Two shows with two takes on U.S. foreign policy: one realistic and one idealistic
Fall television always starts out with a bang. But for two of the most promising dramas of the fall, ABC's military drama Last Resort, which begins tonight at 8 pm, and Showtime's Homeland, which returns on Sunday after cleaning up at the Emmys for its freshman season, those explosions are literal, not metaphorical. Last Resort, about a submarine crew that takes refuge on a tropical island rather than launch nuclear missiles at Pakistan, begins when someone else decides to detonate the weapons anyway. And Homeland, about CIA agents trying to bring down a master terrorist, and the turned prisoner of war who helped discredit one of them, begins under the shadow of an even more realistic proposition: Israel has just bombed Iran's nuclear facilities.
It's not surprising that Homeland's success would prompt other networks to try to replicate its searing look at geopolitical anxiety. And though Last Resort is on a network and has a decidedly soapier feel, the show could be an excellent companion piece for Homeland. Where Homeland is about how to fight an ill-defined war with limited resources, Last Resort is a fantasy of how the United States would respond to the madness of war if we had the freedom and resources to be a truly model nation, without the need for moral compromise.
Last Resort reaches that rather simple premise through a complex set of events. While crossing the Equator, and after picking up a team of Navy SEALS in duress, Captain Marcus Chaplin (Andre Braugher) gets an order to fire nuclear weapons at Pakistan. But he receives the command through a backup channel only meant to be used in case the government has been overthrown. Things are, in fact, bad at home, with the president facing impeachment and government officials resigning in protest of his policies, but a check reveals things are otherwise proceeding as normal. The show implies that the command isn't legitimate, but the question of what cabal or conspiracy ordered it is one of the long-term mysteries Last Resort seems set to explore.
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When Marcus questions the orders, he's removed from command and replaced with his executive officer Sam Kendal (Scott Speedman), who finds himself similarly in doubt. When they hesitate, their submarine is fired upon by another American warship, and they go to ground on an island with a NATO outpost, an active black market, and a super-hot bartender (Diechen Lachman), but no apparent existing formal government. While much of his crew is concerned with getting home and defend themselves against the mutiny charges that will certainly be pending against them, Marcus gets another idea. He'll stay, leave behind whatever conspiracies are taking over American politics, and try to see if he can be a better, more compassionate leader than the people who ordered him to annihilate 5 million people without an explanation.
"We could do better," Marcus reflects of the country that he feels betrayed him, both by giving him immoral orders and then trying to kill him for seeking clarification of them. "Starting from scratch." By scratch, he means a combination of Ronald Reagan's playbook for dealing with the Russians, the Geneva Conventions, speechifying that might make even a more cynical Aaron Sorkin's heart go pitter-patter, and a whole mess of military hardware.
His ship, as defense contractor Kylie Sinclair (Autumn Resser) gushes back in Washington as she seduces a Congressional staffer, is self-sustaining and full of enough weaponry to "basically wipe out anything, anywhere, any time." And thanks to Kylie's ingenuity, it's packing a next-gen cloaking device as well. When the U.S. sends warplanes to attack the sub, Marcus borrows from Reagan's strategy of firing the air traffic controllers to make Russia think he was unstable—a bit of history he imparted to Sam in his stateroom before the mission took its turn. He then fires a nuclear missile to detonate outside of Washington, DC to show the American government that he's serious about defending his newly-declared independence. More in sorrow than in anger, he recounts how "From our submarine, we have watched as the fabric of trust between the government and its people has been torn."
After the Cold War flares up again and the crew gets its hands on some enterprising Russian commandos, Marcus declares, "Now, as Americans, there's no debate about the fate of our POWs" before ordering them taken into humane custody. And in a fit of exasperation familiar to anyone who's ever wished they could knock two world leader's heads together, Marcus takes over the NATO communications system and leaves a Russian minister to explain what he was doing ordering the commando's raid on the island to the American Secretary of Defense, who would like Marcus and his crew back, along with their extremely powerful submarine.
