Aliens in the Homeland




Aliens in the Homeland by Matthew Brandon Wolfson

Alienation and ambient anxiety in the surveillance state

November 10th, 2013 reset - +

1.        

HOMELAND is perplexing in that its definitive features, suspense and politics fail to explain its persistent appeal. The signature suspense is expertly applied — layered on scene by scene, then punctuated with shocking plot turns, evoking a sense of dread that shadows even the most inessential action — but eventually the plot’s perambulations become unbelievable enough that they threaten the audience’s emotional investment. At the close of Season Two, we saw the vice president of the United States assassinated via a digitally manipulated pacemaker controlled by Osama bin Laden’s fictional counterpart, who was hiding in a mill in Maryland; watched a SWAT team as they terminated the fictional bin Laden and dumped him in the ocean; and then witnessed terrorists bomb the CIA headquarters at Langley during the vice president’s funeral, killing 300 people. That’s a lot to process, much less to feel, in two and a half episodes, and our only dubious relief from this constant upping of the ante was an unconvincing love story between the two leads, itself an ongoing product of another of the plot’s great leaps of logic.

Nor does Homeland’s treatment of national security politics serve a significant function beyond teeing up the narrative, despite a proliferation of theories about how the show’s paranoia may or may not reflect America’s post-9/11 angst. This is a series about the home front, but it’s not one that’s interested in portraying the most significant domestic consequence of our counterterrorism policies: an inertial defense bureaucracy and its adverse effects on the lives of its citizens. To the extent that Homeland treats politics, it personalizes them: the crucial fact that war hero-turned-presumptive terrorist Nicholas Brody was “turned” by witnessing the consequences of a drone strike firsthand, setting up the series’ main conflict, exemplifies this approach. Certainly, at the point where Langley’s been hit by a bomb, the war hero-turned-congressman-turned-presumed perpetrator has decamped to Venezuela and the single agent in the CIA who can unearth the real culprits is confined to a mental facility, secretly working with the CIA director to solve the case and carrying what is likely the presumed perpetrator’s love-child, the conceit of deeper meaning begins to look a little wishful.

Homeland’s sustaining virtues lie elsewhere. This is a narrative that comes to life in the margins, during buildups and declensions to its larger arc. Family dinners, visits to church, conversations in quiet offices, trips to the supermarket, nights alone at home, speeches at veterans’ events, and classroom interactions all assume an outsized significance, especially next to the life-and-death climaxes toward which we know they’re eventually leading. These less histrionic segments inhabit our focus because of the attention they allow us to pay to the personalities onscreen: broadly painted archetypes consigned to the demands of a thriller who nonetheless remain compelling variations on a single, plausible trait. They are unrelentingly alienated from their surroundings, and their perpetual tension with the dictates of their environment becomes a constant source of strain for the audience. We not only know that anything could happen, we know these people intimately enough to realize they’re dancing so close to the edge that the slightest push is likely to send them over.
 

2.        

Carrie Matheson is of course the poster child for this condition. Manic depressive, attractive, by turns needy and alluring, and almost impossibly intuitive, she’s suspicious of Nicholas Brody from the minute he steps back onto American soil, and is systematically marginalized by her colleagues at Central Intelligence for her suspicions. Carrie is the resident Cassandra of the series, predetermined to speak the unmediated truth and be punished for it, her warnings reliably ignored and her marginalization savagely extreme — presumed temporarily insane, she’s strapped, in the final episode of the first season, to a gurney for electroshock therapy just as Brody is about to blow up a building with the vice president, chairman of the joint chiefs, and secretary of defense inside. As inhabited by Claire Danes, Carrie is an implicating personality. With her unfiltered reactions, grating insistences on being taken seriously, and bizarre improvisations to get her way — all powered to the point of myopia by the conviction that, on the one thing that absolutely matters, which is preventing an attack, her instincts are absolutely right — she’s unalloyed id. One minute Carrie’s trying to seduce her only friend and mentor, Saul, in order to get clearance to mount covert surveillance on Brody; the next she’s bursting into his house and screaming manically at him for shutting her operation down; then she’s sleeping with Nick Brody and, apparently, falling in love with him, all while compartmentalizing the fact that she’s doing this to prove that he’s a terrorist.

