In the last ten years or so, there has been a notable shift in the genre of American television series that are being put out. Following on from the terrible events of 9/11, many networks have greenlighted spy shows focused not on traditional spy antics, but on counter-terrorism and domestic terrorism. Covert Affairs, Burn Notice, Chuck, Nikita, 24, Quantico, State of Affairs, The Blacklist, and many others. Strangely enough, many of these also star female characters, which is an interesting change from the previous era of James Bond styled shows with male characters. Focusing on one of the many intelligence agencies of the American intelligence network, these shows follow the lives of intelligence officers and experts as they head off one threat after another.
One of these shows is Homeland, starring Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, which premiered on Showtime on October 2, 2011 just a little over five years ago and has recently announced its sixth season, which will begin next month. I recently started watching the show, and I’ve been very impressed with it, which is probably why I binge-watched the first season in a mere three days. Danes, Lewis and the rest of the cast and crew have turned in a fantastic political spy thriller with some extremely nuanced and conflicted characters.
Note: Spoilers from the first season will be mentioned so proceed at your own risk.
Claire Danes plays Carrie Mathison, a CIA officer working stateside at the agency’s Langley, Virginia office who is called in to handle the debriefing of a rescued American prisoner-of-war Nicholas Brody. A United Sates Marine Corps sniper at the time of his capture, Damian Lewis’ Brody suffered eight years of torture and abuse before he was eventually rescued and returned to the country. Following a tip-off about an American POW having been converted by the Al-Qaeda to carry out an attack on American soil, Carrie suspects that Nicholas is the POW in question and the entirety of the season follows her as she investigates this theory and tries to confirm what really happened to him in those eight years.
To kick things off, the acting on Homeland is really great. Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Mandy Patinkin, Morena Baccarin, Diego Klattenhoff and others deliver some really good moments throughout the first season, bringing their different characters to life and also presenting some great on-screen chemistry between each others. My previous experience with Danes comes from Terminator 3 and Shopgirl, none of which are particularly great movies but do make a good case for Danes to be a good actor and in Homeland she really does excel as a bipolar intelligence officer who battles her condition on a daily basis against the backdrop of her flawed personal and professional relationships. The same goes for Lewis whom I’ve previously seen in Billions where he was fantastic as a ruthless and manipulative hedge fund manager. As adversaries, Carrie and Brody are perfect for each other and though the writers of the show went into some really questionable territory in the second-half of the season, the tensions between the two of them were portrayed very well all the way through.
For me, in particular, the exploration of Carrie’s bipolar disorder and how it affected her job was an eye-opener. I really wish that some of the extremeness of the situation could have been toned down because oftentimes it seemed as if the writers were focused on the extremely negative affects, but all the same, it is such a bold step forward, and goes just a little bit further to show that we can have characters who are flawed in more ways than just their dark pasts or their gruff attitudes or what have you. Mental conditions like bipolar disorder are a real thing. The same cannot be said for Brody’s PTSD though because I feel that the writers didn’t really go the distance for it. They always seemed to pull back from the concept, treating it as if they were handling a violent, thrashing crocodile with a twenty-foot pole or something. It felt really weird and disconnected. A fantastic opportunity was missed here.
Mandy and Morena and others often served tangential roles to the two leads, and were often overshadowed, either because of the looseness of the material they were given or because they just didn’t get enough time to shine. With Morena especially, playing Nicholas’ wife Jess, I felt that she just didn’t get to do enough. She’s been on a number of shows and movies over the years, and she’s always been very good I feel. But in Homeland she comes off as restricted and confined. I feel that if the show had been longer by 2 or 3 more episodes then her character could have been fleshed out better, because she was always lacking some deep motivations that could have pulled her ahead of the pack. The role of a dutiful wife struggling to come to terms with her husband’s PTSD just didn’t seem to fit her. Diego Klattenhoff as Mike Faber, Nicholas’ fellow Marine and long-time friend, fit into a similar mold. His character was always right on the edge of being really good, but the focus on the relationship between Carrie and Nicholas always kept on the sidelines. As such, while Diego does a great job with what he’s given, the character doesn’t work so well after the luster of the first couple episodes wears off. This show is pre-The Blacklist, where Diego really shines as an FBI counter-terrorism agent and the signs are all there for him to be a solid performer.
In such a state, I think only Mandy Patinkin’s Saul Berenson as Carrie’s direct superior in the CIA made any real headway among the primary cast of the show. I haven’t seen any of his other work so can’t speak with that context, but I really liked Mandy here. Thanks to his character’s rather generous facial hair, a lot of the strength of his performance comes from his body language, and I always appreciate an actor who can go that particular distance with such restrictions placed on him or her. From there on we have CIA director David Estes played by David Harewood, Al-Qaeda commander Abu Nazir played by Navid Negahban, Saul’s wife Mira played by Sarita Choudhary and a whole parade of others who delivered on the other aspects of the show. Loved all of them.
The larger story itself is really interesting. Usually television doesn’t give us a strong character who suffers some kind of mental condition, let alone two of them. For that, Showtime and the writers definitely deserve a huge pat on the back. Carrie’s bipolar condition, and Nicholas suffering from PTSD and the nightmares of his tortures. That’s a really heavy mix to throw at the viewer. And largely, the characters do excel in those roles. They deliver convincing performances that really connect with you, draw you in to their experiences and their struggles. And I love Homeland for that. However, I also question some of the story decisions that are made, because Carrie is portrayed as someone who suffers from a severe case of bipolar and as such she frequently makes some really bad decisions that end up biting her back, especially when she chooses to go off her meds. It draws away from the larger story, and I don’t think that narratively it was a good decision to bring it in so early into the show. Bold decision, but perhaps a little misguided as well because then the show becomes less about the confrontations between the main characters and more about their personal struggles.
Either way, I definitely enjoyed Homeland season 1 on all levels. The show starts off slow and a lot is thrown at the viewer, but by around episode 5 the story levels off as the viewer finally gets the time to become comfortable with the characters. The ambiguity regarding Brody’s true loyalties is fascinating to watch as it unfolds, and Carrie’s relentless drive to expose the truth is the same. They are both working against a clock, and I really liked that even while the main story remains as it is, the writers take the time to focus on some important side-stories about home-grown terrorists, US citizens who’ve gone over to the other side so to speak. All of this makes for a much more comprehensive treatment of the subject, rather than going with something cliche that we’ve seen dozens of times already, whether in television or in movies.
As of writing this review (delayed by a few weeks in the process), I have binge-watched all five current seasons in preparation for the upcoming sixth season, and there are certainly some faults that carry over, but there’s also some elements that are more bold than could have been expected. And in that sense, the team certainly deserves some big props. Either way, I really do recommend the show. It is addictive and enticing, despite all the negatives, none of which are really that major, or weren’t for me at least.