SPOILERS – Making A Murderer and True Crime Obsessions

Making-a-MurdererBefore I get stuck in, and in case the headline for this page doesn’t make it clear enough, this post contains spoilers from the entire series of Netflix’s Making A Murderer. While it is true crime and all the facts are in the public domain (not to mention updates appearing daily in newspapers, on TV, in blog posts and all over social media), I recommend you watch the entire show before reading what I have to say or searching out additional information. Read on, when you’re ready…

Oh, and if this looks too long (it is quite long), then just skip ahead and read the Sold A Story section, that’s the most important bit.


I, like millions of others, am currently obsessed by Making A Murderer, the new Netflix documentary series about Stephen Avery and Brendan Dassey, two men who have been convicted of the murder of Teresa Halbach on the basis of – as contended by the show – at the very best dubious evidence. True crime, it seems, is big business as this follows hot on the heels of possibly the two biggest media obsessions of the past year – Serial and The Jinx.

All of these cases have one thing in common – they wouldn’t be acceptable to an audience if they were presented as fiction. In Serial and Making a Murderer this is, at least in part, because of the lack of closure. There’s no finality or even clarity, but where that would be frustrating in fiction (and it is here, though for very different reasons), in these cases that leads to only greater obsessive behaviour with viewers eager to fill in the gaps and allowing them to fill the role of Poirot or Columbo all by themselves.

Serial was the diametric opposite of the CSI school of television crime, with all the technical evidence only clouding things further, with experts disagreeing on how to interpret ‘evidence’, with the memories of those involved having changed over time. There was no one damning piece of evidence and, ultimately, room for every viewer to have their own theory as to what had happened.

The Jinx, with the unusual story of a multi-millionaire seemingly thinking he had got away with multiple murders being caught accidentally confessing off-camera but on mic, conforms in many ways with a more traditional crime story with a piece of ‘conclusive’ evidence revealed at the last moment and then the climactic ‘you got me’ confession, but the journey that Robert Durst takes along the way, including a period living as a woman in relative squalor, barely seems plausible and would surely be laughed out of a writers’ room.

And finally, Making A Murderer, which features so many seemingly staggering decisions made by people at so many levels that it’s almost impossible to understand how any of these events could have happened in a 21st century western society. The twists and turns along the way beggar belief.

But this is a significant part of their appeal. Truth, so the cliche goes, is stranger than fiction and all three cases demonstrate that all too clearly. People love these series because they provide stories that fiction can never give us, and because they start conversations. These aren’t “Who shot JR?” or “Who shot Mr Burns?”, these are real stories we may never have closure on, and certainly that won’t be decided by a group of writers in a room arguing a satisfactory resolution out.


So at this point I’m going to venture my opinion on the Avery/Dassey case, but I’m also going to stress that I’m not saying this is the truth. Everyone is entitled to their opinions and, at this point, yours is just as valid as mine, so if you disagree with me I’m not going to debate you on it.

So I feel pretty confident that Avery and Dassey are not guilty, but not 100%. But regardless of that, I believe the process that put them away was so flawed and, according to jurors both released from the trial and who served on the final jury, those deciding Avery’s fate in particular were so wedded to their pre-trial view that the trial cannot have been considered fair. I think the case, as presented in the documentary, offers far more than reasonable doubt.

But there’s a key phrase there – “as presented by the documentary”. The documentary makers were embedded with the Avery family and undoubtedly presented a story from the point of view that Avery and Dassey were innocent. While it was inevitable that the prosecution would have a different point of view given the implied accusations against them, I think we need to be careful when dismiss their claims. The filmmakers got to choose what they put in and could easily exclude anything which went against their narrative.

There are two pieces of ‘evidence’ Ken Kratz has stated were left out of the series, both of which seem potentially important. The first is the sweat-based DNA of Stephen Avery that was allegedly found on the latch of the hood of the SUV, and the second are the repeated phone calls made to Halbach in the lead up to her murder. The former was not addressed at all in the documentary, and it seems that some kind of theory should be presented about its existence.

The documentary does, briefly, address the second of these, with an implication that an ex-boyfriend or obsessed acquaintance was responsible. It’s not clear whether the prosecution used the phone calls as part of their evidence but if they did it seems pretty damning that the filmmakers decided to exclude them from the narrative they present.

All that said, the key fob which appeared months later with no DNA beyond Avery is highly suspicious. The fact that, in his summary at the end of the case Kratz seems to imply this was indeed planted, is only more alarming. The fact that no blood was found anywhere, that there was seemingly another burn site (although this wasn’t really explored in the series either), and the tampering with Avery’s 1985 blood sample all point away from Avery.

