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Homeland: Season 1 (Review)

In many respects, Homeland feels like a more character-oriented version of 24. The comparison makes sense, beyond the spy games and the paranoia and the espionage, if only because of massive overlap between the production staff on both shows – with Howard Gordon, Sean Callery and Chip Johannessen working on both projects. I don’t think 24 gets enough respect as an exploration of the post-9/11 zeitgeist, probably due to its admittedly pulpy nature. Homeland feels a little bit more restrained, and more firmly grounded. The show is anchored in two fantastic lead performances from Claire Danes and Damien Lewis, and the series works best when it’s centred around the two main characters, driven by their issues and their demons.

Nicholas Brody and his “great big bushy beard!”

It feels slightly weird to describe it in such terms, but Homeland feels like 24 stripped of the excessive melodrama and the demand for episodic plot twists. Even on peak form, everything about 24 was ridiculously heightened, with the show demanding an earth-shattering twist or revelation at the climax of every episode. This tended to push the show a little towards the more surreal, and to occasionally overshadow its sometimes astute commentary on the collective unconsciousness’ response to the attacks on Washington and New York.

Homeland, if anything, feels a bit more firmly grounded. Despite it’s surrealist opening, which almost evokes The Prisoner, playing over soft jazz, the show feels infinitely more plausible than that earlier national security drama.  The notion of a soldier returning home as a brainwashed enemy agent evokes The Manchurian Candidate, but it’s all rooted in reality. There’s a minimum amount of gun fights, and the show doesn’t rush from one cliffhanger to the next.

The Brody bunch?

Indeed, it’s the first episodes that feature the most bold and challenging of cliffhangers, as we discover Brody beat his fellow captive Tom Walker to death at the behest of his captors. Similarly, the revelation that Brody converted to Islam seems intended to be provocative and challenging, and perhaps the most bold and fascinating twist in the show’s entire first year. It feels strange, then, that the potential fall-out from his conversion – the possible narrow-minded response he’d garner from some of his crazier his fellow Americans, where 20% of voters are obsessed with the notion their President is  a “closet Muslim” – is only really developed in the second season of the show.

In a way, it feels like a smooth move from the production team. Instead of using Brody’s religious conversion as an obvious angle for internal drama, it instead exists as something of a challenge to the audience at home. It’s connection (or complete lack thereof) to his potential status as an enemy double-agent seems intended to provoke the audience, to question their gut responses to the revelation. Undoubtedly quite a few viewers made a leap one way or another on Brody’s possible guilt at that very moment, and it makes for an interesting point of discussion – something that says a lot about the current state of religious tolerance in our culture.

Carrie on, agent…

It serves as the cliffhanger to the episode, but it remains a background element of the season. Instead, it makes the audience wonder why Brody has to keep his conversion secret from his family. Why would it concern them so? If so, what does that say about about the political climate that a man has to hide his faith and belief in a dingy garage, while parading around Christian churches and making constant references to God? I admire the show’s restraint in refusing to exploit Brody’s religion. Instead, it just throws the idea out there and lets the audience make of it what they will.

Homelandis also a fascinating exploration of the evolution of the surveillance culture, as Brody finds only one corner of his own house where he can live in privacy. Carrie is able, through the use of surveillance technology to insert herself into the Brody family household from her own living room. She knows Brody’s routine, and is even able to tell him where he left his tie. Strolling through the house while the family are away, Carrie pauses to admire the personal family photos on the hall wall, as if she’s grown close to them through her computer monitors.

Taking nothing off the table…

Of course, for Carrie, her prying observation into the Brody’s domestic situation seems to serve as a substitute for her own lack of a personal life. Brilliantly brought to life by Claire Danes, Carrie is a woman who has always been so driven she has no real social life. The closest thing she has to a friend is the guy who installs her hidden cameras. When she does go clubbing, she wears a wedding ring as a means of scaring away any guys who might be interested in a long-term relationship.

Despite her potentially debilitating psychological condition, Carrie doesn’t have a viable support network. Her mentor Saul only gets an insight into her personal life over the course of the season, and when she finds herself coping with her breakdown, she is relying on a very intimate circle of friends. As a result, her attachment to Brody – even just watching him – seems like the closest thing that Carrie has had to an actual love affair. When Saul suggests that Carrie seems to love Brody, despite her suspicions and despite every logical reason she shouldn’t, the audience has already figured it out.

The war at home…

Danes’ Carrie Matheson makes for a compelling leading character, an emotionally disconnected analyst with a knack for piecing together information, but with little understanding of people. When Saul discovers what she’s doing, she attempts to distract him by seducing him, a massive error in judgement, and one that suggests she lacks any real understanding of her mentor. The show suggests that her uncanny ability to connect the dots might be rooted in her mental instability.

