Prisoners of War: Showtime’s ‘Homeland’

Clare Danes and Mandy Patinkin in “Homeland.”

Homeland entered its third season showered with awards and critical acclaim. The Showtime series is considered iconic of contemporary, post-9/11 America. It is replete with terrorist cells, drone strikes, wounded veterans and covert surveillance of civilians. Yet this icon unsettles rather than soothes because it raises the same question as Shakespeare’s “King Lear”: when the world turns to tempest, who is crazy and who is sane? That query is underscored by seemingly endless and exhilarating plot twists (Warning: spoilers ahead).

At the center of this icon is C.I.A. operative Carrie Mathison, a role that inducts Claire Danes into the pantheon of our most talented thespians. (She earned this year’s Emmy for Lead Actress in a Drama Series.) Some of Carrie’s character traits might cause viewers to cast her among the crazy, but—like so many of the saints we now honor—it is quite impossible to separate her affliction from her uncanny acumen. Her character struggles with bipolar disorder and is convinced that U.S. Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody, who was held captive for eight years by Al Qaeda, was successfully turned against the United States and sent back to the homeland as a sleeper agent.


Saints in icons typically have distended features. Their heads are slightly larger to suggest wisdom. Their hands are elongated to evoke supernatural dexterity, and their eyes are enlarged to suggest greater powers of insight. Claire Danes was born with luminous eyes, and her ability to use her face as a scrim for emotions is preternatural. She is utterly convincing as crazy. At the end of the first season, when she undergoes electro-shock therapy, one cannot help but hope that it eases her inner combustion. Yet her piercing eyes also insist that this Cassandra’s wisdom counts. We must attend to her ravings. As with Lear, we dare not turn away.

Damian Lewis, a graduate of Eton, plays Sergeant Brody. He has returned to the United States with the intention of visiting justice upon the American vice president, who ordered a morally questionable drone strike. It killed many innocents, including a child who befriended Brody in captivity. Can a U.S. Marine violate his oath—to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic—in the name of a personal mission for justice? Is that crazy? Or has the United States become so paranoid about terrorism that it readily turns to the truly venal for leadership, provided only that they promise security?

In captivity, Brody embraced Islam, and he has returned to America as single-minded as any saint. Vice President William Walden, played by the firm-jawed Jamey Sheridan, is both a patriot and a shallow scoundrel. If all sin is a centrifugal dissipation, Walden is surely an illustration of this. In contrast, Brody seems almost always to act for a higher purpose; he is genuinely pained when he kills. The only clear barometer of this marine’s moral disintegration is his incessant lying. We have the same difficulty as Carrie in deciding whether or not he is telling the truth. By the second season, it is no longer clear that Brody himself knows.

“Homeland” has a surfeit of excellent actors. Mandy Patinkin plays Saul Berenson, Carrie’s immediate supervisor at the C.I.A. The role is not unlike the everyman of medieval dramaturgy. Saul knows that Carrie is crazy; he suspects that Brody is berserk; and he cannot help but wonder if his own country has lost any sense of sanity. He is present when a Middle Eastern drone strike is ordered from the safety of a Washington briefing room. Unfortunately, madrasa school children will be included in the strike, but “the collateral damage count” of the attack is “within the acceptable matrix parameters.” Saul sadly asks, before he closes his own eyes, “Somebody actually came up with that language?”

Saints are supposed to possess a singleness of purpose. Brody thought he possessed this when he returned from captivity: kill the American vice president in the name of justice, Islamic or otherwise. But how does one execute such a mandate when surrounded by one’s wife and children, all superbly played, whose normal lives will be effectively ended by such an action? Soldiers are trained to kill, presumably in the name of protecting values that have been sanctioned by a higher civilian authority. “Homeland” raises the provocative moral question: What if our trained killers begin to make their own judgments on who deserves to die?

The sorrow at the heart of this series is Sergeant Brody. We see the scars of his physical torture when he removes his shirt. We watch as his inner wounds worsen. He was trained to kill. He was not taught to reason morally, to evaluate the ethical use of lethal force. His belief in Islam offers him a moral clarity his own country does not. Will the sorrowing be consoled?

And then there is Carrie, who lacks a saint’s purity of heart. She falls in love with her surveillance target. In season two, she interrogates a captured Sergeant Brody, who has just been threatened with the death penalty for treason. He cannot tell if her loving, maternal ministrations are manipulations or love. Has the ultimate liar met his match? The murky truth is that Carrie does not know herself. She loathes and loves this man, and she gains no clarity by separating him from his actions. It’s all jumbled together, as it is in most lives.

There is a small but final difference between a saint and fanatic. Both are a bit crazed, in the sense that they are out of balance, excessively focused upon a sole object. Perhaps the only difference is that saints are motivated by love; fanatics, by a frenzy that is contemptuous of those who disagree.

As it enters its third season, “Homeland” continues to pose a central, terrifying question. When attacked by terrorists, can we respond with something other than our own fanaticism and paranoia? If armed forces cannot keep us safe, will covert analysts protect the homeland by monitoring every move we make? Large portions of the series consist of videos from hidden monitors, which seem to be everywhere. And when these electronic eyes, which see but cannot be seen, have done their work, is it possible to entrust the doling out of justice to anyone less than a saint?

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Protestors march to support a U.N. anti-corruption commission in Guatemala City on Jan. 6. Photo by Jackie McVicar.
“What they are doing not only puts Guatemala at risk but the entire region. Bit by bit, for more than a year, they have been trying to divide us. The elections are at risk. We are six months away.”
Jackie McVicarJanuary 18, 2019
“We will just do what we need to do to help people in need,” said Antonio Fernandez, C.E.O. of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of San Antonio.
Emma Winters January 18, 2019
The study found Latina immigrant women in Arizona who were pregnant during the contentious S.B. 1070 passage had babies with lower birthweight compared with those in prior years. Average birth weights did not decrease among U.S.-born white, black or Latina women during the same time.
J.D. Long-GarcíaJanuary 18, 2019
This week's guest is Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, founder of New Wave Feminists, a pro-life feminist organization dedicated to changing the divisive language surrounding the abortion debate.
Olga SeguraJanuary 18, 2019