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?


[NOTE: For those interested in my previous takes on Homeland, they can be found here and here.]

The jury will be out until next year (for me, at least, as I don’t have Showtime or a desire to keep up with a weekly series), but if this whole Change Election thing has caused Homeland to lose its nerve, I may just have to throw one of those hissy-fits that are all the rage.

Nerve is what Homeland has. And nerve is all the show has in the sense that, no matter how reliable Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin are, even they are lost without it.

The rest of the show is hit-and-miss anyway. The acting is mostly fine, but the casting is all over the place. The payoffs (until Season 5) have been powerful, but the narrative runs hither-and-yon elsewhere. The one element that was bankable before now, besides the quality and commitment of the two perfectly cast leads, was the instability of the basic idea: that the national security of the world’s superpower comes down to a barely stable bipolar blonde who’s a borderline sociopath and works better–often way better–off her meds, plus a Wise Old Owl’s uncertain ability to control her.

Most of that went away in Season 5 and the signals for Season 6 are decidedly mixed.

On her meds, Carrie is apparently a catch. She’s got men falling at her feet, a trait that required a fair suspension of disbelief even when former paramours Brody and Quinn could at least be explained by crazy being drawn to crazy. This season, where she’s Miss Responsibility all of a sudden–something like a real life CIA agent might be if you buy the vision of the CIA being currently promulgated by its various media assets–she’s still grabbing off top male talent like she was Jennifer Aniston or something.

There’s an idealistic lawyer. There’s his boss at the foundation. There’s a sanitized Quinn. Carrie’s ability to manipulate people because she wants to be in their heads more than they want to be in hers spends most of the season under wraps. Without it busting out of the pen once in a while–and, more to the point, threatening to bust out at any time–I found myself nodding off.

That’s something that never happened in the first four seasons, no matter how many plot-holes I counted up without trying, or how low the burdens of all the inevitable “family” stuff bent my back.

“Carrie will be back,” I kept muttering. “And she’ll be proving, once again, that the CIA’s best agent–the one who stands between us and the Eve of Destruction–is as stable as an open vial of nitroglycerine in the hands of a drug addict being chased by a Grizzly.”

Without that–and with Carrie and Saul kept apart for most of the season by the professional and emotional break that occurred at the end of Season 4–there was just a spy story. It was all about double and triple agents double and triple-crossing each other and nothing the early Brit-masters (Ambler, Greene, Buchan) didn’t do better before Hitler invaded Poland.

I’ll be back in another year. I’m not giving up on a show that has had its finger on the pulse of modern paranoia for four seasons just because they threw in a stinker.

But I’m putting it on notice. It’s not a good sign that the promos for Season 6 indicate the show-runners predicted a female president. Pulp masters who can’t sniff the air just wind up sucking for oxygen.

Oh, I’ll hang in.

But no more backing down. No more making Carrie Mathison likeable. If Danes is exhausted, I don’t care. Take away her producer’s credit and put her back on salary. Show no mercy.

For down the current path, the worst monster of all lies.

You know the one: Banality.

Too much of that and there won’t be a paycheck for anyone. This is too important to muff, people. Get back on the stick.


Homeland: Season 4 and Bridge of Spies (WARNING: Spoilers included)


My, how time flies. Seems like only yesterday I was pondering Homeland‘s Season 1 and wondering just how far Claire Danes could take Carrie Mathison and this week I was binge-watching Season 4, which was easily the strongest season since the first. Not that she, or the show, have ever really backed off, as I feared they might. The basic concept, that we’re now in the hands of crazy people with conveniently shifting moral codes (shifting that is, for their own convenience and if that happens to coincide with “national security” aren’t we all lucky!) because who else would ever want to  be part of this game, has remained intact.

But, Damian Lewis’s Nicholas Brody wasn’t exactly the highlight of Season 1 (either as a character or a performance) and he and his family situation became a real drag on Seasons 2 and 3. Frankly I had always believed any chance to look at Morena Baccarin, who played Brody’s long-suffering wife, doing absolutely anything at all was worth whatever one had to go through, but Brody made me seriously question my commitment. That he ended up dying a heroic death while Carrie was pregnant with his baby didn’t exactly set my little patch of woods on fire. Better for Carrie, Danes and the show if she had offed him.

Well that didn’t happen but at least he’s gone and that meant there was a possibility they (character, actress and Homeland) could all get back to pushing the envelope: And that’s exactly what they did.

I’m amazed that some of this show’s fans/critics get concerned with things like the plausibility of some bit of narrative (or just the whole thing) or whether the show is sufficiently sensitive to the Other.

Good lord.

The “narrative” is that this woman is as crazy as a loon. She can’t possibly operate anywhere except deep inside a security state that could care less about its own side as anything but a cocoon to exist within, let alone any Other that might exist for any reason except to give the cocoon a reason to keep on keeping on.

