By Alexeem Boyle

Showtime’s Homeland, debuting with my favourite pilot of the fall season, captures the atmosphere of paranoia, anxiety and distrust that so many post-9/11 texts fail to. The concern over the ‘threat within’ remains an ever-present if skilfully skirted issue throughout this first hour, opening up a narrative that touches on, and sets up a further exploration of, surveillance, loyalty, deceit, trustworthiness and sanity in the high stakes game of Homeland Security.

Homeland comes from Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, executive producers on 24, and is based on the Israeli series Hatufim (“Prisoners of War”). Claire Danes (so wonderful—recently—in HBO’s Temple Grandin) and Damian Lewis star as Carrie Mathison and Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody, two Americans fighting the War on Terror. Carrie, working from information attained on a trip to Baghdad ten months earlier—“an American prisoner of war has been turned”—believes that Brody, rescued after nearly eight years in captivity in Iraq, may be a sleeper agent of terrorist Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban). As Brody is cleaned up and returned to wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin of Firefly and V) and children Dana (Morgan Saylor) and Chris (Jackson Pace), Carrie begins an unsanctioned investigation in an attempt to uncover whether he is the “turned” prisoner. After causing an “international incident,” and generally being difficult, her sceptical and ambitious boss David Estes (David Harewood)—who also blames Carrie for the breakdown of his marriage—dismisses her suspicions, compelling Carrie to manipulate her “babysitter” Saul (Mandy Patinkin) and surveillance expert Virgil (David Marciano of The Shield) into helping her gain intel on the celebrated all-American war hero.

This intriguing premise is elevated by the no-fuss aesthetic design, the use of surveillance footage (and the attentive ‘eye’ it inspires in Carrie and the audience) and stellar all-round performances, particularly from Claire Danes and Damian Lewis. Danes is fascinating (I particularly liked her expression as she watched Brody and Jessica have sex, and when she can’t decide what to wear for a night out) as the so-called unreliable agent with, based on my limited knowledge, bipolar disorder (that may provide an interesting parallel to, or commentary on, the ‘enemy within’)—Carrie exhibits inflated self-esteem, a decreased need to sleep, she is goal-oriented to the extreme and talkative, with a proclivity for random and frequent sexual encounters. Lewis is less of a draw, not for want of skill, but because his character at this early stage is far more restrained and a bit of a blank slate; for the moment the audience, like Carrie, is still in the position of making assumptions and projecting motive onto Brody. They both excel at giving their characters an edge that makes them appear vulnerable, damaged and dangerous—Carrie is prone to bursts of energy expressed with anger and defensiveness, and Brody’s controlled demeanour is barely concealing…something (or nothing).

The dialogue—while familiar to anybody who has watched film or television about the CIA, FBI or other Government agencies and those they pursue—is, refreshingly, devoid of handholding and patriotic speeches: we know what 9/11 meant for our day-to-day lives, what another attack on US soil could mean and Homeland gives us enough credit to wait for details about what 9/11 meant to, and what impact further attacks would have on, this specific group of individuals. September 11 isn’t specifically a focus, but a simple “everyone missed something that day” and the guilt and anxiety exhibited by Carrie and her colleagues—not to mention the desperate grasping and celebration that the ‘small win’ of Brody’s safe return incites—communicates more than an impassioned ‘the state of the world today’ speech could.

Homeland
has sewn the seeds for an interesting investigation of issues that have emerged over the last decade (and well before), especially with the development and diversification of voice in technology—is broad scale surveillance tolerable if the occasional criminal is caught as a result? How do soldiers (physical and bureaucratic) cling to a position of defence and the idea of the War on Terror ten years on? (“I’m shaking his hand, this is the Vice President. And then I suddenly realise, I don’t even know the guys name”). This pilot plays with the uncomfortable and potentially fatal space of what we cannot know: as Carrie scrutinises Brody without his knowledge, or when she asks some tricky questions during a debriefing (like why he was kept alive when most “actionable intelligence” expires after 72 hours), the unknown (and unknowable) is what gives Homeland its energy.
This, in the long run, may become a problem. Once Brody’s loyalties are revealed (providing it doesn’t take inspiration from The Killing and frustratingly delays the answer), will the focus shift in a manner that extends the scope (to, say, a network or sleeper cell or an attempt to take down Abu Nazir) without losing the intrigue or paranoia so effectively grasped in the pilot? Homeland has been compared to The Manchurian Candidate and The Conversation (I’d chuck in Brothers for good measure) and brings up a wealth of ideas—what is “intelligence” and who or what counts as a reliable source? When outcomes matter how do we adjust the way we treat inconsistencies and explanations? What counts as reasonable doubt when innocent lives may be at risk? When does collateral damage become par for the course?—that has me very excited for episode two.

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3 Responses

  1. Ben

    I haven’t watched it (yet) but your review arouses my interest. I think I’ll give it a shot!

    Reply
    • Alexeem Boyle

      Please do! And let me know what you think. It looks to be a very effective psychological thriller. There are some minor issues, like Carrie’s ability to hide a mood affecting psychological condition and the use of potent anti-psychotics from her bosses (especially in a job that has regular medical checks), but these are some pretty normal suspension of disbelief requirements when it comes to TV.

      Reply
  2. Ben

    I watched the pilot yesterday and I was very impressed by the intelligent, captivating storytelling and especially by the outstanding cast. A very promising start – though I have to agree, I hope they can keep up the suspense once Brody’s intentions are revealed.

    It wouldn’t be fair for me to say that this was the best new show I’ve watched this fall because the only other two new pilots were Ringer and American Horror Story and they’re not really hard to compete against. But Homeland is definitely a show I’d like to keep watching.

    Reply

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