Friday, October 12, 2012

No Heroes, No Villains: Homeland’s Moral Confusion

Showtime’s terrorism drama Homeland is the television king of the hill. For its inaugural season it recently took the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series, and Best Actor and Best Actress awards for its two leads. The final episode of season one was the most-watched finale of any rookie Showtime series, and it just kicked off its highly anticipated second season. But underneath its polished production values and top-notch writing is a moral muddle that may undermine its dramatic impact in the long run.

For those who haven’t been following – SPOILER ALERT – the show centers on a U.S. Marine named Brody (actor Damian Lewis), missing and presumed dead in Iraq since 2003, who is rescued and brought home to Washington D.C. to a lot of CIA self-congratulation and media fanfare. He rides his war hero popularity all the way into political office, and by season two he is a Congressman being courted for the presidential running mate.

But that’s not all he is. CIA analyst Carrie (Claire Danes​) rightly suspects that Brody is a sleeper agent here to carry out an attack from terrorist mastermind Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban). That makes Brody a rather unique protagonist – “a whole new breed of lead character,” as the Los Angeles Times put it, “neither antihero nor villain.” Nor hero.

Lewis said Homeland is “asking provocative questions about the nature of good and evil.” His colleague Negahban explained in a recent video interview that the show’s characters “were not developed as heroes and villains.” Executive producer Howard Gordon says the Homeland world view is “a gray space of not knowing who the good guys and bad guys are.”

What does this mean for a television audience that, consciously or not, has more traditional expectations of clearcut moral conflict? How do we empathize with, much less root for, a protagonist who is actually in league with the enemy? How do we hiss at a villain who, as Negahban puts it in his interview, is no different from us? In the end are we emotionally satisfied if good doesn’t triumph over evil, if there aren’t even any white hats or black hats to begin with, only gray ones?

No doubt these are precisely the kinds of compelling questions that the Homeland creators are exploring and want us to wrestle with, and so far the show is so well done that viewers are willing to go along for the ride while such questions remain unanswered. But for how long?

Humanity is infinitely diverse, but we are, all of us, storytelling beings. We are hard-wired to spin tales and be enthralled by them. They serve a number of purposes for us, but the most captivating and meaningful stories are morality tales in which sympathetic characters either triumph through virtue or are undone by a tragic flaw, eliciting a sense of almost spiritual elevation and offering us models for our own behavior.

To impact us that successfully, as Homeland progresses through its second season and beyond, the show may ultimately have to choose a moral direction or risk stalling in its tracks.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 10/11/12)