Carrie Mathison – Homeland

Today is International Woman’s Day, so it’s a fitting time to talk about an actress, a performance and a character that is truly emblematic of our times; Clare Danes’ portrayal of CIA agent Carrie Mathison in Showtime’s Homeland.

Homeland is being recognized as the first post post-9/11 drama (in actual fact, that badge belongs to HBO’s Generation Kill).

It’s about Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), an American Marine who is struggling to adapt to American family life after eight years as a prisoner of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Carrie Mathison (Danes), an obsessive CIA agent who is virtually alone in suspecting Brody is a sleeper agent “turned” by the terrorists that held him captive.

Most of the media attention on Homeland has focused on the way the show acts as a partial apology for the gung-ho ideology of Bush-era shows like 24 (on which writers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa were centrally involved) to reflect a more self-conscious, Obama-stimulated period of concern for the reckless and excessive War on Terror. It’s a story of a rebuked America scrambling to avert a crisis of its own making.

In terms of such a political reading, I can only pay tribute to the redoubtable Peter Bradshaw, who writes today in his Guardian column:

“It is a fascinating idea: that America is coming to terms with the waning of a great – or at any rate greatly dramatic – era: the 9/11 era…Sgt Brody symbolises the spores of scepticism and discontent, the mixed and complicated freight of doubt and disillusion, being carried back to the US en masse by the returning troops…They may well have been “turned” in some indistinct way.”

But while Brody may represent all these things, it would be a grave mistake to think Homeland is about him or the dark motivations he may or may not harbor.

The show belongs to Carrie – the fragile, erratic, unstoppably vivacious and beautifully feminine protector of the American people against the bottomless hatred of radical fundamentalism.

Like all good drama, the stark mass of contradictions that is Carrie Mathison are fleetingly evident the very first time we meet her.

Bursting into her sparse flat, we see her wipe herself down – we suspect after some flippant sexual encounter – before pulling some clothes on and swallowing down a hefty looking pill which, we soon learn, is an antipsychotic drug before rushing to Langley.

So, right from the off, we learn Carrie has an almost purely functional relationship to sex and is medicated against bipolar disorder. Even in 2012 in the Land of Hope and Freedom, that’s a pretty out there way to introduce a female character (lest we forget, a female law student arguing for state-funded contraception was this week accused by a very influential radio show host of being a “slut” and a “prostitute.”)

Her boss and mentor, the gentle CIA veteran Saul (Mandy Pantankin) tries to channel Carrie’s talent for intelligence-gathering by constantly extolling the virtues of patience and discipline but, as he is told in the first episode, he has a blind-spot for her obsessional excesses.

Carrie has had to bear some superficial comparisons to 24‘s Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). In fact she’s much more similar to The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West). She’s high-functioning but fatally flawed, uniquely sensitive and attuned to her environment but prone to blow out errors of judgment. Without a moments regard for chain of command or due process, there’s no earth she won’t scorch, no bridge she won’t burn, nothing she wouldn’t do if she felt something stood between her and the restless demands of her job.

But that isn’t to say Carrie is remote. If anything, her emotions are too close to the surface: she’s an entangled mesh of livewires, her fiercely independent and professional mask pockmarked with self-doubt, anxiety, regret and longing.

In one early scene, Carrie turns her head from the screen on which she is monitoring Brody – still traumatized by his exile – as he tries, and fails, to make love to his wife. But Carrie can’t help but look again, and the honesty of her eyes is heartbreaking.

In that sense, Homeland isn’t about how the CIA – or Carrie Mathison – attempt to keep us safe and secure. It’s about how the high-stakes world of the CIA is the perfect incubator for Carrie Mathison; her paranoia – and her compassion – exploited in a game of mutual dependency that has no end.

Tragic though it may be, it’s a portrayal of femininity at its most raw. I doubt Carrie has an equal in modern day drama.

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British Style Genius: Review

British Style Genius. BBC2 11.50 to 12.50am

British Style Genius is a homage to the democracy of fashion- the idea that Britain has achieved the feat of providing high-end fashion at high street prices. We, as the consumers, occupy the unique and privileged position of having fashion accessible in every town of Britain, where every street doubles up as a catwalk.

A young Viviene WestwoodOne of the opening lines in the show, from 60s supermodel Twiggy, is: “We forget how much the British fashion industry has achieved, and it deserves a show dedicated to it.”

From this point on, it becomes abundantly clear that this will not be a diagnostic analysis of British fashion. The show is unapologetically charmed and enthralled by the country’s most eccentric and extrovert industry.

