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Double Agents in Love

Homeland

a television series created by Alex Gansa
Showtime, Season One, 4 DVDs, $59.98; Season Two, 4 DVDs, $59.98 (to be released August 27, 2013)
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Kent Smith/Showtime
Morgan Saylor as Dana Brody, Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, and Damian Lewis as Nicholas Brody in Homeland

One of the intriguing aspects of the gripping and widely praised Showtime drama Homeland, a story about the machinations of CIA counterterrorism analysts and their prey, is that it is fearlessly interested in every kind of madness: the many Shakespearean manifestations—cold revenge, war-induced derangement, outsized professional ambition—as well as the more naturally occurring expressions, such as bipolar disease and simple grief. Homeland ruthlessly pits these psychic states against one another in different permutations and settings, like contestants in The Hunger Games, to see which will win, which will die, which will kill or be killed, which will bond or marry or breed or starve.

Homeland’s opening credits show images of the burning towers of the World Trade Center and its initial season ends with a young woman being strapped to a medical table and fitted with a bite plate so she can undergo electroconvulsive therapy. There is your spectrum. That later in the second season this same young woman will be quizzed about this experience with hostility, curiosity, and flirtatious compassion by a torture victim is one of the many gladiatorial moments of psychological derring-do this series has to offer. Its writers go out on limb after limb and seem unfrightened not just of loose ends and blind alleys but of out-and-out nuttiness both as subject and method. Madness is as madness does.

Homeland’s star is the brave Claire Danes depicting the brave Carrie Mathison, whose bipolar disorder is a secret she is trying to keep from the CIA (which would withdraw her security clearance if it knew) and whose second-guessing and sixth sense (the hunch sense) make her a kind of drug-sniffing dog for the counterterrorism unit that employs her. (People who do their work fully, and the only way they know how, are often apprehensive about being called “brave,” as if their underwear were showing or life-threatening spinach were in their every smile. Danes nonetheless has put vanity aside for this performance. Compare her with the always pretty analyst played by Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty.) The pressured speech and flights of ideas that are symptoms of the character’s disease are also useful in elaborate detective work, since really only an obsessive and insomniac can puzzle it all the way through.

The most visually arresting image of both Homeland seasons thus far does not involve a single gun or explosive or death of any sort but is a bulletin board whose color-coded components are created by Carrie through days of mania, and are decoded, understood, and assembled like a piece of installation art by her mentor, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), when she is yanked off her project. To see the camera pull back on this decorated cork board is like watching a world come to light.

Carrie’s ten-year search for the al-Qaeda terrorist Abu Nazir takes her directly toward a recently rescued marine sergeant, a handsome redhead named Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), who was a prisoner of war in Afghanistan. Carrie suspects that his long stint as a prisoner means he was turned by Nazir and has come back home to wreak havoc on his own soil. Her colleagues—at least in the first season—are not buying it. Except for Saul Berenson, who is more persuadable, since he knows that Carrie is exceptional at what she does. (Patinkin’s performance is superb but he does not hide his Broadway roots: a simple knock on Carrie’s door has more than a little ragtime in it; each carefully pitched syllable he utters is pegged to a note, and as his voice climbs and moves emotionally he sometimes seems to be singing. When Saul says to Carrie, “You’re the smartest and the dumbest fucking person I’ve ever known,” he delivers this potentially throwaway line with such concentration, restraint, and theatricality that it becomes the most dramatic utterance thus far in the entire series.)

Also exceptional is Damian Lewis as Brody—at least in the first season. As the homecoming marine he adroitly portrays the military veteran’s vexed reentry to America, not just with trembling and vomiting, but with nuanced glance and grit, even as his every move is being monitored by the CIA. In one of the show’s perverse switchbacks, early on Carrie watches the surveillance footage of Brody and his wife in their bedroom, and by the second season is herself in bed with Brody and a subject of the surveillance that her colleagues observe in a mortified fashion. Entering the footage she was once just monitoring is part of a motif of pornographic fantasy that haphazardly peppers the script. One of Carrie’s CIA “assets,” a sex worker from Sandusky, Ohio, arranges lovers for a Saudi prince; in another story thread Brody is asked to kill someone he believes he has already killed. Enactments and reenactments abound.

