Monday, November 28, 2011

Homeland 1-08: Achilles Heel

There's something a bit audacious and high-school-Englishy about putting your episode's main symbol in the title.  The Achilles' heel seems like an awkward attempt at giving the episode a motif to thold it together as more than just the next installment of the ongoing plot.  This is a perennial issue in the age of serialized drama -- how to make an episode appear to cohere into an individual work while still making it a seamless part of a larger whole.  Here, the answer appears to be shoehorning the episode title into conversation.

But the idea of the most fearsome warrior having a weakness is key to this series, no matter how ham-handed the mythological allusions may seem.  The main conflict of the series is between two warriors whose flaws are numerous and visible, from Carrie's obsessive and invasive nature to Brody's trauma and alienation.  This even extends to secondary characters, as our recent glimpses into the lives of Saul and Aileen have revealed.  There's almost the suggestion that Achilles couldn't be a warrior without his heel -- that the broken parts of Carrie and Brody are exactly what makes them good combatants.

It's ironic, then, that the term is first used to refer to the most human element of Tom Walker, the newly-revealed terrorist agent.  Walker's Achilles' heel is described as his love for his family -- in other words, the same aspect lacking in Saul and Carrie.  It's not particularly new to have the heroes be chasing a villain who is in some ways an inverted version of himself, but it's at the very least unusual that this isn't used as an attempt to humanize Walker at all.  There are no scenes of him agonizing over the choices he's making or doing some good deed -- he's just a terrorist who loves his family, but still a terrorist.

This reflects the rather ambivalent way Homeland treats its villains.  Other than the shadowy supervillain Abu Nasir, they all seem to have personal, almost sympathetic motivations -- but this isn't used to excuse them from their actions at all.  In some ways this ambivalence is at the core of the series thus far, with Brody always in a position halfway between hero and villain.  But the existence of these labels in the first place shows that the show isn't exactly impartial.  Like its predecessor in the cable-spy-thriller genre, Rubicon, it doesn't fully engage in the rhetoric and narrative of the War on Terror, but it does flirt with it in some queasy ways.

For the most part this functions by implication.  In the second episode we see Brody praying towards Mecca in his garage, and this is set up as a big and scary (but not definitive) revelation along the lines of him staring at the White House in the pilot.  In the episode after that a Muslim man buying a house near the airport is treated as an ominous revelation.  And in this episode we have the SWAT team accidently shooting up a mosque in pursuit of Tom Walker.

This last bit suggests that it's a mistake to read the War on Terror as in any way Islamophobic or anti-Arab[1].  When the police kill too innocent Muslims, it's a genuine mistake, not reflecting any kind of racial animosity -- in fact, the idea that it's racist is in fact a tool planted by the terrorists.  Two men are dead, but the main implication is that this is tremendously unfair for the men who shot them.  Homeland's heroes may be flawed, but the show never suggests that their mission is -- there's a genuine threat to the country, constantly plotting and scheming to bring destruction to America, and the CIA is trying their best to stop it.  Their agents may sacrifice their families or their sanities to do so, but this isn't really a critique of their goals.  After all, when we see Batman or Spiderman sacrificing their personal lives to pursue justice, we view it as not a character flaw but a noble sacrifice, and a similar suggestion is at work here.

This is, of course, mostly wrong.  Most of the "terror threats" that make the news in America are sting operations that verge on entrapment.  Terrorist attacks happen, but they're mainly in the Middle East or other places that Americans don't care about.  The idea of the country as swarming with secret terrorist networks, as envisioned in both shows like this and neocon political rhetoric, is somewhat belied by the fact that there hasn't been a single attack on American soil in a decade.  And as anyone who's read William Blum will tell you, the CIA is far from a well-intentioned bureau of heroes, although I'm sure plenty of people inside it view themselves that way.

It's not as though I expect radical leftism from a Showtime spy thriller.  But I'm worried about the ideas embedded in Homeland because it's so damn good.  The writing is tight and well-judged, managing to be suspenseful and offering frequent swerves without seemingly like a potboiler  The cinematography is amazing, playing constantly with light and shadows in a way that's hard to describe other than just to sit slack-jawed and stare at it.  Michael Cuesta, who's directed three of the series's episodes (but not this one) probably deserves the bulk of the credit for this aesthetic, but I don't think an auteurist approach is really helpful here.  The cinematography isn't simply used for presenting an aesthetically pleasing image -- it's key to setting the mood of the scene.  For example, when we see the Brody family bonding over the dinner table, the lighting is warm and intimate, almost yellow.  The palette for this scene is rustic and nostalgic for an almost old-fashioned kind of family togetherness.

On the other hand, we have the Brodies at the dinner party of a prominent politico.  The setting is similarly domestic, but here everything is bathed in sterile white light, reflecting the phoniness of the universe this humble family is entering.

And the cinematography is just one element of the excellent execution of Homeland.  It's that execution that can make me internally nod instead of roll my eyes at the humble military family/cold world of politics duality, by placing it (primarily) in the background instead of the foreground.  And that's why I'm so concerend about the political ideas at its core.

All of this and I haven't even got to the big plot twist at the end of the episode.  Ah well, there's a lot to talk about with this show, and this week I didn't have much time to talk about it due to school overload.  So I'll leave this on a moment of praise and uncertainty, because that's where I am right now with Homeland.

Next week: Serial killers, seriality, and The Shield.

[1]The show's prominent use of non-Arabic terrorists -- Brody, Aileen, and now Walker -- is another part of this.  Rubicon also engaged in this, making its big end-of-season terrorist a white guy.  Of course, terrorism is not a distinctly racial practice, but those that don't fall into the al-Qaeda stereotype are typically considered Not Terrorists (e.g. abortion clinic bombers and Cuban ex-pat groups).  The motivation behind this is probably to avoid racism, but it's more of a whitewashing that glosses over instead of addressing the underlying racial tensions.

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