Look, I’m a complete sucker for literature of the spy and espionage genre, particularly John le Carré’s works in relation to the Cold War.
This applies to on screen efforts too, be it films such as ‘Spy Game’, ‘Day of The Jackal’, ‘The Lives of Others’. Television series such as ‘Spooks’ also hold a similar appeal, or better yet ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, and ‘Smiley’s People’, both faithful adaptations of le Carré’s fantastic novels, which the BBC commissioned in the late seventies and early eighties. Both series are brilliant, so have a look on the net for them, but they do pose a problem: once you see Alec Guinness nail the role of George Smiley you’ll never be convinced by anybody else’s attempt to reprise it. Even Gary Oldman, who, as per usual, gave it his best in the film version of ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ released three years ago, was left with absolutely no chance of transcending the standard.
Homeland’s first season, and the subsequent messes of season’s two and three, was similarly analogous of such circumstances. Like Alec Guinness’s Smiley, season one of Homeland hit the high water mark of the genre, and as such what was to come next stood little chance of maintaining it.
The first series of Homeland was so good because its narrative found sustenance by provoking and tormenting you into considering the burning psychological concepts of identity, loyalty and place as questions, and better yet it delivered few answers when the plot had promised to.
Most shows succeed when they stick to one overriding premise and or focus. In Homeland’s case it posed these questions through a single device: was the attrition Damien Lewis (as Brody) wore so well, conveying so much with saying so little, due to the unsettling and unexplained circumstances of his return, only to find he brought alienation and disquiet to his own family’s settled dynamic, the veracious consumption and proliferation of his fame after being anointed as a hero, and the personal cost it inflicts, the impending dread of his treachery and suicidal martyrdom, or all of the above?
Eventually we were provided the answer to the question of his guilt, and it was inevitable, but the unravelling was engrossing. Like Smiley eventually succeeding in rooting out the mole in ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ the outcome was never in doubt, but the process of how we got there and the why provides the intrigue. For Homeland to truly work we had to view Brody’s journey (or reintroduction if you prefer) with the implied knowledge of his guilt. What caused Brody to become a terrorist is what made him an interesting character. We thought of all the permutations, and even now, we’re still not sure as to what percentage each of the experiences Brody went through; pre capture, in captivity and after he was rescued, contributed to his desire to reaffirm his ideological recalibration, or if he even had one at all beyond survival.
The case can be made that Homeland should’ve been a one and done show. Once Brody’s guilt was exposed its foundations became shaken. The sub-plots that simultaneously embellished doubts about Brody, and held their own interest in this narrative context as peripheral concerns, had to become central plot devices, and as such were mundane mechanisms with which to build and maintain interest. Season two saw Brody’s desperation to survive become a convenient excuse to have him lazily and unconvincingly flip flop his allegiance on the schematic whims of others, each of them became increasingly preposterous, as he offered loyalty to whoever and whatever offered him a route to salvation. Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) became Brody’s chief manipulator. Carrie, a workaholic, held hostage by various personal insecurities, particularly the incessant spectre of mental imbalance, obsessed over Brody’s guilt. Eventually this morphed into a far fetched complex, where by exposing Brody she could ultimately redeem him, by using him as a double agent, and validate their burgeoning romance (I won’t start, and the less you dwell on it the better), and in doing so salvage herself and the catastrophe their lives had become.
Certain sub-plots that were intriguing and while not ignored, were marginalised to make way in an effort to sustain the Carrie and Brody dynamic. The sage like Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), and his battle to maintain the old school ethos and methods of intelligence gathering, against a CIA increasingly in the thrall of appealing to its post 9/11 provincialisms, revelling in its own hubris of its superior technological apparatuses and self made wars and that are designed to never end, deserved more focus than it received.
In season two we were introduced to the grisly dark artistry of Dar Adal, who embodies a simplistic mainstream notion of a glamorously clandestine CIA ruthlessness which appeals to its detractors and sympathisers alike. Adal’s a real wise old geezer, replete with a magnificent condescending eyebrow. He’s someone who you desperately want to root against, but you can’t help admiring him for being so conniving. You marvel at his ability to manipulate his right hand man and protégé Peter Quinn and to influence Saul’s thinking into aligning with his vision of what constitutes ‘operational effectiveness’. Then there were those two tech geeks, potentially interesting characters both, relegated into existing solely as sporadic, and as such, misguided comedic interludes.
The ending to season one was much discussed, and derided as a cop out by some. At the time I couldn’t blame the writers and its showrunner for deciding to keep Brody alive. If you’re a new show, killing off your central character after one season isn’t usually synonymous with getting it renewed. In the short term oriented world of television, having to hedge your bets can often lead to creative compromises. If Homeland had been commissioned with the intent of it being a one off series Brody may have found a way to get the suicide vest to work again. However, and with the benefit of hindsight, each outcome would only work well with one eventuality. If Brody died, the show could’ve continued afresh, as it’s trying to do now, two seasons later. If he lived, it had to end there and then. In the aftermath, with Brody surviving, what would happen to Brody and Carrie and what would occur between them, or not, would’ve belonged firmly in the realm of the believable. Sadly, art that’s subject to the medium that is television is entirely beholden to cynicism. For most shows their ability to make money and continue to do so for as long as possible is usually their primary function.
Hey, I shouldn’t be too critical of Homeland becoming rudderless. Half the time I don’t know what I’m doing or where I’m heading; with this blog, with writing, with work (given what I do using the term ‘career’ seems fucking laughable), or even when I’m at the shops. At times the future, even the immediate future, which involves simple tasks or decisions such as taking the skin lotion off the shelf and putting it in the basket, can seem nebulous and completely unfathomable. Yet I have the intrinsic belief that in some way every thing I do is worthwhile.
And that, more than any other reason, is why Homeland is still around. Suckers like me keep watching, because, well, in my case I’m fan of the genre, but because it was once good, and so we reserve the right to believe it could be again, just as I keep writing in the hope that I’ll get better at it. This perseverance combined with the cynicism of the TV business, has, in a perverse way, granted Homeland the opportunity to reach rehabilitation through recalibration.
Which brings us to Homeland’s fourth season; with Brody now disposed of, and the main setting now moving to Pakistan, the show essentially can start over by using its residual attributes. The question is, will it?
The early signs vacillate between iffy and promising. The spectre of Brody clearly still dogs Carrie, whom the show now orbits. She feels incapable of raising his daughter or is simply too self absorbed to, and by exposing Brody it provided her the opportunity to love a man she could not, only for it to ultimately doom him. Early in season four, we see Carrie afforded the opportunity to reprise her Brody complex. She gives the order to bomb a compound where a high ranking terrorist is believed to be residing, based upon a non-vetted intelligence source providing intel to the CIA’s Islamabad station chief. Part of the collateral damage is the deaths of a young Pakistani medical student’s family, Aayan Ibrahim, who appropriately for the purposes of intrigue, is related to the terrorist who was targeted.
Aayan becomes a central player in the ensuing mess, as what follows is the CIA station chief’s public murder as recompense for the bombing, after his source hangs him out to dry with duff info and someone blows his cover. There are accusations of Pakistani government involvement in orchestrating his death; meanwhile Aayan, just like Brody, becomes an unwilling heroic public figure in the media’s glare, but in this instance as an avatar for resentment against callous forms of American interventionism.
Part of what made season two and three so weak, aside from the implausibility, was how predictable it all was. Four episodes into season four thankfully I have no clue what’s going on, who the CIA’s source is/was, or what motivations Aayan has, is he like Brody? Is he not what he seems? What is motivating Carrie? Is involving Aayan in the search for the CIA source, with the intention of helping him escape Pakistan, about atoning for Brody, or is Carrie cynically using him as a form of collateral to validate her judgment and therefore validate her ascending into a position of greater authority? This is a refreshing change for the show which originally relied on Brody’s implied guilt, and then the investment of the audience in the characters in the aftermath of its confirmation, to sit through the silly shenanigans of season two and three. Right now there are a number of permissible directions this season can go in, and that’s a healthier place than this show’s been in for a while.
At the start of season four Saul occupies a strange position, disillusioned with the CIA’s direction, he’s now defected to the private sector, an even more cynical entity whose existence relies entirely on conflict. Now desperate to get back into a position of power Saul reminds me of paradoxical dilemma Leamas grapples with throughout ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’. Saul considers the morass of futile outlooks that motivates the actions on both sides of the divide. He sees that neither a strict interventionist and isolationist stance works in fighting terrorism, ideology or ideologues. But like Leamas he doesn’t like the faith and detachment from nuance his industry now requires, yet Saul believes in the mission’s necessity, despite being cognisant of its inherent immorality and futility possessing a solution.
Homeland has been accused of being Islamophobic, and it is, intentionally, by assuming the culture of its subject. Saul’s unease towards a conviction form of intelligence that Carrie seems to now be assuming, reveals a central tenet of what it and many facets of Western culture are predicated upon; a myopic faith that action based on a system of values and beliefs, equally as atavistic as those they’re attempting to replace, is culturally transposable and desirable. It’s the kind of assumption that informs the drivel on those ghastly American-style twenty four hour news channels, ridden with hysterical opining doublespeak in a vain attempt to mask their pious xenophobia, it’s an attitude that invariably occupies a similar terrain to the rhetoric and absolutism of extremism it claims to fight.
While I’m optimistic, given the last two seasons I also retain a large dose of scepticism towards this show recovering. Most worryingly we have Quinn nominally assuming Carrie’s role to her Brody. Clearly drained from killing in the name of, Quinn’s trying to save Carrie from being fully assimilated into the agency’s doctrine. However, it was difficult not to roll your eyes when Quinn’s suspected motivation for doing this was that he ‘has feelings for her’. That such a device was needed to keep Quinn’s character relevant is a sad legacy of how shallow and predictable this show had become.
Despite these flaws I keep watching Homeland, difference is, while le Carré’s work is guaranteed to reveal something new with each re-approach, I’m left hoping that Homeland will intrigue the way it once used to, and given its constituent pieces, probably should do again.