Finally, some people have said that Avery didn’t prove he was innocent, but that is not how trials work. The burden is on the prosecution to prove what did happen. An innocent man, inconveniently, may not have alibis in place.


But as I said, it’s important not to dismiss the claims of the prosecution. We have seen one side of the story and it’s very easy to just arbitrarily decide that anything which doesn’t conform with our own preconceived views isn’t relevant or can be dismissed. This is a case where we’re asked to believe that the police were responsible for framing an innocent man and so any evidence which seems to contradict that view can easily be thrown out as ‘just another thing they did’. This is exactly the same as the 9-11 truthers dismissing any science which goes against their view of it being an inside job.

It’s difficult because the documentary is so excellently constructed to impart a specific point of view but an open mind should be maintained at all times. And, to agree with Dean Strang, one of Stephen Avery’s defence lawyers, it might be best is Stephen is guilty because it would be preferable to the alternative.


And that brings me on to something very important. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this is a real case and a real woman is dead. It’s great fun to play detective, to get outraged, to sign petitions, but all this renewed attention will be bringing further pain to a family who has suffered a great loss.

I’ve seen comments rebuking Mike Halbach, brother of Teresa, for his demeanour in press conferences in the documentary but I can feel nothing but sorrow for him, not only for the loss of his sister, but also for the lies he has been sold. As I said, I am of the view that Avery and Dassey are not guilty and that a case has been constructed in bad faith intending to put them away. Mike Halbach was not complicit in this. He comes from a different town and won’t know (or at least won’t appreciate the extent of) the history between Avery and the Manitowoc Police Department. He will have met the police and DA and trusted them as we all expect to be able to trust the police in such matters. He has been told a story and has, to use a highly emotive and perhaps inappropriate word, been indoctrinated by them.

It is, of course, totally understandable. He will have been told that Avery will say anything in his defence and not to believe it. He will be desperate for closure and someone to blame. And given the circumstances I doubt he’d have the ability to evaluate the evidence in a dispassionate manner. Add to that the fact that, on the face of it, the defence seems so far fetched. I mean, Avery’s defence is hardly Occam’s Razor. As one of his defence lawyer’s states early on, it’s not exactly the ideal defence to be offering. So with that in mind, why would Mike Halbach question what he’s been told?

Just like we, the viewers, are sold on Avery’s innocence (for the most part, anyway) and are liable to dismiss any evidence which disproves the story we want to hear, so Mike Halbach will not want to believe that Avery’s defence is remotely possible. What’s the alternative? That the people he trusted, the people there to protect and serve, to deliver justice, all lied to him to get even with someone who’s life they had already ruined once, while the real killer has been free for a decade and no one in a position to do anything about it has shown any inclination to do so. Horrifying.

This aspect was just one way in which I was reminded of the Meredith Kercher murder and Amanda Knox trial. As Knox’s first trial was starting I read a book called The Monster of Florence about a spate of killings in Florence and surrounding area which (and forgive some vagaries, it’s a while since I read it) were pinned on a group of men, supposedly carrying them out as part of some underground sex cult. The book details an incredible and ridiculous story concocted by the police and prosecutors that has more than a few resonances with the Kercher case. This probably shouldn’t be a surprise considering the same men were in charge of that investigation too. The bizarre sex cult aspect is the most obvious connection between the two and seems to be more of an obsession for the prosecutors than pretty much anyone else in the world.

As with the Halbach case, the Kercher family were told a story from the beginning by the prosecutors and have almost been held hostage by it, requiring the closure but not being given it. They maintain their belief that Knox is guilty (or at least said they did when she was finally acquitted), and probably always will, and I can’t blame them. I am convinced Knox is innocent but as with Mike Halbach, it would be so painful to think anything else. And as with Halbach, I can only feel sorry for them for not only having lost someone but having been lied to by the people they should be able to trust the most. I think we’d all like to think we could see past the bullshit being fed to us but I’m not sure any of us could.

For a true demonstration of how unpalatable this would be you just have to read this interview with Penny Beerntsen, the woman who’s testimony put Stephen Avery in jail, wrongly, the first time. She trusted police to have the right man and when it turned out they had led her the wrong way she found it almost unbearable. Of course it’s easier to believe what the police tell you.

Another important aspect of these cases and the indoctrination process is the way in which the prosecutors used the media, a media hungry for all the sordid details. In both the Halbach and Kercher murders a young, attractive women was killed and those in charge of finding the killer(s) took every opportunity to talk to the press and make their case before all (or any of) the facts were in. In both cases, the story presented too good to be true and the press loved the opportunity to discuss it. In one, an attractive young woman was killed by another attractive young woman (and partners in crime) as part of a sex game. In the other, a man in jail for 18 years for a crime he didn’t commit is now guilty of a far worse crime.

