Homeland Is the Most Radical Show on TV (and That's Why It's Unbearable)

To make a political point, it has alienated every character from the viewers.

Spoilers ahead for Season 3, Episode 9, "One Last Time."

Saul’s grand plan, we learned tonight, goes like this: Maneuver a double agent into the high ranks of Iran’s intelligence force, and then use another infiltrator to “take out” the leader of that intelligence force so that the double agent takes his place.

There’s something … familiar here. Saul has risen to the top spot in America’s intelligence force because everyone above him was “taken out” by an infiltrator. Were one inclined to believe Saul to be a mole, this plot of his might smack of revenge, of a symmetrical redemption bid.

Of course, Saul probably isn’t a mole. Towards the end of last season, showrunner Alex Gansa tamped down suspicions to the contrary in fairly clear terms, calling it “strange that people were convinced he was the traitor.”

What’s actually happening is more disconcerting. Thats because there’s something else familiar about Saul's scheme: It falls in line with the CIA’s long and often ugly history of covert regime-change efforts. Given the show's interest in scrutinizing and showing the unintended consequences of foreign-policy maneuvering, this is probably meant to be worrisome. As America has learned before in Iran, contra Saul's rhetoric, lasting peace isn’t attained merely by replacing the high-level leaders you don’t like.

What's more, by having Saul’s plan evoke the one that led to the bombing of Langley, Homeland has equated the CIA’s efforts and radical Islamic terrorism. The many innocents felled and CIA operatives damaged this season makes clear that the show considers homeland security to be a maybe-more-harm-than-good pursuit. That’s a gutsy point of view for a TV show watched, at least at one point, by the actual president of the United States.

Maybe that gutsiness is to be admired. But it has destroyed Homeland

There's nothing left to root for. The Javadi plan, beyond its troubling historical precedents, has been pursued so cruelly and calculatedly that Saul now comes off like a sociopath with delusions of grandeur. The show hasn’t even trumped up Iran as a Big Bad Threat to Peace enough for us to conflictedly hope he succeeds. Carrie, meanwhile, blithely harms children both unborn—her own—and born: Dana. Brody barely seems human. "Antihero" is almost too charitable a description for these characters, given how rarely the viewer actually wants them to succeed.

It’s the combination of this deep cynicism with TV-making ineptitude that makes Homeland these days a unique kind of bad. Other shows conceivably might subject viewers to extended scenes of main characters detoxing from heroin addiction or bantering woodenly with interchangeably wooly-faced military commandos. Others  might commit crimes of plausibility as infuriating as when Carrie took Brody to talk to his daughter (even someone as unhinged as Carrie must know that everything would be for naught were Brody’s presence in the U.S. to be known). Others shows, certainly, have resorted to the tedious, overdone trope of training montage.

But all of these tests of viewer patience would be excused on some level if we had someone or something to want from the plot, or if the show let us like these people. It may be true that in the real, messy world of intelligence operations, there really is no one to like. If that’s the point Homeland wants to make, it has succeeded to its own detriment: When it’s this hard to watch, the message isn’t going to stick.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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