This is governance by wishful thinking, a fantasy cocktail of realpolitik, nuclear deterrence, and human rights with a jaunty tropical cocktail umbrella anchoring all the garnishes together. Andre Braugher is a television actor of the finest caliber, able to convey with the corners of his mouth or a hitched-up forehead what some of his peers would need a canvas 72 feet wide and 53 feet high to show an audience. And it's fun to see him, as Marcus—unrestrained by the laws of the United States, the constraints of its political conventions, or conventional geopolitics—give the better angels of his nature free reign. But watching Braugher play George Washington and everyone else in the large and uneven cast try to keep up with him isn't yet as exciting as seeing the far more consistent cast in Homeland face down the prospect of cataclysmic terrorism.
When we meet up with bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) six months after her bout of electroshock therapy in the second season of Homeland, she's living quietly at home with her sister and father, teaching English to a class of new immigrants, and occasionally keeping an eye on the news. One of her agents, the abused second wife of a Hezbollah commander, resurfaces in Lebanon and asks to speak to Carrie personally, forcing her mentor Saul (Mandy Patinkin) and her former boss at the CIA, David Estes (David Harewood) to ask her to come back into the field. This is a big deal, as she disgraced herself in season one by investigating Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) and was fired from the CIA for accusing him of being a terrorist. Where Marcus has the ability to compel obedience within the chain of command and to force it on the local populace because of his control of overwhelming firepower makes him a stand-alone nuclear power, Saul, David, and Carrie can rely only on trust and relationships that can fracture in an instant.
The single greatest asset they had, whether Estes in particular was ever willing to acknowledge it or not is Carrie's brain. But it has been badly degraded by the circumstances in which she was drummed out of the agency. "It fucked me up, Saul," she tells them midway through their mission. "Being wrong about Brody. It fucked me up. Because I have never been so sure and so wrong. And it's that fact that I still can't get my head around. It makes me unable to trust my own thoughts. Every time I think I see something clearly now, it just disappears." The great cruelty of the damage done to Carrie, of course, is that everything she's been told was wrong was actually correct. Brody did intend to kill Vice President Walden—who now is courting Brody, a Congressman who took his seat in a special election, to join him in on his presidential ticket—and himself. It was Carrie's wild dash to Brody's family that convinced his daughter Dana (Morgan Saylor) to call him at the crucial moment at which he was going to go through with his plan, and it was the need for Carrie's words to Dana not to be true that convinced Brody not to detonate his suicide vest.
If Last Resort is to be the story of the damage done to the American government by a grand conspiracy, Homeland is the more personal story of how it's possible for people to destroy themselves and each other without the hidden hand of a cabal to urge the knife forward. It's about the fragility of instincts and trust on which the state of world affairs balances so tenuously and personally. The idea that a single person or a single encounter can be the fulcrum on which all things rest can also be a weakness for Homeland. The show has always relied, to a certain extent, on coincidences, a tendency that's exacerbated considerably in the first two episodes for the show, once to reignite Brody's banked loyalties to Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban), the second to kickstart Carrie's redemption. The latter feels particularly frustrating, at least as it's presented initially. Carrie's brilliant brokenness damaged her career, and it would be more rewarding to see her work her way out of the hole she dug for herself than to have some of her credibility problems resolved by a Deus Ex Mathison.
But despite some of those more questionable steps, its cast has always given Homeland an astonishing emotional integrity that allows the show a certain leeway when it comes to plot. It may be a significant coincidence that forces Carrie back into espionage work, but her tremulous, triumphant smile when she successfully evades a man who is tailing her in Lebanon makes it matter more that she's there at all than how she got there. "Ever think we'd be doing this again?" Saul asks her as they oversee a complex operation. "I hoped," she tells him, before making it clear she doesn't assume the agency is taking her back. "I know, don't get used to it."
The test for Homeland in its second season is whether the show can turn a difficult premise into something we can get used to, and can consistently expect to be as good as it has been at its best. And for Last Resort, which debuts in a difficult time slot, it will be to prove that watching the world burn can be as compelling as watching a woman recognize a terrible truth in her own living room.