When Brody walks through the bright plastic aisles of an American hardware store, the viewer can share his experience of the shop’s gaudy abundance. He is looking for a doormat that might work as a prayer rug. He has converted to Islam, a fact he must keep hidden from everyone he knows. He has become a public relations pawn: the military brass would like him to play the hero card and redeploy; the White House would like him to play the hero card and run for Congress; Abu Nazir would like him to play the hero card and put on a suicide vest to take revenge for the US military drone program that has killed Afghan citizens.

Brody’s return to his home is juxtaposed with flashbacks to the physical and psychological torture and the emotional manipulations he endured at the hands of Nazir. Here Homeland’s editors and camera crew do some of their best work. We see Brody forced brutally to assault his friend and fellow marine, Tom Walker, and to dig his own grave. These heartbreaking scenes are some of the most devastating in the entire show. Even upon multiple viewings, when you have new information that allows for a reinterpretation of events, the scenes retain their awful power. The intercut flashbacks also efficiently reveal Brody’s life through the years as the tutor of Nazir’s young son, who is then killed in a drone attack. This attack is the event out of which almost everything we watch is born, and to this extent Homeland can be viewed as a criticism not just of cyclical revenge in general but of the American drone program in particular. Mandy Patinkin, who feels the show is strongly pacifist, has even been on talk shows discussing the evenhanded politics of Homeland’s scripts.

In Homeland’s second season the editors are so overloaded with plot threads and have to make such quick cuts that there are several inadvertently funny U-turns and the narrative becomes perilously head-spinning and surreal. But in Season One’s opening episodes all is well, and the series’s debt to its model, the Israeli television program Prisoners of War, is presumably expressed, though the program is otherwise unavailable in the United States.

Watching Brody through the eyes of his daughter, Dana, brilliantly played by Morgan Saylor, can also be interesting. Despite his eight-year absence, this teenaged girl is Brody’s true soulmate, much more so than his bombshell of a wife, who seems always to be stuck with lines like “I don’t understand. What is happening?” Dana is the person who stands next to him in the first Yellow Ribbon press photo. She is the one he puts his arm around. She is the one who first sees him praying—and understands it. Her intuitive knowledge of her dad becomes important in unraveling certain pieces of information, especially in the extremely jammed Season Two finale, which concludes the way a giant fireworks show concludes: with everyone dazed and caught in traffic.

In this finale two American characters played so perfectly by British actors whose accents never slip—Damian Lewis as Brody and David Harewood as David Estes, the CIA counter-terrorism director—are zapped from the narrative, one to the afterlife, and one to a mysterious freighter in international waters, as if the actors’ visas had expired. The carnage is preposterous, and getting the show back on more convincing psychological territory will be the task of Season Three—starting in late 2013. This is where the daughter will have to be relied on, as she is perhaps the only person in her father’s several worlds who has surmised who he is in all of them, and so she is a repository of viewer confidence. She will certainly remain one, at the very least as a kind of psychic and interpreter. It’s satisfying to see her brought forward in the story lines—even if her younger brother is getting ominously left behind—and one feels a serious actress’s career is in the making.

The main problem with Homeland is not even the writers taking Adderall or whatever they did in the second season that eliminated suspense and brought instead an unhinged intensity of movement that barely allowed space and time enough for the cast members to occupy their roles. The main problem with the show is a kind of elephant in the room. Written into several important plot points is the “love” Brody and Carrie have for each other. For this “love,” she will hide him from the authorities. For this “love,” he will kill the vice-president (although he is also doing this somewhat for his daughter’s spurned sense of justice and for the drone-killed son of Nazir; there is a convergence and confusion of motives in this terrific murder scene, which is done through distanced technology involving a pacemaker—an echo of the drone strike for which the vice-president is responsible).

