TV Review: Homeland

A CIA intelligence operative talks her way past the guards of a prison in downtown Baghdad, where one of her assets is being held.  He’s about to be executed and her bosses in Langley aren’t willing to cut through the red tape to provide diplomatic immunity. Pressing her asset for more information, she is discovered by the prison authorities and dragged away, but not before her informant whispers something in her ear.

Fast-forward ten months later, and Carrie Mathison is staring, jaw agape, at a live video feed of a US Marine Corps-led raid on a suspected al-Qaida compound that uncovers a US prisoner-of-war, missing in action for eight years. Pulling her mentor Saul aside, she confides what her informant whispered in her ear all those months ago…an American POW has been turned. Carrie suspects that newly-certified war hero Sergeant Nicholas Brody may not be all he seems…

Welcome to the highly-charged world of Homeland, Channel 4’s hit US import following its sleeper success in the States. If that description of the first episode’s opening five minutes immediately raised the spectre of the long-running Kiefer Sutherland spy serial, 24, it is no surprise to learn that two of that show’s producers are behind Homeland. Initially, this association made me a little hesitant watching the very first episode, having witnessed the former’s deterioration into ugly xenophobia, nonsensical plotlines (nuclear explosion in downtown LA that goes largely unnoticed, anyone?) and generally serving as a conservative soapbox for its creator, Joel Surnow.

Fortunately, any fears I may have had about Homeland further propagating 24’s sense of Rush Limbaugh-porn were dissipated by how obviously different Homeland a beast is to 24. From the corridors of power in Langley to the hidden lives trapped behind the veneer of suburbia, no other show on television so astutely conveys the post-9/11 world and how the wound of the War on Terror seeps into every branch of society, profoundly screwing up lives and individuals. In the thought provoking title sequence, full of disconnected, fragmentary images of the falling towers, mazes and mournful jazz music and especially enshrined in the terse and extremely volatile character of Carrie Mathison, we find the perfect summation for 21st Century America – a once-proud nation increasingly unsure of itself and withdrawing further and further into isolation. The only surety in this new homeland is that nothing is ever what it seems.

The ensemble cast are uniformly excellent, with special accolades awarded to Morena Baccarin as Brody’s wife, Jessica – who expertly manages to convey the balance of her character’s struggle to cover up her infidelity with her struggle to rekindle her affections for her assumed-dead husband and turn a blind eye to his new eccentricities – and Princess Bride legend Mandy Patinkin as gravelly CIA bigwig Saul Berenson. However, the entire show hangs on the towering performances by Damian Lewis and Claire Danes that have rightly been triumphed. Old Etonian Lewis’s multi-faceted portrayal is of a man made tabula rasa and then built ideologically anew into a human weapon and you are held rapt as this ordinary American tries to resolve his commitment to his cause and readjusting to the old life he has been plunged back into. Lewis is equally matched by Danes’ sublime depiction of the bipolar, pill-popping Carrie, a woman so zealous and paranoid in her mission to expose Brody as a sleeper agent and protect her fellow Americans, that she has overlooked protecting herself as her personal life and mental health go into freefall. Both Brody and Carrie are on the threshold of two states of existence which purport to be the greater good. Although ideological opposed, they are united in their mutual distrust of themselves.

Of course, I won’t pretend that I have gripes with the show. It remains to be seen whether Homeland’s concept can sustain it for a few more seasons without contracting 24-itis and descending into ridiculousness and recycling of plot threads, as much as the opening episode of the second season, with Carrie undergoing electro-shock therapy and Brody climbing the greasy pole of politics showed plenty of promise. There’s also a valid argument to be raised about the far-from-progressive portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the series, which for the time being, falls just on the right side of xenophobia.

But for now, I feel that Homeland can sit proudly as an exemplar of this current Golden Age of US television. While Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire shows us where we’re coming from; Breaking Bad, where we are; Homeland shows us where we are going  and asks the viewer that, although this may be the home of the brave, at what cost is this land made free?

Title image sourced from The Guardian. Other images sourced from Laceys Films, Spoiler TV and What Culture.