This fall will mark the fifth season of Homeland, HBO’s prodigal brainchild, and if the previous four seasons are anything to go by, then as expected it will continue to prove to be a mastery of televised drama. Swirling with conspiracy theories and spy networks, and a plot-line that constantly folds and re-folds upon our most sensitive expectations, the result is an adrenalin fuelled pace that gives the audience little time to breath. Abundant with suspense and intrigue, it is hugely entertaining post-9/11 drama centered on America’s most suspicious and shadowy of institutions: the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). However, as this article will argue, it goes further than simple entertainment, as it mirrors and mixes real international political events with fictitious ones, all the while the storyline is underscored by an immediate and pressing philosophical question pertaining to Western fears in front of the Islamic other. In that respect, this article is not about the show itself - well not exclusively that is - as that would simply add to the litany of reviews and blessings that swamp the online amphitheatre. Instead, the article will seek to address the question of whether Homeland enjoys, dabbles in or even perpetuates a specific Islamaphobia, or there’s something else hidden in its message. Here Homeland is used as a devise through which to analyse the West’s understanding of self in front of the Islamic other, who in a post-9/11 world is seen through, presented, treated, and limited by a Western reductionist lens.
Unlike the cheap televised heroin that its predecessors offered - see Kiefer Sutherland’s 24 - Homeland deals with less disneyfied story plots that stray away from reducing, simplifying and silencing the Islamic enemy for a Western audience, who is all too often glad to accept such hollow presentations. The rise of Islamophobia, or anti-muslim sentiment to use a less contentious term, is readily visible in a West that struggles to understand and grapple with shifting geo-political trends and realities. Centre stage is of course the suicide bomber who is all at once the focal point of Western fears, the hyperbole and release of emotional desperation. The act of explosive suicide, the ultimate politicisation of the body has, not surprisingly, long been employed by terrorists to devastating effects, given the effective physical and psychological destruction it reaps as it ripples through consciousnesses, communities and nations alike. And yet, in Homeland we are pushed to interrogate our compassion for the would-be terrorist, as his/her motives, politics and strategies are placed unavoidably in front of our senses, and we are forced to concede that everything is not so simple: in fact, far from it.
At the centre of this murky world of shadows and potencies, tricks and slight of hands, is former prisoner of war Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (played by the limitlessly talented Damian Lewis) who flip-flops between terrorist, saviour and senator. Meanwhile, Claire Danes’ performance is a revelation, as she portrays the psychological deterioration of a bi-polar CIA agent Carrie Mathison whose obsession is both her gift and her debilitating destruction. Meanwhile, a talented motley group complete a flawless cast. Homeland’s true success though remains its stubborn and determined challenge to our sense of justice, for it constantly confronts and confuses our idea of right and wrong. As with Michael Mann’s Collateral, the audience remains conflicted long after the credits. Who does the audience want to fail, and who is the hero and who is the villain? Therein however lays the sensitive games that Homeland plays, as it risks being accused of Islamaphobia - as I have regularly heard in various online forums - which is the most obvious and thus simultaneously reductionist of conclusions. Admittedly, to the determined eye plenty of its scenes could be observed as such, but to stop there would be to insult the ambitions of the show’s creators. Of course, this accusation and its subsequent defence establish an inept polarisation. Ultimately there is something altogether more profound to Homeland’s creative genes, my central thesis being that Homeland is a critique of how America sees itself, “weak”, “vulnerable” and “fearful”, and that Carrie personifies that even further in her “paranoid” and “bi-polar” characteristics. In this scenario, the Muslim is the victim of such a disorder, and they are in fact the terrorized. Of course, Homeland does this in a careful, eloquent and precise manner, but essentially this is it.
In many respects I argue that Homeland offers a similar contribution to that of the Superman comic book story, whose unique mythology sets the platform for an astute commentary of humanity - and in this regard it is different from all other comic book fantasies.1 The basic construction of any superhero mythology remains the duality of the superhero and his or her alter ego. Spider-man is in fact Peter Parker, and Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, their superpowers emerging from a transformative moment in their lives (i.e.: getting bitten by a radioactive spider in Spider-man's case). And thus, they do not wake up each morning as their superhero characters, but instead as their mundane human selves. In order to become super they have to put on a costume, and it is in this respect that Superman is unique as Superman didn’t become Superman, he was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit is modeled on the blanket in which the Kent family found him wrapped in as baby. What Kent wears - the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That is the costume Superman wears to blend in with humanity. Clark Kent is how Superman views us, and that is as weak, clumsy, unsure of ourselves and cowardly. In order to fit in and infiltrate our human ranks, this alien man from Krypton chooses to imitate the most normal and uninteresting of characters. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique of humanity.
It is here that I find parallels with Homeland, as it is similarly positioned as a parody, a commentary on a post-9/11 world in which America is presented as Clark Kent, a human being with all his flaws and weaknesses. But just like Superman, it is his humanity which at each point places him in jeopardy - more often than not Superman’s enemies seek to exploit his human qualities. And in that sense Homeland is unlike any other series in so much that it goes beyond the rigid fences of entertainment and makes an important self-critique of post-9/11 paranoid Western humanity - specifically offering a self-deprecating image of America, and a not so flattering portrait.
In conclusion, at worst Homeland tilts on the precipice of another Hollywoodian blasphemous adventures that couches a xenophobia that has become as vile as it is virile; and at best it is an earnest effort to critique a now bi-polar America that has become so listless and hollow that only in the aggressive pursuit of a pure enemy can it find its own character. In truth, just as I am with Brody, I remain undecided as to the innate character of Homeland. Whist I dearly hope that it is a candid reflection and inspection of the soulless disaster of the American spirit that has too long gorged itself on artificial hallucinations , the realist in me recognises the unlikelihood of such a generous and introspective honesty. But here again I am reminded of Superman’s mantra, a symbol for clarity, truth and hope, and I cannot but wonder, could that be Homeland?
1 Please note that the following observation germinates from a speech given in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2.