By STEVEN TRAVERS
Homeland has finally come to a conclusion with its last episode. From the beginning in 2011, this American television series, a staple of Showtime’s programming, has been a source of great interest to Dr. Michael Savage. He has over the years seen the show mirror American politics, and at other times foreshadow it. Homeland, along with other movies and TV programs such as No Way Out, The Manchurian Candidate, The Americans and other productions, has been a kind of “game theory” or “chaos theory” predicting actual world events.
At times Homeland seemed to criticize Democrats and validate Republicans. At other times the opposite was true. Ultimately Dr. Savage criticized the way the show ended. He became frustrated with the “acting” of its star, Claire Danes, who as Carrie Mathison has had to walk a tight rope as a “crazy” bi-polar woman who also happens to have the best instincts in the Central Intelligence Agency. All along has been her partner Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson, a Jewish CIA mastermind who tends to lean left both as a person (Patinkin) and as a character (Berenson). The final season, at least in Dr. Savage’s initial view, was irritating in that Berenson was pitted as a liberal voice in opposition to a coterie of “Republican” neo-cons in the White House who might have reflected negative characterizations of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Trump.
On the whole, the show is bigger than that and must be viewed as a triumph. If nothing else, a look at programs like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Californication, two shows that were good for a season or two then ran off the rails, reflect how very difficult it is to remain good beyond the big idea that launches its first episode. The big idea of Homeland was, like the American production of The Debt starring Helen Mirren, an Israeli program brought to an American audience and setting in 2011 by Howard Gordon and Alex Ganza.
The initial hook was as good as it gets. Mathison is on probation for going beyond her bounds but insists some American asset has been “turned” and is working for Al-Qaeda. She immediately suspects Nicholas Brody, played by Damian Lewis (Band of Brothers, Billions), who has been a prisoner of war, tortured by Islamic jihadists for years, finally returning as a hero after a daring rescue.
These characters enter an absolute myriad of personal and professional obstacles. Where do we even start? Brody’s wife Jessica (Morena Baccarain), literally described by one of her teenage daughter’s friends as having “that whole MILF thing going on,” is sure Brody is dead and feels free to carry on an open affair with his best friend and fellow Marine Mike Faber (Diego Klattenhoff), who easily transitions into a father figure for her daughter Dana (Morgan Saylor) and younger son Chris (Jackson Pace). When they learn dad is alive and returning home to a hero’s welcome, the whole apple cart is upset.
Carrie, as it turns out, is bi-polar, which would have eliminated her from ever working for the CIA in the first place but for her sister, a doctor who treats the condition on the quiet. As long as she is on her meds she is brilliant; in fact the condition may make her even better at her job, but absent the drugs it is cuckoo time.
Brody has to live a life of lies. He has to adjust to being a husband and father, eventually learns that “Uncle Mike” was having his way with the lovely Jessica, and oh yes, it turns out he has converted to Islam and is working for Abu Nazir, an Osama bin Laden knock off played by Navid Negahban. Years of psychological conditioning have worked its magic on Brody, in this respect shadowing both versions of The Manchurian Candidate (1962 and 2004). The final hook comes when flashbacks show Brody is given freedom to roam about the compound he was being held at, and allowed to have a relationship with Nazir’s angelic little son, Issa (Rohan Chand). An American missile strike hits the compound. Brody and Nazir survived, but the boy did not. Nazir manipulated Brody’s emotions, mainly the love he developed for the boy, into a twisted “love” of Nazir himself. It is very “Stockholm Syndrome” but believable. His rescue was orchestrated and he was given orders, which he endeavors to follow. It is further complicated when his daughter Dana, a very perceptive teenager, discovers dad is a Muslim but keeps the secret.
Carrie suspects Brody from the get-go and gets Berenson to go along, but they are alone on this. Brody is elevated to a public hero by what appears to be a Republican White House happy to use a heroic Marine. He is goaded into running for his district’s Congressional seat when the current Representative, appropriately named “Big Dick” Johnson, is caught in an embarrassment reminiscent of Anthony Weiner.
Brody wins a seat to Congress and has to juggle three conflicts: doing Nazir’s bidding via surreptitious orders from a Muslim TV journalist named Roya Hammad (Zuleikha Robinson) whose family is from Palestine; having a torrid love affair with Carrie (an attractive, promiscuous blonde most willing to incorporate sex into her job); and attracting an offer to run in the next election as Vice-President.
