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 Fred Kaplan, Slate’s “War Stories” columnist and author of the forthcoming book The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War.
June Thomas: Fred, during Homeland season, many a Monday morning begins with my receiving an email from you detailing all the plot twists from the previous night’s episode that couldn’t possibly happen in real life. So, since we’re having that email conversation in public this week, let ‘er rip: What were the most egregious that-couldn’t-possibly-happens of Episode 2?
Fred Kaplan: I should make clear that I like the show very much, but it's not a great spy show, because great spy fiction—novels, movies, or whatever—conveys a convincing sense of place, of how plots and institutions work, and, by that standard, Homeland is sheer fantasy. For instance, in this episode Brody just casually walks in to a guarded room in the Pentagon where high-level officials are watching a live stream of a special-ops team about to bump off the world's No. 1 terrorist. No way would a first-term congressman be let into that room. I don't think any congressman, even one on the Select Intelligence Committee, would be let in without advance notice, if at all.
Kaplan: Then Brody, seeing that his master is about to get killed, sends him a text message. One problem (among many) is that you can't get a cellphone signal in most areas of the Pentagon, especially in these parts. And before you can go into a room with "compartmentalized" intel, you have to turn in your cellphones—even the people who work there every day (though maybe they wouldn't demand this of a congressman).
Thomas: Maybe not.
Kaplan: And this whole brewing plotline—the reason Brody and the vice president happened to be in the Pentagon in the first place—the idea that the two of them would lobby the secretary of defense to ignore a presidential order not to sell bunker-busters to the Israelis: This is just absurd. Cabinet secretaries really do respect presidential orders, and the idea that the SecDef would listen to Brody because they're both Marines is ridiculous.
Thomas: Is that all?
Kaplan: Another puzzler. Why would this vice president who wants to be president (one of the show's rare cartoon characters) be interested in Brody as his running mate? The guy's a hawk, a former CIA director. How would Brody, a war hero who's been out of it when it comes to domestic politics for the previous decade, balance his ticket?
Thomas: My response to this kind of irrefutable nitpicking—is it nitpicking if the nits are the size of bunker-buster bombs?—is that it doesn’t really matter to me as long as the show is dramatically credible, which I think it is. You've already said you like Homeland "very much," so let me ask you: How can you like it if it gets so much wrong about Washington and the military-intelligence complex? They are, after all, the worlds the show explores. What's left to like?
Kaplan: I like it for the same reasons you like it: for its drama, the characters. I guess I'd say that the problems I have with it, which don't bother you at all, keep me from placing the show in the same category as The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad—and that's a shame, because it's got the vibe to be there. It's a shame that the writers didn't dig more deeply in their research. There were ways they could contrive the plot they're spinning without making it up and looking foolish. I don't think it's "nitpicking," by the way. If someone did a TV show about Slate (God forbid), and they showed everyone batting out stories on typewriters and sending them on faxes, that would be a major flaw.
Thomas: Hey now, I didn't say these digressions from reality didn't bother me "at all"—some of them, like the ridiculous shenanigans in the State Department panic room at the end of last season, bother me a lot, even though I found that episode thrilling. But it's true that they bother me less than they probably should. This is a show whose strength is its actors—Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, and Mandy Patinkin don't have the greatest script to work with (unlike, say, Mad Men, where I find myself scribbling down lines because they seem so amazing) or the most convincing plot, but it works because these characters are compelling and somehow "real."
Kaplan: I'd agree with you on this. That's why it's one of maybe a half-dozen TV shows that I watch. Claire Danes is amazing, though my guess is the character she plays wouldn't survive six months in the real CIA. The periodic drug tests alone would get her thrown out.
Thomas: Before they gave the green light for the operation at Abbas' home, I was struck by how worried Estes and the special-ops guy were that “we’ll end up with ambushed American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Beirut.” You’ve spent a lot of time talking to military and intelligence officers. Does that Black Hawk Down scenario really loom so large in their thinking? And is that a bad thing? Naturally, I want them to be worrying about the safety of the men under their command, but they also seemed to be fixating on the optics.
Kaplan: Yes, it's always a concern, and not just for the "optics." Not only do they worry about the men, they also know that if something like this fails, it emboldens bad guys, it makes them think they can get away with more because we'll fail the next time we try to do this, too. Getting these guys out of a crowded city like Beirut would be particularly problematic. In fact, I'm not quite sure how they'd get them in (though I won't blame the scriptwriters for not explaining that).
Thomas: One message that I’ve picked up this season is that these people should just stay home: Brody has PTSD and needs to be fixing his family, not talking the secretary of defense into selling bunker-buster bombs to Israel; Carrie should be at home getting well and tending her garden, not getting into trouble in Beirut; and Saul already screwed up his home life, killing his marriage by spending all his time at work. If the main characters of our drama would be better off at home, are the show’s creators sending a larger message that America should stay home? Is Homeland a covert pitch for American isolationism?
Kaplan: My guess is that most people in public life, especially high-pressure security jobs, would be better off personally staying home. These jobs are life-killers, marriage-killers, reflection-killers. But most people who do them would be miserable doing anything else. There was that great moment in this season's first episode, when Carrie runs out of the bazaar after dodging the guy who was trailing her, and she has this almost demonic smile on her face. She loves this.
Thomas: Ha, true! But I can also see Homeland as Exhibit A for the futility of our anti-terrorism efforts. In Season 1, Carrie devoted her whole life to surveilling one man, and she still couldn’t find the information she needed. If one crazed and devoted agent couldn’t conduct a successful small-scale surveillance, what hope is there for the U.S. to make sense of the vast quantities of the intel we’re gathering across the world? Am I overreaching?
Kaplan: Yes, I think you are. First, whatever anyone might think of U.S. counterterrorism policies (drone strikes, legally dubious surveillance, etc.), we have nabbed a lot of terrorists these past few years. Of course, one problem—and critics of a purely military approach emphasize this point—is that the bad guys can keep recruiting more bad guys. And every time we kill a few innocent bystanders in the process, we risk turning their brothers or cousins or kids into new bad guys. But back to the show for a minute: Judging from the final minute of Episode 2, it looks like the pincers might be closing on Brody, too.
Thomas: Yes, let's talk about that final minute of Episode 2, in which Saul finds Brody's suicide video. I worry that once the CIA knows for sure that Brody has been turned, the dramatic tension will slacken. I'm not too worried, because the show has continually found new ways of making viewers anxious about the safety of these characters and the fate of the free world, but I was aware of how strange it was that I should feel disappointed that Brody's true allegiance was revealed.
Kaplan: Maybe there’s a twist ahead on Saul's true allegiance. (I hope not, because two moles in one show would be a stretch too far.)