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 Lindsay Moran, a former CIA case officer and author of Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy.
June Thomas: Lindsay, this episode really emphasized how important being part of the CIA is to Carrie. Her brain chemistry might make her a bad fit for the agency, but she loves to write intelligence reports. She's an addict. In your book, you write about the competitive, perfectionist tendencies that your cohort of CIA officers exhibited. Does Carrie ring true for you?
Lindsay Moran: So much of this show rings true for me, especially the character of Carrie. You can see a smile creeping onto her face as she drives through the gates into HQS at Langley. That brought back a similar feeling I always had when I arrived at HQS. The Directorate of Operations, which is the clandestine service of the CIA, considers itself a very elite cadre. There is so much pride in working for the organization, and particularly in being part of the DO. And indeed, the people attracted to this line of work tend to be competitive, perfectionist, some might even say obsessive. All of these tendencies are embodied in the very real character of Carrie.
Thomas: But I'm guessing that there's a point at which that realism ends?
Moran: Well, this is the most "real" Hollywood version of CIA I have ever seen but, yes, some aspects are altered to make good television. For example, you see the rapid-fire responses from managers, superiors, and analysts ... and none of the bureaucracy and general incompetence that plagues the agency. All that said, it's a very true representation of the lifestyle, personal and professional complications, and range of emotions experienced by the CIA's best officers, as Carrie obviously is. Another aspect that reminds me very much of the real CIA is Carrie's effectiveness and yet the expediency with which she is shut out from the organization once her illness is revealed. I had to ask myself: If the agency had such a brilliant operative who was a man, would he be ousted as quickly? I think not. BTW, the CIA's biggest secret is that its best spies are women.
Thomas: Ooh, that's fascinating. Why?
Moran: Chalk it up to a few of the main characteristics of women: social skills, street smarts, and a maternal instinct.
Thomas: It was interesting to me that when Carrie’s father told her “you have a disease,” he could just as easily have been referring to her obsession with Abu Nazir as her bipolar condition. It’s also odd that Saul Berenson and David Estes have always warned her not to get too wrapped up in her investigations. That seems odd to me. Don’t CIA higher-ups always want their officers to be on the job, mentally as well as physically?
Moran: Yes, CIA higher-ups want their underlings to be on the job 24-7, so long as it makes the manager look good, too!
Thomas: In this episode, the thought of being cut off from the CIA forever drives Carrie to attempt suicide. In your book, you described your own departure and say how the woman you delivered your resignation to told you, “You may experience difficulty finding your way ‘on the outside.’ ” You seem to have managed just fine, but why is separating from the agency such a wrench?
Moran: Well, as you can see in the show—and believe me, it's even more so in real life—when you are working for the CIA, it is your entire life. You really don't socialize with anyone outside the agency. So for Carrie to be shut out—it's more than just losing a job. It's her entire identity. She has no one and nothing else. A scene from a previous episode that reduced me to tears was Carrie confessing to Saul that she had realized she was going to spend her entire life alone. I remember coming to a similar realization when I worked for the CIA, and—while it was depressing on the surface —I was OK with it, somehow, at the time.
Carrie’s teaching ESL classes at night after having jet-setted around the world recruiting foreign agents. It’s kinda sad. It's hard to leave that life, and the sense of importance and purpose. For me, it was a choice. For Carrie, she's been shut out. It's heart-wrenching.
Thomas: And as a former teacher of English as a foreign language, I can attest that there's very little glamour involved!
Lindsay: But I bet you anything one of those students ends up being an important source or in a sleeper cell ... or something.
Thomas: This episode was in many ways about adjustments—Carrie having a hard time saying goodbye to the agency; Brody struggling to get away from his past; and Jess making that amazing speech about needing time to get used to her husband's return after such a long, difficult absence. Those were all very moving scenes, but it's harder to dramatize the difficulty of an institution like the CIA adjusting-—and yet in a way Homeland is all about the agency's adjustments, or its need to adjust, after 9/11.
Moran: True that. I think the CIA we see in Homeland has adjusted better than the real CIA! They certainly seem to get things done faster and more efficiently.
One aspect of the show that I find fascinating—and that also rings true—is Carrie's relationship with Brody. Most Hollywood versions of double-agent romances we've seen are contrived clichés with simplistic characters. I love that these two very complex and conflicted characters found each other. I love that there are no "good guys" and "bad guys" in this show. Because with very few exceptions, that's how it is in the real-life world of espionage. Every player has a host of motivations and vulnerabilities. They call it HUMINT: human intelligence. And as we see in Homeland, humans are inherently flawed. And so human intelligence—the collection of it—relies entirely on a cast of flawed characters, both in the show, and in real life. You can never be sure of anything.
Thomas: Are you saying that it makes sense that Carrie and Brody would be drawn to one another because they both have similar damage? That she understands him in a way that his wife can't, because she hasn't "been there"?
Moran: I think the relationship between Carrie and Brody is more than just the fact that his wife cannot relate. Brody, for sure, is damaged by his years as a POW, undergoing torture, etc. I think Carrie is drawn to Brody because—as she herself admits at one point—she's always like "heightened" situations. She’s attracted to danger and subversiveness, as are many (most? all?) CIA case officers. So even when she strongly suspects Brody is a terrorist, she’s still somehow attracted to him and even falls in love with him. He is someone potentially dangerous—and definitely subversive.
Although it's not a funny scene, I almost had to laugh when Brody was chasing the tailor through the woods and also answering phone calls from his increasingly peeved wife. Almost everyone involved in espionage is a little bit off, and you can never count on anyone to act totally rationally or as you would expect him to.
Thomas: I loved that scene, too, because you sensed that Brody was worried that Jess would mistake the tailor's moans of pain for his being with a lover. He was deceiving her, but not the way she might've thought. The death happened to avoid her thinking she was hearing a little death!
Moran: Yes, and it's very harrowing for everyone! One thing about working for the CIA, or being involved in human intelligence, you are lying all the time. As we saw with Brody, it's difficult to keep track of all the lies as they mount up.
Thomas: The post-party scene with Jess was also great. "They just roll off your tongue, don't they?" she said of his lies. Everyone on this show is constantly lying. And for some of them that's their job.
Moran: Yes, it's funny, when you are lying for your job, it just becomes a way of life. You end up lying about everything.