The show took on some political overtones during the time Brody is in play for the Veep spot. A major donor who certainly has what might be called “Republican characteristics” invites Brody and his family to his palatial home for a fundraiser. The donor tells Brody he was in Vietnam and therefore understood the true nature of war, as Brody does. For this reason he believes Brody will be a good influence on the current Vice-President, William Walden (Jamey Sheridan) who is running for President. The V.P. is a Dick Cheney type who never served in the military yet seems all too willing to send others into conflict and unleash lethal force. The donor adds that he is backing Brody now because he thinks he will be the right man for the country in eight years.
Eventually Brody reaches the pinnacle of power, getting invites to the V.P.’s private residence and is privy to national security secrets. He obtains a vest from an Islamist operative in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania that he wears to a meeting with the Vice-President. Brody is turned into a killing machine willing to murder Vice-President Walden because it was he, as former CIA director, who had ordered the missile strike that killed Nazir’s young son. In this respect, Brody views the V.P. as a “domestic enemy” and, as a Marine, he justifies his actions by stating that as a Marine he took a vow to protect the nation from enemies, foreign and domestic. He had donned his uniform and made this statement on camera, the video in the control of Nazir.
An emergency is orchestrated and Brody finds himself in a sheltered basement bunker with the Vice-President and virtually the entire national security team. All he has to do is explode his vest and everybody will be dead, but his daughter Dana, suspecting something awful, calls him on his cell phone at the last minute; the sound of her voice is enough to talk him down from the act.
But Nazir has also put into play another Marine, Tom Walker (Chris Chalk), who had been captured with Brody and has been turned by Nazir into a killing machine. Brody manages to undo an assassination attempt by Walker, but through his new political power does place a device in the V.P.’s exercise equipment that leads to a “heart attack.”
Meanwhile, Carrie and her team, including Berenson and Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend), are tailing Brody, planting listening devices so they can overhear him, and trying to figure out how best to deal with the problem: a covert killing, exposure, or other means. Brody is protected by CIA leaders who must play the political game, and Brody is now a political animal. A CIA extract team that uncovers the tailor shop in Gettysburg where Brody obtained the vest he almost used to kill the Vice-President and himself along with many others, is ambushed by a jihadist hit squad, which certainly demonstrates that Nazir may have the upper hand, has major assets on American soil, and may well be ahead of Carrie and Berenson in terms of their competing operations.
While all of this is going on, Carrie goes off her meds, her bi-polar condition is a huge liability, she carries on the on-again, off-again sex affair with Brody, and manages to piss off everyone at Langley. Berenson believes in her; he has groomed her and trained her. He does his best to shield her from the wrath of her superiors who feel her theory on the “turned” asset and identification of Brody as that asset is ludicrous.
Brody’s close calls, his love for his family, and ultimately his patriotic instincts for the United States conflict with his role as Nazir’s murder machine, but eventually Nazir turns the tables on him. The entire national security apparatus of the United States gathers for a major event at the CIA. By this time Brody feels he may have successfully extricated himself from the grip of Nazir and can work with Carrie to undo his network. They are in an office building overlooking the CIA, when Brody notes, oddly, that his car has been moved and is parked right next to the building where the event is taking place. Suddenly there is a huge explosion. The building has been blown up, and everybody in it (including CIA director David Estes, played by David Harewood), is dead.
Nazir has set Brody up. The bomb used came from Brody’s car, planted by Nazir’s people, who moved it to the location next to the building. They then release Brody’s tape, a seeming confession. Brody goes on the run. Nazir is eventually hunted down and killed.
Brody ends up in the slums of Caracas “living” with drug denizens, but Berenson and Carrie manage to extricate him and set him on a path to redeem himself. This is fraught with peril, as Damian Lewis infuses his character with so much self-loathing, so much conflict, and is so damaged by what he has experienced, that nobody – not Carrie, not the audience – can truly trust his motivations. This is because not even Brody knows what his motivations are. He is truly one of the great, conflicted characters ever written and played out on screen. Carrie’s odd loyalty, fueled it seems as much by sexual lust for the man as a desire to serve her country, is equally conflicted and brilliantly portrayed by Claire Danes.
Eventually, Berenson uses old contacts and methods to orchestrate a “switch” in the security team of our great national rival, Iran. Carrie manages to smuggle Brody into Iran, where he is publicly recognized and given a hero’s reception because it is believed he is the man who blew up CIA headquarters. This gives him political access to the upper echelons of the Iranian security apparatus, just as he once had carte blanche with their American counterparts. He manages to get a private audience with Iran’s head of security, General Danesh Akbari (Houshang Touzie), and kills him. Berenson, through blackmail, arranges his handpicked man, Majid Javadi (Shaun Toub) to replace the dead security chief.
