Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Just When I Thought I Was Out....Revisiting Showtime's Homeland

Mandy Patinkin, Claire Danes and Rupert Friend in Homeland

There's an infamous scene in Francis Ford Coppola's misbegotten The Godfather, Part III where the aging Don Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), having survived an assassination attempt, tells his family in a tone of bitter betrayal, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." The implication is that Michael's criminal life was all due to the pressure of others rather than a choice he made out of family loyalty. I think we're expected to be so sympathetic towards Michael that we can ignore the little detail that he was redeeming himself by laundering money through the Vatican Bank and cutting the other mob bosses out of the huge profits he was due to receive from investing in an international real-estate company (one that would make him its largest single shareholder). Many actors and comedians have gained some comic mileage from that line – including Steve Van Zandt as Silvio in The Sopranos, who entertained Tony's crew by doing a spotless imitation of Pacino. But the remark might be more appropriately spoken by CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) on Showtime's Homelanda dramatic thriller loosely based on the Israeli television series Hatufim (Prisoners of War). As a bipolar operative, her struggle to claim a happy and independent life for herself is constantly being threatened by a psyche she's not sure she can trust. If anyone has honestly earned Michael Corleone's complaint, perhaps it's Carrie. Just when she's trying to have a normal life, she is constantly being pulled back into action by the agency – and often by her former boss and mentor, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), another character who would be happy to own Corleone's sentiment. What has made the past three seasons of Homeland intriguing and suspenseful has partly been how her hunger to seek a normal life has created fallout for the agents she works with and cares for.

When Homeland debuted in the fall of 2011, it started with a nifty premise that had some of the pedigree of The Manchurian Candidate. An incarcerated terrorist who is awaiting execution tells Mathison that an American POW has been turned by al-Qaeda. She suspects that it is Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), a Marine sergeant who had been missing in action and was recently rescued by a Delta Force raid. The premise is that while in captivity he was brainwashed to be a sleeper assassin in America. Although Carrie's instincts are sharp concerning his potential to commit lethal acts of carnage, her bipolar disease leaves her doubtful as to what those instincts are telling her. The first three seasons played out those doubts by creating suspense out of what might (or might not) be true. Both Danes and Lewis were also terrific at keeping us guessing as to whether Brody would succeed at committing acts of terror, or whether Mathison (who had also become sexually involved with Brody) could stop him by convincing her superiors that he's a real threat. Unfortunately, Homeland soon began stretching the credibility of that relationship and the plot itself. In season two and three, despite the fascinating way the characters became soulmates due to the damage to both their psyches, the story line began having schizzy issues of its own and I bailed before the third season concluded. Some trusted friends who felt similarly disappointed, suggested I pick it up again in season four, where the series did a reboot. And while the past three seasons have hardly been perfect, Homeland definitely has returned to more cogent plotting along with an unerring instinct for timely storytelling. With Brody gone from the series, Carrie's dynamic with the agency changes dramatically by season four. As CIA station chief in Afghanistan, nicknamed "The Drone Queen," Mathison approves a strike on Haissam Haqqani (Numan Acar)a high-ranking terrorist in Pakistan, only to discover that their target wasn't at the house in Islamabad that they hit. Instead they bombed a wedding and many innocent people died. When the strike, videotaped by Aayan Ibrahim (Suraj Sharma), Haissam's nephew, ends up on YouTube, their unit comes under scrutiny from home and Carrie is returned to the United States. She ultimately blackmails her way to Pakistan so she can uncover the reasons for the bad intel.

Claire Danes and Suraj Sharma

Moving away from the romantic story of Brody and Carrie allowed Homeland to open up more to the global zeitgeist where media perception – and an awareness of that perception – influences the actions on both sides. For instance, Haissam uses the drone bombing, where the intelligence he secretly gave the CIA's station chief Sandy Bachman (Corey Stoll) was deliberately misleading, with the goal of tainting the American mission against the insurgency. (Bachman later gets killed by an angry mob when Pakastani TV reports that he provided the information for the bombing.) A number of other subplots in this season get developed as well. Carrie had a child with Brody that she has left for her sister to raise until she gets back, but the problem is that she can't reconcile herself to motherhood. Later in the season, when her father dies, she briefly encounters the mother (Victoria Clark) who abandoned her in childhood and she provides something of a psychological template for Carrie's own adult behaviour. Aayan has ambivalent feelings about the strike, which he survived. So Carrie exploits that confusion (especially sexually) to use him as an asset, which ultimately leads to tragic circumstances she hadn't considered. Saul gets kidnapped by Haissam, and we later learn that this event, with its consequences, was orchestrated by forces close to home and engineered by the CIA black ops director, Dar Adal (the wily F. Murray Abraham). While the main thrust of season four is the Pakistani government's collusion with Islamic terrorism, Homeland also examines how American officials allow themselves to be manipulated into that complicity. Since the series features such layered plotting, it's helpful that a number of good actors turn up. As the American ambassador to Pakistan, Laila Robins shows a regal authority that we see crumble when she discovers the source of the corruption in her station. Michael O'Keefe, who in his youth often played characters (The Great Santini, Split Image) fighting off neurosis, is perfectly convincing as a CIA deputy station chief in Pakistan who has become a sodden and drunken cynic. Playwright Tracy Letts, as Andrew Lockhart, the new director of the CIA, is highly effective at conveying the dark humour and expedience of a hardened bureaucrat.

