Homeland: The Case Against Carrie

TV deserves a better female antihero.


Blame plosive alliteration, if you will, but when people describe Homeland's Carrie Mathison, the words "brilliant" and "bipolar" are almost always used in the same sentence. She's mentally and emotionally unstable, the narrative goes, but she's also extraordinary: Although her brain chemistry thwarts her chances of lasting happiness, it gives her a broad streak of genius that makes her the country's most effective weapon in the fight against terror.

This argument, even as it's endlessly touted by the press and by Homeland's showrunners and by the actress who plays Carrie (Claire Danes), is unfortunately total garbage. Carrie is a terrible spy. If this weren’t a television show, she wouldn’t be allowed within 10 miles of Langley. Sirens would go off if her car so much as entered the GW Parkway. Yes, she has a history of mental illness that has seen her institutionalized and forcibly medicated; yes, she suffers from a related lack of impulse control, and is a narcissist with a complete lack of sympathy for anyone who isn't herself. But she’s also insanely unprofessional and sloppy in a way that’s more grating in Homeland’s fourth season than ever.

In her relatively short and extremely stormy tenure at the CIA, Carrie has slept with her boss (Estes) and broken up his marriage, seen one asset (Hasan) executed in Pakistan, lied to another (Lynne) that she was under CIA protective surveillance (after which Lynne was promptly assassinated), illegally spied on a returning Marine (Brody), slept with said Marine and given him information that helped him beat a polygraph, gotten another asset (al-Zahrani) killed by a briefcase bomb during a meet, gone rogue on the streets of Beirut, slept with Brody after she knew he was hatching terrorist plots against the U.S., gotten pregnant by Brody after she knew he helped assassinate the vice president, and then helped Brody escape after a bombing she failed to predict that ended up killing almost 200 people at Langley. And that's just the first two seasons.

In 2012, Saturday Night Live’s Homeland parody showed Anne Hathaway’s gurning, hysterical Carrie berating her supervisor after he refused to let her perform an interrogation. “David, is this because she’s a woman?” asked Bill Hader’s impeccably bearded Saul. “No,” Kenan Thompson’s David Estes replied. “It’s because she’s washing down pills with white wine … and she had sex with the last person she interrogated.” It’s funny because it’s true. Season four Carrie is still chugging cocktails of anti-psychotics and Sauvignon Blanc while getting uncomfortably close to her potential assets, in this case Aayan (Suraj Sharma), a trainee doctor whose family was killed in the drone attack Carrie authorized. “I’m putting my card in your pocket, OK?” she tells him as they huddle together in a bathroom, faces almost touching. By the expression on his face and how labored his breathing becomes, it isn’t hard to imagine which pocket she’s fumbling around in.

The show’s marked decline in quality since its critically acclaimed debut has been blamed variously on the unwieldy relationship between Carrie and Brody, on the kind of plot developments that saw the vice president murdered by hacking into his pacemaker and the world’s most-wanted terrorist enter the U.S. by shaving off his beard, and even on poor Dana. But now that the focus is back on Carrie, currently in her utterly undeserved role as Islamabad station chief, it’s becoming clear that she’s actually the problem more than anything else, at a time when cable television has a woeful lack of strong dramatic female leads.

Carrie's incompetence matters because her only saving grace as a character is the oft-repeated assertion that she's professionally extraordinary. "I missed something once—I won't do that again," is her mantra, both in the show's opening credits, and in life. "She means well, and she is kind of a superhero," is how Danes once described her character to The New York Times. But she also embodies the ugliest stereotypes about women in the workplace: that they're hysterical, brittle, rude, entitled, inefficient, and governed by emotions rather than logic. Instead of earning her promotions, Carrie either fails her way up the CIA ladder (after practically everyone else is killed by the Langley car bomb) or threatens people into giving her what she wants. Her current position in Islamabad was achieved by blackmailing CIA chief Lockhart, although from her interaction with her new antagonist, John Redmond (Michael O'Keefe), we can deduce that most CIA agents in Pakistan think she got it thanks to services rendered—a myth she doesn't attempt to dispel.

The trope of smart, capable women constantly undermining their professional lives with their personal problems is especially pernicious when you consider that, for these characters, their professional lives are all they have (see Scandal's Olivia Pope and Katherine Heigl's character in the upcoming State of Affairs). Women in television are rarely allowed to be invested in both their careers and their families, even in 2014. They have to choose. The exception is The Americans' Elizabeth Jennings, whose secret existence as a KGB spy is both rooted in her "fake" family and hidden from her children. Television has a rich history of male antiheroes being humanized by their believable and even redemptive attachments to their families, from Tony Soprano to Don Draper, yet Carrie's so freaked out by motherhood that for an uncomfortably long scene in last week's episode, she seemed to consider infanticide.

Baby Frannie, a brilliantly cast infant with red hair, only serves to make Carrie even more meth-addict twitchy. "I can't remember why I had you," she tells the baby after parking her car outside Brody's old house. Carrie's defiantly unmaternal coldness feels like a device that's intended to make her more like one of the boys but ignores the reality that humans are richly textured, complex beings. As superb an actress as Danes is, her character right now is little more than a monstrous caricature of mental and emotional instability whose professional playbook has only two pages: seducing assets, and pretending to go in one door before running out of another.

As a culture, we need female antiheroes who aren't stereotypes: career women who don’t have to sacrifice their personal lives because they love what they do. We deserve complex characters who are difficult, problematic, occasionally cruel, and often brilliant, and whose defining quality isn't being either sociopathically detached or obsessively emotionally involved. Carrie—inefficient, erratic, egotistical, inconsiderate, unprofessional Carrie—who puts on her lipstick with totally steady hands after almost being killed, and grunts, "Well, you're pretty enough" to a pilot while aggressively watching a baseball game, is neither a superhero nor an antihero, but a once-intriguing character who's become a grotesque. "There's no diagnosis for what's wrong with you," her sister tells her. Hopefully, for the sake of the rest of the show, there’s a cure.