Much of the show is, inevitably, a whistle stop tour of all the designers that have impacted on modern British life- Mary Quant, Alexander McQueen and an uncompromisingly camp Ozzy Clark all lay their claim as the founding fathers of today’s high street.

It is a bright eyed, bushy-taled self-aggrandisement and a paean to the swinging 60s, when both music and fashion exploded on the streets thanks to the cottage industries of Mary Quant and Vivienne Westwood.

But British Style Genius really comes into its own when it focuses on the apparently seismic significance of the marriage between Kate Moss and Topshop.

Indeed, the show is so effusive about the impact of both Kate Moss and Topshop on Britain’s fashion conscience that Philip Green was probably wondering why he bothers spending so much cash on advertising.

He spends much of the show looking so pleased with himself you half expect him to reach round and pat himself on his back, or at least get one of his handlers to do it for him.

The sight of Kate Moss discussing her Topshop range with Green and a bunch of publicists and Topshop number crunchers is rare.

Kate Moss’ success has been built on her ability to divorce her personality from her public persona. She is a supermodel, constantly in the public sphere and the central fashion icon of her generation, but has simultaneously managed to largely conceal her personality from public consumption, building a kind of mystic aura in its place.

And who can deny, she more than ticks the boxes. She looks fucking good.

Sat in a Topshop office, she is told how many separate items of her range were sold in the first week. She seems girly and flirtatious and eager to please, and also remarkably normal. The amount of control she appears to command over her own collection seems to extend to saying whether she did or didn’t like this or that piece of clothing, and not much more.

For those who perceive her as having an almost totemic, messianic significance for the aspiring youth of this country, and whom consume everything she touches, I can imagine this was quite an anticlimactic experience.

The show argues that she represents a generational aspiration, but by unwittingly separating Kate Moss from the Kate Moss persona, it succeeds in unwittingly exposing her limitations. By revealing her as plain old Kate, the allure she has worked so hard to build is quickly wiped away.

One can see why she is a marketers dream, embodying the every-woman and the unachievable woman, but offering little more than a figurehead – a moving, smiling mannequin.

The high street is selling the idea that, even if you can’t look like Kate Moss, you can dress like her. This is, for some, a wonderful ideal and, for others, a worrying portent. Not that you’d know it from British Style Genius.

Mad Men Review

Rarely has a television show come to these shores as well decorated as Mad Men. Written by Matthew Weiner, one of the main-men behind the Sopranos, Mad Men is the natural successor to HBO’s epic gangster series and an equally fierce expose of the masculine mind.

Set in advertisement agency Sterling Cooper in the 1960s, Mad Men offers a stylised and distinctive depiction of consumerist America, and an intimately considered study of nihilism and gender-politics in a world where everyone knows their place. Racism and sexism are overt and accepted. The suited, married ad-men of the office bitch and compete and endlessly consume cigarettes and bourbon, their secretaries’ hustle and bustle around them in the hope of a covetous glance, and their women stay at home to care for the house and fill their glasses.

Mad Men’s lead character, Don Draper, embodies the suave, ice-cool and unsentimental approach to the lying, manipulation and one-upmanship that is central to the advertising industry, and the intense loneliness and dissatisfaction that hangs like a mist over every character.

The show received across board-critical acclaim, including Best Drama 2008 from the New York Times, the Television Critics association and the Writers Guild of America Award. It cleared up at every TV awards ceremony of the year, including the Golden Globe Award and an Emmy for Best Television Series. A DVD of the first series was spotted on Obama’s campaign plane, groups on Facebook called “What Would Don Draper Do?” started to emerge, and characters from the show started, strangely, to use social media site Twitter to update the world on aspects of the banal office life in which they inhabit.

Doing what Don does best.Mad Men is the latest drama to succeed in revealing the rotting heart of the American Dream and, as has happened before, the Americans have embraced it wholeheartedly.

But Britain still hasn’t discovered Mad Men, and BBC4 only received the most modest of viewing ratings for the first season, which was screened last Autumn. Despite heavy publicity the second series, which began at the start of February, is still lacking in numbers.

This is a shame, because the hype is justified. Mad Men is undoubtedly one of the smartest and most engrossing TV shows to come out of America for years. It’s a charismatic, witty and very edgy show with an ever-developing web of narrative strands and strong performances across the board, most notably from Jon Hamm in the lead role of Don Draper and Christina Hendricks as the femme fatale Joan Holloway.

But its greatest success is the way in which it forces its viewers to confront a set of principles that don’t seem as archaic as they should. There is such grace and charm in the way Mad Men presents its world of divisions and hierarchies, you could almost be forgiven for a sense of nostalgia.

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