Homeland: Women in Charge in Post-9/11 America
When the Emmys were awarded back in September and Homeland cleaned up every major category, Showtime’s drama turned the whole serious television world on its axis. Many critics and fans expected another victory lap for Mad Men and individual Emmys for Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks. At the very least, we expected to be debating, once again, whether or not Matthew Weiner’s prima donna antics were warranted or not.
Instead, Mad Men lost what would have been its fifth-straight Emmy to a dark horse Showtime drama that at the time had a lot less cachet. Homeland did have an audience, obviously, but it had by and large piqued the interests of professionals who receive free screeners and are employed for the sole purpose of watching and writing about television; the program hadn’t yet permeated the highbrow TV-viewing public. If Homeland had nabbed only a single award, like Outstanding Drama, for example, the win could have been chalked up to the uneven fifth season of Mad Men or the Hollywood Correspondents’ need for new blood. With the veritable romp, though, Showtime’s new critical darling is now elbowing its way into contention for Best TV Show on air. Awards can be interpreted with any number of cynical reactions—and there may be some merit to thinking that not all of the Emmys were deserved (I’m looking at you, Damian Lewis)—but after nearly two seasons, Homeland is doing a very good job of living up to its new expectations.
In the fall, I wrote about Boardwalk Empire possibly cribbing some of the thematic and narrative formulas that made its rivals and predecessors successful. In short, I basically pointed out that a successful serious drama couldn’t simply be the clichéd sum of its parts. As a drama surrounding a flawed-but-brilliant CIA analyst who isn’t afraid to break the rules, Homeland not only proves this theory, but it is also successful because it adds its own level of complexity to the TV Drama landscape. Most premier cable programs have overlapping elements in their thematic Venn diagrams, so the challenge lives in adding new twists to these agreed-upon characteristics.
To be successful in today’s media-consuming culture, it seems, a show must feature a charismatic anti-hero who grapples with public and private personas, it must include a wholesome family whose happiness (and sometimes lives) are threatened by external forces, and its central narrative must be complemented by B and C storylines that emphasize the constant struggle between chaos and normalcy. All of these programs begin in medias res, and the conflict is almost always about returning to that idealized, just-past moment where everything felt like it made sense (even if it didn’t). In short, these programs are all (possibly subconsciously) post-9/11 narratives. Only Homeland, however, is capable of making this notion explicit. This is no small feat, of course, but it’s still not the most important improvement that Homeland makes to the TV drama genre.
If there’s been one thing conspicuously absent from every Emmy-nominated contender for Best TV, it’s been the presence of a believable, authentic, and dynamic female character as the central antihero. We have had, in no particular order, women like Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco), Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), Skyler White (Anna Gunn), and Margaret Schroeder/Thompson (Kelly MacDonald), but these have either been foils or minor figures compared with the brooding, morally ambiguous patriarchs. As their respective programs go on, the woman may pick up bad habits or commit isolated sins/crimes, but more often than not we are simply instructed to pity these female characters.
In the character of Homeland’s Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), there is a real and flawed woman who is every bit as good at what she does as these other near-magical antiheroes, and she is also every bit as plagued by a personal Achilles heel. As is the case with all of the other cable drama icons, Carrie is so capable and so close to being “good” that we can’t help but root for her. This is significant: it’s not that women root for her with any sort of chauvinistic blindness, and it’s not that men root for her because she’s an over-sexed CIA operative. Instead, she is realistic and is often made to be unattractive in both physical and moral ways. When she bends the rules, we don’t care and, more importantly, we hope she gets away with it because we know she’s right. How many times have we cheered for Don Draper for the same exact thing?
As if crossing the gender barrier isn’t a tricky enough stunt, Homeland also has a way of making every other televised rival appear to be surprisingly low-stakes. Where there was once an advantage with Mad Men’s creative interplay between real and fictionalized history, how can we possibly muster the same level of anxiety over a character’s personal or cultural struggles when he’d be dead by now? This is not to unfairly attacked Mad Men as much as it is to demonstrate how Homeland (possibly by accident) exposes its fatal flaw: even if Mad Men is a beautiful expression of the forgotten complexities of mid-century America, it is at best an Ur-myth that sets the table for a politically valent program like Homeland. Not to make too fine a point, but if Homeland does this to Mad Men, the transcendent costume drama on cable, what chance could Boardwalk Empire or Hell on Wheels possibly have to defend itself against this new alpha dog?