And she will do absolutely anything to stay embedded in the only world that will have her.

Oh sure, they have subplots and all. Carrie having a baby which her sister has to take care of, or her long estranged mom showing up at her dad’s funeral gives everybody a chance to pretend she’s got problems just like the rest of us. But that’s all a crock, just like Brody’s various family problems were in the first three seasons. Carrie’s crazy. That’s what the show’s about.

Oh, and, on the big things, Carrie’s right. I mean, she would be wouldn’t she?

Inside the house of vile mirrors we now call a government, who but a crazy person with the moral compass of a hungry cat could be expected to see anything at all? Every time she doesn’t kill people, even more people die. And when she’s stopped from killing Saul Berenson at mid-season here (in as good as scene as anybody’s ever going to play on television), not only do lots more people die as a result, but Saul himself (still being played by a Mandy Patinkin who keeps pulling off the miracle of being Danes’ equal, as both performer and character, a miracle that will sink the show if it ever stops happening, because it’s clear by now that Danes, who might be the first actor/producer who is applying the Method full bore crazy at both ends, is going to wipe everybody else off the screen if he doesn’t keep popping in every ten minutes) loses a piece of his soul.

Apparently Season 5 is going to be about whether he can buy it back. At least they set it up that way. And at this point, I’m almost convinced they’ll all be brave enough to realize he can’t. That is, they’ll be brave enough to realize nobody can, even if they don’t believe in souls.


Which brings be to Bridge of Spies, which. after a long night cozying up to Homeland, I finally caught on a fourth try (many long stories involving missed times, no need to bore you further) and which exemplifies Steven Speilberg’s efforts to hold on to the notion that, if we were sane once, we might be sane again, if we could only remember how to find our way back.

I’m skeptical.

I too, would like to believe that having people of principle in positions of responsibility is still a viable option. But we’ll need to find new definitions for most of the words in that sentence, something like a new language, before we can even hope to grope our way forward out of the new darkness. Finding a way back usually just means going backwards and, if we go backwards from where we are right now–in the world Homeland does such a good job of delineating–we’ll either head straight to Tyranny or make one stop at Chaos along the way.

That said, this is a fine effort. Speilberg’s a romantic of the old school, so it’s always a bit touching to see him operating in a world where he’s now so clearly an anachronism. But he seems to have realized this about himself, and, if he can’t quite excise his tendency to go woozy on occasion, even with a Coen Brothers script helping (whatever their multitude of sins, overt sentimentality isn’t one of them), he at least keeps the vice to a minimum here and creates a genuine nostalgia for Cold War clarity and an old fashioned decency that would have Saul Berenson and Carrie Mathison wondering just what Tom Hanks’ Jim Donovan is really up to.

So, in a way, Bridge of Spies, trapped in a past that’s as far from us as the Old West was from John Ford, and is, unlike Ford’s west, no longer deemed worth remembering and thus dying a quick death at the box office, is simultaneously mired as deeply in the modern malaise as Homeland.

But Claire Danes is the real auteur now. Unless, of course, somewhere deep inside the security state where we can’t see, there’s some real life version of Carrie Mathison running loose at at the back of it all, absolutely convinced she can keep us safe from everyone but herself.

THEY PROBABLY DIDN’T REALLY MEAN IT THAT WAY, BUT… (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #14, Claire Danes In Homeland Really Is All That)

I’ve said here before that “modern” television doesn’t appeal to me much, mostly because the reach tends to exceed the grasp by an almost infinite measure (the suggestion that these shows now do what movies used to do seems to me little more than an admission that nothing has officially replaced something).


I haven’t exactly been in a High Art mood lately. It helps if you can stay awake–which I find pretty much impossible during those weeks when the French Open and the NBA Finals are double-teaming me morning and night.

So, when last Thursday evening found me morbidly depressed (after Tim Duncan’s 37-year-old knees couldn’t get enough lift to drop in a point-blank shot in the final minute of game seven of the NBA finals–probably because his 37-year-old back was exhausted from carrying the lifeless corpses formerly known as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli around for most of the series and literally all of games 6 and 7, not that I’m bitter or anything), I decided to take my mind off things by driving to the local all-night Wal-Mart that is furthest from my house and picking up the cheap Season One package of Burn Notice (which is old-fashioned television for those keeping score and fun on a lot of levels, but essential because, sooner or later in every episode, Sharon Gless shows up with her definitive Chain-Smoking-South-Florida-Late-Middle-Age-Wife-and/or-Mother-Who-Can’t-Wait-For-Bingo-Night, the only portrayal on modern television that reminds me of anyone I grew up with or, for that matter, of any recognizable human being at all).

Scrounging around–Wal-Mart never keeps the thing you are actually looking for in the place where you would reasonably expect to find it (I’m convinced this is the key to their success as they are the only corporation that recognizes how deeply Americans still love a mindless, pointless challenge!)–I also came across Season One of Homeland and, recalling encomiums from various people I respect, talked myself into making it my $29.95 “splurge of the month.”

