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.