WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW
Showtime’s new series, Homeland, takes an enormous risk. In setting the show in the context of the contemporary War on Terror, the show could have easily ended up either completely jingoistic and/or incredibly racist. The topic of terrorism in this country is, at the moment, linked with the topic of racism towards Muslims. As Homeland seems to strive for realism, replacing Islamic radicals with a more politically correct villain would come off as hokey. The show instead attempts to subvert the viewer’s expectations creating a show that shows both sides of the conflict.
The show’s main conflict of a bipolar CIA agent, portrayed by Clare Danes, investigating a recently recovered POW, Nicholas Brody who is played by Damian Lewis, automatically removes some of the racial tension surrounding the issue by shifting the suspicion away from the Arabs and casting it onto a homespun white male. Damian Lewis is generally best known for playing Dick Winters in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, and generally gives off the impression of an upstanding American. By placing the doubt and paranoia of the War on Terror onto such an upstanding looking war hero, the show immediately throws the audience for a loop and causes them to question the way that they think about the terrorism issue.
One way that the show maintains the suspicion on Brody is by revealing that he is secretly a Muslim. This revelation draws on the slight culture of fear that permeates America especially once the question of potential terrorism is brought up. The fact that Brody worships Allah automatically draws the viewer to question his loyalty. However, the show points out the ridiculousness of this suspicion when Brody is finally confronted about this practice. He replies that he found religion while being tortured as a POW and that Islam was the only religion in the area. By pointing out that there is a perfectly viable reason for Brody to be a Muslim without it meaning that he is a terrorist, the show pulls the rug out from under the audience’s feet and makes them question what they have believed up until this point.
Once actual Middle Eastern terrorists are introduced, the show continues to make the viewer question what they believe about the racial identity of terrorism. A terrorist couple is introduced, a Middle Eastern man and a white woman. The makeup of this couple plays into the concept that different races are swooping in to corrupt the fair and innocent white women. Just by being shown this couple and being told that they are terrorists, the audience generally believes that the man is the diehard terrorist and that the woman has been talked into it. However, the show inverts the dynamic, and we find out that the woman is the true believer and the man is following her out of love. He is unnerved by the concept of violence and doesn’t truly believe in the cause, but wants to make his wife happy. This inversion subverts both general gender roles as well as racial stereotypes to create an atmosphere, much like reality, in which the characters cannot be judged immediately as they appear on screen.
The show gets a lot of mileage out of subverting the audience’s expectation. This allows them to create an extremely tense environment for the show in which no one can be trusted. The people who are supposed to look like terrorists are, in fact, just people, and the most destructive act on the show was committed by the US government in their hunt for terrorists. By playing with such a controversial topic, the show brings to light a lot of what we believe in this country and proves that much of it has no bearing on reality.