Friday, 11 May 2012

Brody and blowback: reflections on 'Homeland'

So farewell then, Homeland: or rather, farewell Season 1, since we’re told that a second series is currently being filmed. We’ll have to wait until the autumn to find out whether Carrie’s delayed memory of Brody muttering the name of Abu Nazir’s son in his sleep has been wiped by electro-convulsive therapy. (Apologies to non-aficionados: it would take far too long to explain…)

As others have said, Homeland really has been the best thing on television for a long time: combining an original premiss, nail-biting plot, intelligent script – and superb acting. From such a stellar cast, it’s invidious to mention individual performances: though Claire Danes deserves every award she’s got for her depiction of obsessive CIA agent Carrie Mathison, while Mandy Patinkin as her grizzled colleague Saul, and Morgan Saylor as Brody’s teenage daughter Dana also stand out, and (as with The Wire) it was good to see two British actors, Damian Lewis and David Harewood, taking on key roles.

Any criticisms? To my mind, the first half of the series, which cleverly played with our suspicions about whether or not Brody had been ‘turned’ in captivity was more engaging than the later episodes, which substituted the more traditional suspense of the thriller - will he/won’t he (blow up himself and half the US government)?  And I half-agree with Ed West that Brody’s conversion to Islam, and his turning from loyal US marine to potential al Qaeda suicide bomber, was not entirely convincing. (For those with an interest in matters theological, West links to a couple of interesting articles about the show by Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith – the first piece headed by a photo of three of the show’s photogenic stars which provides more, ahem, eye candy than one is used to seeing in the Catholic Herald).

My own marginal reservations about Homeland are slightly different to West's. I wonder whether, in attempting to provide a plausible reason for why a loyal US soldier would turn into a terrorist who would attack his own country, the programme-makers have failed to reflect what we know of the actual motivation of Islamist terrorists, and risked giving comfort to those who blame the West for providing the rationale for terror.

At about the half-way point in the series, we see the hostage Sergeant Brody – unwashed, long-haired, bruised and beaten – being taken from his hellish captivity, to the home of his captor, the terrorist mastermind Abu Nazir, in a remote corner of northern Iraq. Brody is allowed to wash and shave and given clean (ethnically and religiously appropriate) clothes. The experience looks like a new birth, a rising from the dead, and indeed Nazir’s house - clean, bright, book-lined – resembles a kind of paradise, after the purgatory of captivity. The picture is completed by Nazir’s cute son Issa, whom Brody is to teach English. Can this really be the hide-out of a notorious terrorist? It looks more like the retreat of a noted scholar, or a spiritual master, and indeed in this and subsequent episodes, Abu Nazir is often depicted in this way.

It could be argued that Homeland does, in fact, show another side to Nazir. After all, before being given this chance of new life, we see Brody (in scenes that are almost too gruesome to watch) being beaten, tortured and (he believes) forced to murder a fellow prisoner. But the programme fails to show any connection between Nazir the torturer and planner of terrorist outrages, and Nazir the scholar, man of God and loving father. Perhaps it’s expecting too much of as primetime thriller to get inside the mind of a terrorist, but what’s surely missing from the depiction of Abu Nazir and his world is the obsessiveness, the puritanical paranoia, the warped religiosity of the fanatic, with which we’re all too familiar from al Qaeda propaganda videos and the like.

The portrayal of Nazir is actually of a piece with Homeland’s sterling efforts to show Muslims in a favourable light. Back in the US, we see the FBI pursue Tom Walker, another ex-captive American marine who definitely has been ‘turned', into a DC mosque, where a number of innocent worshippers get killed in the crossfire. The programme goes out of its way to depict the imam and his wife (despite her traditional headscarf, shown as equal in status to her husband) as gentle, inoffensive types, with the programme-makers’ desire not to offend reflected in the Arabic greetings and general cultural sensitivity of Carrie and her colleagues. It feels like reverse or compensatory stereotyping, of the kind we’re familiar with from depictions of native Americans in anti-Westerns of the 60s and 70s, in which every Indian seemed to be of the ‘we come in peace’ variety, as if deliberately making up for decades of crude Hollywood racism. It’s not to say that such imams and such mosques don’t exist, far from it: but would a terrorist stooge like Walker, and his Saudi (and presumably Wahhabi) contact choose this kind of mosque for their rendezvous? Wouldn’t it have been more convincing – if risking accusations of more traditional negative stereotyping – to show something more like the Finsbury Park or East London mosques?

As for the explanation for Brody turning terrorist – the death of Nazir’s young son, to whom Brody has become close,  in a drone strike ordered by the programme’s one unmistakable ‘baddie’, the US vice-president - one can see why the scriptwriters hit on this, as it provides a powerful and intensely personal justification for Brody’s anger against his own government. But I think Lucie-Smith is right to question whether someone like Brody would ultimately put revenge for his captor’s son ahead of his attachment to his own children. Ed West is also right that drone strikes of this kind are hardly typical, and the episode distracts attention from the undoubted fact that almost all of the massacres of innocent men, women and children in Iraq after the fall of Saddam were carried out not by US forces but by al Qaeda and their sectarian surrogates – led by people rather like Abu Nazir - and were deliberate acts of mass murder, not accidental or ‘collateral’ damage.

Moreover, by choosing this event as Brody’s, and by extension Nazir’s motivation for a terrorist attack against the United States, the programme provides implicit support to blowback theorists, who misinterpret acts of Islamist terror as tit-for-tat repayment for western actions, rather than as the working-out of a twisted clerical-fascist ideology. As I’ve written before, blowback theory gets it back to front: the reactionary worldview comes first, and the sins of infidel westerners are mere excuses that play into an existing narrative. Even if the actions of western governments were blameless (and even when they are in support of Muslims, as in Bosnia), they would still hate us: not for what we do, but because of what we are.

By making Brody’s decision to work for Nazir a calm, rational choice based on emotions with which the viewer can identify, Homeland is certainly convincing on the superficial plot level, but in doing so it leaves no room for the role of ideology, or for the kind of brainwashing process that has always been evident in the few cases of hostages ‘turning’ to identify with their captors. There are hints earlier on in the series of Brody developing a kind of love-hate attachment to his erstwhile torturer, Nazir, but this is soon dropped in favour of the simpler motivation of revenge for Issa’s death. The only sign, on Brody’s return, of his continuing identification with his captors is his conversion to Islam, but this is kept in a kind of sealed box (literally as well as figuratively: he says his prayers in a locked garage after his wife and children have gone to bed) that is separate from his dealings with his family and friends, and the programme misses an opportunity to show how his new faith might have changed his outlook, for good or ill.

Having said all that, it’s surely a sign of Homeland’s general brilliance that, despite these cavils, I still think it’s the best television programme of the year. In its temporary absence, it’s time to settle down and watch the original Israeli version

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