This month, as the main character in the Showtime series Homeland was willingly captured by Iranian guards as part of an elaborate CIA assassination plot, The Associated Press was reporting that real-life American Robert Levinson, kidnapped in Iran nearly seven years ago, had been working for the Agency at the time of his disappearance.
As they say, life imitating art. That is, until the show goes completely off the rails, and our fictional Levinson assassinates the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
From there, Homeland, in its third season, completes its dubious transition from a suspense drama about how a sometimes effective, bi-polar CIA agent in a paranoid post-9/11 national security state reacts to a former Marine Corps POW possibly “turned” by Arab terrorists, to a transparent propaganda vehicle for the same crowd that’s been itching to get Washington into a war with Iran for the last 12 years.
The entire third season of Homeland, which ended with the usual bang on Dec. 15, was so egregious in this regard, that it wouldn’t be surprising if it won an additional award at the Emmys next year – from the US Congress, for services rendered. Not only does the show blatantly insinuate the hard-line foreign policy vision held by both Republican and Democratic hawks on Capitol Hill, it’s a high-definition brief against trusting the Iranians in any nuclear deal – particularly the one congress is close to scuttling right now.
Furthermore, Homeland has shed any claim that it is probing the moral and cultural tensions inherent in US counterterrorism policy. Instead, it is more or less conditioning Americans to accept that US national security is shifting dramatically from conventional war to warfare in the shadows – borderless, warrantless, targeted killing from the sky and from rooftops, secret prisons, massive foreign surveillance. That our protectors might break the rule of law or do repugnant things is just the price we pay for our national security.
One might ask, why care? It’s just a show. But if Aldous Huxley has taught us anything, it’s that television is used as a tool of the powerful (i.e the state, the corporate class) to manipulate cultural norms, values and politics, and has done so for decades. Creator/producer Gideon Raff knew what he was tapping into when he developed the progenitor of Homeland, called Prisoners of War, for the Israeli audience in 2010. He’s doing the same for its reinterpretation, Homeland, which has attracted upwards of two million viewers on Sunday nights for the last three seasons.
Let’s just say, what the drama series 24 did for America’s feelings about torture in the wake of 9/11 (that it’s sometimes necessary in order to save lives), Homeland does for our enduring Muslim biases and punitive impulses. It tests our war weariness by posing an alternative, insidious Iranian threat that can only be met with equal cunning, deception and steely brutality. It tickles our paranoia, but then offers pretty, patriotic people to take the edge off what is clearly a morally and ethically abhorrent display.
“I want you to know that what’s going on here is not okay with me,” says character Peter Quinn, a black ops guy who assassinates anyone on demand, but appears eternally conflicted about it. His few outward protestations are always met with awkward dead silence from the other characters, as though they were put in the script merely to placate the reviewers.
Incidentally, Prisoners of War was sold to 20th Century Fox Television and out of it, Homeland was developed by the former producers of 24, Howard Gordon and Alex Sansa, with help from Raff, an Israeli who spent most of his life in the US, though he served as a paratrooper in the Israeli army for three years.
Raff says he wants to “avoid war and to avoid a nuclear Iran,” but he sure likes to fantasize about both quite a bit. His latest project, a drama called Tyrant, was just sold to FX, another Fox holding. Raff wrote the pilot, which is about “an unassuming American family drawn into the workings of a turbulent Middle Eastern nation.” Another endless cache of cheap tropes, no doubt. Huxley would be impressed.
Season 3: You gotta do what you gotta do
Homeland stars Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson, the bearded interim CIA director, and Claire Danes as the super-wired agent Carrie Mathison, who is in love with twitchy POW and sometimes sleeper agent Nicholas Brody, played by Damien Lewis. The cast is rounded out by a devious looking, ethnically vague, Dar Adal, played by F. Murray Abraham, and Rupert Friend playing the aforementioned Quinn, who always follows orders. He even shoots Carrie – a shoulder wound – when she goes off-script during an operation. She always goes off-script during operations. And we love her for it. Any wrong she does is for love of Brody, or love of country.
