Thursday, December 27, 2012

800 Words: The Continuing Problems of Homeland

Read absolutely no further if you don’t want to know what happened at the end of Homeland’s second season. But in a shot that’s clearly intended to mirror that most Goyish of movies, Gone with the Wind, Saul Berenson – the most Jewish character on television since George Costanza – stood in the midst of a couple hundred bodybags, the contents of which include the remains of virtually everyone he’s ever worked with over a period of thirty-five years. And as he intones the Mourner’s Kaddish like any Jew would in such a situation, he hears the voice of Carrie from behind him. We know that Carrie’s voice is real, but Saul doesn’t. For just a second, he stops the incantation as if to register that he’s heard the voice of a ghost, and then keeps going, before Carrie calls out to him again, and he turns around – forced to acknowledge that the one person he most and least wants to be alive is very much so. During that moment, we knew that Carrie was real, but Saul didn’t.

The considerable strengths of Homeland come from such scenes – when the line between what is real and what is unreal is straddled with the virtuosity of an Olympic gymnast. The war in Homeland has nothing to do with the War on Terror; it is a war to achieve a sense of self and home fought by two people who have no sense of either. On one side of this war is a man with absolutely no self-possession, his self-esteem rent in a different direction by everyone with whom he comes into contact. Sgt. Nick Brody is a hollow cipher in a man’s body, forced to maintain the appearance of a submissive Muslim to his captors, forced to maintain the appearance of a war hero to his liberators. Is he either, neither, or both? And will there ever be any way of knowing the truth of who Brody is by the end of the show? Does Brody himself know who he is?

On the other side of this war is a woman with nothing but self-possession. Carrie’s self-esteem is often inflated to delusional levels by her own delusional mind. Whereas Brody never makes a movement without racing through a thousand possible consequences in his head, Carrie races through a thousand movements before thinking about a single consequence. Brody’s entire persona is constructed around limiting himself to the minimum of fuss and obtrusiveness - were Brody ever to exhibit a single sign of an independent mind, he would have been killed a thousand times over. But Carrie’s entire personhood involves causing the maximum possible obtrusiveness – she’s the only woman in a man’s profession, often twenty years younger than her peers, if she were not so completely impulsive and utterly ‘masculine’ in the way she shoots first and asks questions later, she’d have never been allowed into the profession. Both of these characters were born into a culture too drunk on John Wayne movies, and must deal with the difficulties of reality against the heroic image to which they’re forced to live up.

Was it ever anything but inevitable that these two people would fall in love? Both Brody and Carrie are so completely self-divided that they long to possess the thing they have to decimate. If both of them did not achieve a state of love for the thing they most hate, there would be no show. And yet, the show must go on. If Homeland were to reach its logical conclusion, Carrie and Brody would simply form a suicide pact in episode 8, carry it out in episode 9, and the show would then start over a la Wire with a completely different issue and set of people. So because they can’t simply die together, the show must put them into every possible artificial convolution so that Brody and Carrie can continue their cat and mouse game in which they both love each other and yet remain potentially lethal enemies.

It is amazing that critics are only now waking up to Homeland’s artificiality. There isn’t a single issue of Homeland’s plausibility that was not clear after the first few episodes. None of the other characters are anywhere near as compelling as either Carrie or Brody, they all exist as an engine to drive the plot forward at the expense of any more meaningful exchanges; the show has always suffered from a crippling lack of humor (even dark humor), and it’s obsession with cat-and-mouse means that no other character can grow into its own independent life out of the plotline’s demands. And nowhere is this last problem more apparent than in the character of Saul Berenson.

Two seasons into Homeland, Saul Berenson is still the most prominent Achilles’ Heel (or leg) of this show. Homeland is amazing enough that it can contain amazing flaws. And there are few shows that have a bigger flaw than Saul Berenson. Why is he there? What does he add? He’s just a series of unnecessary Jewish quirks (hell, he even looks like a dead ringer for my Zaydie) which hide the fact that he has no life as a character except to be the all-purpose engine through which the plot keeps moving. He’s the sympathetic ear that sifts through Carrie Matheson’s insane delusions to find her golden nuggets of brilliance, he’s the moral compass who fights against the cynical cowardice of Estes so that the CIA will do what Carrie tells them to, he’s the pugnacious dirt-digger who has to find Peter Quinn’s real idenitity. And in addition to all this, he’s also the show’s intellectual and moral referee. When Carrie convinces Saul of something, we know that Saul will move the necessary strings to let Carrie get her way. When Saul has doubts about a CIA operation, we know that something’s fishy. When Saul has doubts about a person, we know what he’s going to find. The one thing Saul isn’t is a character of his own. He’s simply an ingenious all-purpose plot device that keeps the story moving. In many smarter-than-average but less-than-great pieces of TV and fiction, there are just such characters as Saul Berenson, whose entire raison d’etre is to keep the wheels of the plot turning: without a strangely omnipotent supporting character like Data, Spock, Josh Lyman, Dumbledore, Gandalf; who’s conveniently around to solve any plothole the writers have, how can Carrie live long enough to jump through the next hurdle?

