Friday, November 1, 2013

The Politics Of: Homeland Season 3

Homeland is now almost halfway through its third season. That means we get to take a look at it. The first part is a review (limited spoliers). The second part is more in-depth and assumes you're caught up.

Homeland Season 3
Claire Danes returns for a third season as Carrie Mathison, ace CIA agent who hid mental disorders from her agency, fell in love with a Congressman terrorist turned double triple agent, and now is on a downward spiral in the wake of a massive bombing that killed over 200 CIA agents and government officials. She brings a mix of vulnerability and believable savvy to the role.

Mandy Patinkin returns as Saul, the now Director of the CIA (as everyone else died in the blast) who is soulful, intelligent, unhappy, and Claire's mentor / tormentor. He brings a sense of gravity which the series heavily relies on.

Damian Lewis is ... sorta back ... as the afore-mentioned triple agent now on the run--framed for a crime he didn't commit. Danes, still in love with him, got him out of the country as the worlds biggest manhunt keeps looking for him. He's hunky, put-upon, and serves to remind us what this show was all about in the first place.

Rupert Friend appears from time to time as Peter Quin a CIA killer with a heart of ... maybe pyrite. He's coolly efficient, low body fat, and projects intelligence. Now standing more or less behind Claire--although, really, a bit 'too far' behind to be all that helpful yet--he brings extreme competence. If he wants you dead, you're screwed.

Morgan Saylor plays Dana Brody, Damian's teen-aged daughter who was devastated when her dad, who she believed in, was "shown to be a terrorist after all." She brings an all-too-realistic teenaged angst with small glimpses of a more worldly / mature persona. For the first half of the show it's buried under the angst though and if you find that annoying well, the show makes up for that by giving her a lot of screen time.

Wait ...

Morena Baccarin is back for third appearance as Congressman / Terrorist / Triple Agent Brody's wife. She's rightly concerned about her devastated daughter and gets to try to be a mother under improbable and difficult circumstances. She suffers, is strong, and looks good doing it. If you're wondering why this sub-plot / these characters are getting so much air time you'll have to wait along with the rest of us to find out.

As you may observe from the above, Homeland's third act was as damaged as the CIA by last season's massive bomb-blast. The show knows it wants to keep Brody around. It needs to wrap things up with his family. Claire is still, presumably, still in love with him--and the reversal from the first season (she's the only one who thinks he's guilty) to the third (she's the only one who thinks he's innocent) makes some nice symmetry.

The problem is that Homeland S3 wants to continue story lines that were effectively ended--if not quite terminally from the first two seasons. We "know" that Brody will come back into Carrie's orbit. We "know" that his daughter will need to regain her faith in her father. We understand that after the death of Abu Nazir there will rise another figure to draw their fire. The show can't simply have Carrie move on and give her another assignment: the needs of television want to stick with the original premise. It's that premise (Carrie is a spy with special insight that puts her apart from her agency and Brody is a person who may or may not be what he seems) that is thought to keep people coming back.

The reality, though, is that what keeps people coming back to Homeland is watching smart (and, let's be fair) attractive spy-craft with a human face on it (the Brody family). We like watching Clair walk the line between damaged and effective. We like the unsettling presentation of Lewis slipping between worlds maybe and maybe not betraying everyone ... ultimately, as we sympathize with him, wondering is he betraying us?

We can keep both these elements--we don't need these characters or their specific baggage. I say that wishing absolutely no ill on, for example, Morgan Saylor (Brody's daughter), who does her job exceptionally well. Her arc has been skewed by giving her nothing but lie upon lie to build on: how can her actions have any gravity when she doesn't have any idea what's really going on?

I also say that when, as of Episode 5, the show changes gears back to slick spycraft and the characters getting to take some initiative. The season's back-nine may be where it truly shines. The first four episodes, though? You had to drag me through them.

Let's do the politics!

The Politics of Homeland Season 3
In HL S03 the government is thinking about ... "getting rid of the CIA." This is easier than you might think: a lot of of the CIA was killed in that blast. When spy-master Saul tries to get a financial analyst to track terrorist money moving around he gets a young girl in a Muslim headscarf who has worked at the agency for eight days. He's (initially) not reassured (she turns out to be very good).

On the other hand, this is ridiculous. Firstly the key CIA field operatives are all still out there. If you tried to replace the activities with, say, the Pentagon, you would have to migrate all those operations into a new agency along with their personnel. Secondly, even if the ill-defended funeral (where the blast happened) was heavily attended it wouldn't be everyone. Having to re-staff is one thing. Shutting them down is something else.

I suppose that finding out a congressman was a double-agent would, indeed, hurt their credibility--but so has a bunch of things (Kuwait invasion, 9/11, and so on). This can be rebuilt and it has to be. Secondly, the American people calling for blood is what drives congress (NSA spying). In this case it's not clear the American people would be. The damage was, after all, to a governmental agency--a hard target.

Later on we find that the guy tapped to be the new chief wants to go to drones as the direction of the future. This, actually, is the direction of the past: the CIA's 80's and 90's over-reliance on SIGINT (tracking electronic signals) as opposed to HUMINT (human intelligence) was deemed a serious weakness. Even with the relatively new capabilities of drones it seems unlikely we would go back.

I suppose that statement was meant to sound to the audience like exactly the kind of thing a smart but inexperienced politician would do with the CIA--but to me it sounded like they were relying on us not knowing actual CIA history. Maybe I'm missing something.

Finally we have the big lie: the game Saul is running is pretending to burn Carrie by discrediting her before Congress and then having her thrown in the insane asylum. She is to be rescued by lawyers working for Iran so that she can be "turned" to give Iran information (such as how the CIA is targeting their people). The con game is also played on the viewer as this is not made clear until the very end of episode 4.

Would this work? The answer is a qualified "yes." The real intelligence practice around turning people is to find people working for the military or other such agencies who have weaknesses (gambling or other debts, affairs, and closeted homosexuality were big ones) and then blackmail / bribe them to "give a little." This could be as simple as the platoon roster of people (which an enemy operative could easily get just by parking near a public parade field and taking some pictures).

Once you've given that though, they have a record--believe me, they will have a record--and as you will go to prison for that breach (the Army originated Zero Tolerance Policies) you are now seriously on the hook for whatever they want from you ... for as long as they can keep you. Military court is unforgiving.

In the case of Carrie, though, her intel would be rapidly aging: she knows a limited amount (past operations, present operations as of like a few weeks ago) and will never know anything else. The Iranians would essentially be wanting a few specific pieces of intelligence from her (who is operating in their country? How were their leaks generated? Maybe what are the next immediate targets?).

It seems very unlikely that they would agree to a face-to-face meeting with her (which puts the spymaster in danger) in order to get that. Possible--but not, in my opinion, likely. I do believe that they would dearly want that information. The show has also made it believable that Carrie might give it up (she is desperate and is be persecuted by her own government). The problem is that in the scenario (that they may forever imprison Carrie or even kill her) Iran has all the leverage. If they refuse the face-to-face meeting she goes back to the asylum ... forever.

So maybe there'll be another revelation.

By the way, I still think the one hole-card the series is hanging on to is that Saul is a traitor of some sort (he could've given the captive the razor, he failed the polygraph, he was out of the way of the death-blast and tried to get Carrie to come with him). If that turns out to be true, I'll be gratified. If that turns out to be true it would be very Is-He-Betraying-Me (the Viewer) Homeland-esque.

But we'll see (if it is true, even with some narrative markers pointing in that direction, the show will have some 'splainin to do).

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