The actress who came in from the cold

Amid the naff plot and spy cliches, the reason to watch Homeland still shines through: Claire Danes.

Emmet Livingstone

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It is deeply distressing to learn that Homeland is being touted as the best drama on television; it is far from it. Critics, like the blinkered zealots they are, fight to outdo the praise being heaped upon this trite, everyman spy story. ‘Oh it’s so clever’, they croon, ‘I love how we’re not being patronised and how it’s so on the pulse and stuff’. The thinking person should shudder.

Leaving the misguided paeans aside, this thriller will probably entertain you; if that’s what you’re after. Casting our minds back, the first season concludes with ruined CIA agent Carrie Mathieson (Claire Danes) in electro-shock therapy, while Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) narrowly escapes discovery as an al-Qaeda sleeper cell. The second season opens more demurely, with a newly pilled-up Mathieson and a freshly congressional Brody, both admirably trying to insert a touch of humdrum into existences characterised by hypertension. Thankfully, for those of short attention spans, the slow start is soon remedied through convenient timing and made-to-fit plot devices and the pair are yanked from their comfort zones and whisked back into wonderful lives of intrigue.

Like 24 before it, Homeland is often commended for its believability and accuracy in dealing with the covert world of intelligence. Unlike 24, though, credit has been misplaced. There are too many suspend-your-disbelief moments to enumerate here, but some of the cringiest happen within the first minute. Israeli strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities result in angry demonstrations at the American embassy in Beirut, headed by the avuncular Saul Berenson. A secret agent twitches at the blinds and we see a rag-tag group of locals, presumably in semblance of protest, awkwardly fist-pumping the air in unison, as if at some kind of open-air rave. To compound matters, most senior staff, and Mathieson, drive straight through the middle of this lacklustre crowd, where people are waving an assortment of Lebanese and Israeli flags in their faces. Now, call me a sceptic, but when’s the last time somebody waved an Israeli flag at an anti-Israel demo?

To give credit where credit is due, there is something beguiling about Homeland. It’s not the plot, which follows the tired ‘there’s-a-mole-in-the-agency!’ storyline found in most spy dramas, nor is it the production or script, neither of which is exceptional. Rather, it is something to do with the compelling urgency of Carrie Mathieson and her loony-eyed antics. Mathieson and Brody are mirrors of each other, both victims of trauma, both, until this series, leading double lives, and both ideologically driven. It is a testament to Dane’s acting that her character comes up trumps.

Brody bobs around uncomfortably, mouth fixed in an aggravating ‘o’ shape, managing to connote confusion and stupidity simultaneously. This would be a delicately skilled tour de force, if it were deliberate. No doubt, before Damian Lewis, some hack imagined Brody as a profound, multi-faceted character; a man struggling with the two conflicting traditions of East and West. Instead he comes off as a hapless patsy wandering around in the dark, buffeted on all sides by stronger personalities with powerful agendas. Watching him on screen, you feel the same sense of frustration you do during those Sam and Frodo scenes in Lord of the Rings; it feels like a sideshow even though purportedly it’s the main act. Mathieson is really the only character who pulls her weight. The perverse dedication to her profession and the occasional, gurning slip into insanity make her an enjoyable character to watch, and audiences relish with a keen delight her workaholic tendencies. Sadly, one character does not a programme make.

Even where it should be strong, Homeland is lacking. As a supposed commentary on the War on Terror, it wrongly conflates Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, propagating that same war’s wearied us-versus-them logic. Arab men congregate menacingly in Mandate-era streets, drawing pistols at the sight of alien white faces in the wrong neighbourhood. The antidote to such unashamed stereotyping is supposed to be Brody, the convert; if only that incoherent mumbling and uncomfortable kow-towing of his were just a little convincing. Heck who cares, it’s not as if any Arabs or Muslims are watching.

It is, perhaps, a little unfair to be so down on a programme so many people love. Homeland is highly watchable and in many ways enjoyable, but so are airport novels, on occasion. The difference is that those lurid, raised-surface, block capitals on the front of airport thrillers represent a brand: ‘This is trashy’, the cover screams. Readers are not fooled; Grisham does not win the Booker. Homeland, though, is winning Emmys. Why can we not admit to ourselves the truth? It’s bunk.

Emmet Livingstone is an intern at spiked.

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