In both cases, the press helped sell the victims’ families the story. They all reported the culprits and events as fact (or may as well have) – no amount of “has been arrested for” and “has been accused of” disclaimers are going to undo the damage of the reporting. If everyone is telling you who the guilty party is, including the front page of every paper you see and the top item of any TV news report, how do you stop and ask yourself if it’s the right story?


True crime has been popular forever. We consume it daily in newspapers (OK, news websites) and on the news on TV as it happens and so shows like Serial, The Jinx and Making A Murderer have to be, in some way, bigger or more compelling and there are only so many of those to go around. I imagine we will be inundated with stories such as these, but whether they will ever replicate the cultural impact of these three, well, I have my doubts. I fancy we’re nearing peak true crime and it won’t be long until it resumes its place at the more ‘pulpy’ end of the spectrum. It may be more obvious than it was, particularly on television, but it will surely be more exploitative, more resembling the Fox reporter seen in Making A Murderer exclaiming how bloody murder sells than resembling the honest (I think) attempt at searching for justice for Stephen Avery.

But even when true crime was often the reserve of the pulp novel, great works were produced, from In Cold Blood to The Suspicions of Mr Whicher to The Devil in the White City, and this will surely continue to be the case.

How I Fell In Love With How I Met Your Mother And Why The Break-Up Hurt So Much

(The beginning of this post features very minor and general spoilers from How I Met Your Mother, however, half way through I launch into total spoilers of the last season, and I recommend you don’t read it until you have seen the finale. The point at which I start this section is marked clearly.)

Ted's such a douche he won't let anyone else sit on his sofa

Ted’s such a douche he won’t let anyone else sit on his sofa

Kids, I want to tell you about why I fell in love with a show called How I Met Your Mother and how it ended up breaking my heart…

Relax. I’m not going to make you sit down for 9 years while I tell you a long drawn-out story with no satisfactory conclusion in the way that one of my favourite TV shows had a character do with his (fictional) kids. But I do want to talk about what made the show so great, why it was unappreciated and why it fell at the last hurdle.

First of all, a brief recap. How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM for short) was a sitcom launched into a post-Friends landscape. It featured 5 friends who regularly met in a bar, rather than a coffeeshop (Friends) or diner (Seinfeld). It was the story of their struggles with growing up from post-college through marriage and families and various career decision. In that sense it is completely unlike Friends… No, wait a moment…

how-i-met-your-mother-how vs friends

Actually, Friends is probably the worst thing for HIMYM because while superficially they have the same DNA, they are thoroughly different shows in the ways the are written and contructed, but HIMYM was launched at a time when every network was scrabbling to find The Next Friends. It was also a time when mainstream (in the US, Network) TV was dying. It’s a death which is still going on, ever so slowly. In the decade since its launch TV services such as Netflix, Lovefilm, and Hulu have meant people don’t watch live, people downloading TV shows via Bit Torrent has eaten into revenues, and even at the base level, PVRs (like Sky+) mean that people skip adverts and ratings can’t be measured. Now no one can say what a hit show is. Something getting 5 million viewers on one channel is a disaster, while for another network 5 million is an unbelievable hit. Up is down. Dogs are living with cats.

So HIMYM could never become Friends. It could never conquer the globe in the same way. Equally, it was too smart to be Friends. And I’m not down on Friends, there were some seasons of that show that are among the funniest I have seen, but it was always playing to the widest audience possible. That’s not a criticism. Things can have a wide audience and also be good. See also Cheers, Seinfeld, Sherlock and many others.

But Friends was always a joke delivery device. It was an efficient machine. Sure, it delivered some dramatic moments, but it was never about the story, it was about the laughs. It was a sitcom, that was its raison d’être. From the very beginning HIMYM set out its stall differently. It would be funny, but the point was that the show was telling a story.

More specifically, its nominal lead character, Ted, 20 years in the future is telling his children the story of how he met their mother. We see his tales spring to life. This was a sitcom where jokes were not the most important thing. That sounds like a criticism, but it’s not. In fact, I would argue that it made HIMYM a funnier show. Friends needed to cut to the chase. At the very least every other line had to be a zinger of some kind. Cutting to the chase like that meant the creativity had to be a little lacking. HIMYM could take detours, it could be different, inventive, and sure, maybe you didn’t get as many one-liners in your half hour as you did in Friends, but you got a lot more jokes you couldn’t see coming.

HIMYM Challenge Accepted

Here is a choice – you can:

A) Give someone a 5 on the laugh scale right now


B) Meander at laugh level 1 or 2 for 20 seconds and then slap them with an unexpected 8 or a 9.

