[This article contains spoilers for Homeland]
Between everything that’s happened this year, you would be forgiven for not realising that Showtime’s long running spy drama Homeland wrapped it’s 8 season run. In need of a show to binge watch during lockdown; I delved into the murky world of CIA espionage, foreign policy, mental illness and interpersonal relationships and watched the series end to end. So what was it all about?
Premiering in 2011, Homeland started as a show exploring the repercussions of US Marine Nicholas Brody (played by Damian Lewis) returning home after year’s captive, against the backdrop of a post-9/11 counter-terrorism landscape. Based on the Israeli series Prisoners of War, the American adaptation filtered the events through its protagonist; CIA Case Officer Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes). Carrie is a flawed and unconventional lead character; self-assured, intuitive and persuasive but also stubborn and obsessive. It’s these combative characteristics that puts Carrie at odds with her superiors and makes the character at times unlikeable. Carrie has an unwavering determination she is right, which leads her to following through on decisions against the advice of others. For all the right calls Carrie makes, she is also able to make mistakes. Another layer the creators added to the character was giving her bipolar disorder. For the duration of the series Carrie’s mental stability fluctuates, making other characters and the audience doubt her conclusions. Ironically it’s also her condition that helps makes Carrie a great asset to the CIA. It gives her the unique ability to see patterns others have missed, even being described as her ‘Super Power’ in one episode. However, looking at Carrie’s bipolar in the larger context of Homeland it is purely a character trait that doesn’t connect to the larger themes at play in the series.
The second anchor of the series is CIA veteran Saul Berenson (played by Mandy Patinkin). Preferring the older school methods of the spy game Saul functions as Carrie’s mentor, confidant and father figure. It’s established in the pilot episode that Saul recruited Carrie into the CIA and that they already have a strong mentor mentee dynamic. Saul is usually put in the role of authority for Carrie’s often reckless actions, albeit more sympathetically than his colleagues. The twos relationship spans the entirety of the show and has many disagreements, fallouts and reunions but thankfully never becomes too overly sentimental. A deep underlying trust remains between Saul and Carrie throughout and after viewing the series as a whole, it’s their relationship which is at the core of Homeland.
The first three seasons are centred on Carrie’s suspicions of, and later romantic involvement, with Nicholas Brody. During these early seasons the narrative splits its focus between the two characters. We follow Carrie’s investigation of Brody, who after a tip-off from a CIA asset now believes he has been turned by al-Qaeda and poses a threat to national security. For Brody, we see him struggle to assimilate back into his previous life; including a wife who has moved on and children who are trying to reconnect with their absent father. This helps build sympathy for Brody as well as ground the wider counter terrorism story in a more familiar suburban setting. Here the show explorers the disconnect war veterans can experiencing returning home and the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. The story threads intersect throughout the first two seasons with Carrie and Brody growing closer, separating and then reconciling. At the midpoint in season two Brody’s defection is finally revealed to the CIA and Carrie’s suspicions are validated. The CIA and Carrie then decide to use Brody to get close to the terrorist who turned him. It’s at this point in the story the theme of Brody’s character becomes clear; he is used by others. Initially he is used by al-Qaeda to attack the US, by the military as a propaganda tool and then the Vice President to boost his campaign trail. Even Carrie, who has genuine feelings for Brody exploits him to serve a purpose. Is Brody just a victim or is he to blame for becoming a tool to be used by whoever has the most leverage? The storyline comes to head in the season three finale, when on an assassination mission for the CIA, Brody is captured, trialled and hung. He dies hated by his family and assumed by the world to be traitor. His death is ultimately tragic and except for a brief drug induced hallucination the character is never seen again. Creatively the death of Brody opened the door for Homeland to shake things up.
Season four acted as semi-reboot of the series and was essential to its longevity. Gone is Brody and his family drama. Carrie now lives in Kabul working as the CIA station chief. Dubbed ‘The Drone Queen’ by her colleagues after a string of successful drone strikes; this is Carrie at her most capable and in charge. However, things quickly start to unravel after Carrie sanctions a strike on a wedding hoping to kill a Taliban leader and it results in the death of forty civilians. In true Homeland fashion, there is more to this than simply bad judgement. As the season develops we see events have been orchestrated through blackmail and murder by Pakistan Intelligence agent Tasneem Qureishi (played by Nimrat Kaur). Tasneem is a counterpoint to Carrie; a female officer operating in a male-dominated field, working towards her own country’s interests but unlike Carrie is willing to go to more extreme lengths. Her motives are understandable and rooted in real world politics as Tasneem seeks to loosen Americas grip on Pakistan. It’s with this character where the series really starts to take America to task on its war on terrorism. Unlike its other contemporary espionage drama 24, Homeland is far more critical of America’s foreign policy and is not afraid to argue against US involvement. Season four culminates in an assault by Taliban forces on the American embassy, resulting in the death of several people. Following the attack the White House cuts relations with Pakistan and orders the remaining embassy personnel including Carrie to withdraw. It’s a conclusion which both subverts the audience’s expectations and challenges their beliefs. Thankfully the season finale does an excellent job examining the fallout, moving characters forward and ending on a bittersweet note.
