(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:
- Does the film have two or more women in named roles?
- Do they talk to each other?
- 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.