The Beauty Of Prayer In ‘Homeland’ And ‘Sleeper Cell’

As Homeland unfolds this fall, I’ve been watching Sleeper Cell, the network’s earlier show on the same subject, to keep me sated between episodes. And one thing that’s struck me forcefully about both shows is that even thought they’re portraying practitioners of Islam who are using — or may use, we don’t know on Homeland — their religion to justify terrorism, both shows consistently portray the act of prayer as beautiful, no matter who’s praying, or no matter what they’re getting out of it.

In Sleeper Cell, shots linger over cell members and anti-extremist preachers alike washing their hands and feet in preparation for prayer. When the cell members pray in the desert, they’re beautifully backlit. And when Darwyn takes a young wannabe-jihadist to a moderate mosque, the singing sounds good, and the joy of the worshippers is palpable. It’s hard to capture the sacred, especially because it’s something that mostly happens in people’s heads — we don’t really live in an era of special effects-friendly bushes burning in the desert. But repeating the ritual shows down a show that’s got plenty of sex and violence in it, it’s a tonal break, and it creates a sense that the people repeating that ritual are powerfully elsewhere when they perform it.

Homeland‘s taking a similar approach. In Brody’s memories, when he leaves his cell during his captivity, one of the first things he sees, the first shaft of light, falls on Muslim men at prayer. And when we see him praying for the first time after his return to the United States, the light that seeps under the garage door transforms a mundane suburban space into a house of worship. In Sunday’s episode, the show expands that ritual, showing Brody washing his hands in a beautiful vessel. And later, the show juxtaposes Carrie’s discovery of that silver bowl with shots of Brody at church with his family, the silence of the dish in contrast with the sound of a hymn.

I appreciate those conscious choices. Faith in popular culture is so often reduced to signifying ridiculousness or righteousness that it ignores what faith means to people inwardly in favor of a focus on what other people assume faith signifies externally. Making at least a gesture towards it, and in two charged shows about terrorism and national security, asserting that faith is bigger than its worst outcomes, is important, and all too rare.