Since its premiere last year, Showtime’s Homeland has occupied a unique space in American television and the culture at large: it is possibly the only significant depiction and investigation of American foreign policy in the post-Bush era in popular culture. Though the public never responded enthusiastically – at least not in large numbers – to films and television programs that depicted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with some modicum of realism (The Hurt Locker, easily the most esteemed film to deal with this subject, grossed only $17 million domestically), there emerged in the post-9/11 cultural landscape a kind of fantastic vengeance narrative that undeniably did touch a nerve.
The peak of this phenomenon was 24. Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) was the personification of the post-9/11 hero: he was rigidly masculine, dedicated to the pursuit of terrorists to the point of madness, and nearly every sin he committed in the name of protecting innocent Americans proved justified. Despite the conventional wisdom that torture rarely produces real results, 24 used torture as a plot device so often and in so sensationalistic a fashion that the audience became almost immune to the real horrors of the practice. The fight against terrorism in the universe of the show was couched in little to no moral ambiguity. Though 24, which consistently demonized Muslims in addition to subjecting them to torture, was essentially a conservative wet dream, it also managed to reach an uncommon level of popularity with the liberal audience, including much of Hollywood. The fantasy of American ruthlessness as presented by 24 was extreme enough that liberals could pass it off as enjoyable but superficial fluff.
But culture, especially mainstream culture, has ramifications in the real world, and can often provide us with a unique insight into the collective psyche of our society, or in the case of politically-minded culture, of the nation. 24 both reflected and helped to engender the aggressiveness of the American public’s approach to foreign policy during the Bush era. Homeland, which was created by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, who also wrote for and produced 24, has a much smaller audience than 24 did – it airs on Showtime, while 24 was on Fox – but it also reflects the far more complex and ambiguous relationship the public has with American foreign policy and with the Middle East in general.
Homeland is explicitly political in a way that 24 never was in that it attempts to engage with American foreign policy as it exists in the real world. Nobody would argue that the plot of the show is a paragon of realism, but it is not a fantasy: where 24 typically invented terrorist sects and countries to avoid angering specific parties, Homeland has set scenes and episodes in Afghanistan and Lebanon, and though its chief villain is obviously a fictional character, his terror cell bears a lot more resemblance to the real thing than any of 24’s equivalents.
It is unsurprising, then, that the show has angered some people in the Middle East: in fact, Lebanon is considering legal action against the show in the wake of recent episodes that took place in Beirut. Gordon and Gansa have not shied away from invoking specific practices like drone strikes, and this season are using Israeli strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities as a plot device. In dealing with these issues, they have taken an explicitly anti-war stance: the main threat in the first season is a result of a drone strike gone wrong, and the characterization of the hawk vice president – also responsible for the drone strike – is possibly the show’s most cartoonish. Yet the anger of Lebanon’s Tourism Minister, Fadi Abboud, is not entirely unjustified: while the show criticizes America’s more aggressive militaristic policies, it fails to depict the Middle East as more than a featureless threat. Most, though not all, of the Arab characters on the show are terrorists, and the audience is never tempted to sympathize with them. They are one-dimensional bad guys, and the show’s one two-dimensional bad guy is not among their rank.
Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) has got to be one of the most fascinating characters in the history of American television from a purely socio-political point of view, and Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), his antipode, is not far behind. Brody is even more of a prototypical white American male than his predecessor on 24: he’s a married soldier with two children living in a suburban neighborhood that couldn’t look more wholesomely middle-class if it tried. His long captivity in Afghanistan has beaten that identity out of him, but when he returns to the States he must take it up again while simultaneously, covertly subverting it. He has become a terrorist and a convert to Islam, two developments that the showrunners have the nerve to keep distinct and (relatively) unrelated. His religious faith is deliberately portrayed not as foreign or other but as something many viewers will find familiar, and as a positive force in his life. In interviews, Lewis has repeatedly remarked on his desire for his character’s conversion to be seen positively, as here in Rolling Stone:
I always thought it was a more subversive idea that a young marine would turn to Islam and that Islam would be a sustaining and nurturing positive force in his life, and that it would be something he actively chose, not that he was brainwashed into believing. It was a personal choice and I thought that was sort of more frightening to a lot of Americans, I think, they would find that an even more radical decision.
The idea of Brody’s character being frightening to American viewers hits directly on the radical power of Homeland, and its potential to impact the wider culture. The show is a highly sophisticated and effective deconstruction of the myth of the American male as epitomized by Jack Bauer, and by extension a deconstruction of the traditional building blocks of American society as a whole. By giving us a protagonist who is a white married soldier, and also a Muslim terrorist who is disgusted by his country’s violence, the showrunners are dramatizing the radical split between traditional American mythos and the complex reality of America’s current position in the globalized world. The illusion of the Jack Bauer-esque hero is revealed for what it really is: a complete fiction.
Consider the role that Carrie, the show’s real hero, plays in all of this: though Brody superficially bears a much closer resemblance to Jack Bauer, Carrie acts out his function in the plot, albeit with many more shades of gray – it is not only her job but her raison d’être to keep the American public safe. But she is a woman, one who is about as far from our stereotypical notions of femininity imaginable. She prioritizes her work over her personal life to a degree that is self-abnegating, and though she is beautiful her physicality is that of a square peg rammed carelessly into a square hole. Her voice grates. When she cries – which is often – it is unflattering. And yet Brody is drawn to her, in the show’s first season, in a way that he is not drawn to his very stereotypical wife anymore. Brody doesn’t fit in the place society has carved out for him anymore, either. They don’t fit the tropes that should contain them, but they do fit together.
(It is worth noting, too, that the show’s gender subversion extends to another female character, one who colluded with terrorists in the first season. Like Brody, she is a white American whose time in the Middle East – specifically, Saudi Arabia – has disillusioned her to the entire American international project. But she is easy to forgive, both because her main motivator is love for an Arab man and because she, like Brody, resembles us.)
Homeland, then, has radical things to say about both gender and religion, and about the whole idea of America. Its power rests on Brody being a latter-day Jack Bauer – but this necessity also sidelines the whole issue of the Middle East, and of Arab Muslims. The show’s long-term project is the deconstruction of the white American male, but the primary reason Brody is widely sympathetic is because he invokes emotions associated with that trope in the audience. The “real” bad guys are Muslim. Brody is barely a bad guy at all, and if he is, he’s our bad guy, and in all likelihood Gordon and Gansa will redeem him over the course of its run. It’s unfortunately unlikely they’ll do the same for any of the Arab terrorists they depict.