Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Sublime Screenplay - "Homeland"

Chris and I have been "Homeland" fans since the first twisty tense episodes were aired in the UK in 2012. The fourth series has just drawn to a close and it's given me much food for thought. So I've taken some time to reflect what it is about this show that I love so much..

The first series of "Homeland" is undoubtedly the best. It towers above similar TV programmes due to two particular features. Firstly, there is the compelling relationship between CIA agent Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes) and Sergeant Nicolas Brody (Damian Lewis) a marine rescued in Iraq after 8 years incarceration. Carrie's belief that Brody has been turned whilst a prisoner, is the driving force of the story, and is beautifully played by both leads, with the writers stringing out  "is he/isn't he?" for the majority of the series. The tension is compounded by the fact that Carrie is (as her mentor Saul puts it in series 2) "the smartest and the dumbest fucking person" around. She is great at gathering intelligence, building assets and working out what's happening but has a tendency to recklessness that constantly undermines her good efforts. She is also bipolar. Whilst this doesn't stop her from doing a good job, the fact she is hiding from her superiors puts her under  the constant fear of discovery. And her decision to stop taking her meds to clarify her thought processes leads to increasing erratic behaviour. Brody, on the other hand, is shown to be traumatised by his experiences, and has a violent streak, which may or may not have been the result of his imprisonment and torture. Whilst he loves his family, particularly his daughter Dana, he struggles to reconnect with them. And though initially he appears to be telling the truth, we gradually discover there are things about his imprisonment that he is hiding, including the fact he has converted to Islam. All of which makes us root for both of them, whilst simultaneously asking can either be trusted?

The second aspect of "Homeland" that sets it apart is the refusal to simplify the issues it addresses. The show purports to portray a group of patriotic Americans trying to protect their homeland from the evil of terrorism but it rarely sticks to the narrative of Americans good, Islamic terrorists bad.  When we first hear about the Al-Qaeda leader Abu Nazir he appears to be a bogeyman much like Osama Bin Laden.  Yet as the story progresses, we begin to see snatches of the human being behind the atrocities, to understand his world view and what motivates him. We see the impact of some of his heinous acts alongside US drone strikes and botched FBI raids on mosques that make us question the behaviour of both sides. Which is to be welcomed on a mainstream US TV show. It's not a perfect critique, as too often there is an emphasis that American lives are more important than any others, nonetheless we are allowed to see that the "war on terror" leads to all parties making dubious moral choices.

By the time series 1 has finished (in a breathlessly thrilling finale, that had me gasping with relief at advert breaks) some things are resolved between Brody and Carrie, but much is not. Thus the second series is able to develop their relationship further, whilst exploring some key "Homeland" themes - loyalty, betrayal, self-interest, trust - and involve others in the story. We see more of Saul (Mandy Pantinkin), Carrie's mentor; Estes (David Harewood), her boss and former lover; and are introduced to Quinn (Rupert Friend), another CIA analyst with a dark side, as they try to establish what Abu Nazir's next move might be. Unfortunately we also see way too much of Brody's family, who are less interesting (except for his daughter Dana, played by Morgan Saylor). Whilst this series lacks some of the tension of the first season, Carrie's erratic behaviour grates a bit, and there's a very irritating "Carrie-in-peril" section, there is a lot they get right. Violent interrogation scenes and windowless prisons feature prominently, more often in America, than in the middle East  throwing into question America's right to consider itself superior to its enemies. Characters are presented with impossible choices, make decisions with unforeseen consequences, and the narrative twists are often dizzying. The final episode appears to be setting us up for a somewhat improbable happy ending, before pulling the rug from under us with a devastating explosion which calls loyalties into question once more.

Series 3 was bound to disappoint after that. And though it's not terrible, it doesn't really reach the heights of the first two. The best bits are early on. Carrie suffers a terrible betrayal, and she and Brody end up in  hellish situations bringing us back to the theme of what captivity does to a person. There's a phenomenal twist a third of the way through, that changes everything, and Quinn is forced to face up to the amorality of his job when a hit goes spectacularly wrong. Saul meanwhile is facing down political machinations as he tries to stay in position as temporary CIA head, whilst discovering who planted the series 2 bomb. And we have several new "bad" guys to watch out for - the Machiavellian Senator Lockhart, Dar Nadal, the shadowy CIA man in charge of "black" ops, and the Iranian Javadi who replaces Abu Nazir as the CIA's target. All of which is good, as are some of the moral dilemmas we witness. There is one situation in particular that really forces you to question what kind of mission is so important that an individual can get away with a horribly violent murder?  But for a lot of the time it gets bogged down with long subplots involving Dana Brody (it is important we some of her reaction to events of the previous series, but we get far far too much of her). And there's also too much emphasis on Carrie/Brody being in love, which I never really bought and which makes Carrie more erratic and less sympathetic. Thankfully that relationship concludes in the finale, leaving us with the intriguing prospect of a Brodyless "Homeland" for series 4.

I'm pleased to say that the latest series, which has just concluded, was absolutely back on form. Whilst I don't think it can ever get back to the brilliance of the first season this was pretty darned close. Without Brody there's room for Carrie's relationships with Saul and Quinn to develop, and moving the action to Pakistan was a wise decision. Not only does it change the level of jeopardy for everyone, but it really opens up what the show is about.  Post series 3, Carrie has been appointed to be station chief in Afghanistan, where she leaves a hermetically sealed existence in a safe American compound, whilst authorising drone strikes against people on the "kill" list.  Previous events have clearly traumatised her. She is not the emotionally volatile Carrie we've known to date, and seems able to make coldblooded decisions without remorse. She's become so "good" at it that her team call her the "Drone Queen". Even when a drone strike hits a wedding killing several civilians, she seems more intent on finding out what went wrong with the intelligence, than worrying about the victims. It is only Quinn, who knows from personal experience what professional extrajudicial killing does to a person,  who is prepared to challenge her, though she is having none of it.

