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    What ‘Homeland’ Missed, and What It Means Now (Column)

    Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in
    Sifeddine Elamine

    Back in February, I began a rewatch of “Homeland,” aiming to catch up to the show by its series finale, which is to air on Showtime April 26. At the time, I airily envisioned taking an afternoon to jot down some loose thoughts that would magically coalesce into the perfect piece, or at least a B-plus example of criticism about a show I hadn’t really thought about since 2014 or so. In the essay I had in mind — one I only needed to watch 96 episodes to do, but which already felt fully baked to me — I’d put in the requisite praise for Claire Danes’s layered performance of mania and duty perpetually superseding and supplementing each other (which, I guess, goes here now) and then diagnose how “Homeland’s” 2010s went, writing something about the show’s endless pursuit of a peace in the Middle East forged by American might, even as America seemed to turn cool on the concept of intervention and the most compelling theaters of global conflict moved elsewhere. I knew I would write something about how the show, for all its grit and sand, was a fantasy.

    This was itself a fantasy. I recall one conversation over drinks, before going with friends to see “The Invisible Man,” where I expressed an eagerness to report back on my thoughts at a future bar and movie date, once I got all caught up. (It’s a fun memory, and one I see in retrospect with germs flying through the air, magnified like cartoon characters.) I finally got contemporaneous with the show as it aired, sometime around the thirty-second day of quarantine in New York City, between a lunch of fridge leftovers and my twilight walk through empty streets. Carrie was not coming to save us; no one was. What a thrill.

    And what a strange thing to watch a show that prides itself on its ability to predict the future — with its much-publicized info-dump sessions with real CIA officers before the production of each season — feel so randomly off-tone now, less in what it didn’t predict (I hardly fault them for not having a global-pandemic storyline) and more for what it didn’t try to do. That “Homeland” was addicted to the Middle East as the wellspring of its conflict, with even its maybe-rogue U.S. president (played by Elizabeth Marvel, trying so hard to hit an escape velocity from the script) ultimately tripped up on issues pertaining to terrorism and national security, is tied back into Carrie’s prejudices and predilections. That those shape the show’s reality is its advertised virtue, and its original sin. And it’s what makes the show feel quite so random in what should be its victory lap. There is, plainly, no off-books officer working behind the scenes at the highest levels of government this time to deliver Americans from chaos the way Carrie’s done time and again; if there is, they’re way less adept than she.

    “Homeland,” in its earliest going, was easily lumped together with “House of Cards,” “Scandal,” and “Veep”: Shows that started a few years into the Obama era and that used an idle peacetime setting to explore the dramatic possibilities of the U.S. bureaucracy. (“What if there was something malign within the government?,” one could almost sense Hollywood thinking as one.) As it’s gone on — debuting before the other three shows in its sort-of-subgenre, it leaves the stage last — “Homeland” has seemed to display more surface-level agility than any other show in its class, even the proudly strange “Scandal.” It does thriller, and tragedy, and unreliable-narrator drama-school exercise, and conquering-heroine hagiography, moment-to-moment. It’s also revealed a certain stolidity beneath its shifting moods. Even after ditching the mega-arc of its first three seasons, in which Carrie and doomed lover Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), saved one another again and again, the show has kept Carrie at the center of not just its world but the world at large. What it has to say, it has to say about its character more than her situation, a state of play that, for a show in which the character is her situation, leaves much unsaid.

    My attention to “Homeland” throughout my viewing was not always as thorough as it might have been. I watched season five in a semi-fugue state in which the greatest feeling I could muster for Carrie as she battled global terrorism in Berlin was, “Good for her.” That she had a daughter to protect registered for me as much as it seemed to for Carrie; I wasn’t that worried. This was during the first days of quarantine, just after — as COVID began to make itself known more full-throatedly in the U.S. — I’d suffered a setback that either was or was not deeply entwined with the state of the world, but which I was powerless to address beyond feeling my feelings inside, and indoors. After receiving every encouraging sign that my spouse and I might expect the opposite outcome in the very short term, a much-hoped- and planned-for baby did not in fact arrive. This was due to quotidian decisions made by people who either were or were not taking COVID into account. We can never know; I can never solve it. I blankly listened to a podcast about nothing while I pushed diapers into the back of my closet, then hit play on the next chapter of a show about political and personal crises feeding off each other to systematically destabilize, a show entirely unrelated to my experience of the exact same thing. In the evenings I would drink the white wine I’d curbside-pickup-ed and stare at a wall in my kitchen, turning things over. We had picked out a name which we only found out, long after selecting it and deep into a process that may yet repeat itself, meant, in the original, “healer.” I think — or hope, which is as close to meaningful thought as I can often get of late — that we’ll get to really use it someday.

