Print the propaganda*
Homeland I and II, HBO series, 2012
By Peter Hulm
With a third series of Homeland in the offing, where can it go? It burned many of its bridges on the way. Can it find an enemy who is not an Islamic terrorist from across the sea?
Everyone seems to have found the second season of Homeland inferior to the first, and felt the need to tell the world about it.
Beyond the manifold absurdities of the attempt to tie up loose ends, it remained, as Chris Harvey noted in the U.K. Daily Telegraph, riveting.
My explanation, as Harvey confirms, is that the second series broke away from the Israeli original. In fact, many of the puzzles of the first series could be explained in my mind, by reference to its Israeli original:
- How could a bipolar hysteric who seemed regularly to go off her meds be part of the CIA? (Yes, I remember E. Howard Hunt)
- As an active officer controlling field agents?
- The way that Brodie was turned seemed clearly ridiculous, and was denounced as such by John McCarthy, a hostage for five years in Lebanon. He described the violent flashbacks as "almost like titillation".
- The only Muslims the CIA meets (and we see) are fanatics.
Peter Beaumont in The Guardian pointed out that we shouldn't expect our thrillers to be as realistic about crime as real life. After all, homicide rates in Oxford or rural England is nowhere like those in Lewis or Midsomer Muders.
But it's hard to disagree when Beaumont writes: "As someone who has spent much time in the Middle East, I find the depictions not only crude and childish but offensive."
How true do we want our political fictions?
It may be O.K. to feed Homeland's paranoid view of Middle East realities to Israelis (no, it's not) but it is certainly wrong to paint all Saudis, Palestinians and Jordanians with the same brush, particularly in a fiction series.
The truth is, we expect our fiction to make us feel comfortable that the lies it tells us about the political world have some relation to reality, without having to think too much. That way we can simply sit back or lean forward and let the narrative work its magic.
Of course, that is what propagandists count on.
As one Muslim commentator added to Beaumont's column:
- “meanwhile we'll keep on driving you home after a night out
- providing you with exotic food in restaurants and takeaways
- tending to you in hospitals as doctors, nurses, staff and janitors
- doing your accounts
- working in your factories
- populating the countless offices making countless widgets and selling services”.
I hope this stuck out to people in the U.K. even if U.S. viewers took the invisibility of Muslims in their societies as normal.
Realism in personal relations
Homeland's Israeli origins, so far as I could judge, gave us a more realistic view of human relations within the pressure cooker of anti-terrorism: a husband and wife whose eight-year separation put an intolerable strain on their attempts to be anything more than friends to each other, bratty kids who refused to understand what was happening around them (no-one would have been surprised to learn they had become terrorists), and an admission that the wife found her most satisfying sexual relationship outside their marriage, and a husband who found more interest in his “mission” than his marriage.
This provided a veneer to the political narrative, as was obvious because the terrorist angle gave the whole series its drive. These other issues were a sideshow.
We were supposed to buy the personal drama for the sake of the ideological manipulation. Couched in the pageframework of an ambiguous thriller, this, for the most part, worked on a second-by-second basis, largely because we could see the suspense in every panicky expression of Clare Danes' performance and feel a demand for explanation from the unresponsive Damien Lewis (has he ever been better?).
Tribute is due, also, to the opening titles. Their jigsaw confusion and skewdness perfectly prepared the viewer for an unusual take on political thrillers (compare 24) — a triumph of imagery, sound and editing.
The film-making, too, was exemplary. At no moment did I ask myself: what is going on here? — except for the plot line.
My list of absurdities from series two:
- Do we really believer Brodie can hide away in Canada? He must be the most famous fugitive in U.S. history after John Wilkes Booth.
- Would Abu Nasir talk on the cellphone to Brodie about killing the Vice-President within earshot of his C.I.A. captive? Someone else has pointed out that it seems unlikely the CIA would have failed to tap Brodie's cellphone, since they suspected him of being part of the terrorist plot.
- How did the explosives get into Brodie's car? The only time I could imagine was during Brodie's kidnap (an unlikely piece of drama there), but it seems incredible that Brodie could not have realized his car had been stuffed with explosives.