Any wrong the Islamists do, however, is because they hate America, and are inherently evil.
If you get that, you get the underlying premise of Season 3. Gone are matters of conscience, like when Saul gave the Vice President a scolding in Season 1 after discovering a covered-up CIA drone strike on a school that killed 82 children, presumably in Pakistan. That strike is what apparently led to Brody’s Islamic conversion. The implicit question of blowback was there the whole time for further development, but sadly, it went absolutely nowhere.
The transference from a Sunni al Qaeda to Shia Iranian threat all begins in Season 2 when we are supposed to believe that Iranian-backed Hezbollah is helping Abu Nazir – Brody’s former captor, described as a Palestinian refugee-turned-al Qaeda ringleader in Pakistan – fund an elaborate attack in the US.
“In the real world, the animosity and mistrust between the Sunni extremist al-Qaida and Shia Hezbollah is so great that it’s highly unlikely they would ever cooperate,” wrote Laila Al-Arian, in “TV’s most Islamophobic show,” for Salon in 2012.
“But in the world of ‘Homeland,’ Hezbollah, which has never threatened an attack on US soil, is not only a close ally of Abu Nazir, but is able to deploy heavily armed commando units to attack a CIA team in rural Pennsylvania.”
Carrie ends up killing Nazir, but not before he and his Hezbollah friends bomb the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. As al Qaeda fades as an existential threat to the US, on the show and in real life, this fictitious assault on the “homeland” offers a new raison d’etre for the continued proliferation of the Military, Surveillance Industrial Complex (MSIC), and elevates Iran as the new “ultimate enemy” of the United States.
The hawks at the American Enterprise Institute couldn’t have dreamed a better plot device – or a more stereotypical villain. When the chief suspect in the Langley bombing, senior Iranian intelligence officer Majid Javadi, is lured to the states on a pretense, he makes a stop at his ex-wife’s house in Maryland, where he proceeds to stab her in the neck with a broken bottle in front of her grandson. When Javadi is asked why he killed her, he calmly responds, “she betrayed me.”
What’s amazing is that Javadi is never taken into custody – he is instead “turned” and sent back to Tehran as a spy. In fact, though more than 200 Americans died in the Langley bombing, and Saul & Company know who did it, there are no show trials, no open threats of retaliation, no war. The CIA merely sends Quinn out to assassinate each of the remaining suspects, at one point killing a young boy by mistake.
Everyone is expendable, even bi-polar Carrie, who is put in and out of the booby hatch at the CIA’s will. Meanwhile Carrie implores the one Muslim CIA agent on the show to use her family’s home as a safe house for Brody to meet Mossad agents in Tehran, knowing the woman’s uncle would be put in mortal danger. Do it for your brothers and sisters at Langley, Carrie says. Yuck.
Meanwhile, the Israeli intelligence agency gets soft treatment on Homeland. When Saul finds out a Mossad agent is sleeping with his wife to get to him, Saul tosses him into a “dark cell.” But instead of exploring the ramifications of Israeli spies infiltrating CIA’s top leadership, Saul grabs the guy by the lapels and tells him he has to get his friends to help the CIA’s mission in Tehran. Suddenly, the Mossad and Carrie are working together to help Brody assassinate the head of the IRGC, which he manages to do in Episode 11.
Javadi executes Brody publicly in the season finale. Saul is retired. Carrie is carrying Brody’s baby. Ironically, Saul gets credit for ultimately bringing Iran to the negotiating table, meaning, all the illegality, the torture, the assassinations, Brody’s death, pay off. And Carrie and Saul remain the most sympathetic characters because whatever they did, it was for the “right reasons,” and the CIA is ultimately an institution of self-sacrificing patriots. Is this really art imitating life? There’s certainly a bunch of people on Capitol Hill and K Street who’d like us to think so.
Shows like this use cheap thrills and suspense to peddle government policy, the way it is, and the way powerful interests hope it will be. In this case, policies that encourage continued hostilities with, and the degradation of, Iran. That’s not just entertainment. That’s propaganda.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com, a regular contributor to antiwar.com, and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine.