Is Homeland as Good as All the Critics Say It Is?

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 17 2011 10:26 AM

Is Homeland as Good as the Critics Say It Is?

claire danes 2
Claire Danes in a still from Homeland.

© Showtime 2011

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[Caution: There are spoilers ahead!]

June:

David, Homeland, the Showtime series about a returned American prisoner-of-war who may—or may not—have defected to the “other side” was several criticschoice as the best new show of the fall season. The third episode aired last night, which seems like the perfect moment to check in and chat about our responses to the show.

I’m loving it. I have been wowed by both lead actors—Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, a self-medicating bipolar CIA agent, and Damian Lewis as Nick Brody, a Marine sergeant back home after eight thoroughly destabilizing years in captivity—and the story has me hooked. The main questions so far are whether Brody is the man an Iraqi informant was referring to when he told Carrie “an American prisoner-of-war has been turned,” and whether we can trust Carrie.

Multiple characters seem to be suffering from PTSD—Brody for obvious reasons (his years in Iraq, revealed in flashbacks, were marked by soul-changing brutality); Claire because she’s trying to make up for her agency’s failures on 9/11; and Brody’s family, especially his wife Jessica, because they had quite reasonably made some adjustments over the years while he was missing and believed dead. For various reasons, none of them can simply express their pain and move on.

As we learn in Episode 2, Brody has converted to Islam—but to avoid the suspicion this would almost certainly engender, he has to hide his faith: praying in the garage, making light of a pre-dinner grace, and picking up a glass of wine but not drinking the alcohol. It’s a shame, because the uplift he feels after his first salah is striking: He shifts from a man so traumatized that he spends his alone time balled up in the corner of the bedroom to someone who can face that most intrusive of events, a television interview.

Claire can’t come clean about her chemical imbalance because she’s terrified she’ll be taken off the case. She has a bit of a Messiah complex: she sees herself as the only person who understands the threat Brody represents. How can she obey orders to lay off him when, in her mind, if she relaxes her vigilance, she could be responsible for the next 9/11?

Jessica can’t talk about her complex set of emotions—joy at being reunited with her high-school sweetheart, relief she’s no longer a single parent, guilt at having fallen for Brody’s friend Mike—for fear of seeming disloyal to a hero.

All the actors wonderfully convey the conflicts and confusions they face in silence rather than with chemicals or counseling.

I’ll wrap up with two questions. First, what do you make of Carrie’s unilateral and completely unauthorized decision (forget that FISA warrant—it was too late and unjustified) to place sophisticated spycams in pretty much every room of Brody’s house? Over at the A.V. Club, Todd VanDerWerff suggests that during those hours in which Carrie props herself on the couch, eyes glued to the surveillance footage, she becomes “an uneasy stand-in for us.” (Certainly, it gives me a flashback to the one year I became so obsessed with TV’s Big Brother that I devoted hours to watching the real-time feeds that broadcast the residents’ lives 24 hours a day.) That the cameras were placed not by a powerful government agency but by one rogue operative reminds us just how little privacy anyone has these days.

Second, am I crazy to think that Deputy CIA Director David Estes might be a traitor? I confess this may have occurred to me because two of Homeland’s executive producers worked on 24, where loyalties were ever-shifting, but why was he so unwilling to protect Lynne Reed? Yes, she was a prostitute, but she was also the one CIA asset to have had eyes on Abu Nazir—and to provide concrete evidence of a Saudi connection.

David:

Are you crazy for thinking Deputy Director Estes might be a traitor? Maybe a little—that possibility had definitely not occurred to me. On the other hand, the faint doubt you just introduced in my mind is a testament to this show’s promise: I am not quite sure where this is going.

I thought I was: When Brody looked up at the Capitol building at the end of the pilot, I felt certain that he had, in fact, been brainwashed and was headed for a double-dealing political career. There were references in the pilot to his potential as a candidate, and Carrie had said that Abu Nazir, the show’s terrorist bogeyman, was “playing the long game.” It all felt very Manchurian Candidate.

Now, I feel much less certain. And frankly, this show becomes, for me, much more interesting if Brody is not actually a terrorist. Not only because that type of brainwashing doesn’t really exist, but for a host of other reasons.

For instance: his apparent Muslim faith. You write that he “converted to Islam.” If he was brainwashed, that would not seem the best way to put it. But perhaps it really was a conversion, and we will eventually learn that he has a sincere belief in the religion. How interesting that would be for the show to explore! (Especially with Damian Lewis playing Brody: What a terrific actor.) Whereas if it’s really just some brutally enforced Pavlovian need to pray five times a day, then the show veers into some fairly offensive territory.

And consider your other question, about Carrie’s voyeurism. I agree with VanDerWerff that we, as viewers, are meant to be implicated: The third episode made that particularly clear, with its awkward sex scene between Brody and his wife, in which he insisted on simply looking at her and masturbating. The voyeurism was thus, in a sense, doubled—and Carrie had to look away. (The camera, on the other hand, remained focused on Morena Baccarin’s naked breasts: Homeland, which has quite a bit of nudity, is having its cake and eating it on the whole voyeurism question.)

If Brody turns out to be a terrorist, then Carrie’s actions will appear justified. If not, though, her intrusion into an innocent man’s privacy really will seem like an indictment of the sorts of privacy violations the U.S. government has sponsored since 9/11—and that, too, strikes me as far more interesting terrain.

Prior to Episode 3, I would not have thought the show was headed in that direction. Now—well, like I said, I’m not sure. But I do know I’ll be tuning in next week.


June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

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