The Return of Manic Depression, Terrorism and the American Way in Homeland

Saul and Carrie – mentor and protege – sane and insane?

In the middle of its first season, I successfully turned key players in my family and several coworkers. Homeland was not a show to watch half-heartedly – you had to commit to the cause. I extolled the series’ virtues in the midst of season one when I presented Five Reasons Why You Should Be Watching Homeland. And people, once introduced to its brilliance, were willing to take up the banners in support. The show recently moved from cult status to mainstream success with its bevy of Emmy wins.

And as spectacular as that first season was, I had this feeling in my gut that this could become another Dexter. Like Homeland, Dexter was near genius in its inaugural season, wholly unlike anything else on television at the time, and shockingly entertaining. Yet I knew then eventually someone would catch Dexter Morgan, the serial killer who killed serial killers while working for the Miami PD as a blood-spatter expert. I mean how many serial killers could there be in one city and how dumb could the Miami PD be, right? And now that show is a parody of itself, ridiculous beyond belief, and limping through another ill-advised season far past its prime. Homeland, too, faces a similar conundrum. How long can Brody (Damian Lewis) keep this up? Won’t he eventually get caught? Won’t Carrie eventually remember “Isa!” or won’t someone in the government or someone in his family catch on that he’s working for terrorist mastermind numero uno, Abu Nazir?

But I forgot a key difference between these two shows. Homeland has balls. And as soon as that fear bounced around in my head, there we were at the end of the second episode of the second season (SPOILER ALERT!)…and Saul (Mandy Patinkin) was watching a video that was about to reveal the true nature of now Congressman Brody. I have no idea where it’s going from there, and we have ten episodes to go in the sophomore set.

Constantly defying expectations, Homeland might be evolving into the greatest thing on television today…and dare I say (and blaspheme my Twin Peaks-loving soul) the greatest thing ever in the history of the medium if it continues to play its cards right.

Both my beloved Boardwalk Empire and long ballyhooed Mad Men are still great but cut from the same fashionable cloth: each episode is like a mini-film, brilliantly written with self-contained character arcs and beautifully produced with impeccable attention to period detail in the set designs, costumes and soundtracks. Their narratives are also both hampered by their ties to history (and in Boardwalk Empire’s case – some historical fiction as it makes characters of Al Capone and many others). You can normally telegraph what’s about to happen from miles away.

Homeland, on the other hand, is sporting a whole new burka and harkens back to both the great film serials of yore and classic nighttime soaps of television’s golden era – each episode a cliffhanger, and each bulging with intimate familial details (marriages crumbling, parents and children bonding, psychological disorders uncovered, plots thickening). It’s ferociously action-packed and fully tapped into the cultural zeitgeist with its Middle East quagmires and CIA operations to thwart terrorism. Homeland exists in the here and now and it’s just as unpredictable as real life. It responds to events making history – not history itself. Yet it never overplays its hand or goes to the cliffhanging extremes of its spiritual brethren and forbearer, 24. It’s slow, methodical, expertly paced, and riddled with suspense and suspicion. 

Abu Nazir is a villain for our times – a smooth criminal, insidious and manipulative – as if Osama Bin Laden was re-imagined as a Bond villain as written by Graham Greene.

At the center of it all is Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes, luminously insane and able to over-emote without ever appearing to over-act) – the most brilliantly conceived, written and performed female character we have ever seen on the small screen. In the season two premier, when Carrie gets that look on her face while in the field avoiding capture, it’s a smile as unnerving as it is celebratory.  SHE’S BACK!  But at what cost to her psyche and emotional well-being? She’s an obsessive, dynamic, intuitive, slyly deductive, bipolar (currently ex-) CIA agent whose life crumbled at the end of season one because everyone (including her mark, Brody) convinced her she had never been more wrong about thinking she was so right. BUT SHE WAS RIGHT! And we the audience shares in this shrieking knowledge – a knowledge that just two episodes in is now shared by another character. 

On the periphery we have Damian Lewis’ brooding Nicholas Brody, who has gone from POW hero to up-and-coming Congressman in lighting speed. He is constantly battling his inner and outward demons – presenting himself as a patriot and a family man (witness the relationship with his feisty daughter) while defying those Nazir compatriots who want him to aid in killing innocents and still desiring justice for innocents killed he thinks can only be avenged through terrorism against the guilty parties responsible. Like Dexter Morgan, he has a code it seems. But unlike Dexter Morgan, Brody feels real. He’s not some hero-turned-terrorist presented as a post-modern anti-hero boogeyman. He’s a real live, morally complex, unpredictable and driven person. He’s the perfect foil for Carrie Mathison.

Brody is a man hiding the fact that he is a fallen hero and desperately clinging to the idea of being a family man. Neither all good nor all evil – he’s a man whose redemption we route for while at the same time craving justice. He has to be caught…right?

Homeland also strikes me as exactly the type of thing Graham Greene would be writing if he were alive today with its treatment of Islam and global politics (vs. Greene’s old-world Catholicism and colonialism) and varying shades of moral ambiguities.  Much like Greene’s greatest novels, it’s hard for the audience to imagine any of this ending well.  Is a happy ending even possible in the world of Homeland, a world so frighteningly like our own?  Imagine – Brody is revealed and captured by the CIA.  What would that accomplish?  Abu Nazir’s network of terror would still be operational – it might even be sparked to boldness by such a development.  And we would’ve been robbed of the possibility of seeing a once good man (and still good man by some measures) find a path to redemption after being tortured and manipulated into being an accomplice to terror.  If he’s never caught – how can there ever be a victor in the war against terror – and how can Carrie ever be able to adjust to a life knowing that he would never be brought to justice?  If Brody is caught – where would Carrie then channel her obsessive personality?

It’s the dance between Carrie and Brody that has me wondering – where are you going to take us, Homeland? I don’t know. And that’s a beautiful thing that will keep me coming back as long as my fears are assuaged. This is what makes Homeland the rarest of feats in entertainment – a television series able to assuage our post 9/11 anxieties through the catharsis of watching a crazy heroine and a noble terrorist battle wills and their own tortured realities in the comforts of our living rooms week after week.

I don’t have to tell people to watch Homeland any more. They accept it as their duty.

Meanwhile, if I write nothing more of Homeland during its entire series run, it will only be because it left me speechless and it will have thus fulfilled its contract with the audience.

Written by David H. Schleicher

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Note to Showtime – why the heck don’t you fork out the dough for the rights to use Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” in the promos for Homeland?  It would be perfect – don’t you think?

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2 comments on “The Return of Manic Depression, Terrorism and the American Way in Homeland

  1. Dianne Glave says:

    I caught on very late. I watched back-to-back episodes of season 1 over the summer. I am most assuredly hooked. And now with Saul unexpectedly viewing the video, the director/writers have turned conventional television expectations of revealing the protagonist/antagonist in the form of an honored American soldier turned Al Qaeda. WOW.

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