“Those who are predisposed to fall into despondency as well as to rise into the ecstasy may be able to view reality from an angle different from that of ordinary folk. Yet it is a true angle; and when the problem or the religious object has been once so viewed, others less sensitive will be able to look from a new vantage point and testify that the insight is valid.”
-Roland Bainton, writing about Martin Luther
The September 11th attacks resonated profoundly with an ever-burgeoning anxiety in contemporary America. Lack of structure, delocalization, and a deeply-rooted skepticism about any worldview, purpose, or belief are all intrinsic to the modern world – a world teeming with opportunity which, in a deeper sense, is threatening. This oft-burdensome opportunity threatens the current twenties and thirties generation most clearly. Everything from religious beliefs to romance to friendships to place to live to career path is left up to potentially unlimited choice for college-educated people; unsurprisingly, it’s this demographic where anxiety and depression have taken the deepest roots. Having so many choices places a law upon people that they ‘get it right’ – i.e., fulfill the successful businessperson trope, the Taylor Swift/contemporary country happily-ever-after romantic trope – etc, etc. Such varied arenas for performancism places a number of burdens upon the performers; most significantly for this piece, the burden of choosing a set of criteria with which to evaluate one’s performance, abilities, or happiness.
This is one major reason why Homeland has been so successful. In the same way that OK Computer helped give definition and voice to the eruption of computers and technology in everyday life, so too does Homeland use the contemporary geopolitical anxiety and uncertainty as a point of entry into a distinctly modern set of psychological struggles.
The September 11th attacks painted contemporary uncertainty and skepticism in stark colors in the public imagination. No longer was there a well-defined, theoretically defeatable military-industrial structure against which the national struggle could take place – i.e. no Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. Instead, the enemy was intangible, undefinable, more characterized by a resilient cultural hatred of the United States which could surface, devastatingly, anywhere at any time. Others have written about all of this in the past decade, but it’s worth mentioning here because the achievement of Homeland is at last to find expression for these themes in everyday life.
Ambiguous morality? Check. The drone strikes which killed Abu Nazir’s son and eighty-something other children demand retribution in Brody’s mind. We see how it’s not moral decay which perpetuates the cycle of violence, but instead self-righteousness and strident moralism. The people who become antagonists by Season Two’s finale aren’t so much the terrorists as those who, like David Estes, are bent on justifying their inadvertent murder so that they don’t have to face the moral ambiguity of their own lives. Everyone is justified, and no one is justified at all – in a world where values, for better or for worse, are understood as relative, there’s a deep anxiety about how to construct one’s own ethical guidelines. Each individual has the responsibility to arbitrate between different ethical concerns; uncertainty and guilt certainly ensue. And yet this responsibility isn’t something to be fought; the refusal to acknowledge it (again, cue Estes’s attempted assassination on Brody) is a primary source of ethical evil.
This brings us directly to Carrie Mathison, the show’s central character. She arguably does the most good of anyone in the show, and yet she also suffers acutely. ‘The wound and the gift are given together’, indeed. This brings us another (epistemic) source of modern doubt. Issues are so complex that there’s no more room for the amateur; the only way to make a difference in a complex field is to give one’s life to it entirely. This creates a powerful professional demand to be incredibly invested, personally, to be successful. The only thing that makes Carrie such a good operative is her clinically manic obsession with Abu Nazir and counter-terrorism. Counter-terrorism is a field rife with uncertainty, shadows of threats real and imagined; national devastation with no more sign of warning than a Suburban in a new parking spot. The structures which seem most secure are in fact the least; hence the seemingly invincible Saul being framed in his own office; hence too the ever-present theme of a CIA mole, the terrorist attack made possible by the seeming triumph of Nazir’s death, and the explosion right on the CIA’s grounds. Amidst such uncertainty, only manic obsession offers a chance of preventing the attack.
Unfortunately, the mania itself gives way to a crippling personal anxiety, one which devastates her self-confidence, sense of her own judgment, and mental health. Like Hemingway’s fisherman from “Big Two-Hearted River” being drawn inexorably toward the swamp, Carrie can’t help but immerse herself in the inevitably self-destructive counter-terrorism obsession and the potentially more destructive romance with Brody. Like Saul in last night’s episode, we know exactly what she should do for her mental health; we care about her and want her to have psychological distance from the things which are so clearly consuming her. But this distance is impossible – her will is bound and, at any rate, it’s only through her suffering that these attacks can be prevented.
As a final contemporary theme that Homeland’s writers have mastered, there’s no unquestionable triumph in the show. The victories of Season One were Pyrrhic at best; the victories of Season Two are later revealed as mere stepping-stones toward Nazir’s posthumous strike at the funeral. Carrie has constructed meaning in her life from her successes against Nazir, but this narrative crumbles when we realize that even she has merely been playing her role in a script already written by Nazir. The triumph of love at the end with Brody’s escape perpetuates this fear; we have no idea whether she’s exonerated an innocent man or played the final part written for her by Nazir in facilitating a brilliant terrorist’s escape. This is the position we the viewer are left in, and the desire for certainty, meaning and redemption is so strong in us that the Season 3 debut will likely have record viewership for the series.
Homeland is an existential show in the sense that Carrie stands out as the suffering individual who is usually right in her insights but who is almost never believed by the establishment. We crave vindication for her, so much so that I talked to some people who were almost frustrated that Brody didn’t go through with the attack in Season 1, because such an attack would’ve vindicated our hero Carrie. Against this desire for individual vindication however, is set the continual intractability of evil in view of the inveterate limitation and fallenness of humanity. Like Elizabeth Bishop’s reclamation of simple experience (travel, sleeplessness, etc) at postmodern time when the grand narratives that served as subjects for pre-modern poets had been lost, Homeland holds out the smaller, simpler joys of Carrie’s love for Brody, Saul’s concern for Carrie, and the assassin’s decision to leave Brody alive as the only solid victories in the show.
So Homeland succeeds at deconstructing everything, but it’s had a difficult time positing any kind of positive, constructive narrative – in short, there’s no redemption as of yet. But this need for redemption, for grace, for a break in the cycle of violence, is a need that Homeland’s anxiety highlights perhaps better than any show or movie I’ve seen in a very long time. Like Carrie, we’ve been hooked by our anxiety and need for a constructive narrative, which is why we’ll all be waiting with bated breath for Season 3. Whether or not the writers choose any arc of triumph or redemption is up to them, but so far they’ve diagnosed the problem in grand style.
Apart from all that, we like Carrie mainly because she continues to play the game and keeps searching for victory, triumph, redemption regardless of the uncertainty and possibility (probability?) of failure. Unlike Estes, she doesn’t shy away from the absurd and ambiguous but engages it. This, in the most existential sense, is what makes her a hero – even a person of faith, in secularized Kierkegaardian terms. Her embrace of the uncertain parallels ours as viewers and so, together with Carrie, we’re engaging the anxiety-fraught, ethics-haunted world of Homeland in search of a redemptive ending.