Friends always took route A (though some of those laughs inevitably climbed higher) while HIMYM would regularly go down route B and deliver a Slapsgiving to remember.

But it’s not just about being a story. The fact that the story is being told 20 years hence means that linearity goes out the window. Friends was always told in the now. There might have been the odd flashback, but each story, generally, had to after last week’s story and before next week’s story. HIMYM would regularly flash forward or backward in time, overlapping with incidents past or future, with promises that “I’ll get to the story of the goat”. And this is where the true genius in the story-telling lay.

It’s quite a regular occurrence for a TV show (in America) to get greenlit on the basis of a concept but for the writers to have no idea where it is heading. Lost is the prime example. Every week the writers were making up more questions with no idea what the ultimate answer was. But HIMYM always seemed to know. When they promised to get to a story, the got to it. Things that were small details in one episode became the focus of another. There were never any contradictions, everything added up. And in doing so it became something more than a story, it became human. It allowed the audience to truly become invested because we knew these characters and their worlds added up.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle the show had was turning Barney Stinson – the pick-up artist breakout character played by Neil Patrick Harris (and played brilliantly, I might add) – into a real boy. When the show started he was one-dimensional. He cared about suits, sleeping with women and the bro-code. But as his popularity grew he earned more screen time and needed depth, and the show found it for him.

Barney - Legen-wait-for-it-Dary

Barney – Legen-wait-for-it-Dary

Ted, our ‘hero’, had been searching for love since day one. While the show was ostensibly about his search for The One, it actually became his journey through a lot of potentials who could never be The One. Barney was never looking for The One. He was looking for a different one every night. But the journey the writing team took him on to fall in love was perhaps their greatest triumph. They slowly filled in the details as to why he was the way he was, why he treated women the way he did. The show indulged him at times, but mostly it condemned his ways.

As funny as his sleeping around and trickery was, it was also always frowned upon, but as the show coloured in his background, Barney started to feel and slowly grew his extra dimensions. This was a big risk for the show. Stinson was the marquee character and by adding the shading they risked taking away the alcohol from Fun Bobby. The remarkable thing is that they didn’t. Barney was always Barney, even as he became more human in front of our eyes. Of course, this wasn’t all down to the writers, Patrick Harris is brilliant in the role, but the skill it took to pull off this manoeuvre is not to be sniffed at.

And then we come to perhaps the longest joke in television history. In season 2, episode 9, Barney has a bet with Marshall and the winner will be able to slap the other 5 times, at times of his discretion. A ‘Slap Bet’, if you will. I won’t go into it too much, but this was a joke which kept paying off right until the final episode of the show, and was regularly sitting as an idle threat in the background. It was a beautiful thing whenever the next slap was revealed, and the fact that one joke could run so perfectly for seven and a half seasons is a real credit to the show.

So that is why I fell in love with How I Met Your Mother, and why you should watch it if you haven’t already. Now I shall move on to what happened at the end of the relationship.

This is where the real SPOILERS kick in. I will literally talk about the very end of the show. Seriously – don’t wanna know, stop reading.

So episode one starts with a classic bait and switch. Ted starts telling his kids the story of how he met their mother and proceeds to tell the story of how he went on a date with their “aunt Robin”. Robin becomes the newest member of the group and, over time dates Ted, then Barney, and come the final season, is preparing to walk down the aisle with Barney.

In fact, the final season of HIMYM is one of the most daring things to be put on in a mainstream, popular show, up there with Seinfeld’s season 4 arc where Jerry and George are trying to sell a pilot to NBC. It came about because the show was due to end after season 8 but the network wanted to get one more season out of the producers and cast. Patrick Harris was still hot, Jason Segel was starting to hit in Hollywood (having written and starred in the Muppets revival movie), and they had nothing coming through to take its place. So what was going to happen in the last 3 weeks of season 8 instead became the whole of season 9.

That right there is a recipe for disaster. Stretching a few episodes to fill a 24 episode arc. More than that, the whole season would take place over the course of just one weekend. The weekend of Robin and Barney’s wedding.

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. This is a show that plays with time all the time, so there were plenty of flashforwards and flashbacks, but generally, we were watching the weekend. And for the first 22 episodes they pulled it off. It wasn’t perfect – Marshall (Segel) couldn’t join the cast for the first half of the season so was stuck in his own story line – but they did callbacks to so many great moments, they played with the emotions of all the characters, they resolved issues, and they got past the problems. Throughout we have the spectre of a love-lorn Ted still filled with feelings for Robin, the woman he met in episode 1, that he fell for, hard, that he mourned. That he was still mourning. He struggled to let he go. But while all that was going on, the most important thing is that we got to meet the mother, Tracy.