    It has been, somehow, some number of weeks since then! And “Homeland” has slotted for me — after COVID, after-after — pretty neatly, actually. Forget writing “King Lear,” as the widely-debunked truism would have every bored creative-class member doing or being guilted for not having already done: I’ve gone from freewheeling reading to struggling to focus on the page, from avid media consumption to soft-clothes TV. I’ve gotten really into “Survivor” again! And it feels cozy to watch a person who, after a three-season opening salvo in which she was caught in a bad romance, finally finds her judgment clear enough to save the world — between recurrences of mental illness that tend to clarify the truth in the end.

    The uneasy fact of Carrie’s mental health struggles was, early on, converted from deficit into strength, the thing that keeps her best able to be the renegade that she is. Her catatonia gives way to mastery every time. It makes her, perhaps, an asset we envy — as part of our government or even as a self to be. Why bother keeping up the pretense that “Homeland” is grounded in facts drawn from life when “Homeland” so soundly beats reality? After all, the closest I get to flipping my perspective and seeing the case in a new way, while doing what I’m told is my part for the national good, is rotating my ten-thousandth jigsaw puzzle piece and figuring out where it fits into the whole as I kill another hour of my life.

    Or… watching “Homeland.” On the level of story, Carrie’s occasional slip helps the show approach its audience. Together, we keep pace with one another as we solve the season’s mystery, with Carrie’s fulminations forcing her to see global affairs as a grand drama with her as the protagonist, a delusion that has the ever-unexpected benefit of being factually true. Carrie has remade the war on terror into the war within herself — a decision made heedlessly, repeatedly, and effectively, converting the entirety of the U.S. response to global cataclysm in the 2010s into something that’s, if not a crusade, certainly a sentimental journey. We’re told her guilt, at the series’s outset, is at having failed to prevent the events of September 11, 2001; it goes on to become a path to proving, for lack of a better term, “the haters” wrong. It’s ultimately been a comforting framing, and remains so even into the show’s current eighth season: The world is a mess, and messy indeed is the savior at its center, working on all of our behalf to exorcise something inside.

    Even absent Brody, and even as he went strenuously unmentioned, the show remained so deeply personal as to put its notional real action on the back burner. (Whether it is unfairly gendered to represent the war on terror as unusually deeply felt for a female officer is a question I leave for others to answer!) Carrie found herself in new situations, pushed forward despite best counsel, and emerged, if not victorious, then having made a real step forward, even as the goals from on high kept shifting. The only other characters she meets are assets, potential assets, or those bound to be droned or worse; she lives a funny sort of cosseted existence where her world is securing the nation, but she cares little about those who call it home.

    Maybe she doesn’t need to. If history is written by the victors, Carrie can’t stop winning; the third season concludes with her literally redefining the story of agency intervention in her own small way, drawing a star on the wall meant to symbolize agents killed in the line of duty in order to commemorate Brody, a CIA agent in her heart if not on the books. The show indulges her, providing her endless opportunities to re-prove her skill and her shrewdness, with each season’s crisis serving only to demonstrate just how unfair it is for Carrie to have been held back. On the level of metaphor, Carrie’s mental illness exists in a state that may ultimately defy coherent explanation, seeming to evoke the confused fecklessness of a U.S. foreign policy the show elsewhere wants to be vastly more muscular and interventionist. Carrie is ever available to rise to fill the gaps the nation cannot.

    But between episodes, I’m reminded all the more of how it stings to not be the protagonist of my own life, let alone the story of the world. I join the many millions who have been downshifted away from lead roles, for all that we may think and feel and openly emote in the socially distanced privacy of our own homes. These are, or we are, people who have no place in a show about someone whose life is about protecting us, a show that would look at collective actions like social distancing confused and wondering where the hero is. Inside, we are where “Homeland” wants us, even if it cannot have called this one particular moment. A faceless population, our identities masked and kept behind closed doors, is exactly whom Carrie is sworn to protect; that this moment is being widely compared to September 11 (and not positively!) would give her only more cause to take the lead, if she existed. I, lost in history and losing parts of myself to it, am a part of the mass that self-determined central figures — “Homeland’s,” and ours — take charge of current events in order to protect, or not. As nice as it can be to watch a show about a person demanding to be in charge of things, I craved, endlessly, representation for the sizable community whose reality is defined for rather than by them. “Homeland” has little to say about this version of human experience. It’s too boring, perhaps.

    What happens next, in the weeks without even this show as distraction, is not up to me. I am in the land of the free, because I have ceded or have had taken from me the possibility of doing anything but leaving it to the pros, whoever they might be. It is a cold feeling — one that, if we were bothering to play the prediction game, “Homeland” maybe foretold, in some oblique way, in what would be a hollow victory for that series. But it leaves me wondering, in the moments when I allow a break from dread, what else “Homeland” might have let in, and what frightened souls occupy the darkness far from its central star.

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