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.
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.