Monday, September 24, 2012

The Politics of Showtime's Drama Homeland

CIA Agents Are Freakin' Good Looking!
Last night at the Emmys Showtimes Homeland won Outstanding Drama. It's also, apparently, Barack Obama's favorite show. Let's take a look at the politics! There will be spoilers.

The Show
Homeland has a disturbing premise: Claire Danes, a CIA intelligence officer, gets credible tip that a special forces POW "has been turned"--has become a friend of the enemy. She doesn't know what to do with this information until Damian Lewis turns up as a rescued POW and is returned to the states as a hero. She doesn't have a good rep--although she is a good intelligence officer and--and her attempts to prove that Damian is dangerous Manchurian candidate (and, indeed, as the show progresses he does in fact become a "candidate") she thinks he is take a convoluted series of twists and turns.

We, the audience, see some stuff in flashbacks that make us pretty sure she's right--but is she? It isn't clear until the series unwinds. The show really feels like it gets its trade-craft right: there's paperwork and procedure. When Danes plays outside the rules there are consequences. We get a feel for the CIA agents as professionals who know their business and we also feel for Damian's wife and kids who have a messy adjustment when he returns eight years after they assumed he was dead.

Mandy Patinkin is a stand-out cast as Claire's former boss and mentor. He effortlessly hits the right notes as intellectual tough guy and unwilling but necessary father figure. Young Morgan Saylor plays Damian Lewis' troubled teen-aged daughter and also shines since she has to be perceptive without quite being worldly (or, at least, not nearly as worldly as she thinks she is). Finally, I want to call out David Marchano--who is some kind of ex-spook who clearly likes, protects, and tries to look after Claire as a now-private surveillance and intelligence worker (probably a private detective).

The show is smart and well produced. There are some "Hey, this is Showtime" sex-scenes but not so many that it takes your focus off the story. I don't think the budget is all that high but it doesn't need to be: this isn't about car chases and gadgets--it's about gut suspicions, research, and a portrayal of a dangerous world.

If I have a problem with Homeland, it's this: I felt that after all was said and done--despite numerous twists and turns--it all came back to basically the same place ... even with a soap opera cliche thrown in so that a key point might be forgotten. The "how" of Homeland is great. The performances are stellar. The trade-craft feels real--but the actual plot ... from episode 1 to episode 12? It didn't go anywhere (considering the status of Claire Dane's character it may even have gone backwards). The guy who was dead in show one was dead in show 12. The guy who didn't have any suspicions in episode 1 doesn't in episode 12. The girl who did? Still does (as of, like, the last scene)--and so on.

I will certainly watch the next season. It has heart--it fairly gripped me as it unspooled--but I feel it has left "money on the table."

The Politics of Homeland
A show about a shadowy traitorous man who has worked his way into potential high political office is Obama's favorite (according to IMDB Trivia)? I'd expect tan attack-ad or two based on that! The politics of Homeland are, aside from the joke, mostly relatively straight forward.

  1. Politics is a dirty game--so is spying--and there are unsavory self-serving characters at the high level. It is said of Britain's Parliament that Guy Fawks is the only guy ever to enter the building with honest intentions: he wanted to blow it up! Damien Lewis, a cipher and double agent, is more "real" than any of the politicians we see any amount of. The Vice President is particularly unlikable telling the CIA director to "fire someone, I don't care who" when something doesn't go right.
  2. The Russians Terrorists Love Their Children Too. It has been remarked that "all politics is personal" and this is undoubtedly true. In fact, it's love for a child that "turns" our marine. We are told that the killing of children is a primary motivator for terrorists and, in Homeland, that turns out to be true (of course the head guy was a terrorist long before his children were killed--the minting of newly formed terrorists with drone strikes ignores the wave of well funded (Saudi-funded) religious propaganda actively inflating the ranks as well. We are told that the death of the child hit both the terrorist father and the surrogate father (Damien) incredibly hard. I suspect in season 2 we will discover that the terrorist was faking it--that he engineered the death of his son to turn the marine: that he realized that an American had to "Feel the death of a child" to make it real. If this is so, my respect for the series goes down a notch for being predictable but it also goes down a notch for being shallowly cynical about its premise. Yes, the death of a child is about the worst thing a parent can imagine--but if a terrorist would use that to further their goals? Then, uh, the terrorists don't actually love their children too ... do they?
  3. Everyone Wants To Use You. The thing about a "turned marine" is that he'll be clear and easy bait for an ambitious politician. While Damien may not be clear if his movie wife is going to let him run for office, no one--and I mean no one--else has any questions. When his buddy, Diego Klattenhoff, suggests the returned Prisoner of War might not be emotionally ready to start making political public appearances his higher-ups tell him to simmer down and get in line. The master terrorist planner knows this will happen too: everything depends on it.
My big question is about the Vice President running for office. Missing from Homeland is the POTUS--and as we see the VP launching his own bid for the presidency we have to wonder why that is. I don't think it's because of any in-story reason: I think it's because the actual President of the United States doesn't fit in the narrative.

