BACK ON TRACK…MEANING SCARY AGAIN…BUT ONLY IF YOU’RE PAYING STRICT ATTENTION: HOMELAND SEASON 6

Homeland: Season 6

In Season 6, Homeland pulls off a miracle. In the past, including the anemic Season 5, the show has always worked best when Carrie Mathison is off her meds. That’s because Carrie has always been best at her job–keeping herself both interested and alive (she’ll settle for the second part if it comes to the rest of us, as it periodically must, in order for us to be interested as well)–when she’s gone full manic-depressive. How people who actually have the condition feel about it I don’t know nor can I judge how “realistic” this portrayal of mental illness is. But, up to now, and strictly in a narrative sense, Crazy Carrie has been interesting Carrie. More to the point, Crazy Carrie has been best adapted to deal with the cauldron around her, which only involves the security of the free world.

In Season 6, Crazy Carrie is kept firmly on the sidelines. It’s the stories that  count…and they all work.

Of course this comes with caveats. Stable Carrie is still way less stable than most people, even the monsters who surround her (and who feed and are fed by her) in the Homeland universe. And it should go without saying that not every scene works in a 12-episode arc. Maybe Shakespeare or Henry James could have kept everything boiling without wandering too far afield. But that’s too much to expect from teams of anyone, let alone teams of Hollywood moderns. Master Narrative has turned out to be a solitary art after all.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stand amazed at what Homeland does do–which is continue to poke a stick in the eye of the Security State’s own principal Narrative.

The Security State, however named, insists on one message: You need us.

If they were ever pressed to elaborate (as they never are) they might expand that a bit:

You KNOW you need us.

That’s their message and it is relentless.

You can tune in the broadcast channel of your choice, read the newspaper you like best (or least), or listen to talk radio, and have this message reinforced and underlined twenty-four hours a day. I doubt even Alex Jones or Michael Savage (Jones is parodied but not really captured here by the usually reliable Jake Weber, loaded up with a Texas accent Jones, a Texan, doesn’t have, and a Manchurian Candidate subplot that works pretty well in context but doesn’t score any points for originality–the idea of the rabble-rousing flamethrower being in bed with the enemy he publicly despises was old and tired when Joe McCarthy was in diapers) would really contest the idea that the CIA (or NSA or FBI or any other alphabet agency) perform useful functions if/when they are managed properly. No one else who could be called mainstream even questions the absolute necessity of the Security State’s existence.

Well no one else but whoever is responsible for Homeland.

That none of our intelligence services have ever done any demonstrable good–and have done much demonstrable harm (even the FBI, even in the operation of their one legitimate law enforcement function, which is the pursuit of criminals operating across state lines), has mattered little to the overarching public narrative.

That’s how it is with Security States. Once you permit one to exist, it will have a single, unalterable goal: It’s own survival.

This is what Homeland has done an even more brilliant job of portraying than its popcorn predecessor, 24.

One thing it hasn’t done at all well–something 24 didn’t do well either except in Seasons 1 and 5–is integrate the Personal stories with the Political and Spy stories.

This has been more disappointing in Homeland because Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin are much better actors than Keifer Sutherland–and they are playing much more interesting characters.

I’m not quite prepared to call them three-dimensional. That’s a tall ask on television. But that such a question can even be considered is extraordinary.

Carrie Mathison and Saul Berenson do, after all, have inner lives. And those inner lives impact how they do the jobs that keep them, and us, interested. The principal dynamic from the beginning has been Carrie’s hope/belief that she can somehow walk away from it all running into, around and (occasionally–she did try to have him killed) over Saul, who knows she can’t and knows he can never let her know. Not unless he wants to lose his best agent/asset, which she remains, always, even when, as here, she’s not working for him. In his mind, letting her go would be the same as losing himself, which–also in his mind–would be the same as losing the world.

One reason Homeland, especially Season 6, works so well, is that very little of this is foregrounded. Despite the occasional blunt, obligatory confrontation scenes–most of them intelligent though hardly deep or even clever–most of this seeps out of the air. It’s walking around inside the characters and the less they talk about it, the more undeniable its presence becomes.

The other reason Season 6 is the best since the first is that everything else finally links up with this half-buried dynamic.