For what it’s worth, I have my own theory for what Saul is. This incredibly Jewish character is both a standin for Homeland’s three creators (at least two of whom are Jewish and one of whom is Israeli) in the incredibly goyish world of Washington intelligence bureaus, and also a standin for all of us viewers, who feel as adrift as Saul in the world of espionage. The CIA is the very nexus of the world of WASP's (as seen in The Good Shepherd and Charlie Wilson's War), populated by Americans whose families, whether white or black, never knew what life was in another country, and therefore regard enemies with the suspicion that only comes from understanding nothing about any world but their own. As a Jew, and particularly as a Jew of a previous generation in the extremely WASP-y world of the CIA, Saul does not rise up according to his abilities because he seems like an ‘other.’ For White Anglo Saxon Protestants like Vice-President Walden, most of whom hail from the South, even black people like Estes have more in common with them than Jews whose families came to America within living memory. Saul is neither liked by his superiors, nor is he any less hated by the radical Muslims against whom he works – perhaps moreso because he’s both Jewish and therefore put into all the uncomfortable assignments which more privileged CIA operatives don’t have to take. He may yet turn out to be, even more than either Carrie or Brody, Homeland’s most divided character of all. But because we still don’t know what he is except as a plot point, he’s nearly as damaging to Homeland’s quality as Carrie and Brody are uplifting.

So don’t be too astonished if we get a cheap surprise at the end of season 3 or 4 like many have been speculating; that Saul Berenson is in fact a mole in deep cover for Abu-Nazir or some other terrorist, waiting for the moment when he can work the apparatus of the American government against itself, with only Carrie and Brody to work against him or attempt turn him back to the forces of ‘good.’ It would be a brilliant piece of plotting, and the most manipulative turn in the wheel of all which ties the entire plot of the show into a neat little bow that causes you to say ‘Wasn’t that clever!’ while it excuses you from examining the fears about the world which Homeland threatens to examine so well and so often before being distracted by its latest plot twist. …If this all strikes you as too fanciful, too elaborate, to close to this particular blogger’s own biography, it should tell you how much of a cipher Saul is that so much can be read into a character about whom we know so little. At least with Brody, we know why we don’t know him. But aside from the fact that he’s the spoke around which the show’s wheels turn, we still know little to nothing about Saul.

And that is, ultimately, why Homeland has thus far failed to reach the very highest echelon of TV shows. There are times when it’s fooled me into thinking that it would become a completely different, character driven show; but every time it seems to reach some sort of greater truth about its characters and plot, it runs back back into the more banal comforts of the cat-and-mouse game.  Every time it appears to reach that point of deeper poetic truth, a heavy-handed plot twist wrenches Carrie back into the CIA and Brody into Abu-Nazir’s clutches. Even with two absolutely compelling main characters, Homeland still feels like an ingenious puzzle which sometimes touches on deeper cultural fissures. And like all puzzles, even the best ones, Homeland’s problems are solved only through manipulation.

But the pieces being manipulated are us. Whereas Mad Men or The Sopranos will put us through our paces as a way of drawing attention to its characters, or to its setting, or to its inner world of historical, philosophical, poetic meanings, Homeland continuously trades off its ability to burrow deeper into the lives of its best characters for the easy ride of the cheap thrill. Homeland is still a great show, done with an amazing amount of excitement and intelligence, but it should be much better; and every time Homeland threatens to be something deeper than mere excitement, the writers pull a cheap shot. Homeland could have been The Wire for United States foreign policy (could it still be?), which examines everything about how the sausage gets made in at the ugliest possible levels. Instead, like The West Wing before it, it made a conscious choice to settle for the thrill of being a trivializing fantasy which white-washes the reality of the world we live in. Like The West Wing, it is to Homeland’s credit that it gets as many things right about the process of governance as it does. And Homeland does better, sometimes leagues better, than The West Wing. But nobody should assume by now that Homeland is likely to be the great fiction about life in Washington which the world needs. 

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant review!!!

    When I started watching the first season, I thought the script would be based on the ambiguity of Brody's character and Carrie's character Kafkian situation, as the only one who saw something wrong with Brody that no other character (nor we) could and, also, on a elaborated, patient and grandiose plan made by Nazyr to make Brody, in the long run, become the President of the United States.

    The discovery, by us, the audience, of the true intentions of Brody and Nazir, let me down ("So, it was just that what they wanted to? A mere personal revenge?").

    Later, this same discovery, now made ​​by the characters, was so humiliating for Brody's ... Plus, the fact that he was treated as a mere plaything for Roya, decreased dramatically, in my view, the strength of the character and thus the show became much less interesting.