And, of course, the most insistent of those plaudits have come in praise of Claire Danes’ performance as Carrie Mathison, the-bossy-but-tormented-white-woman-charged-with-the-security-of-the-free-world-whose-love-life-is-definitely-in-the-toilet-as-a-result (yes, it’s an actual type now, Hollywood will never run out of ways to kick women in the face, though it’s at least possible that Danes has found a way to kick back).

The praise is well-deserved. But I’m not convinced it’s for the right reasons.

It seems that what has impressed most reviewers is an evidently accurate portrayal of someone coping with bipolar disorder. I’ll buy that Danes is authentic in that respect. I’ll even buy that that’s plenty of reason for her to have swept up a lot of well-earned awards for this particular season. Conveying that kind of edge and intensity for an entire season can’t be easy.

But I’m more impressed by her capacity for getting under the skin of the great modern American dilemma, which is the question of whether the creation and maintenance of a massive security state is a valid response to…well…anything?

Because the thing that’s most striking about Danes’ character isn’t that she’s coping with a damaging mental disorder while operating under the kind of stress that would likely drive even a stable personality to suicide.

No, the thing that’s really striking–disturbing actually–is that you can’t trust her. I mean, this girl will lie to your face.

Whoever you are!

And while most of the lying might be about doing her job–she is a spy after all–Danes managed to make me believe her character was attracted to the job in the first place for this precise reason.

This is well outside the normal approaches that Hollywood, or pretty much any mainstream security state narrative (particularly including the narrative pushed by “journalists”), which are basically all designed to accept the necessity of the security state itself. Not as a repository for the career arcs of the emotionally damaged, but, you know, to keep us free!

Whatever you want to say about the varying approaches to telling spy stories it has pretty much always come down to the same thing: In the end, you can trust the hero/heroine to do the right thing for the right reasons. This is as true of John Le Carre as it is of, say, Burn Notice.

Inside or outside, rogue or paragon, field agent or desk-bound, complicated or simple, deep character study or mind candy, atheist or true believer. Doesn’t matter. Spy stories in the West come down to this: You spend the story hoping the hero/heroine who is standing in for us had a good Sunday School teacher (the atheists, incidentally, tend to have the very best Sunday School teachers even if, as in the case of this show’s Saul Berenson, played by Mandy Patinkin, they are almost always called something else) and in the end you go “whew, that sure was close.”

And, of course, a lot of that sort of thing does happen here.

But Danes’ character in the first season of Homeland is way past all that.

She’ll lie to get what she wants. If what she wants happens to coincide with what everybody else wants–with what we want and what her Sunday School teacher wants–then so much the better. (And, since this is hardly avant garde narrative or anything, she really does want what we want and, doubly “of course,” she’s the only one who is right–all standard stuff.) Danes, though, is the first actor I’ve seen to play this traditional role in such a way that her lies really are more about saving herself than saving the world.

In that sense, the bipolarity, however truthfully and convincingly portrayed, is a ruse, a macguffin even. Much easier for someone with a “condition” to tell both herself and everybody else (including us) that it’s okay for her to be more interested in saving herself than in saving anyone else (including us) if what she’s saving herself from–on our behalf!–is the bats in her belfry.

But, intentionally or not, this core of selfishness lies on a restless, seething bed of existential unease.

Because if Carrie Mathison is what we need to protect ourselves in the War on Terror–and, in Homeland, she is, finally, the one who protects us–then we aren’t protected at all. Or at least we aren’t protected by anything more tangible than what a real Sunday School teacher would call blind faith.

And that’s where Danes’ conviction and commitment to realism doubles down. There’s no line her character won’t cross to protect us…but only because there’s no line she won’t cross to protect herself. So God help us if this messed up woman is ever really wrong.

I mean, it’s okay if the last line of defense goes a little screwy when (for plot reasons only) she’s off her meds.

It’s another thing entirely to discover that she’s a bottomless well of need. Because if that really is the last line of defense, then we really are all screwed.

I’m guessing this kind of thing won’t be permitted to last, but, for now, I can’t wait for the fall DVD release of Season Two to see where the gatekeepers allowed her to take this.

[NOTE: I was less impressed than most people with Damian Lewis’ performance as the POW who might have been turned. His Manchurian Candidate is a long way second to Laurence Harvey’s, who I could actually imagine someone asking to run for Congress. As Lewis plays even his public side, Nicholas Brody is the kind of man political handlers hurl past Olympic sprinters to get away from. But Mandy Patinkin, as Danes’ wise old, seen-it-all handler, has made the role of a lifetime out of very standard stuff indeed. He’s so good at playing this stock character that he’s actually reinvented its boundaries. And Jamey Sheridan, as the Vice President, is completely convincing as a big league politician who makes it disturbingly easy to root for the terrorists.]