By season five and six (which concluded last Sunday night), Carrie tries to settle her life outside of the agency and raise her child with her current boyfriend, Jonas Hollander (Alexander Fehling). Living in Germany, and working as head of security for Otto Düring (Sebastian Koch), a German billionaire, philanthropist and chairman of Düring Foundation, she attempts to put her skills to work in a less threatening environment. But when two anti-jihadist computer hackers accidentally get access to the CIA servers and download top secret documents that detail collaboration between the CIA and BND, Germany's intelligence agency, Saul Berenson arrives in Berlin to look into the possible leak of classified documents, with chilling implications. Simultaneously, Carrie arranges security for Otto to visit a refugee camp in Lebanon, which sets forth consequences that lead to a potential terrorist attack. As that plan unfolds, Carrie discovers that she is a marked woman and – once again – gets pulled into duty and jeopardizes her relationship with Jonas. She ultimately succeeds at preventing the act of terrorism, but she loses the man she loves, which brings her back to the United States, where she resides in Brooklyn with her now pre-school-aged daughter and works at a foundation whose efforts are to provide aid to Muslims living in the United States. Saul Berenson and Dar Adal are still CIA operatives dealing with counter-terrorism within the United States, but rogue elements within the agency are setting out to undermine the results of a presidential election of a female candidate (Elizabeth Marvel).

Both seasons five and six have eerie resemblances to current events which resonate – especially those relating to Russian operatives in the American government as well as to the use of online malfeasance in order to discredit candidates. But where Homeland is still weak, compared to something like The Americans, is that it provides ongoing manufactured suspense (which is probably fitting for those who want to binge-watch on Netflix). Like 24, Homeland gets single-minded about its drama. Because it keeps the characters in a constant state of crisis, you feel sometimes like you are in a spin cycle. For example, do we really need somebody fucking with Carrie's medication yet again just so we can fear another meltdown right when she most needs to be coherent? How many times do we have to see Dar Adal planning another sinister operation without those close to him – like Carrie and Saul – finally catching on to him? Is he that much of a malevolent genius? The Americans, which deals with Soviet spies passing as Americans in the Reagan era, is suspenseful, too, but rarely because of some nefarious deed that leaves us hanging until the next week. The protagonists themselves are put to the test daily trying to raise two children, passing as American citizens in an era of family values, while they steal, cajole and murder. We get to witness the various ways the mission eats at their core beliefs and convictions while always discovering new things about them. Homeland has some of that quality, but Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin need more to do than just continually hitting the same wall, getting pulled in just when they thought they were out.

F. Murray Abraham and Rupert Friend

But if Danes and Patinkin are the motor that drives Homeland, Rupert Friend as the CIA black-ops assassin, Peter Quinn, is its heart. With Quinn, Homeland gives us a character who continues to morph. In season four, he is unable to save Sandy Bachman from the killer mob in Pakistan and over the next few seasons he becomes more and more haunted by the mounting corpses. Quinn almost becomes one himself when a jihadist group uses him as their test subject for a poison-gas attack in one horrific scene. Where Carrie and Saul keep dramatically covering the same ground, it's Quinn whom we watch getting destroyed by his work. (Perhaps the line, "Just when I thought I was out . . . ," should really belong to him.) In a performance as deep and resonant as Mickey Rourke's playing the haunted IRA assassin in Mike Hodges's 1987 thriller A Prayer for the Dying, Friend gives Quinn a broken soul without any histrionics. In season six, while recovering from a stroke which has left him disabled, he still taps into instincts that help uncork the dark dealings of Dar Adal – the Victor Frankenstein who created him – and assist Carrie. Friend's scenes with F. Murray Abraham crackle with a suspense that is both terrifying and tragic. Peter Quinn is the casualty of an espionage world where collateral damage is a given and his fate casts a darker shadow over the agency's best-laid plans.

The current tension between the Trump administration and the intelligence agency shows that there are endless directions for Homeland to go in future seasons. Since terrorist attacks also show little sign of abetting, the drama will likely find a continued relevance in our ever-fearful post-9/11 world. But I do hope that Homeland finds better ways to expand the characterizations of the key roles on the show. There's only so much that Danes and Patinkin can do, as good as they are, to fill parts that are continually at the mercy of a demand for weekly suspense. If they do continue in this repetitive vein next year, I might find myself once again getting out – and without any desire of being pulled back in.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.  

No comments:

Post a Comment