Moving Target: Is “Homeland” Still Racist?
By Brian T. EdwardsMarch 31, 2017
This is not an uncommon opinion. Since its premiere in 2011, Homeland has been so frequently criticized for its treatment of race and religion — specifically its portrayal of Islam and Muslim characters — that the Washington Post dubbed it “the most bigoted show on television.” Given Homeland’s reputation for reproducing and even amplifying Islamophobic stereotypes, one might not have expected the new season’s opening credits to feature prominently Gil Scott-Heron, radical jazz poet and anti-racist activist. The credits begin with children singing the last phrase of the national anthem in a haunting upper register. The familiar creepy-anxious theme music kicks in, and Scott-Heron’s mellifluous voice intones: “The first revolution is when you change your mind about how you look at things and see that there might be another way to look at it that you have not been shown.” The sampling of Scott-Heron here at the beginning of a new season is a bold — if heavy-handed — attempt to declare that something new is going on. Homeland, its producers hope to convince us, is not racist. Or, at least, it isn’t anymore.
The credits for Homeland have always been a bit of a puzzle, but they also tell a story: one that intertwines fragments of the narrative, elliptical hints at the backstory of protagonist Carrie Mathison (a bipolar CIA operative played by Claire Danes), and archival television footage. During the program’s first four seasons, the credits incorporated historical video of Presidents Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Obama decrying Middle Eastern extremism, drawn from four decades of US engagement in the region. With its focus on covert networks, a conspiracy-driven plot, and efforts to disrupt cataclysmic violence, Homeland fueled the very anxieties it played on. The effect produced was a sense of urgency.
Homeland’s game plan has always been to confuse its own elaborate fiction with real-world geopolitics. In After the American Century, where I critique the first four seasons of Homeland, I retell the story of when Damian Lewis (who played Sgt. Nicholas Brody) visited the White House and met President Obama, allegedly a huge fan who just happened also to appear in the opening credits. Lewis, according to both TV Guide and Joseph Massad (writing about seasons one and two for Al Jazeera), sardonically asked Obama to “give a heads up on any foreign policy moves” so the writers could keep current. Obama, in on the joke, assured the actor that he would do just that. It all seemed like a pleasant, promotional act, until, of course, real life caught up to Homeland yet again. A couple of years after that meeting, season three wrapped up by making a strong case for what would come to be known as the Iran Deal, Obama’s legacy foreign policy initiative. For Homeland, which had just gruesomely killed off one of its principal characters, the Iran deal became the feel-good remainder after the devastating end of the show’s primary story line.
As Donald Trump settles into the White House, it seems Homeland is finally feeling uncomfortable about its status as mirror and mouthpiece for the United States’s doings abroad. Gil Scott-Heron is only one sign of the show’s increasing leftward tilt. Last season, set in Berlin, the show featured a Laura Poitras doppelgänger, whose potential heroism was undercut only by what the show portrayed as her naïveté in the face of a complex counter-intelligence apparatus. But this new season features, alongside Scott-Heron, audio sound clips from Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald, co-editors of the left webpage The Intercept and colleagues of Poitras, whose voices further attempt to upend viewers’ expectations. Scahill’s voice describes “brutality against protestors, the para-militarization of law enforcement” over news footage of US police officers beating American protesters. Greenwald references “the system of indefinite detention,” and then Scahill’s voice again: “FBI and the CIA targeting Muslim communities.” What, we might ask, is going on?
One reasonable conclusion is that the writers of Homeland have changed their mind.
How so? Well, first the action has moved, like a fresh college graduate, to Brooklyn. Get this: Carrie is now defending Muslims against police entrapment. It’s true that Carrie’s mania has long been associated with her ability to look at things differently, but only as if through a prism; her character’s long tenure in the Middle East, from Iraq, Beirut, and Afghanistan to Istanbul, had done apparently little to shake her inherent suspicion of Muslim characters. But, last season, the show began to introduce the idea that Carrie feels some guilt for her participation in the CIA killing machine, particularly its victimization of Muslims. And so now, we find her working at a CUNY legal clinic to defend Muslim Americans against the very stereotyping that Homeland has been accused of. If Carrie-the-character was atoning last season, this season it is Homeland-the-show that seems to be trying to atone for its previous career in televisual Orientalism.