Carrie is compelling in the first season because we know she’s right about her hunch: anyone who’s ever earnestly worked to get the right answer but been passed over in favor of astute players of the inside game will be sympathetic to her situation. But over time she emerges as the predictable wildcard of the series, its endearing and annoying anti-adult. All of her traits — the extra-sensitive receptors, the unstructured impulses, the instinctive and immoral pressing of other peoples’ triggers, the ability to love wholeheartedly and with breathtaking duplicity — are the attributes of a child, the qualities most of us muted a long time ago to survive other peoples’ expectations. But Carrie’s a child-woman: her perceptions of startling clarity are unencumbered by social restraints, she stubbornly pushes against resistance with all the tools at her disposal, and her face stays irrepressibly open. Sometimes the result is remarkably compelling: we see a person with enough independence and tenacity to play the long game, work around the system and possibly win that game on her own terms. Sometimes it’s irritating: to place our sympathies consistently with Carrie is to open ourselves to a world of raw and seemingly unnecessary extremes, so we hang back.

Saul, Carrie’s mentor and friend, and now acting director of the CIA, operates on the other end of the spectrum. His prototype is the tortured wise man, whose relentless acceptance of ambiguity makes him a peerless operator and also subverts him. Saul’s unwillingness to leap on an impulse and ride it, his insistence on waiting for the facts to arrange themselves, his capability for boldness when he feels that intelligence is being overlooked or acted on hastily — all of these qualities are the products of the ideal civil servant. He’s a keenly intelligent company man, with a temperamental appreciation of where dogmatism, applied to the delicate business of sorting through threads of hearsay and rumor, can lead. But company men are also inherently compromised people — they’ve traded the responsibility to choose their own loyalties for the stability to ply their skills — and Saul is not an exception. He’s hemmed in by the agency in the deeply internalized way of people who have used their jobs to magnify their strengths and avoid their weaknesses: in his case an eye for detail on one hand and an inability to make choices on the other. A definitive image of Saul comes in the middle of the first season: he sits in a narrow room, having been called into the agency to undergo a polygraph test, as his wife is in the process of leaving him. This is a man who, by opting for the company way, has let the most important facts of his own life arrange themselves to the point where he’s become a bystander. Nonetheless, within the confines of his company, Saul’s independence and courage are occasionally startling, perhaps never more so than this season.

Saul and Carrie mirror each other, which may be the reason they work well as a team for most of the series: he’s the conflicted insider, she’s the conflicted outsider. They’re also equally predictable quantities: she’s too far estranged from her context to be entirely relatable, and he’s too trapped within constructs to be consistently absorbing. Perhaps sensing that they’d taken Carrie and Saul to the point where both risked losing the audience’s sympathy, or perhaps seeing an opportunity to color their theme in different shades, the writers have introduced two new agents to pick up the burden of dynamic isolation.

One of these is Peter Quinn, probably the most explicitly lethal of Homeland’s characters. An assassin who surfaced in the second season to preside over the CIA’s operation against Brody, he’s recruited for his emotional remove, but by the end of the season his reflexive confidence has given way in the face of a close-up look at Brody and Carrie as individuals. He deviates from agency script, refusing to assassinate Brody, and his doubts continue into Season Three as he watches Carrie being institutionalized. Where Peter’s loyalties are going to end up is unclear, but what’s apparent is that, because of his deadly skills, his decisions will have a determinative weight on the plot.   

The other new arrival is Fara, a Muslim-American transactions expert, one week into the job, who is assigned to track down the financial transactions behind the Langley attack. We first see Fara as an irritated outsider, arriving at Langley three months after the bombing, irked at the stares her headscarf receives from traumatized employees. Saul is unhappy, both with her inexperience and what he perceives as her insensitivity. But, here again, is an outsider with special qualities, someone with more determination and internal resources than her coworkers who exist comfortably in a single world. To Fara goes the distinction of carrying one of Homeland’s few intelligent political scenes. She and Saul meet with the head of a major international bank used by the attackers to launder money. The banker is evasive:

Fara: You know your bank. It’s been trafficking in human misery since the Opium Wars. That’s not an aberration, that’s not a mistake. That’s your business plan. You move money for embargoed governments or phony charities; where it goes you don’t want to know as long as you get your fee. But we’re telling you where it went this time. Into an SUV full of C4 that blew up right in front of this building three months ago. You passed the blast sight on your way in. We know the funds moved through your bank. We need to know where they originated.

[…]

Banker One: With all respect ma’am, in this country that’s not the way we ask for help.

It’s a set piece, but it’s not a cliché. It’s a cry in the wilderness, the one many of us would like to make when we think about the sprawling structures beyond our control that seem to do the most damage and reap the least consequences, and that are run by people who have learned to take their immunity for granted. It’s also a cry being made by a dark-skinned woman in a hijab: a more fully realized individual than the man, comfortably appropriating the rhetoric of loyalty to the country he benefited from and betrayed, sitting across from her.
 

3.        

