Claire Danes stars in a new series about terrorism that lacks the moral certitude of its predecessor
"Just keep listening."
Homeland—Showtime's latest original series, which premiered last night—is a gripping, intelligent thriller with a lot to say.
The plot hinges on Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), a long-lost POW in Iraq, who is recovered by American soldiers after a strike on an enemy base. His unexpected rescue is touted as a major success for the US government, and Brody is lauded as a national hero. But CIA analyst Carrie (played with taut, nervy energy by Claire Danes) believes that Brody eventually turned against the United States during his captivity, and that his rescue was deliberately engineered by terrorist leader Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban) so that Brody can carry out the next major attack on US soil. It's a terrific, propulsive hook for a show, and Homeland's twisty pilot is guaranteed to keep you guessing.
The most obvious predecessor to Homeland is Fox's 24, and not without reason; the series share executive producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon and soundtrack composer Sean Callery. 24—which premiered just weeks after 9/11—was perhaps the ultimate show for the Bush era. Main character Jack Bauer committed gruesome acts of violence throughout the 24's eight seasons, but Bauer's extreme actions were, in the end, always justified by the severe threat posed by his enemies, and through betrayal, torture, and murder, 24 always took his side.
Homeland, by contrast, is a series for the Obama era, and it pointedly lacks 24's moral certitude. There's no question that Carrie's actions are illegal, and she's betrayed the trust of her closest ally (Mandy Patinkin) before the pilot is over. 24 never slowed down enough to show us Jack Bauer at rest, but Homeland offers an intriguing snapshot of Carrie's personal life, which includes a heavy dose of antipsychotic medication and an unnatural obsession with Abu Nazir. In the end, Carrie may be right about Brody, but her instability makes each of her judgments questionable at best.
Or maybe paranoia is just part of the job. Homeland establishes early on that Carrie was one of the people who "missed something" on September 11th, and her actions are at least partially out of guilt. Much of Homeland is spent on voyeurism of one kind or another. The most obvious example is Carrie's decision to illegally install audio and video transmitters in every room of the Brody household, which results—most queasily—in her decision to watch Brody and his wife Jessica having sex on the night of his return. But Homeland cannily shows both the media and the rest of the government as constant, voyeuristic presences. From the moment Brody arrives back in the United States, he's dogged by cameras and glad-handing politicians, and even his "private" moments are unwittingly public.
In fact, there are more troubling similarities between Carrie and Brody than it may first appear. There's something slightly alien and detached about the way that each of them looks at the world—a kind of emotional disconnect. Carrie wears a wedding ring at bars to stave off men who are "looking for relationships," and Brody's aggressive, animalistic sex with his wife—something she's clearly unprepared for—lacks any sense of emotional connection. Carrie's own sexuality, which she attempts to use to get out of trouble with supervisor Saul (Mandy Patinkin), is similarly motivated by self-interest.
It's not yet clear whether Brody has been turned, and it presumably won't be for a while (it's a 13-episode season, after all). But even if Brody is innocent of treason, something irreparably awful has happened to him. Though he periodically turns on a kind of "aw-shucks" charm, it rings hollow: Brody's eight years of captivity sapped him of some essentially human quality. In a subtler way, the question also applies to Carrie. If your job is to question everything and suspect everyone, can you ever really connect with anyone? And in the modern world, is this the type of person we need to keep us safe?
Homeland's pilot ends with Brody staring at the Capitol—the center of power responsible for the war that cost him eight years of his life. His expression is impossible to read, and whatever he's thinking, it's the one thing that Carrie, despite all her surveillance, can't peer into.