After eliminating so many of the other competitors, this only leaves Breaking Bad to go toe-to-toe with Showtime’s biggest gun. Obviously, there is a lot to praise about Breaking Bad, and there are several distinct reasons why it has become a critically praised, Emmy-winning show. Besides the exceptional performances by leads Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, the show is much more plot-focused than the slow burn of character dramas like Mad Men. This allows critics to comment about story arcs in real time, rather than spending several weeks speculating on a subtle glance or a seemingly meaningless verbal aside. Similarly, Homeland’s episodic strategy revolves around moving the story forward and raising the stakes on a consistent basis. While both programs are topical (for the most part), their difference in scope says a lot about the skill of their respective writing staffs.
During the first few seasons of Breaking Bad, the setting was limited to the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. As Walt and Jesse got deeper into the meth game, the story expanded to cover some of the slums in the area and, eventually, confronted the cartel on the other side of the Mexican border. During the most recent season (5-A), the boundaries of this narrative universe swelled to international proportions, as the operation that Gus Fring once ran proved to be connected to a multinational corporation based in Germany. By expanding this scope, not only did the ability to suspend one’s disbelief become more difficult, but the tone of the entire program shifted uncomfortably when it over-reached the confines of this archetypal struggling American suburb.
Homeland has no such constraints. By casting itself as a global narrative from the start, it creates an elegant parallel with domestic settings: there is a simultaneous conflict between the domesticity of the home and the domestic threats to the nation from evil forces abroad. In this way, the program ambitiously positions itself as the quintessential post-9/11 narrative. Where cable dramas have examined the struggles of returning to normalcy and moral absolutism in the workplace and the home, Homeland deftly toggles between those issues and the real and continued threat of terrorism. By doing so through members of the CIA, it subtly reminds us that we are all panicked by the problems at home and the threats from abroad—even if we have normalized the latter to the point of subconscious anxiety. As laudable as this air-tight conceit may be, it is not the program’s frame alone that sets Homeland apart from the competition, either.
In the fall of 2010, AMC attempted to go three-for-three with a scripted drama called Rubicon. Dealing with terrorism and the post-9/11 intelligence community, the purpose of this program was nearly identical to what Homeland addresses (save for the fact that Rubicon featured a New York City-based intelligence operation and Homeland relies on the more recognizable CIA). Rubicon also attempted to create a fictional sleeper cell that worked in cooperation with some of the terrorist forces abroad. When considering how Rubicon was steeped in paranoia and led by a protagonist that simply wouldn’t follow orders or suppress his own curiosity, the differences between these cable dramas was more in degree than type.
Simply put, Rubicon’s characters were often uninteresting. Will Travers lost his family on 9/11, Miles Fielder was secretly going through a divorce, and Tanya MacGaffin hid an addiction to prescription medicine—all boiler plate damage, none of it all that compelling. On the other hand, Homeland painstakingly creates characters, conflicts, and situations that play to its actor’s strengths (like Claire Danes’s cry face) and rely on a narrative realism that never asks its audience to believe in propositions that are too far-fetched (for the most part). For example, while it might seem implausible for an analyst to fall madly in love with a possible terrorist, the slow-build over the course of several episodes helps Carrie’s fascination and suspicion grow into a complicated mix of pity, infatuation, and fantasy. Likewise, the fact that the Brody household has to choose between two father figures (the one who was held captive for eight years and the good guy who tried to “help out” while they presumed Brody to be dead) offers just enough back story and on-screen discussion to be developed naturally but never to the point of melodrama.
Homeland’s early success has been a credit to both the conceit and the episodic entries working in tandem. The program understands its purpose and artfully makes sure that each small moment is consistently referent to the overarching conflicts. Friction between the too-smart antihero and the people that fail to understand or appreciate him or her has become an ironclad genre convention, but Homeland has strived past this by reminding the audience that we need this character for our protection. Although we might sometimes like or even identify with Don Draper, Walter White, or Nucky Thompson, their lives and their work do not impact or have a symbolic connection to our lives. With Carrie Mathison, we recognize that she is another fictional protagonist, but we also know that the real-life version of her exists and needs to be every bit as good at what she does to keep us safe.
Not since the height of the Cold War have we been so fascinated by the CIA. During our current “War on Terror,” few movies or TV programs have successfully presented a nuanced view of how the international, the political, and the personal spheres are so confusingly interconnected. Where most TV dramas have sought a return to normalcy and nostalgically mourned the passing of a Golden Age, Homeland illustrates how those defending our way of life are on the frontlines of creating a lasting sense of stability, a new vision of what qualifies as normal.