'Homeland' Is Really About Kids

Critics have called a recent plot line involving the teenage characters a distraction, but it may actually be integral to the show's message.

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This post includes information about the episode that aired Oct. 28.

The first image in any episode of Homeland is of a little girl apparently trying to sleep. Snippets of news clips about the past few decades of anti-American terrorism filter in; Sean Callery's uneasy jazz medley plays; the little girl grows up to become CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), lost in a maze, pursuing the troubled soldier Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis).

That title sequence's seasick editing and dirge-like theme song has led to it being called one of the worst in television, and it's certainly not pleasant. But it communicates a number of important things about Homeland, and the most basic—and also least noticed—is how prevalent children are. The sweetly resting young Mathison's progression to harried, "fuck"-spitting, older Mathison isn't just biographical background on the series' protagonist. It's also the visual representation the show's interest in the power of kids to change the world, and the power of the world to change them.

The most overt—and arguably clumsy—enactment of this theme came this past Sunday, when 16-year-old Dana Brody (Morgan Saylor) and her new squeeze Finn Walden (Timothée Chalamet as the son of the vice president) slammed into a pedestrian during a high-speed joyride around Washington, D.C. and then drove away. The Atlantic Wire's Richard Lawson, along with a lot of other critics, have called this development "big, obvious mistake" on the part of the Homeland's writers: "On a show that frequently surprises and surpasses expectations, you're gonna go and do the 'Oh no we hit someone now we have to keep a dark, terrible secret' story?"

He's right that this "twist" been overdone in TV dramas, and he's right that it's galling to have an intricately assembled storyline suddenly turn on what nearly amounts to an act of God. Still, I want to trust Homeland on this. Plot wise, the incident may well pay off by playing a role in the relationship between Brody and his ostensible ally and secretly sworn enemy, Vice President William Walden. But perhaps more importantly, on a show where children so often represent the only patches of unclouded good in an otherwise complicated world, it makes a lot of sense to eventually present these two former innocents with a trial of their consciences.

Innocence, after all, is one of most influential forces in Homeland's moral universe. Nicholas Brody is motivated nearly entirely by his desire to avenge and protect the innocent. It's not political or religious indoctrination per se that makes him turn against his country; it's the fact Issa, the happily smiling son of a terrorist mastermind, is killed in a US drone strike. And it's not technical failures or a loss of nerve that persuades him against detonating a suicide vest in a bunker filled with US government officials; it's the voice of his daughter, over the phone, asking him to come home. Carrie zeroed in on this fact during her pivotal interrogation of him on last week's episode, saying that the Brody who backed out of a bomb plot because it "would [ruin] Dana's life and wouldn't bring Issa back" is the "Brody who knows the difference between warfare and terrorism"—between harming combatants and harming the innocent.

And now, Dana is in peril of ruining her life anyways. She's a savvy, back-talking, pot-smoking, sex-having teenager who's nevertheless been defined by an almost-naive morality. Whereas Brody (as both Carrie and Brody's wife Jessica have now pointed out) lies with nearly every word he utters, Dana is unfailingly honest. Early in the season, she blurts the one secret she has been asked to keep, about her dad being a Muslim. When she wants to date Finn, she makes sure to be honorable about it, waiting to break up with her burnout boyfriend Xander first. But if she helps Finn cover up the accident, she'll be starting down the same road as her father: wracked by guilt, weighed down by more and more layers of deception as time goes on.

Indeed, with each passing episode, Homeland signals in new ways that bad things transform good people. Carrie and Brody are fundamentally screwed up, but neither started that way. In Carrie's case, we see it in those opening credits. A girlhood spent watching horrible things happening to her country, crossed with bipolarity and the shock of 9/11 happening while she was in the CIA, created a woman transfixed and unhinged. In Brody's case, eight years of captivity—of being tortured, of being forced to (he thinks) murder a comrade, of seeing a boy he loved killed by the country he'd fought for—have altered him. "They did something to Dad over there," Dana reflects to her mom right before Finn picks her up for their ill-fated joyride. "He's not the same." After the crash, Dana may not be either.