally, manfully resists her hysterical advances) in order to enlist his support of her cause. In the first episode, the writers pull out all the stops to complete this portrait of female instability with a jarring and heavy-handed scene in which Mathison states her preference for no-strings-attached sex with a stranger, as if to complete the tabloid stereotype trifecta of women, mental illness and promiscuity. In the male dominated world of espionage and the military sketched in the show, her unique ability to perceive the threat represented by the repatriated Marine is sadly just a resprayed version of “woman’s intuition,” or other discredited antiquated concepts used to hold women separate from the masculine world of rational thought.
Reality takes a further battering when the series shows her struggling to persuade the disbelieving and reluctant national security leadership to take seriously the information she begins to supply. Indeed, she is chastised for not going through proper channels before setting up detailed surveillance in Brody’s house—the other homeland alluded to in the show’s title. This decorous legalistic caution is greatly at odds with the often dangerously pre-emptive approach of the U.S. government in reality. While the powers-to-be in the show seem inert and complacent in the face of the threat identified by Mathison, in the real-world they happily bend national and international law past breaking point to pursue even the vaguest of threats, such as hacker Gary McKinnon, who almost cluelessly penetrated the Pentagon’s computer network in search of evidence of UFOs. In reality, a person in Mathison’s position of authority would only have to whisper “PATRIOT Act” for the state apparatus to descend with crushing force on the unfortunate suspect, regardless of prima facie evidence or probable cause.
The claim that ‘Homeland’ is “much more contemplative and sophisticated” than ‘24’ falls just as flat when it comes to the depiction of geopolitics, which, as usual, reduces to the “good guys of the West versus the bad guys of everywhere else” level of discourse of George W. Bush’s presidency. The enemy is nominally al Qaeda, but really is the Oriental ‘Other’ identified by Edward Said as having lived in Western characterisations of the Middle East for centuries. So far, the few representatives of the region to appear in ‘Homeland’ have conformed to existing stereotypes, including, predictably, a murderous Bin Ladenesque type named Abu Nazir. Upholding another stereotype that is at least as old as Rudolf Valentino, there is a decadent, somewhat Westernised, Saudi Prince whose entourage includes expensive white prostitutes who must undergo a detailed audition that suggests, in line with countless earlier fictions, a kind of pathological depravity within Arabs. Finally, we have the Prince’s major domo, who resembles no one so much as Jafar, the treacherous Grand Vizier in Disney’s ‘Aladdin’. As the series teases out the question of whether or not the repatriated Marine has been brainwashed, it reveals that he has converted to Islam, creating another ugly imaginative association that relies on existing prejudices that a White, educated Westerner would have to be either crazy of mentally ill to fall under the sway of barbarous Islam.
None of this is to say that the show is not entertaining or enjoyable. I’m certainly signed up for seeing whether or not Brody is going to pull a Lee Harvey Oswald, and whether Mathison will rediscover her mental equilibrium by getting the bad guys. What ‘Homeland’ is not, for certain, is some sort of insightful, serious alternative to the codology and bunkum of ‘24’. Instead, in its huff and puff to tell an intriguing yarn, it shows how little has substantially changed, at least in the waters of popular culture, when it comes to gender and cultural politics.