The death of the security chief is quickly discovered. Carrie spirits Brody to a safe house, but they are unable to elude the Iranians, who capture Brody and hang him in the public square. In the every end, Brody is an American hero who has performed the most dangerous possible mission on behalf of his country, and died for the effort. The result perhaps was meant to back up Obama’s policy taking place at that time, which was to make friendly with Iran, perhaps getting them to come back to us. This was as unlikely on Homeland as it was in real life, as actual events later proved out.
At this point (the end of season three) it is worth pausing, because the plot twists that dominated the first few years of Homeland were nothing less than dizzying. This was what propelled the show in the first place. There was likely no second act beyond this originally devised by the show’s creators, although once the showed succeeded they undoubtedly began to come up with the rest of the story. Many, perhaps Dr. Savage, would feel the show was never the same again, and they would be right. The Brody-Carrie imbroglio, the high stakes of the Presidency, the CIA and the raging War on Terror still going strong when the first season was being planned, dominated the production.
Dr. Savage consistently saw patterns in the show that he felt shadowed the Barack Obama Presidency. These episodes were occurring during Obama’s re-election campaign and second term. If the writers were liberal Obama fans, they were smart enough not to lay it on thick as did director Kathryn Bigelow in Zero Dark Thirty, where Obama was referenced as a deep thinker and man who explored every angle, as opposed to a jingoistic Republican who shoots first and asks questions later. For this reason Zero Dark Thirty sucked and Homeland was excellent.
As a general rule, conservatives will create something fair, patriotic and even handed, as opposed to liberals who create cartoon characters of stupid Republicans who cannot see straight, or other sundry untruths. With this in mind it seems the writers might have some conservative, or at least patriotic instincts, which is asking a lot from Hollywood.
Dr. Savage certainly saw, or at least extrapolated in his mind, many script devices he saw as a nod toward the strange possibility that Obama, like Brody, might have been a traitor, a plant, a mole, or something very disturbing. With The Americans (a show about Soviet spies living as U.S. citizens in the 1980s) running during these years, to the right at least it seemed fiction was reflecting truth, at least if you looked hard enough. As with the TV show The Bible, a 2013 program in which the actor playing Satan (Mehdi Quazzani) was a dead ringer for Obama, the creators would have said such coincidences were just that.
Over the next years Homeland had to scramble to maintain its edge, which after Brody’s death was not easy. Obama’s policies were criticized by the events of the 2014 season four, in which one of the episodes was titled “The Drone Queen.” The show helped bring to light the fact that great intelligence is brought forth via human sources, not fancy listening devices, and certainly not by drone strikes.
The international press of course gave Obama a pass, but he probably killed more innocent civilians with drones during his Presidency than George W. Bush did in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. By 2014 it was obvious Bush had won the war in Iraq back in 2007 when General David Petraeus instituted his “surge.” Afghanistan, while never a major success, at least seemed to be stabilized, but Homeland was willing to demonstrated that Obama gave it all away, as if to secure an American victory was too obvious a triumph accorded the Republican Bush. This alone can be considered an act of treason. All of this overshadowed much of the Homeland episodes of this period, and as Dr. Savage pointed out emphasized shows in which drones resulted in terrible massacre of innocents, along with Quinn testifying to Congress that America (Obama) had no policy or strategy in the Middle East. It was quite extraordinary that “Hollywood” would criticize Obama, if that is what they were doing. Perhaps they figured people would not notice. Dr. Savage did, along with millions of other citizens who . . . know things.
Seasons five through seven were a jumble of strange events. Season five (2015) was set in Berlin with Carrie kind of, sort of “out” of the CIA (the recurring message throughout, to the very end was that, like the Mafia, nobody ever “gets out”). This was overlaid by Edward Snowden and Wikileaks, which Carrie seemed to endorse, but those pesky Muslim mass murderers kept getting in the way, forcing her to avert the blowing up of a German train station at the last second.
Season six (2017) was set in Brooklyn, with Carrie starting out as a kind of representative of the great unwashed, the innocent Muslims targeted by mean patriots trying to avert another 9/11. Again, events overtake her efforts at any kind of normalcy or “atonement” for past sins (the drones). By this time F. Murray Abraham, as CIA black ops mastermind Dar Adal, has emerged from his early mythic status to a high place in the Company. Adal and Saul Berenson throughout are oil and water, a fact undoubtedly exacerbated by the fact Berenson is a pacifist Jew, Adal a hawk of some kind of Middle Eastern origins. Carrie attempts to be a mother to a child she had with Brody, but this is extremely difficult.