- Did Abu Nasir need to sacrifice the television team? What exactly was gained, apart from indicating his ruthlessness? He was supposed to be coldly calculating (except that he loved his son and was a warm friend of Brodie).
- How did Brodie's car get close to the funeral service? More important, how did Abu Nasir know it would?
The illogical is ideological
Usually, the absurdities are there for an ideological reason: in much of fiction the illogical is ideological.
So how are we supposed to read Homeland? What message do its excitements try to trick us into assenting to? See Curtis White's thoughts on the quasi-fascist message of Saving Private Ryan: the humanistic officer is shot by the brutal German he frees.
My reading is that:
- Our terrorist enemies (German, Soviet or Muslim) are fanatically clever.
This is not really true of anything we know of al-Quaeda, which has tended
to rely on rather obvious bomb plots. Therefore, any attempt to treat them
humanely is likely to be exploited. Note the final scene of Saul, the
Jewish CIA chief, standing helpless and mourning in the building where the
bodies of murdered CIA leaders and their families are lying wrapped in
All this in retaliation for the killing of a single boy by mistake (as presented in the earlier episodes). In fact, Abu Nasir is given an overdose of reasons for wishing to attack Americans. He cannot, it seems, simply find American imperialism destructive and decide to act against it.
In fact, the assassinated largely benefited from or colluded with American imperialistic activities in the Middle East, but this is not a thought the series can express: it has to focus our attention on the suspense in Brodie and Carrie's love affair. It doesn't matter that much of it does not make sense. Anything to divert us from drawing the wrong lesson. If Saul had not been Jewish, it might have bubbled up to the surface, despite all the diversion efforts.
- A CIA operative can carry through an affair with a man who toys with
carrying out a terrorist attack. Plausible on the surface, but hardly
likely in fact. Surely, she would be recused from the case in a company as
large as the CIA.
Compare this with the story of Valery Plame Wilson in Fair Game, where her love for her husband and determination to do her job leads her and her contacts into harm's way (a dreadful euphemism) at the hands of a vindictive U.S. Administration and a subservient CIA because the husband refused to go along with the government's lies about Saddam Hussein's (long-abandoned) nuclear plans. A false allegation was concocted about their professional relationship, bolstered by deceptive anonymous statements, and her cover blown by a man later convicted of perjury and then whose sentence was commuted by the President. This is the truer story.
- The terrorists are all foreign in origin (except for Brodie). We even
have a fanatical TV reporter who is British (rather than the New York Times
correspondent who passed on deceptions about WMDs in Iraq).
In fact, most terrorists have been home-grown in the U.S. or come from U.S. allies (the Saudis from Germany who were responsible for 9/11) and Israel has nothing to do with any of this.
Only Jewishness is indicated, silently, as if Jews and Israel were equivalent. Mandy Patinkin is, of course, the suffering heart of the film, the only one who understands Carrie, and with great dignity, he (presumably arranges and) attends Abu Nasir's funeral at sea.
The notorious lack of competent Arab specialists in the CIA is nowhere hinted at, nor the likelihood that the U.S. would turn to the better placed Israeli Intelligence Agency to monitor, infiltrate or turn by blackmail the terrorist groups with whom our heroes are confronted.
But in a series where the heroine conspicuously takes unconscionable personal risks (which surely most viewers notice: we have seen so many horror movies), such idiocies are presumably designed to pass unnoticed.
- Within our security agencies, individuals in high positions plot
secretively against each other. The solution envisaged is not to
restructure the agencies or question their promotion but to distrust each
other on a personal and professional level while supporting the most
fanatically convinced of their own rightness (Carrie).
A state of ignorance is presumed to be the normal condition for professionals in society (both in business and government). At the same time, the people around us are so skillful at plotting against us (or is it for? — we cannot be sure). So we had better not challenge the situation.
* The reference, of course, is to John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, where one line is in the conflict between truth and legend, "print the legend". It was pretty much Ford's own practice until he saw the Nazi death camps.
Damien Lewis interview, Gurdian, 12 October 2013