Defending the Homeland

Women warriors, and how the US entertainment industry handles Middle East politics
by Gordon Campbell

For New Zealander – or at least any reader of Nicky Hager’s writings on spy agencies – the plot of the new James Bond movie Spectre will have some startling aspects. This time around, the 007 plot involves a system of global surveillance code-named“ Nine Eyes” which is pretty much a real-life version of the real life “Five Eyes” security pact, on steroids. No spoilers, but the bad people plan to subvert “Nine Eyes” into a tool for their own criminal ends. That is, until Bond – as a gunned up incarnation of Edward Snowden – gets in their way. Ultimately, the film suggests there’s nothing inherently wrong with global surveillance. It just has to be led, managed and enforced by the right sort of British chaps, that’s all.

Bond is a special case, but Spectre is not the only, or best example of Hollywood – and its relatives in the television industry – trying to cope with contemporary political issues. Throughout its five season run, the Homeland television series has been a particularly polarizing example. It isn’t as a straightforward as House of Cards, where flip cynicism and the use of power for its own sake are the only games in town. Instead, Homeland takes the clash of cultures and ideas – and the conflict between idealism vs realpolitik – very seriously indeed. The trouble is (I’d argue) it ends up by promoting its own peculiar brand of American exceptionalism.

Week by week, season by season, the political context of the show has been relentlessly topical. Only a few weeks ago, it featured a CIA plot to replace the Assad regime in Syria. It also happens to be an action show with a female lead – a manic depressive (former) CIA agent called Carrie Mathison – and the show routinely kills off her love interests. The Homeland writers had its male lead executed (by Iranians) in season three, and put a bullet through the head of Carrie’s subsequent male love interest in season four. In season five, the nice male love interest was used and dumped – while the seriously wounded bad boy love interest tried (unsuccessfully) to kill himself in order to protect her. Its love story thread has a fairly substantial body count.

The wider politics of the show are interesting – up to a point – basically because of the bait and switch tactics involved. No other major US television series has ever given so much quality screen time to the enemies of US foreign policy. From the outset, extensive space has been devoted to well-scripted and articulate representatives of Middle East terrorism, to the victims of the US drone campaign, to the aims and ideals of Snowden-esque hackers, to patriotic Pakistani secret service types torn between Islamic fundamentalism, drone victims and the clueless US presence in their country…Islam and its adherents have been presented favourably as often as the religion has been a factor in terrorism. More than once, the show has drawn explicit comparisons between the Islamic fundamentalism of the terrorists and the Christian fundamentalism of the US war-mongers. At crunch though, these comparisons are subordinated to the brute imperatives of US foreign policy. When it counts, only one side of the equation is allowed real agency.

Meaning: the CIA agents are depicted as cynical, nutty, homicidal bunglers; but ultimately they’re the nutty, clueless killers we’re expected to root for, and not merely because this enables them to carry on with their doomed romantic lives. Team America (Carrie Mathison, Saul Berenson and Peter Quinn) are modern musketeers, fighting dirty in a dirty world. At one point in season five Quinn expressed his love for Carrie by cutting open his hand, smearing his blood across her face and then faking shooting her in the head. Thankfully, this wasn’t on their first date. In fact, they’re yet to have a date. Quinn/Carrie must be one of the most extreme examples of a sexual attraction that seems to be based entirely on appreciation of one another’s workaholic tendencies.

Season five’s treatment of the Snowden/Chelsea Manning plotline (and of Snowden’s champions and enablers in the blogosphere) has been particularly revealing. The set-up for this season? By accident – and thanks to CIA bungling – some Snowdenesque German hackers have managed to download a bundle of CIA files that (among other things) reveal that the US has been illegally engaged in surveillance and intercepts on German soil. For their own reasons, the Russians are interested. (Thanks to Putin, Russians are now back big time, as TV and movie villains.)

Apart from a few token protestations about our side’s need to respect the existence of privacy laws – most of this is mouthed by the crusading US journalist who has been fed the files – the subsequent media revelations are depicted as being (a) rash (b) undermining the fight against Islamic State and its ilk (c) abetting the unscrupulous likes of Russia and (d) endangering our side’s agency contacts and operations. To boot, season five of Homeland is a telling example of how hackers have become the digital hippies of film and television drama ie, they’re cluelessly idealistic, and virtually begging to be punched in the face.

Admittedly, this perspective can be justified as merely the POV of the story’s main protagonists. That’s the show’s inherent problem, though. To be more than what it is, it has badly needed storylines that have nothing whatsoever to do with Carrie and her various romantic tribulations with Quinn, and/or her father issues with Saul. A different structure, in other words. One that shows a genuine parallel figure to Carrie at work on the enemy team – and one who isn’t finally and inevitably subordinated to Carrie and her work ethic. Unfortunately, that’s not how Homeland rolls.

To be fair, Homeland does do a lot of other stuff really well. Gender equality, for one thing. Even the fact that the (female) crusading journalist Laura Sutton in season five is depicted as a humourless zealot is defensible – to some extent – in that the show is explicitly seeking to compare the self-righteous journalist with Carrie’s similar flaws. In fact, Homeland is unique in that season five contains four major female characters – Carrie, Laura, Astrid from the German security services and Allison, the double-dealing CIA head of mission in Germany – who are all depicted as strong, decisive and humanly flawed characters, and as fit foils for each other.

It is just that…To repeat, despite its apparent moral complexity Homeland will always end up siding – when it counts – with Carrie and the Team USA that she instinctively supports. Not necessarily in a flag waving sense, either. It is more that her “patriotism” is embedded in a work regime that esrves as a defence wall for her, against her bipolar disorder.

Too bad then that Homeland isn’t more explicit about treating its warts-and-all patriotism as a form of mental disorder. Maybe that’s still coming. Throughout season five, Carrie is being haunted with echoing questions about how she can possibly sleep at night given the blood on her hands. Yet I can’t help suspecting this show won’t go much beyond “war is hell’ before lapsing back into some fresh justification for its guilty pragmatism. We’re dirty, but we have to be winners because the alternative is unimaginable. Well, as much as anything, that’s a failure of imagination on its part.

Perhaps because Homeland regularly purports to be more than what it delivers, it has inspired a fierce amount of criticism, pro and con. A typical critic is here. A typical defender is here.

Footnote : As female characters move into action roles, the numbers of female heroes with bipolar/Aspergers disorders is pretty striking. Carrie in Homeland, Dr Temperance Brennan in Bones, Saga Noren in The Bridge, all the way back to Scully in the X Files..….all portrayed decisive, empirically-minded, high achieving women, and thus to be saddled with a dearth of social skills.