In Slate’s Homeland TV Club, June Thomas will IM each week with a different partner—policy experts, intelligence researchers, critics, and even Slate commenters. This week she chats with strategy director at GlobalInt and former chair of the U.S. Air Force Minerva Initiative, Chad Briggs.
June Thomas: Holy crap! That was the cruelest, most abrupt cut to black since the Sopranos finale! That was a hell of an episode, even though so much of it was set up for what promises to be a truly insane final two episodes. Since I'm IMing with an international relations dude, I'll start highbrow: I was struck, in that powerful negotiation between Brody and Abu Nazir of how much "our" interactions with irrational actors, like terrorists, come down to a game of chicken. Brody "won" the argument, but he still went ahead and sent the serial number to Nazir. Of course, it helped that, as he said, he pretty much disagreed with everything Walden said and did. Still, that was a pretty powerful trust exercise, wouldn't you say?
Chad Briggs: It was, and is a powerful example of how difficult it is to negotiate when all trust is lost. Of course, that was a common theme throughout the episode, and the power struggles between people didn't stop at Nazir and Brody. There was Jess and Brody, Saul and Estes, and it was set up beautifully at the beginning with Saul’s conversation with Dar Adul, when he lamented the loss of the Cold War and said simply, "I miss the rules." It's been more than 20 years, and foreign policy experts still feel that loss of the world they knew, and fear that it's been replaced with these unknowable games of chicken, as you say. But I was also struck at the link made when Finn and Dana were talking, when she said, "Whatever we felt, we broke it. " I could not help but feel that was a larger statement about the world post-1991 and post-9/11.
Thomas: So true, though I sometimes wished there was room to flesh out some of those conversations. Although Carrie dismissed all Nazir's attempts to justify his methods—"you're a terrorist" is her go-to conversation-ender—she didn't have time or energy to challenge his assertion that it was the drone strike that radicalized him. I buy that it made him hate Walden, but he was already a terrorist. He'd kept a Marine in a hole and broken him, even if some “emotional transference” did take place. He's perverting the truth there, just as she says he perverts the teachings of Islam.
Briggs: I agree that conversation, which is an important point in the series as a whole, was not fleshed out well. But perhaps that was almost intentional, because right after we witness Brody not just handing over information about the VP, but actually killing him in a fashion. I had wondered (we all had) about his motivations and whether he was acting out of divided loyalties (not easy for a Marine), trying to protect his family, love for Carrie of Issa, or hatred of the VP. None of those are necessarily exclusive, but the hatred really came out this episode, and it was really striking when it did. So... again, who is the terrorist? And if the CIA is willing to kill him, and if they turn against Saul in favor of black ops types ... again, who is really playing by any rules now? Is it really, as Carrie says, "Anything it takes"?
I suppose that is why the Dana storyline is important, that she remains the moral center of the story. Everyone else has lost their way.
BTW, I could not get over Dar Adul eating chicken and waffles at the beginning. It reminded me too much of Roscoe's in Hollywood.
Thomas: It made me very hungry. And such terrible tradecraft. There's no point moving house every few weeks if you're going to show up at Walter's Waffles every Tuesday.
Briggs: Hah! Too true.
Thomas: Related to that is how well Nazir apparently knew Brody’s heart. “He will do it to save you,” he told Carrie—“do it” in this case being sending the serial number of the vice president's pacemaker to Abu Nazir so that he could orchestrate Walden's murder. Nazir was right about Brody. By being right about the core motivations of one very confused and confusing man, he's established as an insightful, maybe even reliable source. That makes it harder to dismiss his claim that the West can’t win because we focus too much on the short-term—on pension plans and organic food—whereas his people of faith will wait one, two, three centuries—as long as it takes—to “exterminate” the infidels. (And believe me, I want to!)
Briggs: Nazir's question of "How much faith do you have?" applies to not just or even primarily religion in the U.S., but if we still believe in what we stand for, which may be precisely those rules we break in order to catch the bad guys. I'm glad that Homeland is willing to raise these issues, because 24 never did, nor did Jack Bauer ever have moments of self-doubt.
Thomas: It's funny how Homeland's credibility-stretching plot points bother me less than the larger questions—about terrorists' motivations or how our open society hurts us. I am still burning up about the writers having Nazir discover the vice president's Achilles hee—his Walden heart—by reading the New York Times. I can't really believe that a Times story would reveal the location of the pacemaker packaging, though I suppose the mention of the VPOTUST—that is, the vice president of the United States' treadmill—suggests it might have been a photo that tipped off Nazir. And we do love to stare at all the things in the background of photos of our nation's leaders. [Update Dec. 13, 1:45 a.m.: Showtime's PR team tweeted out a link to the March 2008 New York Times story that inspired the pacemaker plot line.]
Briggs: It was remarkable that Nazir felt he could still trust Brody, because he and Carrie were the last two people to trust anyone in this show. Nazir even mentioned that they both loved him, and had that in common. Carrie has obviously not trusted herself throughout the entire series, and Claire Danes has done a remarkable job of portraying that uncertainty. And in this episode we see Brody struggle with his loyalties ... it was really etched in his face. As for the agency, no one trust anyone, though that is fairly true to life, particularly given recent events.
The New York Times mention reminded me of a similar line from Dr. Strangelove, that the Soviets got their most reliable intelligence from there. (There is some truth to this.)
The motivations of the CIA are the remaining puzzle, and perhaps now we won't even know how much the VP knew or was involved in any of it. I would guess that we'll discover he signed off on the assassination of Brody, in which case we're almost faced with a self-defense situation (though not clearcut, particularly since Brody did almost kill most of the national security staff last season). But the willingness to kill a sitting member of Congress fills me with some sense of dread in what will happen the next two episodes and how far the agency will be willing to act. We almost seem to be treading into a Seven Days in May or Operation Northwoods territory here.
Thomas: It is all very old-school. To go back to something you mentioned earlier—about intelligence operatives longing for the good old days—the writers also reminded us how much technology has enlarged the realm of possibility. Back in the days when the Soviets were Enemy No. 1, pretty much none of what happened in this episode would be possible. (And not just in a “Brody would never get access to Walden’s office” kind of way.) The live video stream/phone call in which Abu Nazir showed Brody that he was holding Carrie? Old-school, that’s a photo of Carrie holding up that day’s Dalton’s Mill Advertiser or a traceable phone call. Brody texting the number to Nazir and Nazir sending it to the Killer Coder? Another series of halting and traceable phone calls at best. And, of course, the whole wirelessly accessible pacemaker is pretty much a modern convenience. It kind of makes me long the days of poison-tipped umbrellas.
Briggs: I completely agree, and at one point I was wondering what kidnappers used to use to bind hands before we had plastic ties. In the case of today's technology we often have too much information and no time with which to react. Brody's frantic pleadings to Nazir were the result of him being surprised and shocked at the suddenness of what he faced. As you say, in the old days there would have been time to formulate a plan, consider alternatives, but we almost have to trust our gut feelings in a world of instant messaging. In the days of the Cold War, the “time to decision” was always considered the most dangerous part of U.S./Soviet nuclear politics—and precisely why rules were agreed upon by both sides. The technology piece also suggests a larger issue that we've had to deal with in our work, about how vulnerable technology makes us. Terrorists have so many more ways to threaten our existence, and in many ways we bring that upon ourselves without recognizing it.