If season four had the creators dip their toe into wider political issues then it would be seasons six and seven where they dived right in and became more relevant than ever. Airing in 2017, the show came off the back of the 2016 Presidential election and managed to reflect the times by introducing the controversial character of President-Elect Elizabeth Keane (played by Elizabeth Marvel). While more Hilary than Trump in her political leanings, the real world parallels are ever present of a controversial figure voted to office and a backlash against them. We pickup with Carrie having left the CIA in season five and now working for a Muslim aid foundation alongside acting as Keane’s secret advisor. After Carrie prompts Keane to show support for the idea of demilitarising the CIA, Black Operations Director Dar Adal (played by F. Murray Abraham) puts the wheels in motion to undermine her administration. Adal has been a background player until now, characterised as a less trustworthy counterpart to Saul. Adal’s methods of attack on Keane, comprising of internet bots and social media stories to twist the truth, are another example of the shows commitment to tap into real world issues. Working with Adal is conservative conspiracy theorist and talk show host Brett O’Keefe (played by Jake Weber). Both methods are designed to discredit and turn the public opinion against the President-Elect. Fake news remains an issue still in 2020 and it’s not hard to see the line drawn to the Trump era of American politics. Through Carrie and Saul’s intervention they are able to stop Adal’s plot; but not without fallout from Keane. Keane, more who paranoid than ever, orders a mass arrest and internment of the Intelligence community. Carrie is frozen out of Keane’s administration and the President-Elect is positioned as our next antagonist.
When season seven starts, Carrie has moved to Washington DC and is now working independently without her usual assets and resources. Believing the now President Keane has gone rogue, Carrie begins an investigation into her administration. Meanwhile, Saul is appointed National Security Advisor by Keane and tasked with tracking down right-wing pundit Brett O’Keefe. O’Keefe now on the run for his role in the previous season’s conspiracy takes refuge with a family of supporters. This leads to a confrontation with the FBI, which results in deaths on both sides. Carrie and Saul’s separate story threads come together when they are able to link the inciting incident from the family massacre to the suspicious death of a General who plotted with Dar Adal. That link being the involvement of Russian Intelligence; specifically, assets working inside the intelligence community and government to spread misinformation. Russian hacking and their alleged role in the 2016 election results is another example of Homeland pulling current events into the story. Unlike earlier plots in the series which are even handed with their antagonist, this firmly establishes the Russians as in the wrong. Through Saul and Carries teamwork they are able to expose the Russians and cause Keane to relent on her hard stance on the Intelligence community. But their victory is not without a cost, Keane steps down as President and Carrie is captured by Russian operatives.
Season eight of Homeland, brings together storylines, characters and politics from throughout the series to deliver a tense, dramatic and bittersweet ending. Coming off seasons six and seven which focused on domestic threats, this year the series managed to return to discussing issues surrounding American’s foreign policy. Instead of mirroring events in the real world, the show delves into the possibility of an end to the war in Afghanistan. Things quickly take a turn of the worse after the death of the new President during peace talks, when the situation escalates on both sides with the threat of a nuclear strike becoming a reality. Saul and Carrie are struck in the middle of the situation. Saul navigates the political front, butting heads with the newly appointed President, and for Carrie things her story comes full circle; she is now a former prisoner of war suspected of turning during her time captive. The parallels to Brody’s story are obvious but feel natural and not a forced attempt to bookend the series. Through cooperation and then coercion with Russia, Carrie is able prevent a war but not with making a sacrifice. Giving up her reputation and family Carrie becomes a deep cover mole in the Russian government with only Saul ever knowing the truth.
So to answer my earlier question; what was Homeland all about? Ultimately Homeland started as a series about suspicion and intrigue but grew beyond that initial premise. The series managed to adapt and become a statement on the need for corporation and the importance of checking your own ideals. It’s messy trying to make the world a better place, and sometimes in trying to solve one problem you create five more. But the show captures that with determination and sacrifice, it is possible.