Homeland review: necessary escapism as we succumb to the coming darkness

Homeland has returned but thanks to a certain president-elect, reality is making its political fictions seem a bit quaint

Take a sneak peek at the first episode of Homeland series six as the hit US show returns to Irish television. Video: Showcase


It’s the week of the presidential inauguration, when Donald Trump, surrounded by his appointees – Nazagaroth Destroyer of Worlds, Deathbot 2000, Markheph of the Underverse, Goooth The Soul Eater and Steve from Breitbart – becomes a vessel for the old gods and commences Ragnarok and several millennia of interminable night.

Homeland (RTE 2, Tuesday) sets its sixth series between the election and inauguration of a similarly zeitgeist-shifting president, but in the Homeland universe it’s a fictional “Madam president-elect” who has dove-ish foreign policy tendencies and a disconcerting way of sucking on a yogurt spoon.

Television drama may no longer be equal to representing the political moment. Our one-time fictional political leaders all seem tainted with boring bureaucratic sanity these days – from Frank Underwood (a morally nuanced change-maker) to Immortan Joe (a committed family man) to HR Pufnstuf (good hair) to the Mayor in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (charming and possessed by just one apocalyptic snake demon as opposed to a whole nest of them).

Homeland stumbles into the same difficulties with its depiction of their unpredictable new president (Elizabeth Marvel). She is, like Trump, hostile to the concerns of intelligence agencies and, arguably like Trump, may have a secret agenda. However, her conflict with intelligence agencies plays out more traditionally as a policy battle between hawks (like the excellent F Murray Abraham’s Dar Adal) and doves, and not a battle between hawks, doves and short-nubbined KGB clown-fish.

Homeland has changed a lot since its debut in the pre-post-truth world of 2011. It began as the tale of a returning military hostage Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis) brainwashed by his captors (a straight-ish remake of the Israeli drama Hatufim), but they stretched that premise to breaking point and finally had to let go of it in the third season with the death of Brody.

Even so, you could sense a nervous reluctance to shed Lewis and I imagine they at least considered recasting him as his own infant daughter. They did not (though there’s still time and part of me would like to see that) and the show regained some narrative sanity.

Now each series of Homeland begins with a reinvention for ex CIA operative Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) before she engages with a new terrorist crisis (“Pesky terrorists!” she cries shaking her fist in the air Victor Meldrew-style). The crazed jazz scores that were often used to indicate her unsettled state of mind are calmer this year.

She’s back living in the US as a working mother running an NGO that provides legal assistance to Muslim Americans railroaded by the security agencies she once worked for. She is still an edgy, worried, overly conspicuous presence with suspiciously bad people skills for a spy, trying to help both her damaged friend and colleague Quinn (Peter Friend) who has, miraculously, survived Sarin-gas poisoning, and Sekou Bou (J Mallory McCree) a young Muslim American charged with producing videos inciting terrorism under a raft of controversial anti-terrorism laws.

It is, like the best early episodes, moody and slow. There’s a lot of focus on disabled and vulnerable Quinn as he smokes crack and is duped and mugged by sex workers, and there are lots of beautifully filmed shots from his damaged, slightly hallucinogenic perspective.

But by the end of the episode, the season’s master-narrative is only hinted at. There’s a possible conspiracy of intelligence agencies, a hint of terrorism connected to Sekou Bou and a suggestion that Carrie might be wasting her life helping people, when she could be off cavorting with terrorist double agents and having people shot.

Homeland, like 24, has become synonymous with a paranoid American worldview that assumes international terrorism is, basically, all about them. This sees its greatest flowering in the upcoming administration (see first paragraph for details). The new episode of Homeland has the usual topical nods - references to Edward Snowden, a Muslim deportation and a rule-breaking new incoming president – and it sets up a now depressingly familiar ideological tension between fear (there are terrorists everywhere!) and liberty (it’s wrong to operate a surveillance state!).

As usual, such nuance will soon be put to the service of another race-against-time caper to protect America. Still, I enjoy the slow scene-setting and anticipate that Homeland’s tales of a terror-besieged state will be necessary escapism as we succumb to the coming darkness. It’s the calm before the stupid, basically.

Under surveillance
Anyway, my workmate Geoff and I were discussing the surveillance state the other day. To be honest, it was largely me doing the talking. Geoff doesn’t say much and he’s a little stiff, but he does have a way of staring at you with his roundy eyes that makes you feel truly listened to. He also clicks and whirs sometimes, which is his way. I like him a lot.

So can you imagine my surprise and horror to see my behaviour being narrated by David Tennant on Spy in the Wild (BBC1) and to find that Geoff is actually a glorified humanoid camera-stand and not, in fact, my best bosom buddy and chum.

Spy in the Wild is a documentary series in which uncannily robotic animals with cameras for eyes are used to infiltrate throngs of elephants, meerkats, hyenas, chimpanzees and orang-utans to often spectacular effect (in last week’s episode a group of langur monkeys appeared to mourn over an inert and malfunctioning camera/monkey).

I kind of love it, even though I’m pretty sure the best footage I’m seeing doesn’t come from the disturbing animatronic puppet-cams. And I’m weirdly troubled by the ethics of it all. Do the animals sign release forms? Do they get embarrassed when they see themselves on television being duped by these clockwork beings? Do animals watch television? Is there a class action suit in the works against the BBC, possibly overseen by an owl in a suit? (That would be adorable).

On Thursday’s episode (spoiler alert), we witness Caledonian crows wielding sticks as tools, orang-utans who steal soap and wash themselves in the river, and sea-otters feeding their young. We see a chimpanzee angrily shaking a branch at a fake bush-baby camera to impress a female (I never shook branches at Geoff to impress a female, I don’t care what David Tennant says).

We also see squirrels who steal from their co-squirrels and drongo birds who fake predatory calls in order to separate gullible meerkats from their food. I think legally this constitutes entrapment and the squirrels should sue, but I’m probably just hurting over Geoff. I also assume that somewhere a drongo-bird is tweeting: “Dishonest media spreads FAKE NEWS. Sad.”

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