THE OPENING CREDITS of Showtime’s Homeland are a fever dream. The title appears in negative over a full-frame shot of a small, blonde girl sleeping as anxious music plays under audio of Ronald Reagan’s 1986 speech announcing an attack on facilities owned by Muammar Qaddafi. Cut to the girl sitting on the floor watching television as the radio newsman announces that the 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 has crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland. The little girl practices a trill on her trumpet in her bedroom; she stands in a labyrinth wearing a dress and a lion mask. Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush address the nation, emphasizing the words America, aggression, terrorism. The girl, now older and looking weary, opens her eyes. Panicked people run through the streets of New York City; a smoke plume rises in the distance over the Brooklyn Bridge.
Homeland won this year’s Emmy awards for Outstanding Actress in a Drama (Claire Danes), Outstanding Actor in a Drama (Damian Lewis), and Outstanding Drama — three honors that had been given for the majority of the last half-decade to AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad. But the most common comparisons Homeland must endure are to the show produced and written by its two creators, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon: the Bush-era juggernaut 24. Where 24 reflected an early-aughts jingoism that might look naïve in retrospect, Homeland is the output of an America thoroughly saturated in post-millennial dread: the product of a weary citizenry settling into the understanding of the deeper existential issues currently plaguing the nation. If we can say that an effective thriller reflects the anxieties of its day, then Homeland’s great point of frisson lies in a fear of what America has become, and the intractable ambiguities into which it has become lodged.
The tense opening scenes of Homeland’s pilot episode show CIA field operative Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) receiving a piece of information that sets off the series. In a Baghdad prison cell, an Al Qaeda bomb-maker working under the terrorist leader Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban) tells her that an American prisoner of war has been “turned” to Al Qaeda. Ten months later, in a briefing room at the CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, Carrie watches a video of American soldiers rescuing POW Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) during an assault on a hostile installation in the Korengal Valley. While all the other operatives applaud, a shot of Carrie indicates that she has connected these two points — the turned American and the rescued soldier — into a line.
Carrie’s credibility is brought under suspicion immediately. Her supervisor Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) explains the absurdity of her theory: why would an Al Qaeda leader plant intelligence within the US military and sacrifice 13 trained fighters just to introduce a turned American back into the system? Why not drop him near a checkpoint as if he had escaped? Because Abu Nazir is playing the long game, Carrie explains, so that no one will suspect anything. “Except you,” Saul says. “Yeah, except me,” she responds. When Carrie argues for permission to pursue a warrant to install a surveillance system in Brody’s home, Saul denies it. She installs...read more