It is as if Homeland’s producers learned from the 2015 graffiti incident and have taken the critique to heart. Or, at least they’d like us to think that. Indeed, Alex Gansa, one of the show’s creators, praised the artists: “We wish we’d caught these images before they made it to air,” he admitted. “However, as Homeland always strives to be subversive in its own right and a stimulus for conversation, we can’t help but admire this act of artistic sabotage.” Gansa additionally hired Ramzi Kassem, CUNY law professor and director of the Immigrant and Non-Citizen Rights Clinic, as a consultant for this season, and based a recurring character on him (played by Patrick Sabongui). Kassem himself had publicly critiqued the show for its treatment of Muslims, and, apparently, that’s what led Homeland’s producers to ask him to come on board. Homeland, it seemed, had begun to listen to its detractors.
Now this sounds good enough, but the postcolonial critic in me recalls the Foucauldian principle by which power learns from its own critiques. In colonial Algeria during the first decades of the 20th century, the French hired the brilliant Isabelle Eberhardt, an opponent of the colonial regime, and, as Ali Behdad has shown, went on to learn from her criticism only in order to improve their ruling techniques. Likewise, in 2003, in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon screened Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 The Battle of Algiers, an anticolonial, anti-imperial film made by an Italian communist, with the explicit goal of learning “how to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas,” according to an official invitation.
So is it possible for the creators of Homeland to atone, even and especially by engaging their former critics? Scott-Heron’s lines certainly allow for the possibility. In the longer, less well-known spoken 1982 version of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” used in the credits, Scott-Heron suggests that the real revolution is the epistemic shift that precedes the actions that are inspired by it. The lines that follow the ones that Homeland uses are: “What you see later on is the results of that, but that revolution, that change that takes place will not be televised.” Maybe the producers of Homeland have a critical understanding of the dynamics of revolutionary change, or maybe they are using Scott-Heron’s lines to put a positive spin on the fact that they’re only now gesturing toward atonement. But, either way, this all suggests that Homeland is beginning to take some tentative steps in the right direction.
And, indeed, a lot has changed since season five, and not just in the plot. Although every other season has run in the fall, Homeland delayed season six until this winter, both for reasons of audience — the later schedule allowed the presidential campaign to play out and avoid “election fatigue” — and because they were still working through the new approach. Written in the summer of 2016 and filmed in the fall, season six premiered on Showtime a week before Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States.
The new season, which focuses on the post-election transition period of the United States’s first female president, could easily be seen as a failed attempt at timeliness. But, aside from that one wrong guess, the concerns that this season takes up quickly reveal their relevance to some of the most intriguing real-world twists and turns of the post-election climate. Watching it this winter has been both a welcome distraction and a weird kind of therapy.
For one, the show’s president-elect is Elizabeth Keane, a junior senator from New York whose platform had promised a new tactic toward fighting terrorism and a turn away from the police state. You might recognize Elizabeth Marvel, the actor playing the president-elect, from House of Cards, where she played Heather Dunbar, the progressive challenger to Frank Underwood’s presidential aspirations who was forced to suspend her campaign due to some now-familiar behind the scenes machinations. And so, for American citizens as well as fans of Frank Underwood’s dystopian United States, there’s a double catharsis here in seeing Marvel’s character as the winner.
Homeland’s writers take obvious pleasure in detailing the protocol of this historic presidential transition. (“Madam President-Elect,” Elizabeth Keane instructs visitors a number of times. “It’s a mouthful, I know,” she says.) But this isn’t just liberal wish-fulfillment; it’s also key to the show’s new, flipped point of view. The pathos for many viewers of seeing a woman president in Homeland’s fiction dovetails with Carrie’s attempts to settle down with her daughter in Brooklyn, and both serve to shore up the show’s ambivalent, ambitious feminist politics. In the arc of the show, Carrie goes from a bipolar spy genius who dresses up and picks up men for one-night stands in the first season to a single working mother advising the first woman to be elected president of the United States today. And Keane, for her part, is both the leader of the free world and a grieving mother. Unsurprisingly, the show is interested in the relationship these two powerful women have to maternity — how it is elemental to their being, but also how it can be exploited by the men around them. In the world of Homeland, both president-elect and Carrie are undercut by a series of high-level machinations that invoke their motherhood, and in different ways steal their children from them. But here the projects are being orchestrated by the national security apparatus itself, and by CIA black ops director and patriarch Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham).
These cruel twists highlight one of the creepier themes emerging from earlier seasons: that aspects of the War on Terror are being orchestrated by the very security forces tasked with combating them. This was hinted at in the penultimate episode of season four, for example, when Dar Adal is discovered in Islamabad driving and communicating with Haissam Haqqani (Numan Acar), a terrorist on the CIA kill list. But what was understood as expedient in previous seasons has now morphed to something much more nefarious in season six, where the primary villains have become the CIA, the FBI, and right-wing television hosts (in particular one Brett O’Keefe, a fictional TV host played by Jake Weber, on a show reminiscent of Alex Jones’s InfoWars), who either consciously or inadvertently conspire to keep the game going. As a result, Dar Adal and his fraught relationship with Saul Berenson (played by Mandy Patinkin), over issues from the Iran deal to their relationship with Israeli intelligence (and Israel itself), has become the focus of one of the more intriguing geopolitical strands of the program.
It’s worth remembering that Homeland was originally based on an Israeli series called Prisoners of War (or Hatufim, in the original Hebrew title), which premiered in 2010. In Hatufim, the potentially “flipped” soldiers are Israelis who have been in Palestinian captivity, rather than US Marines who have been held by al-Qaeda — the parallelism is of course revealing. Hatufim was produced by Gideon Raff, a former paratrooper in the Israeli army, who sold and adapted it for Showtime with Howard Gordon, the latter the producer of the post-9/11 thriller 24.
The Israeli origins of the program are remarkable given the turn the program takes, this season, when it moves briefly to Israel and the West Bank. Just as Homeland has begun to confront its own politics, we now see it reconsidering the US–Israel relationship, which itself has undergone a series of crises since the series began nearly six years ago. As Homeland takes up the question of Israeli settlements in the West Bank — Saul’s long-lost sister Dorit (played by Jacqueline Antaramian) is revealed to be a settler with a particular antipathy toward Arabs — its anti-Zionist critique seems jarringly different from the foundational fiction upon with the series was based. Dar’s own relationship to this complex arrangement is now put in relief, and the geopolitics of a CIA-Mossad plot to undercut the Iran deal runs against the more personal/familial confrontation between Saul and Dorit. Here it might be worth wondering, for a moment, about Dar’s unusual name, which has long seemed suggestive though opaque. As a Hebrew word, “dar” (דַּר) means “mother-of-pearl,” but is an uncommon word and virtually nonexistent as a Hebrew name. “Dar Adal” (دار عدل ), however, has meaning in Arabic where it can be translated as “house of justice.” Dar’s justice in season six represents one of the most chilling interpretations of the War on Terror and its ideological roots that Showtime has offered.
But what’s worth thinking about is whether Homeland can, six seasons into a projected eight season run, turn back its own clock and undo the Muslim stereotyping it has already done. Over and above the show’s political perspective, it’s these representational transgressions that seem hardest to wash away with clever plot pivots. Alex Gansa is a master of cliffhanger storytelling, and the narrative Homeland crafts about a Nigerian-American Muslim named Sekou Bah (J. Mallory McCree) finds a way both to be true to the auto-critique of the series’s Muslim profiling as well as to be more suspenseful than any academic critique could ever hope to be. But that’s only one example.
