'Homeland' Crafts a Tense Cat-and-mouse Scenario

The uncertain world of intelligence is on full display here. Carrie Mathison’s conviction somehow muddies the waters further because there are so many reasons to doubt her.


Airtime: Sundays, 10pm ET
Cast: Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Mandy Patinkin
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: Showtime
Creator: Howard Gordon
Air date: 2011-10-02

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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.