JILLY BOYCE KAY
So, Homeland is nearly upon us again; the third series of the ‘drama-thriller’, about a captured US marine turned terrorist, arrives on our screens this evening. It’s a high-end, critically acclaimed show, produced by the cable television arm of the Fox Entertainment Group (more of which later). Reviews from the US – where the third series has been broadcast just a week before it goes out in the UK, as a way of generating international buzz – have generally been rather good. For many, this comes as a relief. After the critical acclaim that greeted the first series, the second was generally received as something of a disappointment, seeming too convoluted, far-fetched, and lacking the narrative tautness and political credibility of the first.
In any case, I kept on watching. I’m generally not a fan of television dramas; I’m basically a commitment-phobe, wary of getting drawn in to anything that is going to require too much time and investment. I can’t even remember why or how I began watching Homeland back in 2012, but I was instantly and unusually obsessed; I haven’t missed a single minute of any episode since that first one. During the first two series’ airings on Channel 4, I have looked forward to Sunday evenings with an intensity that I haven’t experienced over a TV programme for a long time – the frustration and pleasure of delayed gratification was a huge draw. So too, and most especially, was the promise that the show would provide a nuanced and critical take on the ‘War on Terror’. It seemed that here was a programme that – unlike its Fox stablemate 24 – was not crude and hawkish propaganda for the use of torture in the name of US homeland security, nor a crass and reductive characterisation of US militarism = good, Islamic world = bad.
At first I was seduced by the promise of this critical take on US foreign policy and military power. What a powerful and important forum this could be for an exploration of the moral vacuity and hideous hypocrisy of the George W. Bush maxim “you’re either with us or against us”, as well as more recent military interventions under a Nobel Peace prize-winning president.
(Also, I really liked the Carrie and Brody love story.)
The thing about drama – especially drama that is so smartly written, and whose narrative is so ingeniously constructed as Homeland’s – is that you can never predict what is coming next, or in what ways the writers might surprise you and ultimately confound your expectations. So, even as the show seemed, week by week, to be failing to provide any substantive critique of US foreign policy, I tried to stay open to the fact that it might at some point begin to really problematize and subvert the idea of a ‘War on Terror’. Maybe in some dramatic plot twist, the covert actions of the CIA would be revealed to be something other than noble – if bungled – attempts to uphold some vague notion of freedom. But even as we learnt that Brody’s ‘conversion’ to the cause of Islamist terrorism was spurred on by the killing in a US drone strike of Issa, the young boy (and son of the uber-terrorist Abu Nazir) he had learnt to love as his own son – and that the US government had lied about the death of children in the attack – this never seemed to lead to any real questioning of the values that underpin US military interventions in the Middle East. As Rachel Shabi wrote in the Guardian, this act, among many other things, is presented as a necessary evil required to counter something much worse: “Homeland’s core message is that the US means well, but sometimes has to do bad things; while the Arab and/or Muslim enemy doesn’t mean well and hence does unfathomably bad things”. It seems to me that the deep inadequacies of the two main CIA characters – Carrie and Saul – only function to humanise them further still, as complex, flawed individuals. The CIA as an institution is humanised in much the same way. Meanwhile, the ‘others’ – the Islamists – are presented as the embodiment of delusional dogma, whether as evil geniuses or ideological robots. Slavoj Žižek wrote about Stephen Spielberg’s film Munich that, whilst it professed to introduce doubt and moral complexity into its narrative, what it really did was to “redeem the Mossad agents still further: ‘look, they are not just cold killers, but human beings with their doubts – they have doubts, whereas the Palestinian terrorists…’”
It’s the programme’s reductive representation of Islam and Muslims that makes me most uncomfortable. Almost every single Muslim in the show has been a terrorist or is associated explicitly with terror. Brody himself, of course, is a convert to Islam, and it seems to me that his ‘Muslim-ness’ is only ever emphasised to signify his betrayal, his duplicity, and the terrorist threat that he now poses. I have become increasingly disappointed with the show in this regard, as it fails to overturn these stereotypes, especially given the opportunities that dramatic fiction provides for questioning, ambiguity and subversion. The ‘nuance’ and ambiguity that the programme promises seem to manifest only within a very narrowly-prescribed space, in which it is moderately acceptable to question some specific choices that the US has made in the war on terror – but not, ultimately, the premise of that war itself.
I suppose that this raises the question which has been asked so many times before within media studies – is it OK to watch and derive pleasure from a television programme that is ideologically problematic? If it’s really so awful, then of course I could choose to do what I do with most TV dramas, and simply ignore it. Well, yes. But as Laurie Penny wrote recently about her conflicted relationship with Game of Thrones:
A story doesn’t need to be comfortable, realistic or generous towards the downtrodden in order to be gripping; and a piece of art doesn’t have to be perfectly politically correct to be fun, or important. We’re allowed to enjoy problematic things, as long as we’re honest about their problems.
I think this applies rather well to Homeland; it is undeniably well-written, exceptionally well-produced and narratively compelling, even at the same time as it is politically and morally dubious. A drama that costs as much to produce as Homeland is probably never going to be critical of the military-political nexus in a way that risks its own commercial existence. So, perhaps within the constrained political space that it is allowed, it has succeeded in asking some uncomfortable questions, and we should be pleased about that. But if it represents the limits of the acceptable terms of debate – which, I think, you would have to say it does – then that is rather more depressing.