That’s right, throughout the season we followed the mother’s course to meeting Ted. We saw her side of numerous near-misses that called back to episodes we’d seen years ago – the yellow umbrella, Ted’s mistaken lecture, a meeting with Barney in a convenience store. We got to find out what type of person would fall in love with the douche (but loveable) Ted, and we got to find her as adorable as Ted did. We got to fall in love with her too. And that is why the ending hurt.

You see, the ending wasn’t really about how Ted met the kids’ mother. After they meet we skim forward and the story takes a melancholy tone. Ted and Tracy have some wonderful years together and they have a family, but then we find out that Tracy has passed away and Ted is alone again.

At the same time we are learning about the lives of the other characters and, especially, about the marriage and divorce of Barney and Robin. This is followed up with the kids asking him if the whole story was an excuse for him to ask them if they’d be ok with him asking ‘Aunt’ Robin out on a date…


The problem with this isn’t so much the story as the execution and the confounding of expectations. Coming into the last episode we have one expectation – that Ted will meet the mother, nothing else. We have seen the two orbit each other all season. We’ve seen how close they came to meeting in years gone by. We’ve seen how they perfectly match each other. In fact, the writers have done such a good job that we now know that Tracy is a far better match than Robin ever was. We get to see the pair on their first date. We get to see them on honeymoon and anniversaries. Time plays inwards to the point at which they met so we’re seeing before and after until eventually they converge, two halves of the same whole.

It’s beautiful story-telling and by the end of it we’ve not just fallen in love with Tracy, we’ve fallen in love with Tracy and Ted.

And then it is ripped from us.

Without the burden of an extra 24 episodes, without the decision to have the audience meet Tracy before Ted does, without the chance to fall for her, maybe this blow isn’t so crushing and maybe they get away with it.

Maybe there could have been some more hints. I mean, in retrospect maybe we should have guessed. Ted has been telling this long story to his kids since 2004 and he has never been interrupted by his wife; there has never been a reference to her in the present tense. Looking back, perhaps there were a few “Your mother was…” comments in the voiceover, but even if there were it wasn’t enough. This is nine years of build-up to a supposed meet-cute and happily ever after and then we’re told that happily ever after ended a few years past. There is no happily ever after.

Perhaps if Robin and Barney hadn’t got together so convincingly, perhaps if we hadn’t been sold so totally on the idea of them as a couple, we could still have wanted Ted and Robin together. Was this supposed to be fan service? Did the fans long for Ted and Robin to end up together? I spent the whole of season 9 wishing Ted to move on from Robin, to drop those thoughts and prepare himself for the love of his life to arrive.

The ultimate resolution felt like a stab in the heart. It’s not that it’s wrong, it’s that the season was written to push all of our hopes and desires and expectations in one direction and it was pulled out from under us. That’s not a bad thing – if you’re making Breaking Bad or The Sopranos or Mad Men – but this isn’t those shows. This is a 9-year long romantic comedy and there are certain expectations that are part and parcel of that commitment. I, the viewer, do solemnly swear to fall in love with these characters and to will them together and you, the writers, do solemnly swear to put ample obstacles in their path but ultimately let them live together forever and ever in our hearts and minds. Nowhere in your side of the contract does it say that you will kill her off and replace her with the biggest obstacle that we have spent the past 11.5 hours (23 episodes of a half hour show) getting over and past.

As I said, there are ways this could work, and that make a degree of sense – Ted and his children are mourning the passing of beloved wife and mother and so Ted tells the story of all that he loved about her and how they came to be – a way to ensure that his wife and his love can live on in eternity. But in this circumstance he’s too close to the tragedy for us a) to not know before we get there (a good thing in a story like this) or b) for him to be able to be contemplating dating Robin. So this approach would perhaps have changed the show beyond recognition, though it would have been able to confront mortality in a way that mainstream television is all too afraid to do. I doubt, however, that audiences would have watched for 9 years the moment they got an inkling that the mother was no longer with us.

If Tracy hadn’t been written so well as the yin to Ted’s yang, the slutty pumpkin to his hanging chad, then perhaps we could have been more accepting too, but then this would seem like bad writing. We might have been accepting of the Robin resolution but we never could have accepted Ted with someone who wasn’t the woman of his dreams. And beside’s how would that play to the kids? “Kids, I want to tell you the story of how I met the woman I mistakenly married when I should have been with your Aunt Robin all along” isn’t the best intro to a story.