In fact, she’s most effective when she’s recovering from her breakdown, and Saul can’t keep pace her thoughts. “You’re talking very fast,” he tries to tell her. “All your thoughts are running together. I can’t keep up with your ideas.” The show actually does an excellent job illustrating these seemingly random thought-processes and Carrie’s unusual pattern recognition skills. Free-form jazz recurs throughout the show, must obviously in the opening credits. It’s a selection of almost random sounds and notes, strung together to produce a surreal effect, and it’s the perfect way of capturing Carrie’s thought processes. Of course she’s a fan, as her head works in a similar way.

Hitting a wall (of information)…

Despite its subject matter, Homeland actually seems far more preoccupied on the weaknesses of American information gathering than on anything that Abu Nazir’s terrorist organisation might be doing. It’s an interesting approach to take – one that accepts the people conducting and orchestrating these attacks as inherently evil, but also fixated on exploring how the response to those atrocities defines modern America.

The show features the War on Terror in a bit of a lull. Carrie is still driven by her own perceived failure on 9/11, as the opening credits remind us each week. However, the political establishment seems to celebrate Sergeant Brody’s return as it offers proof to the public that the War on Terror is perpetual and on-going. (It also serves as the backbone of the Vice President’s political campaign, with the character’s policies focused on foreign policy rather than dealing with any of America’s pressing internal concerns.)

A car in every garage…

“What is it you do at Langley these days?” a judge asks Saul in an early episode, as if to suggest that the CIA’s counter-terrorism programmes are doing nothing but spinning their wheels. In fact, it seems like the biggest obstacles to Carrie don’t come from outside forces, but from inside the agency itself. Even before she’s begun her crusade to expose Brody as a sleeper agent, she’s still meeting Saul in relatively quiet parts of Langley, and wary of any agents wandering into earshot. “We’re all fighting the same enemy here,” Saul tries to convince her, but it’s the petty politics that seem to handicap Carrie’s investigation more than anything Nazir does.

The CIA is presented as repeatedly out-dated, and without the necessary skill or experience to properly counter terrorist threats. Defending Carrie, Saul argues, “She’s the only one in the Section who has been to Iraq.” It seems like the efforts are being run by pencil-pushers. Even Saul seems a little out-of-touch. When Carrie tries to show him something on the laptop, he seems to fumble a bit. “Press Enter,”she has to prompt him.

The naked truth…

However, Homeland is actually fairly fascinated with the notion of account and culpability. It surfaces repeatedly throughout the show. Carrie’s downfall is rooted in her inability to trust those around her, and to admit her own deep-seated (and pressing) psychological issues. The investigation into Tom Walker hits a snag when the FBI refuses to be held to account for the accidental death innocent civilians. And Brody’s anger towards the United States is rooted in the Vice-President’s refusal to acknowledge and admit his culpability in the death of innocent children.

“Why do you do that?” the Vice-President challenges David Estes at one point. “Tell me things I don’t want to hear.” There’s a palpable fear of any form of legitimate criticism from any of the authority figures in the show, even when that criticism is warranted and constructive. When the Vice-President discovers Saul is investigating the drone attack, he isn’t concerned with preventing another attack like that. Instead, he’s more concerned about the facts damaging him politically. “I thought that paper trail was burnt,” he insists.

Positively shocking…

When he’s told that Saul is concerned about the lives lost, the Vice-President is at best dismissive. “He’s an intelligence analyst, not a %@#!ing social worker,” the official counters. Homeland acknowledges the threat posed by fanatics like Nazir, with a bombing in down-town Washington mid-way through the season, but it also acknowledges that the attitude towards incidents like this needs to change – that the authorities need to be more willing to learn from previous mistakes in order to more efficiently protect those they serve.

Damian Lewis offers a superb performance as Nicholas Brody, even if he is slightly overshadowed by Danes. I’ve been delighted to see Lewis working consistently since Band of Brothers, as I think he’s one of the finest British television actors around. I do think the show tips its hand with Brody just a little bit too early, showing the prisoner beating his fellow captive to death at the behest of Nazir. Even though it turns out Walker is still alive, it still seems to indicate just a little bit too earlier that Brody is under the spell of this Al Qaeda operative.

The performance ranks among Lewis’ best…

I wouldn’t have minded a bit more ambiguity early on, with Brody’s shell-shocked behaviour possibly an innocent response to years of captivity, and the audience left in a bit of suspense as to whether Carrie’s pursuit of him was justified. On the other hand, this does allow the writers to develop Brody as a character, and allows them to structure certain twists about the nature of his loyalty and his motivations later in the season. I still can’t help but feel like a slight step was misses, and that the hand was played just a little too early.

Still, Homeland is off to a strong start, and it’ll be intriguing to see what the second season holds.

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