The premise of Homeland is unsettling. CIA analyst Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) believes that there is an imminent threat of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Her main suspect is an American soldier who has been held prisoner in Iraq for the past eight years and has just been rescued. She might be right. But as the series begins, we’re not sure.
This point of departure is different from that of most other shows about the U.S. “war on terrorism.” Since 9/11, these fictions have countered the reality, offering agents and soldiers who were not only right, but also effective. In the most famous example, 24, Jack Bauer was always right, even as he engaged in unethical, immoral, and illegal acts in the pursuit of terrorists. Although his colleagues occasionally questioned Jack’s methods, the results overshadowed any objections. Jack didn’t stop every plot over his eight years on the air—people died, bombs went off—and he may even have agonized about the costs of his actions, but 24 never displayed doubts about his resolve or his patriotism.
Today, the American psyche is a little less fragile than it was in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Osama bin Laden is dead, and revealed—in Western media images—to have been a sad old man huddled in a ratty blanket. Not exactly the stuff of nightmares. At the same time, the TV commentators who five years ago said that we needed to take any and all measures to protect ourselves are now more likely to bemoan having to take their shoes off at the airport. For an entire generation of preteens, 9/11 is history, not current events.
So, it is not surprising that a show like Homeland starts from a premise of doubt. Claire Mathison is not Jack Bauer. Both agents are extremely good at their jobs, but Mathison is operating in a real world environment where mistakes and failure are not just options, but also very real possibilities. She is haunted by her own personal errors, when she didn’t read the signs in the days leading up to September 11, 2001.
We first meet Mathison in Iraq. She is trying to prevent the execution of a terrorist, who is also a source she has been cultivating. Though she can’t save him, his desperately whispered last words to her—about an American who has been turned—start the story rolling.
The uncertain world of intelligence is on full display here. Mathison’s conviction somehow muddies the waters further because there are so many reasons to doubt her. Early on, we find out that she is on anti-psychotic medication that she has been hiding from the CIA for years. Her judgment, both professional and personal, seems highly questionable, even though we are told repeatedly that she has gotten results in the past. In the early episodes, it is hard to tell if she is going to save the world or succumb to a complete break with reality.
As Mathison goes through the usual steps of trying to get her chain of command to listen to her concerns and then striking out on her own investigation when they don’t believe her, there is the second, more compelling storyline of the American POW, Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), returning home. He is discovered by Special Forces during a raid on a terrorist safe house. He has been tortured but not broken, and he returns home an instant American hero.
These initial plot points follow from the show on which Homeland is loosely based. The Israeli TV series, Prisoners of War was more of a psychological drama than a thriller, and in Homeland, the scenes where Brody returns to his wife and family are sad and moving. He flinches when touched, but any odd behavior can be easily forgiven, since he was held in captivity for almost a decade. He’s suffered, and even though we see some revealing flashbacks, we might still feel uncomfortable suspecting him of treason.
Producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, veterans of 24, here again craft a tense cat-and-mouse scenario. Unlike their previous show, Homeland takes its time: it doesn’t make clear right away who’s trustworthy and who’s a traitor. Based on the first episode’s strong script and performances, it looks as though the reveal will be worth the wait.