Ultimately, the finale failed because HIMYM tried to have its cake and eat it. It wanted Ted to have the woman of his dreams and the woman he obsessed over for most of the previous 9 years, but failed to realise that to do so meant killing someone the audience had not only grown to love, but had fixated on, which isn’t bitter-sweet, it’s just bitter.

But does any of this matter? In the grand scheme of the universe, no, obviously. But neither should it in terms of television of the show. In a way, the finale reminds us that it’s not the destination that counts, it’s the journey. The destination is, for all of us, the ground, just as it was for Tracy.

What mattered for us wasn’t where we got to, it was the road we took to get there, and HIMYM gave us 8.95 seasons of brilliant television which managed to do things that no show has managed to do before and, it’s highly likely, no show will even attempt to do again. It gave us 5 great characters (of variable douchey-ness), it brought Neil Patrick Harris to the world’s collective consciousness (and if you’ve not seen any of his Tony or Emmy song-and-dance numbers you have been missing out), it gave us Robin Sparkles, it gave us Slap Bet, it gave us Alyson Hannigan and Jason Segel’s love for the ages, and it gave us so many more wonderful memories that no matter where the story went in that final half hour, it went somewhere else for me.


Homeland’s Roll For Women

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(Warning – this piece contains spoilers for those who have not seen up to and including series 2 episode 7)

A western woman rushes through a middle-eastern market bazaar, anxiously glancing over her shoulder towards a man trying to follow her. She reaches a dead end amongst local women looking at various headscarves. She switches her headscarf in a desperate attempt to disguise her appearance. It gains her a vital couple of seconds. The man is momentarily confused allowing her the opportunity to knee him in the groin, incapacitating him, before rushing back out of the market the way she came, in the clear. A manic, excited, exhilarated smile crosses her face. After too long she is back doing what she loves.

This is Carrie Matheson, former CIA operative and sufferer of bi-polar disorder, as portrayed by the wonderful Clare Danes, in the first episode of season 2 of Homeland, the often excellent, sometimes infuriating drama series from Showtime, the channel that brought us the initially excellent, latterly terrible and now resurgent Dexter.

Homeland’s first series was based on something that could easily be viewed as a simple high concept: Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), a US prisoner of war, is returned home after 8 years in captivity to a heroes welcome, and Carrie believes he may have been turned to work for the terrorists who held him. Will she be able to find proof? Will anyone believe her? Is she right?

The show is adapted from an Israeli drama series Hatufim (Eng title: Prisoners of War) and, in its US guise, is run by Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, two former 24 writers (amongst other credits). The AV Club had an excellent interview/deconstruction of the first season with Gansa where the processes and choices made throughout the season were discussed and taken apart. The first part is here. A telling question and answer came up very early:

AVClub: What had you decided at this point, especially about Brody’s true allegiances? 

Alex Gansa: Well there was a lot of argument at the beginning between Howard and me, frankly, about—first of all, whether you could be ambiguous about Brody’s allegiance at all, whether you had to know from the very beginning whether he had been turned in captivity or not. We had a lot of discussion about, if you decided not to reveal his allegiance at that point and keep the question open, how long can you sustain that over a series? So that kind of became the real big point of argument between us at the beginning of the show. As we discussed and talked our way through that, it became clear that at a certain point—midway, three-quarters of the way, a quarter of the way—through the season, we would have to come down one way or another. That’s how we made the compromise. My feeling was that you could keep the ambiguity going for a lot longer. Howard, schooled in 24 and in a very black-and-white universe, felt that we had to reveal in the pilot that he had been turned in captivity. And so, the compromise really came that we were going to keep it going as long as we felt it was feasible dramatically, and then reveal in a series of turns and twists where he stood exactly.

I think is perhaps the best way to highlight the (predominantly minor) issues that I have with the show, but also where some of the excellence comes from. The tension between the two sides – black & white vs shades of grey – means that you’re never entirely sure where the show is going to go or what turn it will make. There are plenty of surprises through season one, but they have nothing on season 2 which, in the first 2 or 3 episodes take you to places you thought would only be coming by the end of the season, leaving you asking “Where does it go from here?”

However, every so often a certain heavy-handedness appears in the writing, signposting something, or having a character make an irrational choice in order to further the story, or perhaps most egregiously, having a storyline appear to fill a character’s time, rather than further the overall story. This latter charge might be unfair given that the key examples I am thinking of haven’t yet had the chance to completely play out (specifically, Dana, Brody’s daughter, being involved in a hit-and-run incident with the Vice President’s son, and Brody’s former friend Mike starting his own investigation into whether Brody might be a traitor), but these stories certainly have a feel of Jack’s-daughter-gets-chased-by-a-puma in season two of 24.

