by Stephen Armstrong, The Sunday Times, February 5, 2011
From the writers of 24, the American drama Homeland is a dark thriller with a top-notch cast and some pretty big questions, says Stephen Armstrong
You can understand a lot about America by watching its television, although the process can be as nerve-racking as observing an alcoholic parent and measuring the number of glasses consumed. If you watch carefully, you can register the state of health of the world’s most powerful nation.
Take the quantum shift between the multi season series 24, American television’s response to 9/ll in 2001, and the new hit serial Homeland, the first season of which ended in December. In 24, agent lack Bauer faced down terror by any means necessary. He beat, tortured, endured and raced towards certain victory, confident that, once the traitors were unmasked, all would be well. You don’t need a newspaper to connect the dots between a certain kind of muscular public opinion and the stuff it watches on TV. The uncertainties of the Obama years, however, have produced Homeland, a dark, paranoid thriller that is effectively an apology for 24.
Both shows arc obsessed with terrorism – Homeland was adapted from or Prisoners of War, an Israeli TV drama about returning POWs and both have cliffhanger plot twists and a lone hero against the The series share staff, too: Homeland was adapted for America by two writers on 24, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa. (Gordon also worked on The X Files, so he does paranoia in spades.) One key difference, though, is that 24 and The X Files were on the mainstream network Fox, while Homeland is on a cable channel. Showtime, which means a far more relaxed attitude to dark content. “This felt like an opportunity to explore some of the same themes we are grappling with l0 years after 9/ll,” Gordon explains. “National security versus civil liberties, the nature of real threats versus imagined threats — but in a more nuanced way than we could ever achieve in the relentless narrative that 24 required. S0 much has changed in the world since then, the complexities and tangled consequences of our military actions being one of them and Homeland lives in this far more complex world we find ourselves trying to navigate as a nation.
“A story has not been told about the price of 9/11 for this country. In this show, we know there’s been Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the prosecution of two wars of questionable merit. S0 the timing of it, I think, is significant, accidental and fortuitous.”
In 24, Bauer shrugged off the effects of brutal torture to bring justice to evildoers. In Homeland, both Claire Danes’s CIA agent, Carrie Mathison, and Damian Lewis’s troubled homecoming US marine, Nick Brody, are still reeling from battlefield traumas they can never forget. She suspects that Brody has been reprogrammed by Al-Qaida, and is not the hero welcomed by the media. Or is she, in rum, just incredibly paranoid? She is, after all, bipolar, a condition that is key to the plot, because her obsessive monitoring of Brody leads her to spot what could be the first clue that he might not be all he seems.
Danes, who has just won a Golden Globe for her performance, plays the mercurial Mathison with brilliant intensity, working to a compelling script. One of Homeland’s producers. Meredith Stiehm, has a bipolar sister. who wrote an emotional account of her experiences and how they had informed Danes’s character in The New York Times recently.
“l seemed to see into people’s hearts when I smiled at them.” she explained of her hypomanic state. “I ran around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor at high speed, exulting in all my energy. I felt sure something big was going to happen soon in Baltimore, and only I could foresee it. Carrie is convinced that a big terrorist attack is looming. Her furious focus on her quarry under time pressure leads to sleepless nights and reckless risks, behaviour that is both symptom and contributing cause of bipolar illness.
“Viewers can’t totally dismiss her visions but then again, she’s not rational. In the hospital ward, she demands a green pen to write everything down, her voice racing faster and faster. Meredith had bottled my mercurial emotions so exactly, it hurt.”
Danes researched the role extensively – books, meetings. going deep method all the way. “Carrie has to be constantly vigilant and never take her own safety or sanity for granted, and she applies that to the country’s security,” Danes explains, admitting that, if she hadn’t gone into acting. she’d have trained as a psychologist. (Last year, you may recall, she won another Golden Globe for her portrayal of Temple Grand in, the autistic agricultural-science pioneer, for HBO.) “She is incredibly bright, at times dangerously bright, formidable and focused, even compulsive, myopic. But she’s also sensitive and vulnerable. And that juxtaposition is interesting.