Some miles from this labyrinthine world of hyperbolic realpolitik, in a modest enclave of tract homes outside of Washington, D.C., is the Brody family, the series’ other major focal point. Nick Brody, a lean, red-headed, rebellious teenager who never made it through college, and Jessica, a responsible black-haired bombshell, were high school sweethearts who embarked on a typical route for newlyweds seeking a spot in the mortgaged middle classes: he joined the marines, they had two children and bought a house in the suburbs. Nick Brody shipped off to Iraq in 2003, where he was captured and imprisoned for eight years, presumed dead. During that time his mother died, his daughter became a teenager, and, in year six of his absence, his wife took a lover.

The man who returns to this volatile situation is a changed animal: the cheerful, intense, slightly askew personality that comes through in the high school photos is now driven, angry and deeply alone, an emotional time bomb keyed to an altered frequency. The signs are everywhere: the wiry body writhing on the floor during intercourse with his startled wife; the man helming the grill at a barbecue who responds to his son’s earnest, “I’m glad you’re back, Dad,” with a brittle nod. This is someone with so many intricately knotted emotional tangles to unravel that an implosion or explosion seems unavoidable. (The parallel here to Brody’s choice in the bunker at the end of Season One, whether or not it’s intentional, is apt.) Brody’s return, and his altered priorities, sets up the story’s arc for the first two seasons, as we see this family coping with the fallout.

Nick, or “Brody,” the catalyst for the drama, is in some ways unreadable. Torn for a season and a half between loyalty to his family and loyalty to his experiences in captivity, he finally finds his way through with help from Carrie, in an emotional conversion scene. Before this conversion Brody had seemed relatable because he was engaged in a doomed attempt to balance primal commitments to two different realities. Afterward, he seems reconciled with improbable ease to the “right” side, freed from a fever dream that we’re not entirely convinced was a fever. Nonetheless, despite these flaws in conception, Brody, played by Damien Lewis, grounds the series. He’s managed to survive ordeals that have actually brought out unrealized strengths: a calm intensity, a selective tenderness, a quietude that suggests someone somehow in touch with his own motivations. What precisely the writers intend to do with the powerful enigma they’ve created is unclear — one wonders if they know — but at this juncture Brody is the hero of the series, a gentler, more neurotic and more interesting version of the classic American male lead: the apparently regular man; the quiet possessor of unplumbed depths. Whether or not the writers can make him more than an aura of self-sufficiency is less apparent, but will be interesting to watch.

Jessica Brody is more comprehensible than her husband and more difficult to like, since she only peripherally shares the committed alienation that is Homeland’s leads’ most precious trait. This is an attractive, competent woman presented with a situation for which she is manifestly, and understandably, underequipped. One assumes she was attracted to Nick Brody in part because of his wild unpredictability, but unpredictability was supposed to be an appendage to his personality, not his defining characteristic. Instead what Jessica’s dealing with is a warrior who can’t decide what he’s fighting for, responsive to pitches located beyond her hearing. Were the audience situated to be more in sympathy with Jessica, her attempts to connect to her husband would be futile to the point of heartbreak. In Season One she cuts her hair short, the way Brody used to like it. Later, she confesses to having had a relationship with Brody’s friend Mike while he was gone: “Brody, I hung on for six years. Six years after they told me you were dead […] Then I screwed up. I didn’t wait long enough. I screwed up. I can’t keep paying for that, I can’t.” Gradually, it becomes clear to anyone with a grain of sympathy for Jessica that she should be with Mike, whose eyes are on her, not on invisible commitments somewhere in the distance. Eventually, this is what happens, but in the process of splitting the family the series abandons Jessica’s perspective. Homeland, after all, is not a realist piece so much as a thriller whose attention is tilted toward its most exciting characters, and Jessica is the most obvious casualty of this focus.

Yet there’s a moment near the beginning of the second season that does her justice. Brody, now a congressman but still an agent for the terrorists, has gone on a madcap mission to Gettysburg, abandoning her at a veterans’ dinner hosted by the vice president and his wife at which he’s supposed to deliver the keynote address. Jessica assures the vice president that this is her problem, that she’ll take care of it, and rises to extemporaneously address the gathering of officers, who look impassively at this young, attractive woman in her red dress with her slightly parted lips. She converts the speech into a direct plea for more attention to preparing the families of veterans for their return from the battlefield: “One thing I do know: I’d have been able to support my husband better if I’d been more ready.” In some ways, this is the most realistic of the series’ set pieces, because the person being shown muddling through is like someone we might know in real life: she has clear limits but is nonetheless capable of startlingly transcending her given script.

