Thursday, April 26, 2012

800 Words: Homeland - THE New Show, Part II - The Misfiring Intelligence of Carrie Mathison

Other contemporary shows derive their power from daring to be more extreme: more violent, more disgusting, more sexy, more detailed in production value. It is so easy to realize any vision on contemporary television that its makers are limited by their imaginations. The subtlety we saw in great shows that ended only five years ago is largely missing from the new fare. Once Mad Men ends, will American TV join our movies as an artform in which the best shows derive their power from blunt force?

Among the new batch of hit TV shows, Homeland is a particularly intense, sometimes unpleasant one  – it has almost none of the humor one finds in Mad Men or The Sopranos, yet all of The Sopranos’ oppressive dread. But Homeland is unique among new hits in that the show derives its power from its subtlety. In so many ways, it’s more intense than shows that are much more graphic. It dares to let loose a fully 3-dimensional female character on the screen to an intensity not yet seen on television.

Carrie Mattheson is perhaps the most complex woman the small screen has ever seen. In a performance from Claire Danes as great as any in screen history, we watch as Carrie Mathison bullies, cajoles, deceives, pleads, pesters, seduces, browbeats, blackmails, baits, and bribes her way through the maze that is Washington bureaucracy – yet we know fully well that only a deeply unhealthy compulsion could drives her so hard to succeed in a town where the appearance of complete mental health is always demanded. The tension, the constant danger of watching an Alpha Female negotiate her way through Washington, the ultimate man’s city, is far more intense - and far hotter - than all the sex and violence in Game of Thrones. Next to watching a plausible female character risk constant humiliation, all that extreme graphicness feels positively tame.

As I watched Carrie Mathison single-handedly raise up the CIA (or bring it down, depending on your point of view), I was immediately put in mind of Hedda Gabbler; Henrik Ibsen’s (in)famous anti-heroine,  daughter to a Norwegian general and married off to a mediocre academic; given no other outlet for her inner life than to ruin those of the friends and lovers around her– was she born to be destructive, or did her circumstances create her? Had Hedda Gabler lived 125 years later, I’d imagine her being almost exactly like Carrie Mathison. Lots of feminists would have us believe that Hedda is a victim of her society, an intelligent woman trapped in her surroundings and lashing out merely because revenges against the world are the only options available to intelligent bourgeois housewives. Other critics, older critics, would have us think of Hedda as a psychopath concealed in Jane Austen garb – plotting the ruination of others merely because she can. Neither interpretation is true, though perhaps both are. The whole tension of Ibsen’s play comes from the fact that we have no idea why Hedda acts as she does, only that she commits terribly destructive acts. Perhaps (I think Harold Bloom said this), if Hedda were a man, she’d be another Napoleon, but maybe she’d be a regular person – with all her (his) will to destruction satiated by getting a fair chance at achievement in life. All we can be certain of  is that somewhere in Hedda’s psyche lurks an instinct towards reckless destruction.  Maybe it’s because she’s a woman, or maybe she’s just nuts.

It’s probably a simple matter of time before many feminists would coopt Carrie Mathison is a feminist heroine/victim, just as they have with Hedda Gabler. Carrie Mathison is many wonderful things, but she is no heroine, and how boring she would be if she were. Don’t misunderstand,  the fact that a character like her exists on television is a huge triumph for feminism (and the men who support it), but to if she were simply a hero who rises above the glass ceiling to be a hero to her country would place her in a ghetto every bit as confining as the glass ceiling itself. The irony of Carrie Mathison is that here, finally, is a woman placed in the highest echelons of government policy-making. But the only reason she is accepted by men is because she is so unstable, and that makes her more unscrupulous, more reckless, more ‘masculine’ than any man in the CIA. If war is nothing more than a game of chicken, then Carrie Mathison would win every battle. She is a limited person of limitless willpower who would sooner sabotage everything for which she fights than to fight by other people’s rules. Like all sorts of alleged political heroes from Winston Churchill on down, she’s a dangerously insane figure that has the great luck of her delusions being correct. People like Carrie are much more likely to be wrong than right, and a large part of the show’s power comes from the fact that it’s probable she‘s exactly as insane as she seems. But insane situations call for insane people.

No Aaron Sorkin script, no Gore Vidal novel, no Oliver Stone movie, comes even close to understanding how Washington works nearly so well as Homeland (only The Daily Show comes close). Washington is run, truly run, by people like Carrie Mathison. The façade of Washington power is based on bland, petty flakes like her boss, the Deputy CIA director David Estes, who has no interest in doing his job well or in anything else except jockeying for a chance to be CIA Director. Whether Carrie is right or wrong, whether people like her make America a more or less dangerous place, at least she cares about the quality of her work. The David Estes of DC desperately need the Carrie Mathisons, because somebody has to take the responsibilities they’re not willing to take. If Washington were left to people like David Estes, it would be guaranteed to incinerate in a day, and people like him know that. Carrie Mattheson might incinerate Washington too (and quicker), but at least she’d try to save it.

A whole third post could be done about the show’s amazing political fairness. There is neither the ersatz liberal idealism of The West Wing, nor the authoritarian justifications of 24. It does not have Boss’s cynicism about the evil acts it takes to get things done, nor does it have The Wire’s axe to grind. The government of Homeland is a government we can recognize; in which deeply flawed public servants have deeply flawed motives, but every one of them has their reasons for acting as they do. Homeland makes no equivocation about the fact that there are people throughout the world who would visit as much evil on Americans as they possibly can, nor does it ever excuse the Americans who would do evil in their battle to save American lives.

Like all these new shows, Homeland's daring comes at a price. It's flaws are enormous. As yet, Saul Berensen has little purpose on the show but to act as a father figure for Carrie. Clearly, he’s meant for something more, and the odds are 10 to 9 he’s Abu Nazir’s government mole. The ultimate explanation for Sgt. Brody’s behavior is far too neat, and was revealed far too soon. Writers should never give a character that many reasons for acting irrationally only to finally give him a rational reason to act as he does. But no TV show in the 21st century speaks as clearly to our world's fears. And no new TV show has a character nearly as alive, as plausible, as fascinating, as the misfiring intelligence of Carrie Mathison.

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