Why is that? Well, for one thing, in fiction black presidents have a very specific role to fill: they have to be upstanding and noble or else the show is a right-wing noise machine. This is not "actually true" in all cases--but it is, I assert, true enough that they did not want to go there. Homeland doesn't have any room for a noble politician and so they decided to leave that out. Secondly, it's not clear when this is supposed to be taking place: if the VP is supposed to kind of be "Biden" (although he was an ex-director of the CIA which would literally be Bush Sr.) then it has to be 2016 after the 2012 incumbent leaves office. 

That would kind of make sense--but we have no indication that the VP is making his announcement with the support of the president at all. His "team" is there--which includes, apparently, a lot of military and intelligence top-brass--which doesn't make sense (when have you ever seen Pentagon officials stand with a politician on their reelection bid? That's right: never--it's prohibited)--but no incumbent. If the incumbent is so unpopular that he's not on the stage that leads to one very interesting possibility: the VP is running against a 1-term sitting president in the primary.

A VP primarying a sitting president would be, I think, not only unprecedented but such a colossal political hairball that it would take an assassination of one of the two politicians to have a chance of making the news in such a condition!

I doubt this is something the creators of Homeland thought too much about: their story uses politics as a backdrop for the spy stuff which is, clearly, where they spent their time and effort. 

Homeland is an excellent drama. It has gripping, human performances. Hopefully with the go-ahead for Season 2 which starts in a few days the show creators will recognize the need to bring us some closure early on and have something else to do with the whatever remains of their 12 episodes.


  1. thanks for posting this. I agree with much of what you have written here. I have one major problem with the show central premise that you mention here but do not go into. I just don't see how a US Marine would turn based on the death of child of a terrorist. I understand he developed a strong bond with the kid - Fine. I understand he is even the surrogate father as you put it. BUT how does it make any sense that he would choose this child over his own family, his own real children. He tried to kill the VP and himself in order to take vengeance for loosing his terrorist child. So he is choosing the terrorist's kid over his own kids. He continues to put everyone elses kids ( USA ) at risk all because of one kid who is the son of terorist and was killed, legitimately trying to take out his father. It just does not make any sense to me that a US marine would turn for such a reason and continue to betray his country because he is so broken up and feels its so unjust this killing of his torturer's family. Its just a very weak line and I don't believe that any US marine or anyone for that matter. The whole show is based on a ridiculous premise of anger and vengeance that is not commensurate with the loss he experienced. Its just not believeable

    1. Yeah--the idea of a turned marine is pretty shaky. Homeland doesn't go deeply into the attack so we don't know much of the specifics. I assume it must clearly have been a war crime--and the VP *knew* a bunch of kids would be killed ... but they never make that clear.

      But even avenging a war crime doesn't cover it--clearly he DOES choose his own family.

      On the other hand: what about the other marine? What turned him? I mean, I guess we have to assume it was some kind of psychological torture / breaking that did it--but the guy was still very, very put together after all that ... so, yeah: it's a scary concept but they didn't do a lot of work to sell it beyond the basics.