However, some (hopefully) minor storytelling issues is not what I wanted to write about. I wanted to focus on Carrie Matheson and, slightly wider, on the female characters in Homeland. Film & television are often accused of not servicing women with a good enough range of roles to play, giving them an array of wives, girlfriends, hookers and mother-in-laws, while there are claims that shows with a woman at the centre won’t reach a big enough audience. A show with a man in the middle will be watched by everyone, goes the claim, while a show with a woman at the centre will only appeal to women. It’s nonsense of course, but that’s the argument. Homeland is the kind of show that will be held up as an example of how a modern thriller can have a woman at its core and be successful, both by the industry (see – we can do roles for women) and by critics. And, I must add, that the acting by Danes is absolutely superb and she deserves every accolade she gets for it.

However, if we look closer at the role, does it really represent a step-forward?

There is a fairly famous test for movies about how they treat women called the Bechdel test. It is not perfect, by any means but it’s an interesting place to start the conversation. The test consists of asking three questions about a film:

  1. Does the film have two or more women in named roles?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. Do they talk about something other than a man/men?

Applying this rule strictly to a TV series is perhaps a little unfair. The typical film is, give or take, 2 hours long, whereas season 1 of Homeland was 12 episodes of 45 minutes each, or 9 hours long. It features many more characters than a typical film and covers an array of themes. It therefore has a lot more opportunities to ensure it answers these questions in the affirmative. However, with a couple of tweaks, we can try it out:

1. Does the TV show have two or more female central characters

Yes – as well as Carrie Matheson there is Morena Baccarin as Jessica Brody, Nick Brody’s wife. We could also add Dana Brody (Morgan Saylor), Nick & Jess’ daughter, but as she is a minor living in her parents’ home, I think we could put her to one side. These are the only significant, recurring female roles. There are several other female characters who get to appear in 2-4 episodes, but they are not central characters.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Carrie and Jess do talk to each other, yes, though not on an especially regular basis.

3. Do they talk to each other about anything other than a man/men?

I’m trying to cast my mind back over the 19 episodes so far and I think the answer has to be no. Carrie’s job at the CIA is, initially, around handling Brody and she only comes into contact with Jess when doing her job. Later she has a brief affair with Brody and ends up involved in a shouting match with Jess.

This in and of itself doesn’t mean that the show is in any way sexist. Would you accuse Band of Brothers (for example) of sexism for not being able to answer yes to these three questions? No, of course not. But let’s look at these roles more closely – what do they say about women? First Jessica Brody:

Jessica is a woman whose husband was captured by the Taliban and held for 8 years. He was presumed dead by the US. While he was gone she developed a relationship with Brody’s former army comrade Mike. Therefore when Brody returned she was left in an awkward position with her husband. She has two children, Dana and Chris.

We do not know if Jessica has had a career. She doesn’t work during the series as far as the audience is aware. The audience have not been introduced to any friends other than Mike and other former comrades of Brody.

Naturally, given the circumstances, Jessica has concerns about her family and has difficulty rekindling her relationship with her husband, having come to terms with his death many years before. However, in season two her role has often been reduced to pleading with Brody to tell her the truth, and when he mentions working with the CIA, making sure that Carrie isn’t one of those he is working with.

Season 2 also sees Brody rising up in Washington. He is now a Congressman and has been paired with the Vice President as a potential running mate for a future Presidential bid. With the new position in Washington, Jess has become involved in some fundraising activities alongside the VPs wife. I didn’t consider the VPs wife to be a central character earlier but there are signs she could become considered one. So far, the charity fundraising efforts have consisted of one dinner that Brody was supposed to appear at and didn’t. Baccarin did delivery a rousing speech but for most of the episode she was calling Brody and chiding him over not being present.

Ultimately, she is focused on Brody and her family and, while her extra-curricular activities are expanding, they are still centred around Brody’s life. Do I have an idea of what she would like to do or where she would like to go in her spare time? Of what makes her laugh? Do I have a sense of her as a real, 3-dimensional character? Unfortunately, no. She seems to primarily be there to act as something tearing at Brody, an obstacle for him rather than a character in her own right.

Now, I wanted to discuss Jessica first because hers is the simpler case. Carrie is much more complex, and, to be honest, I am still undecided on my feelings about her characterisation, but hopefully laying this all out will help clear it up.

So on paper, Carrie Matheson is a dream role: she is a CIA agent who is almost preternaturally good at her job. In the opening credits we hear her voice say “I missed something once before, I won’t… I can’t…”, her boss, Saul Berenson, replying “It was 10 years ago. Everyone missed something that day” (referring to 9/11), and Carrie saying “Everyone’s not me”. That’s how high a standard she holds herself to. But not just that, Matheson has a serious mental illness, she is bi-polar. In terms of an acting challenge, it ticks all the boxes. It practically has awards written all over it. As if to demonstrate that, Danes has won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for the role, and as I said earlier, both are totally deserved. The real question is, I suppose, about the writing; about what the writers are making Carrie Matheson do.