This season and season seven (2018) go off the rails. The 2016 election threw the writers off, as they obviously felt Hillary Clinton would be President and wrote in a stone-faced, unlikeable battle-axe woman as President (Elizabeth Marvel as Elizabeth Keane). An assassination attempt against the President is blamed on militarists, again using a past movie (Seven Days in May) to make right-wingers out to be the bad guys. Russian interference was prevalent, much of which the show tried to show were based on malevolent conservative elements in talk radio and social media. The roles of Berenson and Dal take major swings, one basically running the CIA while the other is considered a traitor, then vice versa. 200 members of the American national security apparatus are jailed.
Eventually President Keane stepped down, at this point going against all logic. She is portrayed as forgoing her own career and legacy in an act of patriotism, but coming during a time of intense investigation and hatred of President Donald Trump, it came off as a lame attempt to show what Trump “should” do. V.P. Ralph Warner, played by Beau Bridges, replaces Keane.
Carrie Mathison has risen to a very high position under Keane, but in season eight (2020) she is at loose ends. This final season of Homeland plays on Trump’s attempt to gain peace with the Taliban by showing Berenson, now the NSC advisor, arranging a carefully laid cease-fire with the Haqqani Network (Haissam Haqqani, played by Mehdi Quazzani).
This was destroyed when President Warner dies in a helicopter accident flying into the war zone for peace talks. His successor, Benjamin Hayes (Sam Trammell), is handsome, young, and inexperienced. He is easily talked into whatever conservative advisors seem to want him to do, convinced the Taliban shot down Warner’s helicopter and he must “avenge” the act.
It seems that when President Keane stepped down and Warner became President, in an act of national reconciliation a V.P. of the other party (a Republican Hayes) was picked. This all leads Carrie into a rogue operation in which she teams with the Russian GRU man Yevgeny Gromov (Costa Ronin) who masterminded the Russian bot and disinformation campaign of 2016.
They search for the black box that will show whether the Taliban shot down the helicopter or not. Elements of the Taliban, for domestic political reasons, take credit for the downing and just want endless war with America.
In a very unbelievable scenario, both Pakistan and the U.S. are on the verge of nuclear war, which is used as Carrie’s motivation for “betraying” her country in order to get the black box and avert the carnage. This results in her turning enemy against Berenson. Carrie goes completely off the reservation, drugging and almost killing Berenson in order to find the name of a spy in the Kremlin, the quid pro quo the Russians insist on in order to reveal the black box. War is averted with the Russians in the role of peacekeeper.
Two years have passed, and we are seemingly in the future. After the truth is revealed about the black box, Carrie takes up with Yevgeny, living a life of luxury in a Moscow high-rise.
Berenson, retired, receives a coded package; Carrie’s book detailing her rogue choices and “why I had to betray my country,” which she undoubtedly wrote was to prove the helicopter was not shot down and therefore war had been averted.
But Saul, master of spy craft, discovers a message in the spine of the book (just like in The Good Shepherd). In it, Carrie reveals to him that she has access to top Russian intelligence, that some missile they have activated has a “back door” that America can access to render harmless. Berenson smiles; Carrie is a hero and a patriot after all.
In this, the plot resembles the Brody scenario, in which his heroic act was only known by a few people. Carrie will be seen as a traitor but Saul (and the audience) knows better. The entire dynamic of a U.S.-Taliban peace deal may well have played out in real time with Homeland, but the virus crisis put that and everything else on hold.
The whole nuclear threat aspect of the show’s last season seemed incredulous to Dr. Savage and to this reviewer as well. Dr. Savage had by 2020 become annoyed at Claire Danes’s pained, anguished expressions meant to reflect her bi-polar condition and rogue motivations in working with a Russian operative obviously not with America’s best interest at heart. Danes certainly seemed more believable playing a drunk and a nympho infatuated by Brody, in earlier episodes, more so than she was able to carry out similar psychoses in the shows last episodes.
While Homeland at times had to struggle to carry its own weight, living up to the first seasons when Brody and his compelling story line played out, it nevertheless must be commended for its longevity and intelligence, sometimes reflecting real life events on the ground, and at other times predicting them.
Steven Travers is a former screenwriter who has authored 30 books. He is a USC graduate, played professional baseball, attended law school, worked in politics, served in the Army, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra, Gentry magazine, and MichaelSavage.com. He lives in California and has one daughter, Elizabeth. He can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com or on Twitter @STWRITES.