The problem with the Brody–Carrie “love” is that it is unconvincing, and it is unconvincing for many reasons having to do with common sense. But that is not all. Awkward and unlikely love can be trumped by genuine sparks. But viewers will sense a lack of chemistry between Lewis and Danes, two otherwise gifted performers. Perhaps the editing is too abrupt—one minute there is shouting and despair, the next there is smiling in a cozy cottage. Good on-screen chemistry can win out, but these actors project only a cold canned heat.

Is this because their characters are damaged goods, too jangled inside and too full of apprehension to create the trust and stillness that romance requires, qualities that Brody’s friend Mike has in spades, especially around Brody’s wife? When Lewis goes to touch Danes’s face, we fear he may strangle her. When Danes smiles at him it looks effortful, mere flirtation or perhaps even nervousness. When Brody says to her in their final scene, “You gave it up to me,” and Carrie adds, “Completely,” few viewers will agree.

Almost every character in this show has been a double agent of some sort, but especially Carrie and Brody. Yet a double agent may also have a purity of purpose that operating solo allows: you can pick and choose who is worthy of hate and who is worthy of help. A double agent can crawl out of the ideological teamwork and love the forbidden, which both Carrie and Brody have done. A double agent can determine independently who is a “bad guy”—as does Special Ops Agent Quinn, looking very IRA and defying his orders to assassinate Brody—since every belief system has some. But shared torment is not enough for love between spies. Quinn, too, seems to believe in the Carrie–Brody love but only when viewing it through a sniper’s scope. All of Homeland’s characters are soldiers and soldierly, but they are also players in a game where the cards are thrown down ever more quickly and no one really has your back. Friendly fire can occur at any moment. This is too tense-making for what purports to be a love story.

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Kent Smith/Showtime
Damian Lewis as Nicholas Brody (center) and Navid Negahban as Abu Nazir (right) in Homeland

Moreover, is madness times two ever sexy? It is perhaps useful to compare these Homeland lovers with those in the current David O. Russell film, Silver Linings Playbook, where Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper generate quite a bit of sparkle despite both their characters being mentally ill. Of course, Silver Linings is a comedy and has dancing in it—a surefire cinematic express train to romantic love. Cooper and Lawrence may snarl and shout but they still seem like attractive screwballs in their own sexually charged tale, which just happens to be a screwball comedy.

Give Danes and Lewis a country cabin, a roaring fire, and a bottle of wine, and we feel only anxiety. The confessing of life secrets seems therapeutic and expository rather than intimate, and Carrie’s irritated “You interrupted me” startles before the hearth. Creepy cello music in the background does nothing to assist. Perhaps their conversation has too much storytelling to do—it is almost always propelling the plot along—and the sideways moves of courtly dilly-dally and pillow talk can find little opportunity or conviction. One of the final dialogues between Carrie and Brody includes this exchange about Nazir:

“He played us all from the beginning.”
“How? By letting himself get killed?”
“Why not?”
“Because it’s insane.”

Insane, indeed. In the bonus feature that follows on the box set, the producer Alex Gansa refers to them as “star-crossed lovers” in the grip of a “powerful love.” But this is not true: they lack mutual trust or any palpable erotic vibe. They are not bonded and they part without any persuasive anguish—or, rather, they briefly cling then separate, their anguish only sketchily enacted. There won’t be a damp eye in the house. Carrie’s and Brody’s love is in a film noir, while they themselves are in a television series.

But Brody has been sent off to Canada so that the writers can figure out what to do next. All is in a state of disconclusion, and Season Three awaits. Carrie will return to her true partner, her closest colleague, Saul, who, as he recites the kaddish before a roomful of corpses, has the look of new ambiguity to him: even though he cannot pass a single polygraph test, he has become the acting head of the CIA. As was said to many Americans after September 11, “You are all in Israel now.” Or maybe not. Presumably the show will continue to take received ideas and transform them. It may still fall short of art, but stay tuned. It is likely to continue to shatter viewers’ expectations and then glue them back together again, half-cracked.

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