The Showtime series Homeland, starring Damian Lewis as a US prisoner of war coming home following years of captivity, has been described as the best thing currently on UK television. It’s also been described, by me after I raced through the whole series in January, as “a NeoCon penis pump“. Here, without any spoilers past the first two episodes, is why.
The hook of the show is that Lewis’ marine sergeant Nicholas Brody may or may not have been recruited as an enemy agent during his time in captivity. At the end of the first episode we see him beating the face off a fellow prisoner and collapsing in a bellowing heap into the arms of his torturers. At the end of the second we see him performing a muslim prayer. An “is he, isn’t he?” pattern is established encouraging audiences to flip from one side to the other. Hero! Terrorist! Hero! Terrorist!
This central premise is brilliantly dramatic, yes, but also designed to provoke insecurity. While we’re all used to watching television shows predicated on mystery (who killed Laura Palmer?) or the success of a mission (every iteration of 24, which shares producers with Homeland) this is a series-long arc defined by doubt. Whatever the final truth of Lewis’ character, one definite outcome is that we feel anxious and mistrusting. We all become a little like Claire Danes’ fractured CIA heroine – desperate to do the right thing, barely able to trust her own mind, open to illegal methods to get it done.
In this way Homeland continues the work carried out by 24. Homeland was developed by Howard Gordon and Alex Ganza, who also produced on the long-running real time terror circus (although they’re far from the lunatic fringe of 24 producers, a territory militantly occupied by Joel Surnow.) I remember the first time I saw Jack Bauer resort to torture – threatening to force a rolled towel down the throat of a suspect before withdrawing it to turn the bastard inside out – I was shocked. The dynamic in the early series was ‘How far can Jack go and still be in the right?’ By the later series it had become ‘How badly will Jack fuck up the terrorists this time?’
The debate had moved on – and, dangerously, 24 played its part in normalising torture as a miltiary act. Forget the fact it’s still illegal – it’s on TV! “That our own administration borrowed ideas from 24 is such a tragedy,” said one its own stars, Janeane Garofalo. And now, with the collective debate having moved into even more depressing territory – a bill giving the US military the right to detain citizens indefinitely without trial was signed into law during the series’ initial run – so in Homeland tracking potential terrorists through illegal surveillance which mock the rights of citizens isn’t even a major point of drama. It happens almost immediately. It is our starting point.
At the same time, Homeland invites us to be openly xenophobic. Take that episode-closing prayer scene, where the sight of Lewis performing ritual ablutions, rolling out a prayer matt and speaking Arabic is deemed horrifying enough to serve as a climactic cliffhanger. Take a second to think about what you’re reviled at there. A white guy who’s converted to Islam? An American soldier who’s converted to Islam? Positing the two as incompatible creeds posits Islam, rather than terrorists or violence, as the enemy of America.
One defence of Homeland is that it’s just following the lead of its source material, the Isreali series Hatufim. “The shock value of seeing a returned Jewish Israeli soldier reciting a Muslim prayer would have been twice as intense” ponders Jonathan Freedland emptily in a vacant Guardian piece. Yes – except the hook of betrayal and conversion is an American invention. The original is a straight take on the already plenty controversial subject of Israeli/Palestinian prisoner exchanges and the struggles of settling back into regular life. (“The more I researched it, the more I understood how rich it was in drama,” says creator Gideon Raff, who also worked on the US version.) The poisonous sleeper agent storyline is one made just for the US – stroking fears and whispering of an invisible menace. Who is our enemy now Osama Bin Laden is dead? It could be anyone. It could be the very heart of us. Stay vigilant. Do whatever we must.
As a final kick in the balls, I object to the use that Homeland makes of the excellent Damian Lewis. Lewis is terrific and I’m very glad to see him headlining a successful show. But he comes with a very particular set of on-screen baggage. It’s not just that he’s most familiar from the World War Two series Band Of Brothers, giving him immediate credentials as an American hero. It’s that in that series Lewis played a real man, Major Dick Winters – and that through Band Of Brothers’ unique structure, featuring the testimony of surviving Easy Company members including Winters at the beginning of every episode, the actor and the man were bound to one another in a unique way. His role in Homeland doesn’t represent a heroic leading man playing against type – this is a something more, bringing the memory of a past conflict and the people who fought in it to bear on a slanted justification for American foreign policy.
Band Of Brothers was first broadcast two days before 9/11, an event which is the dividing line between its compassionate patriotism and the scared, insular justifications of 24 and Homeland. Ten years after those attacks, with the war on terror more directionless and open-ended than ever, Homefront fuels fear, fuels doubt, and posits a weakening of the self as America’s greatest enemy, a decade-old echo of the shameful “You’re either with us or against us” rhetoric. It’s a brilliant TV show, but it’s also the confused ravings of a troubled, fading power.