Nonetheless, faithful to the uncalibrated momentum of the series, the writers allow Jess’s daughter Dana to upstage her. There’s not enough oxygen in their suburban house to support both the mother’s sympathetic placidity and the daughter’s fiercely questioning intensity: the latter overwhelms the former with tiresome regularity and mixed results. Dana is a teenager, in jumbled possession of adolescent and adult attributes (one part narcissistic, one part mawkish, one part hard-eyed, one part questioning) that surface unpredictably and to irritating effect. The major problem is not the characterization but that too much attention is paid to it: once we realize that a significant portion of what we’re watching is the angst-ridden sighs of adolescence, our attention starts to wander.

Nonetheless, for all this excessiveness, Dana manages to be the series’ most dynamic and so its most consistently compelling character. The archetype here is the seeker, unencumbered by preexisting loyalties, waking up to a world she hasn’t made and doesn’t entirely accept, and working to begin to come to terms with it. Where her mother and brother are full bodied and straightforwardly expectant, Dana’s her father’s daughter: all sharp angles, loping strides and distant stares toward something invisible, filtered through the hushed expectancy of someone just on the cusp of maturity. From the beginning, Dana tunes in distantly but unerringly to Brody’s frequency: at the end of Season One they sit together, in companionable silence, on top of their tract house, stranded in the suburbs and ambivalent about the comfortable limbo that seems to suit neither of them. In the second season, she grows disillusioned with her father: he’s too unreliable, too obvious a dissimulator towards her mother, whom she’s already dismissed. “My dad’s a liar, my mom’s a rube,” is her wised-up summation of the relationship. This is the authentic voice of someone sizing up fast-approaching adulthood, calculatedly drawing lines about whom she does and does not want to be.

Predictably, her father’s disappearance and presumed complicity in the bombing hits the highly-tuned girl hard: she tries suicide, followed by a stint at a rehab facility and an escape from home with a boyfriend who may or may not be a murderer. Still, hyperbolic romances aside, Dana’s path, like her father’s, appears to be a solitary one. At the end of the second episode of Season Three, she pores over photographs of her parents in the first years of their marriage, trying to decode her father’s face, looking for a fragmentary clue about what went wrong. Then she goes into the garage, takes out Nick Brody’s old prayer mat, and bends down to pray.
 

4.        

Does significance accrue to any of this, beyond as the collateral virtues of a high-octane thriller, a paradise of splendidly isolated heroes who reliably thrum the chords of viewers’ wish fulfillments? It’s difficult to credit a show as prone to wild miscalculations as this one with acutely constructed social commentary. Nonetheless, the series’ ability to keep its audience in the face of its flaws may amount to something more than its genre identity. In its portraits of alienated individuals attempting to reconcile themselves to unreliable institutions and environments, Homeland is tapping, unerringly and consistently, into a particular emotional vein. It is not a careful exploration of the way we live now so much as a visceral evocation of concerns manifest in the culture, and perhaps inextricable from holding American citizenship circa 2013.

Recall that the word “homeland” was first commonly introduced into our discourse by the Bush Administration, as part of its cohesive attempt to enhance the public trust in its handling of the proclaimed war on terror (as in the tellingly Orwellian term “Department of Homeland Security.”) Recall that the word exemplified the injection of emotion into political discourse typical of these years, with their twin themes of ratcheting up the public’s concern and its reliance on government. Recall that, after 2003, this high water mark of public faith and national purpose disintegrated precipitously in the face of blatant and consistent mismanagement. Recall that the startling and disastrous fumbles of George W. Bush’s national security policy dramatized a broader structural and perceptual shift, one made manifest in late 2008, that put paid to a number of comfortable illusions most Americans shared about what they could and could not rely upon.

In any case, here we are: 401ks broke, politics stalled, social security under threat, assumptions of prosperity, institutional competence and safety repeatedly battered, facing a homeland whose appearance is jarringly unfamiliar. This is the kind of mentality that powers Homeland: the wary maneuvering around institutions, the consistent falling back on one’s own resources, the unrelenting emphasis on choice. It is what we see most obviously in Dana, since a child’s experience of coming into the world is the starkest, but it’s visible throughout the gallery of these overdrawn yet mesmerizing studies in disaffection and possibility. These are portraits of alienation from social and political structures that profess to be benign, evocations of the terrifying and thrilling experience of treading through the world and reconciling oneself to it at least partially on one’s own terms. To the extent that we all experience this fascinating and frightening reality, albeit at different registers, the people onscreen resonate. They are plot-addled, one-dimensional, eerily extreme archetypes for an anxious age.

¤

Matthew Wolfson holds a BA from Pomona College and an MPhil in political thought and intellectual history from the University of Cambridge.

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