It has been over twelve years since the towers fell on 9/11. But while the consequences of that terrible day have profoundly permeated and altered the American psyche, they have yet to be satisfyingly addressed by one of our most prominent cultural barometers: the television series. That is, until Showtime’s hour-long drama Homeland aired in 2011.
Homeland takes place ten years post 9/11. It centers on Carrie Mathison, a young but brilliant CIA operative living with bipolar disorder and an acute sense of guilt over her failure to prevent the attack. Her investigations primarily concern Sgt. Nicholas Brody, a POW held captive for eight years in Iraq by members of Al Qaeda. Carrie and her mentor, agent Saul Berenson, fear that Brody has been turned into an anti-American terrorist during his time in captivity.
In my opinion, this show finds tremendous strength in its depiction of post 9/11 consciousness and the very real psychological strains put on those who are, in some way or another, living through the war on terror. (Which, unfortunately, is everyone.)
During the first season, Sgt. Brody struggles to integrate himself into family life after spending eight years in a dark hole as a prisoner of war. This storyline brings to light a problem that oftentimes is swept under the rug. Namely that for many soldiers, their most difficult battle begins once the war is over. The VA estimates that in America, a veteran dies of suicide every eighty minutes. Many more veterans live out the remainder of their lives in painful psychological turmoil, as Sgt. Brody does on Homeland. Tragically, the families who’ve endured the horror of having their loved ones returned home from a warzone in a box are not always the only ones who lose a spouse, a parent, a sibling or a child to war.
Another poignant thematic pillar of Homeland is the depiction of America as a surveillance state. In this aspect, Homeland has been all but clairvoyant in its virtual prediction of the Edward Snowden/NSA revelations. The plot points and tone of the show do much to capture the current national dialogue of privacy rights and the moral ambiguities associated with domestic spying in the interest of “homeland security.” In fact, Carrie’s incredibly invasive surveillance of the Brody family induces borderline repulsion as she secretly watches his most private encounters, from a first dinner at home with children who barely know him, to several failed attempts at making love to his wife. The writers have successfully captured the complexity of this very real dilemma by at once evoking feelings of indignation and paranoia, while also causing viewers to root for Carrie’s continued surveillance so that the perceived “bad guy” might be caught.
However, for all of Homeland’s successes, there are a growing number of unanswered questions, absurd plot twists, and factual errors that should be cleaned up in the writers room in anticipation of the upcoming fourth season. First of all, who exactly is Carrie, within the construct of her supposed job at the CIA? Homeland has taken a liberty that many spy shows and movies have taken before it, blending together the role of a hands-on operative and the role of a desk analyst in order to speed up the action. This combination isn’t necessarily a problem. Combining the position of operative and analyst makes for more interesting television, and I’m sure there are some real-life examples of jack-of-all-trades agency employees. But going into the second season, if the writers were to pare down her position, it might help to give the runaway train-like plot some much needed structure and focus. If she’s going to be an operative, then send her to Turkey, eliminate some of the emotional drama that has been clogging up the plot in the last season and a half, and let her (and the rest of us) see some action in a dynamic foreign sphere.
Furthermore, I think the biggest overall failure of Homeland based on the last three seasons is a lack of research during the creation/pilot phase of the show. There are some big factual errors that have unfortunately, been written into the very fabric of the show.
First is the mental illness factor, and the rabbit hole of emotional drama (including dating a known terrorist) that it has led her down. Although it is a massive part of her character now, it is highly unlikely and borderline impossible that the CIA would allow someone with severe mental illness and a tendency to go rogue to handle such a sensitive case. In fact, she probably wouldn’t even have landed a job at Langley in the first place, because the CIA makes all prospective employees go through a mental health evaluation. Additionally, because the problem is taking place inside the country, it’s actually outside of the CIA’s jurisdiction and would likely be handled by the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security. Perhaps these are subtle errors, but I think they take away from the credibility that such a topically relevant and thematically important show deserves.
Right now these problems are big ones, but they can absolutely be fixed. Moving Carrie’s activities to the CIA base in Turkey, (which was hinted at during the Season 3 finale,) would put the narrative back in the clear in terms of agency jurisdiction. And although mental illness has been written into her character already, taking away some of Carrie’s erratic behavior and emotional drama would seriously help restore Homeland’s initial credibility. Ironically, it seems as though the writers of Homeland may not be following some of the CIA’s cardinal rules: stay focused, do your research and don’t start dating known terrorists.