I finally discovered that Barack Obama and I have at least one thing in common. And so what if it’s an addiction? For Obama, it’s been two years now since he got hooked. I am a latecomer, it’s been less than three weeks. I’m talking about the American TV serial Homeland that Star World has been running every weeknight.
I had been hearing about Homeland for quite some time before I got to watch it. Saturday Night Live has frequently featured Homeland jokes. I’ve watched Homeland’s star, the British actor Damian Lewis, on the Graham Norton Show on the now-defunct channel BBC Entertainment. The show and its actors feature regularly in Emmy and Golden Globe awards lists. So I knew a little bit about what it was all about before I watched the first episode.
Honest confession here: I am a sucker for grim and harrowing TV thrillers. For instance, I have watched all seven (or is it eight?) seasons of 24, and all however-many seasons of Dexter. And the producers of Homeland include the men behind 24 and the man who ran Dexter. So I was a sitting duck.
Homeland begins in Baghdad in 2010, with CIA field agent Carrie Mathison learning from an about-to-be-executed Al Qaeda operative that an American prisoner of war (PoW) has been “turned”. Some months later, US Navy Seals discover Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody, declared “missing in action” eight years ago, locked in a cell in an underground Al Qaeda hideout. Brody comes back to the US, and is feted as a genuine American hero. But Carrie, who is now back at CIA’s Langley headquarters, suspects that Brody is the “turned” PoW, that he is now actually working for Abu Nazir, an Al Qaeda kingpin, and is the spearhead of a major planned terrorist attack on US soil. Her bosses pooh-pooh the notion, but she flouts agency regulations and begins her own clandestine investigation of Brody.
While as far as appearances go, there seems to be nothing at all wrong with Brody, the audience is given enough hints so it knows that he has not revealed everything to the government about his eight years of captivity; in fact, he is hiding a lot of stuff in his head. Trouble is, Carrie suffers from a psychotic condition which she has hidden from her employers (if the CIA knew about it, she would be instantly fired) and manages to lead a normal life only through illegally obtained medication. So Brody’s not fully what he seems to be, and Carrie can’t help her obsession with him. Neither can be wholly trusted.
I think I can reveal only so much without letting slip some spoilers. Let me just say that the script writers had a field day with Homeland, and almost each episode ends with a twist most of the audience would not have expected. That is surely the prime reason for the serial’s raging popularity, especially in the US, in its state of post-9/11 paranoia, from which it will perhaps never recover. But what makes Homeland different—and maybe disturbing to some people—is the zone of moral ambiguity it inhabits and into which it expertly sucks its audience.
Again, trying to avoid spoilers as much as one can, some questions Homeland asks are: If Brody has indeed become an Al Qaeda operative, is it because of the way the US has conducted its war on terror? And if Brody is going to be the principal agent of a major terror attack, is he really betraying his country and the oath he took as a Marine to protect the US against foreign and domestic threats? Are the methods that Carrie, always teetering on the edge of sanity, uses, to pursue what could be a delusion that could ruin the lives of innocent people, ethical (they are certainly illegal)? Can such methods be justified in hindsight if the delusions turn out to be the truth? In the war against Al Qaeda, have some American elements been as inhuman as their enemy?
Some Islamic organizations have condemned Homeland as Islamophobic, but it is far from that. Homeland balances its views on American political avarice and Al Qaeda’s fanaticism almost perfectly. In fact, in Homeland’s universe, many in the audience may find Abu Nazir, the Al Qaeda boss, a more sympathetic character than the US vice-president and former CIA chief who is the senior-most American politician character in the story. Of course, it’s all very clever television, but it’s edge of the seat stuff with a very skilfully built core of moral chaos.
If one looks at Homeland’s TV genealogy, Dexter was a very well-done pretension of moral ambiguity, but a pretension nonetheless. The eponymous hero works in the Miami police department, but is actually a clinical murderer. But the men—and at least one woman, from what I can remember—he kills (and then chops up into small pieces and throws into the sea) are such monsters that the average viewer quite comfortably seats himself in Dexter’s corner, and roots for him when he comes close to getting caught or killed. In the end, it’s crude but enjoyable sub-Hitchcockian manipulation.
24 is a slightly more complex case. The hero, anti-terrorism agent Jack Bauer flouts all laws, shoots, kills, tortures at will to save his country. His modus operandi would have every extreme right-winger in a state of constant righteous sexual excitement. Of course, in every case—surprise!—all the people he tortures turn out to be bad guys after all; by scriptwriter-blessed instinct, Bauer never kills or cuts open the tummy of an innocent person. But 24 also tries to give itself a liberal sheen: the three US Presidents shown over the eight seasons are two African-Americans and a woman, all of them left-of-centre patriots. And some of the bad guys in the US government who hate Bauer are decidedly right wing. Plus there’s that arty touch: every season ends with the US being saved, but also with either Bauer suffering a personal loss, or some other tragedy that leaves the audience vaguely unhappy. Though 24 is fundamentally nothing more than a very gripping crime thriller with a great concept (each story lasts exactly 24 hours), books and research papers have been written on the politics of 24. Homeland will surely spawn some.
Homeland scores higher on the moral ambiguity index because it deals with the very real issue of Islamist terrorism, and places at its centre the character of Sergeant Brody, tortured soul, torn between faiths, with the geopolitical future literally in his hands. He is played marvellously by Lewis, shifting effortlessly from innocent to sinister, confused to unwavering—an understated performance that keeps the viewer guessing all the time about the man’s inner mystery. And Brody’s pursuers and mentors (and they are from both sides of the war on terror) are all flawed and damaged people.
It’s not very surprising to me that Obama, who, by all accounts, thinks a lot about right and wrong and other such big questions, is Homeland’s First Fan. He has admitted that he ordered the DVDs of the serial, and on Saturday afternoons, when his family went off to play tennis, would retire to his den and watch Homeland. At the official White House reception for visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron, Lewis was among the invitees. Lewis went with his wife and was astonished to find that he had been allotted a seat at Obama’s table. The President wanted to chat about Homeland with him.