Pamela AuCoin has a piece up at IndieWire that, in what seems to me to be a fairly aggressive misreading of the first season of Homeland, argues that the show takes a dishonest approach towards the intelligence community that ends up validating the war on terror. While I think it’s absolutely true that Homeland argues that we need a vigilant bureaucracy to address a risk of terror that I don’t think any sensible person would deny exists though reasonable people can argue over the magnitude, I think the show is vary more intelligent than AuCoin gives it credit for about parsing terror-fighting techniques.
First, she argues that Carrie’s actions are: “quite horrifying; she installs bugs on the home of a terror suspect, which she has been ordered to take down before she can gather any meaningful intelligence. Isn’t that convenient? Our civil liberties are what come between sniffing out Al Qaeda operatives, who just won’t allow well-meaning if somewhat psychotic spies to do their jobs properly.” But this is a total misreading of Carrie’s bugging activities. The cameras turn up no useful information. Carrie’s first break in the case comes from analyzing publicly available cable footage and finding Brody’s tell. The fact that Carrie’s been spying on him ruins the rapport she’s building with him in person when she accidentally reveals that she knows more about him than she could have without surveillance. And not only does the show emphasize that Carrie’s surveillance of Brody is ineffective, it’s repeatedly and clearly stated by credible actors that it’s illegal. (Relatedly, AuCoin says that Carrie doesn’t lose her job, which is true in that incident, but factually untrue by the end of the season).
Second, she says that the al Qaeda operative who commits suicide was about to give up valuable information. But I’m not actually sure what textual evidence there is that the information he was about to surrender would be significant, actionable, or even true. If anything, the man seemed relatively stoic throughout his ordeal, his suicide a triumphant martyr’s death rather than a desperate act to preserve his silence. By contrast, Saul’s road trip with a homegrown terrorist produces the first break in the case, revealing that Tom Walker is alive. He uses conversation, compassion, and intellect to get her to talk—and the show devotes an entire episode to showing how and why that approach works.
I’m also puzzled by her assertion that, after the effort to capture Tom Walker goes wrong, “the issue is not dealt with; it is understood this will not create an international or even domestic incident. They are Muslims, and therefore expendable; this seems to be the show’s message.” Again, on a factual basis, the idea that the shooting isn’t dealt with isn’t supported by the text of the show: there are protests after the shooting, and Carrie says clearly that the shooting is a public relations disaster that her agency should deal with directly and compassionately. That they don’t is a clear strategic and moral error. And to say that the show’s message is that Muslims are expendable is a dramatic and offensive misreading of a show that treats Muslim prayers as lovely; has the show’s most prominent Muslim talk at length about the beauty and joy his faith has brought into his life; and argues that we should sympathize with that Muslim because of his outrage over the murder of Muslims in a drone strike that treated Muslim children as acceptable collateral damage.
Finally, AuCoin seems to assume that the audience for Homeland is too stupid to parse the gap between how the characters view themselves and how we’re clearly supposed to view them. Yes, David has a lot of power and is told he’s smart: we’re also show than he’s venal, ambitious, petty, close-minded, and an enabler of the Vice President who is more interested in beefing up his anti-terror credentials than the truth. AuCoin praises a British show called The Sandbaggers because “The agency bosses are portrayed as careerists, all too willing to send the sandbaggers on highly dangerous and morally ambiguous missions while they wine, dine, and dream of knighthood.” it’s hard to imagine a better description of David Estes. AuCoin says Homeland would “would never go so far as to suggest that there is something rotten about the State Department, whose endorsement of internationally illegal prisons abroad has served to encourage the growth of terror cells and damaged our authenticity when we criticize other nations like China, Syria, and Russia for not respecting civil liberties,” except that the show clearly shows a lower-level State Department official objecting to CIA tactics only to get sold out by his bosses and rolled by the CIA in such a way that even casual viewers couldn’t miss it. Carrie’s errors and insane decisions, including her affair with Brody, are clearly errors and insane decisions. And if Homeland doesn’t pick up on AuCoin’s pet issue, it makes a strong, sustained argument against the use of drone strikes.
And it’s not really true that “Carrie is the rogue genius who might become occasionally unhinged, but her unorthodox methods are what is needed, and can lead to results.” Carrie’s brain works faster than her colleagues, but her tragedy is less that the people around her can’t understand her, but that her mental illness causes her to undermine her own good, legitimate work and prevents her from presenting it in a way that resonates with and is comprehensible to her colleagues. Given that the first season of Homeland literally ends with her wiping her own brain via electroshock therapy and Saul begging her not to do it, it’s nigh-incomprehensible to me that someone would argue that the show is endorsing a vision of the CIA rife with rogue agents: it’s clear that both Carrie and the organization she works for are deeply broken.