Yes, Carrie’s now a full-time a mom, but that just means the State has another especially creepy and suffocating weapon to use against her. Among other things she can’ t go off her meds. At least not until the State makes a mistake and actually takes the child away–then makes clear how contingent seeing her daughter is on Carrie behaving herself before (in a twist that may or may not be revealing…is it really a mistake? or just one of those glitches even the most rigorous police state cannot avoid?) pushing their advantage too far. In an especially deft move, we don’t see Carrie’s full response. We only see Saul, in her house, staring at the signature handiwork of her manic phase that we’re familiar with from earlier seasons.

From that foundation, the story builds out. The Peter Quinn angle is finally strong and has a powerful conclusion–one that links into the fates of two characters played by actors who are given enough space to compete with Claire/Carrie and Mandy/Saul and are more than up to the task. That  F. Murray Abraham’s  Dar Adal is all that isn’t surprising. He and his character have been strong since first appearing and Abraham’s qualities as an actor are well established. But Elizabeth Marvel, saddled with the show creators’ assumption that Hilary Clinton would be President as this season unfolded, is a revelation.

My only impression of Marvel going in was as the older Mattie Ross in the Coen brothers fine version of True Grit, where she was the only weak link.

Here, she’s all presence. It’s like seeing a real-life Mattie become President, with all the terror that implies (a Mattie who wanted to avenge her father’s blood was terrifying only to his killer–a Mattie who wants to be President should scare everyone).

Of course the show cheats a bit. Whether they were caught completely off-guard and had to go with a contingency plan or simply had the foresight to have such a contingency in case Clinton lost I’m sure no one will ever credibly explain. (Someone may explain. They may have already done so. But I credit these same people with schooling me on the perils of trusting anyone.) Either way, they were caught with the prospect of an obvious Hilary stand-in. So they did the only thing they could and turned her into Donald Trump. And not the actual Trump but the Trump of liberal nightmare. Marvel’s Elizabeth Keane has Trump’s foreign policy (or at least his public campaign strategy) of curtailing the empire (i.e., the part that has him at war with the Security State in the first place). She has mobs in the street yelling death threats and “Not my President.” She’s being shivved from every side.

And she’s merciless.

Had she even (unimaginably) given it a go, the real life Hilary could never have pulled this off.

But Elizabeth Marvel does. Among other things, she does for the idea of a woman President what Hillary couldn’t do (and I’d of said the same if she won), which is what Dennis Haysbert’s David Palmer did for the idea of a black president in 24.

Makes it seem as natural as breathing. So much so that I can easily imagine this performance changing the outcome of the election if it had happened two years earlier.

The Hillary-as-the-real-Trump–whether planned all along, or conjured on the fly–works better than even those of us who believe any stick is good enough to beat the Security State with could have hoped. The shadow war Trump has played out with our Stasi wannabes in the “real” world bursts into the open in Season 6 of Homeland.

And I won’t give the ending away. But if the show’s creators really did plan this all along, and really did think Hillary was going to be elected President in 2016, they’re even braver than I thought.

Which is going some.

*NOTE: Critics Consensus on Rotten Tomatoes: Homeland delivers introspective comfort food with a satisfyingly strong leading female character and story lines that continue to surprise.

Introspective comfort food?

See what I mean about the Security State controlling the Narrative?

MY FAVORITE POST-MILLENNIAL TELEVISION SHOW (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Medium (2005-2011)

…or, as I like to call it, Purgatorio.

I mentioned a while back that my favorite television show is The Rockford Files and there’s no real second. On an All-Time basis, that will always be true.

On the narrow basis of the new millennium though, my favorite show is Medium. And, again, there’s no real second.

It should be pretty obvious from those selections that I’m not especially enamored of the “narrative” shows that have come to dominate critically approved television since the dawn of The Sopranos.

Never fear. I’m used to being at odds with my fellow Earthlings. And if there’s one element that lifts Medium well above other recent shows I like, follow and write about (mostly Homeland and The Americans), it’s the unusual and serious degree to which is does not take Civilization for granted.

Even so, Medium should not work. It shouldn’t work in general and it really shouldn’t work on me.

It’s a mix of genres to which, taken individually, I’ve shown a lifetime of indifference, and, taken as a whole, tend to mutually repel each other–horror, paranormal, law and order, family drama, kitchen sink humor. Many of the elements within those genres that normally send me off to do the laundry or plot grisly murders are present in force: holes in logic, normalization of gore, the long-suffering teenager, the inquisitive child, the bickering couple.