So. Carrie is a strong character, and particularly strong-minded. She has little life outside of the CIA, because that’s what she’s dedicated to, but we do meet her father and sister in a couple of episodes. She can be quite a hard drinker at times. She can read people incredibly well. If she believes in something she won’t give up.

At the end of season 1 she has been driven almost mad by her belief that Brody was working for the terrorists and, ultimately, she underwent ECT to try to put her demons behind her. When we meet her at the beginning of season 2 she has re-established herself in a teaching career. Though hardly fulfilled, she at least has the drive to do something with her life.

There are two real issues for me, though, about the way her character is written in the second season. Firstly, in season 1 her character is quite level-headed. She is taking medication (illicitly, but taking it) in order to maintain her position with the CIA. If they knew about her condition she wouldn’t be able to keep her job. Later in the series she has her meds cut off from her and she unravels. It is a magnificent performance by Danes in the episodes where the contents of her brain become unpackaged and pretty much literally pinned up to her living room wall.

In season two, having got herself onto the correct medication properly, not illicitly, she seems much more emotional, almost explosive at times, while she is also regularly close to tears. This could be bad writing as the medication should, for the most part, remove this side of her nature – the point of bi-polar medication being to dull or remove the extreme emotions at either end of the scale. At the CIA, Carrie is surrounded by cool and calm men, Saul Berenson being the primary example. These men are all stable, steady, a complete contrast to Carrie. If her bi-polar disorder is under control then this just comes across as a portrayal of a moody, erratic, emotional woman.

In season 2 episode 3 she meets with Brody, trying to plant seeds with him so they can follow him and find out who his handler is. She is being monitored by CCTV. Brody makes a comment about the ECT he had heard she had been through and for a moment we see a flicker of anger run across her face. Carrie is convinced Brody saw it too. After Brody leaves to talks to Saul and Quinn (another CIA operative) and tells them she is sure he is on to her. They tell her to calm down to talk her away from where she is. They don’t want to ruin this. She is absolutely convinced and so, in an almost fit of pique, runs to confront Brody in his room, first acting like it’s a seduction before inviting armed men in to arrest him while shouting at him that she loved him and asking how he had felt about her. As an audience we don’t know if she genuinely thought he had worked it out or if this is just Carrie getting revenge on a lover who spurned her and threw her to the wolves.

The question of Carrie’s emotions towards Brody stays front and centre in the following episodes, with the key moments (to date) coming at the end of episode 6 and in the middle of episode 7. In episode 6, Brody gives some information regarding a location and Quinn and other CIA members go in to examine it. While they are there, terrorists come in and shoot them all (though Quinn survives), and remove a large black case. When Carrie gets the news she’s afraid that Brody tipped the terrorists off and confronts him but eventually breaks down crying and embracing him.

In episode 7 Carrie meets Brody in a clearing close to an election donor’s house (the episode is called The Clearing) and ends up kissing him. She says that she doesn’t want him to think that she’s taking advantage of him. It is clear by the end of the scene though that he is starting to wonder if she is, and if he really cares. Again, her motivations aren’t clear – is she manipulating him, messing with his mind, or does she genuinely have feelings for him?

So what is the problem I have with this? Well, it’s the fact that sex has to come into it at all. It seems that if a show has a male and female lead they should end up getting together. Here we have a woman who is outstanding at her job possibly being undone because she can’t keep her emotions in check, a woman who can’t help falling in love with the one man she shouldn’t – and while ambiguity is being maintained for the most part, I can’t believe that each of the numerous occasions she has declared her feelings towards him was faked for some undefined end goal.

She is becoming a woman who once lived for, and was defined by, her job but is now threatening to give all that up (or ruin it all) over a man.

Now, I have over-simplified in parts there, and I don’t think it is as black and white as I have described it – I have made the case for the prosecution and barely laid a finger on the case for the defence – but I do think there are some issues at play here regarding the depiction of gender roles. This was a show about a CIA spy who becomes convinced an American hero is actually a traitor, but it could be edging further towards being a love story between a spy and the asset she handles. Those are two different things.

The question I asked my partner after episode 7 was “Does the story of a US hero/traitor who almost blew up the VP need the love story to make it more dramatic?” This is an incredibly exciting story we are being told, but it seems like the writers can’t resist throwing everything into the mix. I was sceptical about the relationship side when it came up in season 1, I had hope it was behind us. It appears that it is here for good.