Brainwashing in Showtime's Homeland: Can It "Turn" Us Into Believers?

Brow Beat
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Oct. 3 2011 1:07 PM

Brainwashing in Showtime's Homeland: Can It "Turn" Us Into Believers?

Homeland publicity still
Photo of Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) in Homeland by Showtime.

The best reviewed new drama to premiere so far this fall is almost certainly Homeland, which debuted on Showtime last night (it’s been available for free online for a couple weeks now). It stars Claire Danes as Carrie Anderson, a CIA agent who believes that newly freed prisoner of war Nicholas Brody—a Marine Sergeant played by Damian Lewis—was “turned” during his eight years of captivity, and is now working for Al Qaeda. It’s been called “exhilarating” (The Washington Post) and “almost impossible to resist” (The New York Times); James Poniewozik, the TV critic for Time, “can’t recommend the series highly enough.”

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

I’m not entirely on board with the raves just yet. Though it’s a far more psychologically nuanced show, Homeland appears to share a bit of the slick implausibility of 24, which never pulled me in. (The shows also share two executive producers, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon.) True to the channel’s form, Showtime wasted few minutes before rather gratuitously disrobing one of the show’s attractive female cast members (Morena Baccarin). And Carrie’s supervisor at the CIA, David Estes (played by David Harewood), is the cardboard cutout version of an ambitious company man. Perhaps they’ll complicate him with time—and perhaps the amount of exposition awkwardly shoehorned into the dialogue will diminish once the series is more fully under way.

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I’ll keep watching, in any case—if for no other reason than to see how the show handles a subject that, so far, it can’t even bring itself to refer to by name: brainwashing. The term used throughout the pilot is “turned,” but Brody’s experience of isolation and degradation (late in the show, we see him beating a fellow soldier to death, at the command of an Al Qaeda leader), revealed in flashbacks, clearly play on what we understand—or think we understand—about brainwashing. Which made me curious: How much cultural currency does brainwashing have these days?

It’s an important question, because brainwashing has always been buoyed more by popular fascination than by scientific consensus. The term only dates back to 1950, when it was coined by journalist Edward Hunter to describe techniques used on prisoners by the Chinese during the Korean War. The idea was quickly popularized, most famously by the 1959 novel (and classic 1962 film adaptation) The Manchurian Candidate, in which a soldier is turned into a sleeper agent for the Communists. Brainwashing was given another boost by the anti-cult movement of the 1970s.

But as Dahlia Lithwick explained for Slate in 2002, the idea has always been scientifically dubious. Yes, people in coercive environments can be made to change their beliefs; once freed from those environments, however, people who have genuinely been coerced generally return to their prior convictions.

Lithwick’s piece was inspired by the re-emergence of “the brainwashed defense” in three post-9/11 legal cases: friends and family of John “American Taliban” Walker Lindh, Richard “Shoe Bomber” Reid, and Zacarias “20th Hijacker” Moussaoui all invoked brainwashing to defend the actions of their associates.* At the time, it looked as though brainwashing might have another moment: The so-called “War on Terror” seemingly combined both religious zealotry and prisoners of war, the two major elements in the popular notion of brainwashing.

And yet, unless I missed something, it didn’t happen. Brainwashing has not, I think, had a resurgence in the popular consciousness. Lindh, Reid, and Moussaoui were all, unsurprisingly, convicted, and are currently in prison. Two years after Lithwick’s piece, Jonathan Demme remade The Manchurian Candidate; it was a flop, grossing just $65m in North America (the film’s budget was $80m). And now, a new show that’s clearly drawing in part on the classic 1962 version won’t even mention the term (so far, at least). Is brainwashing finally a disreputable notion, even in popular culture? And if so, how and why did that happen?

(See also: Louis Menand's piece on The Manchurian Candidate from the September 15, 2003 issue of The New Yorker.)

Correction, Oct. 3, 2011: This article incorrectly referred to Richard Reid as the "Show Bomber." (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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