From this beginning, we follow Carrie, Quinn and Saul as they are sucked into Pakistani politics and find themselves up against not only the terrorists but their supposed allies, the Pakistani secret service, ISI. Apparently Pakistan has complained about this storyline as they feel it unfair in the light of their support for the war on terror. I can understand that, but I do wonder if there aren't some in Pakistan who might feel as these characters do, that the alliance with America has done them more harm than good. And fictionally it makes for an intriguing set up. As Carrie sets up a team to find out what really happened and to hunt down the new "enemy" the Taliban leader Haqqani, we simultaneously see the ISI operatives setting up a counter operation against the CIA, targeting Carrie and Saul along the way. Tasneem (Nimrat Kaur) Carrie's counterpart is shown as an effective agent, working through the weak husband (Mark Moses) of the American Ambassador (Laila Robins).Whilst for a long time we can't work out whether her colleague Aasar Khan (Raza Jaffrey) is to be trusted he emerges as an important figure for Carrie.

Being in Pakistan, we also get much closer to Haqqani then we did to Abu Nasir and Javadi, which allows us to see him in a more sympathetic light at times. We understand he too is working for his "Homeland" (Afghanistan), and we are provided with evidence that the more "bad" guys the US kill, the more enemies they create. Meanwhile, the old familiar themes of self interest, loyalty, betrayal and who you can trust, are played out in different ways with terrible consequences for everyone. The tension builds episode by episode, pushing Carrie, Quinn and Saul to the absolute limit, and testing Carrie and Saul's friendship more than it's ever been tested before. By the time we reach the shocking 10th episode "13 Hours in Islamabad", everyone has been forced to question their actions with Carrie concluding bleakly "We lost". And what's true in the fictional world - Carrie and her colleagues are totally outplayed, America seems redundant in the region, and the Taliban is on the ascendant - also is a reasonable reflection of reality. Just as the series aired,  the US and UK are leaving Afghanistan,  in a much worse state then the entered it in 2001, with very few of the military goals achieved. Given how the media have celebrated the war on terror, it is refreshing to see a mainstream TV show demonstrate how badly the mission has failed. (As a side note, I was also pleased to see this series that the fact Carrie is bipolar is incidental. She is clearly able to hold down an important job which she does well, and it is only when she is given the wrong medication that there is a problem. And that's simply a case of her enemies play her weakness well, which even she admits is what she'd have done too).

The second half of the series is full of thrills, action and violence, so it is a surprise when the finale returns us to the quiet of Washington. This decision has clearly divided the audience, many of whom felt the season came to an end with a whimper. I can understand that. Knowing how often "Homeland" has pulled a dramatic twist out of the closing seconds, I was waiting the whole episode for something horrible to happen. However, the fact that it didn't, doesn't undermine that episode for me. After weeks spent with the characters in danger, and with the knowledge that it all went so horribly wrong, there is something surreal about watching them back home, safe in domestic settings. For me, this is a nice nod to the first series when Brody returns from horror to ordinary life again, and wonders if anything can be normal again.  And it also allows us to take a moment to ask, what was all that violence for? What did it actually achieve? As all the characters reflect on that they are all given the chance to walk away, to take up that ordinary life and leave the horrors to other people. And yet, it is clear from the closing scenes, that none of them can. Whether because of failed relationships, misguided loyalty, self interest, or a desire to "put it right", they are all wedded to the fortunes of the morally ambiguous CIA. Even though they know that means they'll end up doing bad things for good reasons time and time again and make appalling compromises for the sake of the bigger picture, the Agency (much like the Mafia members in The Sopranos or the gangs in The Wire) is the family they can never escape.

"Homeland" can be a hard watch. It takes great delight in building up tension, relieving it, then throwing in something even worse. The violence is uncompromising when it happens, and often makes me flinch. But what makes the show so absorbing is that the story is peopled by such real flawed characters, whose are actions may come from good intent but are just as likely to have mixed motives. I love Carrie, as a strong intelligent woman in a man's world, who likes to think she is doing the right thing. Yet she can be manipulative, selfish, hard hearted, and some of her actions in this series are beyond defensible. Quinn's regrets at his past behaviour have often set him up as the moral hero this season - he has shown compassion and sensitivity and regret for previous actions and frequently suggested he wants out. Then, just as we are thinking what a good guy he is, we notice his instruments for torture laid out ready as he prepares to interrogate a subject. I'm glad we didn't get to see him use them, (particularly in the week when the revelations of US torture were hitting the headlines), yet it was important to show what he is capable of. Carrie, Quinn and Saul are basically decent people who joined the CIA to keep their country safe. Yet they are just as happy to resort to torture or killing innocent people to achieve their aims.  How does that make them any different from Abu Nasir, Javadi or Haqqani? In fact, Carrie's orders to kill are done with just as much a cold hearted calculation as Haqqani's brutal stabbings. Which demonstrates for me how morally confused America has become in the last 14 years.

David Nevin (chief of Showtime the company that broadcasts "Homeland") says the show tries to demonstrate  "how difficult America's position in the world is in the 21st century" illustrating the "complexity of the U.S. position in the Muslim world."  Though at times "Homeland" can be improbable, cartoonish and meandering, and can sometimes fall into the trap of justifying American violence, when it focusses on this aim, through its challenging stories and complex characters, it absolutely fulfils that brief. Which is why I've been watching all this time, and can't wait to see what happens next.

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