And yet….

This time, on this show, it all works.

Some of it is the lead actress, who I prefer to call by her right title: The Unimpeachable Patricia Arquette. I watched a few shows with a friend of mine once and, in about Season One, Episode Three, he pointed at her on the screen and said “She’s frustrating!”

Exactly.

You know, like a real person in your life.

I could have looked at my friend (or any friend) and said “I often feel the same way about you.” And all of my friends could say the same of me. This is the only show I’ve ever watched where the cast (as opposed to a likeable lead, James Garner maybe) feel like friends. Sofia Vassilieva, twelve-playing-ten when the show began, eighteen-playing-sixteen when it ended, got both the teen wannabe and the actual teenager just right. Jake Weber got the put-upon husband just right (and boy, it’s hard to be more put-upon than having three daughters who are all psychics and the mom they got it from constantly awakened by nightmares of brutal murders which she feels compelled to solve in a manner that relies more on relentless will than careful detection). Maria Lark was a flat-out miracle as the inquisitive child. The rest of the cast was spot on as well. High profile guest stars like Arliss Howard and Anjelica Huston (in recurring roles), or Rosanna Arquette and Kelsey Grammer (in inspired one-offs) never felt like stunt casting.

It all worked and it all worked from the first episode.

Throw in better-than-good writing and the consummation of an idea which has dominated television for a decade-and-a-half now–a crazy white woman is what stands between us and chaos!–and you have high quality entertainment guaranteed as a baseline.

But Medium goes a bit beyond that. It poses–by accident or intent I can’t say–interesting questions.

What does it say about us that the best depiction of modern American normalcy on television in the new century, if not the history of the medium (no pun intended), shows a family of psychics (based on a real life model), where Mom spends her nights dreaming of horrible death and her days stalking the killers, while her daughters work out whether its ethical to pick the answers to homework math problems from normal Dad’s temptingly available head?

Nothing entirely good I suspect. But nothing entirely bad either. And a post-millennial show that offers some sort of hope in the madness is no small thing. After all, what really makes Homeland and The Americans (and, I suppose all those other quality shows I’m always hearing about) compelling is that, under all the effort at preservation on display, it’s the real message that resonates.

We’re screwed.

With Medium it’s….more complicated.

Hence Purgatorio.

In this show, the focus is on the living. But the drama resides with the dead.

And what the dead are seeking when they seek out Allison DuBois, is, if not redemption, then at least resolution. She doesn’t get visited by those who pass quietly in their beds. She gets visited by murder victims. And there are an awful lot of them.

Underneath the occasional bows to formula (even this premise can’t be endlessly inventive in an episodic format), and the pressing concerns of every day life, accurately, annoyingly, joyfully portrayed, what never wears smooth over seven seasons is the constant presence of violent death in the most ordinary suburban setting. Allison DuBois’s head is a war-zone.

Phoenix, with it’s built-in dynamics of immigration, drugs, sunlight, desert air, is an inspired setting even if it’s just by virtue of being the real Allison Dubois’s hometown. It’s normalcy with an edge, the kind of edge that has always existed in border towns when the border is in dispute as our southern border has periodically been and certainly is now.

But what makes the show compelling for me whenever I revisit it at length (as I’ve been doing recently) is the nagging conscience of Civilization, the search for order that seems to lean Catholic (I have no idea whether DuBois or the show’s creators are religious, only that religion’s concerns are, for once, represented as human concerns) but can’t quite get a grip in the modern sunlight.

Nor can it be dismissed. Every day in Medium, like every day in the “real” world, the sun goes down. Allison’s crazy dreams haunt a present that has been designed to dispel them. The character’s dogged will is that of a Crusader, a will that could only be produced by a religious impulse–when it annoys us, we call it fanaticism, when it frightens us, we burn people at stakes–even if no particular faith is espoused.

So underneath all the lovely writing and wonderful acting and skillful appropriation of ancient dread for a modern setting, the real heartbeat of Medium is the nagging, frustrating truth that animates all worthwhile art, serious or popular:

Without Meaning, there is no Life.

[NOTE: I have no idea whether the real life Allison Dubois is an actual physic or whether psychics really exist. I also have no interest in knowing. The key to any good show is whether it works on its own terms. By that measure, Medium works wonderfully well.]