The most careful deconstruction contained within season six could not undo or erase the effect of the show’s earlier work, which has as surely made its mark. What’s more, season six doubles down on its own previous errors. All the Intercept pull-quotes on the internet aren’t going to save this show if it continues to repeat its mistakes, and there are plenty left on loop in season six. In particular, the show has managed to find a way to bring back one of its most cartoonishly evil Muslim villains, Majid Javadi (Shaun Toub). In the fiction, Javadi is Iran’s Deputy Intelligence Chief, and the mastermind of the brutal bombing of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, killing 200, which concluded season two. In season three, Javadi murdered his ex-wife with a broken bottle (yes, it was as horrible as it sounds) and shot his daughter-in-law dead. Yet, he is the guy we deal with, our man in Tehran. It doesn’t give anything away about season six, to say that a fairly major plot point hinges on Saul having to decide which one of two high level Iranians is lying. The punch line, of course, is that, in a sense, they both are. So whatever good work the Brooklyn legal clinic might be doing to counteract Muslim stereotyping, the ongoing Iranian thread reinscribes the very Orientalism that season six seems so eager to take apart.
But it has also led to some remarkably relevant television, fraught with resonances in the winter and spring of 2017. Indeed, the crisis between Homeland’s security apparatus and its president-elect offers a way to think through the fraught relations between the real 45th president of the United States, the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA, which are playing out in House Intelligence Committee hearings as the essay goes to press.
What does Orientalism in the age of Trump look like? Around the time season five was airing, then-candidate Trump was shocking the world by calling for full stoppage on Muslims entering the United States, with dire effects on US international standing, as I wrote about in Salon. It’s hard not to imagine that Trump’s rhetoric had an effect on Homeland’s decision to rethink its own reliance on precisely the same logic. The massive domestic resistance to the new Trump Administration’s Executive Order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority nations this winter puts Homeland’s own turn toward an anti-profiling stance in the democratic mainstream (al-hamdulillah).
So the political climate, along with emerging left-critiques of Obama-era foreign policy, have helped Homeland to start to address its own wrongs. But what does watching this season do for us?
In the end, Homeland’s meditation on what it would mean to end its own cycle of violence — to end its perpetuation of the Orientalism machine — is compelling. In an early episode this season, the president-elect interrogates Dar and Saul, who are briefing her:
President-Elect Keane: What about getting out?
Dar Adal: Excuse me?
President-Elect: Leaving. Telling the American people this isn’t working and bringing our forces home. All of them. [Dar sighs, apparently exasperated.] Why not? If the war isn’t winnable, what are we still doing there?
Saul Berenson: Containing the enemy for one thing. Preventing them from turning the region into a base for attacking us here at home.
President-Elect: Or maybe it’s time to recognize that not every problem in the Middle East deserves a military solution.
Homeland knows that the answer to the question is not as simple as asking it. To borrow a title from Gil Scott-Heron’s later work, it is a moving target.
What Homeland knows now is that the media itself is at the heart of the problem and — perhaps — any hope for a solution. This season brings back Carrie’s old right-hand freelance surveillance man Max (played by Maury Sterling), explores the fabrication of “fake news” and the alt-right media apparatus, and teaches us the digital age meaning of a “sockpuppet,” in an internet scheme that is yet more chilling because it appears also to have been used effectively — allegedly, let’s say — by the Trump campaign. It also lingers on the tragic Sekou Bah’s vlog, and the possibility for the power of dissonant and minor voices in registering critique.
That Homeland is trying to engage the conversation about how digital media are at the frontier of the new Orientalism is heartening. Homeland has always been interested in the digital circulation of images. From close readings of Sgt. Brody’s body language in his digital messages in the first season to the forensic readings of the video of the sarin gas experiments on Quinn in season five, the signature scene of Homeland is one of Carrie Mathison obsessively watching video, seeing things her lesser peers overlooked. Last season put cyber-hacking and digital security at the front lines. But now we are at a point where the very spinning of the story is the heart of the matter, with cataclysmic results. The first post-Trump season of Homeland draws our attention to these issues, ingeniously threads them in with our investment in characters from Carrie to Saul to Dar Adal.
Homeland has been around for a long time, and the so-called War on Terror has been going on even longer. The new season positions this show as a space of critique, a commentary on current events. But just as real-life geopolitical intrigue has always been the dramatic material for Homeland, shows like Homeland have fed back into the popular image of both the US security apparatus and the Muslim peoples caught in the crossfire. Despite the show’s best efforts now, is there a way out of that double bind?
Brian T. Edwards teaches at Northwestern. His most recent book, After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East (2016), comes out in paperback in April.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!