“Actually, my first roommate in college was a CIA for a little while. She’s the most innocuous, benign person, of course. So I was telling her, ‘I’m going to play a CIA officer, and she’s bipolar.’ Her immediate response was. ‘She sounds very isolated. ‘That’s a lonely character.’ She’s on the outside, and it provides her with this incredible perspective and vantage point, but it also causes her suffering, and, you know, she needs to resolve that. She can’t be casual about anything.”
Including sex. Danes’s doubts about Brody lead her to set up her own personal investigation of the man, which descends into a murky agony of doubt then a degree of intimacy with her quarry that can only end in disaster for one of them. What she undergoes is more painful than anything Bauer experienced at the hands of a seasoned Al-Qaeda skin-flayer.
“They’re both broken in the same environment at the same time,” Danes says. “The injury propels them in opposite directions, but linked by their painful experiences, which allow them to empathise with each other’s vigilance and vulnerability. It’s almost Romeo and Juliet they’re enemies, yet they need each other.”
Although they spend few scenes together, there’s an easy warmth between the two leads as they banter. “Occasionally, I’ll see him lining up for food on set, looking very, very distressed,” Danes begins.
“I’ve been hung upside down, I’ve been beaten with a club with barbed wire wrapped around it, so it’s either distressed or with a big smile on my face,” Lewis jokes.
Danes rolls her eyes. “Oh, okay. Right.”
This part-of-the-gang mentality – Gordon describes it as “putting a band together”— helped when the show became a little too realistic. Iraq scenes were shot in Israel, in a part of the country shared by Israelis and Palestinians. “It wasn’t like shooting in LA, where you lock down a street and get a licence from the city,” Gordon explains. “This was a little bit more ad hoc than that, so let’s just say that certain people didn’t get distributed their location fee. Then the rumour circulated that we were actually CIA plants, and the next moment, Claire was being rushed away in a van by security. We got it on film.”
The results are impressive, and the show, like Danes, has earned critical plaudits and a Golden Globe. Lewis, in his third American cable show as a military man and/or psychopath, is enthusiastic about the whole experience. “The psychopaths thing must come from the early Noel Coward I did in the West End,” he grins. “But in England, we can’t make this kind of TV.” He shrugs ruefully. “We don’t have the resources. We don’t have the writers. We d0n’t have film and TV language in our DNA the same way Americans do. And the big concept in telling it compellingly, entertainingly, but in a psychologically real way, a complex way, is something we just don’t come up with as often as they do.”
That’s a little unfair. Homeland is, of course, Israeli in concept — like HBO’s In Treatment and several other American series. And Britain is gearing up for some spectacular drama this spring. ITV is preparing a blockbuster Titanic that has prompted requests from its co-producer, ABC, to sign most of the stars to deals; and the BBC has Paula Milne’s thriller White Heat, which is on the scale of Our Friends in the North.
All the same, Danes argues that the quality of the scripts in TV is way ahead of the big screen right now. “Of course, when I did My So-Called Life in the 1980s, I was being tutored for my high-school diploma, so that’s a welcome change,” she grins. “And I’m happy now — married, and Hugh [Dancy, her British actor husband] helps me be stable enough to go mad professionally. Plus, he puts up with a bedside table stacked with books on being bipolar. So I can push things pretty far at work.”
In the final episode, we see quite how far she means. Carrie’s spiral of mania and grief stokes up her paranoia and reduces the chances that anyone will believe her. Just as her chance of being a functioning CIA agent is ticking away, she spots a vital clue and the series shudders to an abrupt end. Showtime has, fortunately, given season two a green light. How the story line will be buffeted by the year’s political events remains to be seen. In Israel, the original seemed to document the country’s trouble coming to terms with the release of the captured soldier Gilad Shalit, for whom the IDF launched many attacks and Palestinian militias countered brutally. Homeland is more of a thriller, but the questions it poses are compelling: who do we need to fear after the death of Osama Bin Laden, and what is the price paid by those who continue to spy on our behalf? Don’t touch that dial, we’ll be right back.
Homeland begins on Channel 4 this month