Depicting a Tainted World (Homeland Rewatch S1.E1-S1.E4)

The events of September 11, 2001 have had a vast effect on the way that America is viewed not only by the world, but by its own citizens. A great nation suffered a tragedy that infected the collective conscious of its people. In the time following WWII America built itself to be understood as a beacon of stability and a nation that could not be touched by foreign foes that disagreed with western ideals or looked to exercise any form of physical aggression (at least not on American soil). The events of 9/11 caused these notions to crumble and the post 9/11 America has become tainted by paranoia about the intention of “others,” harbors a consistent feeling of uncertainty about the world around us, and is being forced to redefine what it means to be American.

The first episodes of Showtime’s Homeland are heavily playing to the aforementioned themes, right down to the opening sequence (first seen in episode two). Although Clarie Danes once told Stephen Colbert that she was unsure of the meaning of the opening of her own show, I must contend that the opening actually fits quite nicely with the premise of the show. The use of Jazz, in and of itself, signals something quintessentially American born. Jazz’s use of syncopation, which highlights the oft present but hidden offbeat is an astute metaphor for the work that is done by intelligence officers who are tasked with uncovering secrets. This music often heavily relies on improvisation, a suitable homage to the often-unpredictable circumstances and quick reactions of agents in the field. Call and response, another common component of jazz, also comes to mind as it is so often compared to human communication. Call and response relies on a “back and forth” where each player is directly influencing and mutually creating a musical environment, which is a great symbol for both the political and personal “calls and responses” throughout the show that work together to shape the convoluted narrative.

The imagery of the opening sequence is just as important as it highlights the complicated political backdrop from which the show’s story emerged. This end is accomplished through the use of actual news clips of past American presidents and historical events alongside maze imagery that calls attention to the complicated (and sometimes disorienting) nature of politics. The visuals also suggest a loss of innocence through clips of children playing alongside more catastrophic world events  (such as 9/11). The glitching and upside down orientation of some of the images adds to the notion that, for Americans, the world has “turned upside down,” has become tainted, and that there is an unease or uncertainty about the future.

In addition, every individual within the main cast is depicted in such a way that the audience can be reasonably skeptical of the character’s motives. Carrie Mathison clearly has a brilliant mind, but operates with a questionable (or at least personally prescribed) set of morals and has a secret (yet to be specifically disclosed) mental disorder that requires the use of heavy anti-psychotics. Nicholas Brody comes home after years of living at the mercy of “the enemy,” taking on “their” faith, at times speaking ill of the war and American intentions in the middle east, displaying disturbing behaviors, and even providing some questionable intelligence regarding his time as a Prisoncarrie-and-brody-rainer of War. Each of these characters walks precariously along a fine line between hero and anti-hero, each episode providing evidence about the protagonists that strengthens claims that each of them could arguably belong on either side of that line. This muddling of binaristic ideas has become something of a preoccupation across post 9/11 media, forcing audiences to recognize their entertainment (and ultimately the world around them) through a more complex lens (Schopp 32). This idea becomes even more complicated by the end of episode four, in which there is a clear flirtation emerging between these two individuals.

This tainting of the world and the seeming unreliability of the show’s narrators invites the sense that the world of Homeland is essentially a dangerous iteration of the carnivalesque where the usual authority holds little power and the general rules are tossed to the wayside. This paradigm draws in the television audience to a world in which what they think they know is constantly being called into question. Within the narrative space, the lines that separate the good and bad are continuously challenged. This paradigm pulls the audience of Homeland into a narrative in which paranoia is at the center.

Where human nature tends to favor certainty, Homeland‘s first episodes are capitalizing on a cultural zeitgeist that has been tarnished by uncertainty and paranoia. From the first four episodes, audiences are able to find a place to stew in their own cultural uncertainties and find characters that affirm their own feeling of unease about both America’s future and, ultimately, their own.

Works Cited

Schopp, Andrew and Matthew B. Hill. “Introduction: The Curious Knot.” War on Terror and American Pop Culture: September 11 and Beyond. Madison, WI: Associated UP, 2009. 11-44.

13 thoughts on “Depicting a Tainted World (Homeland Rewatch S1.E1-S1.E4)

  1. Marilyn,
    I like your concept of “realities” especially multiple realities. I agree with you that the first four episodes highlight the cultural differences (anxiety) associated with cross-cultural interaction. I noticed the first four episodes play on America “melting pot” metaphor by showing how some people do everything in their power to highlight our differences.
    Cool analysis

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  2. I always find Stephen Colbert funny and I respect what he does, but this clip is really obnoxious. That opening montage is artsy, yes, but to try to browbeat the celebrity/producer Claire Danes into giving him an explanation of what it “means”? That’s crude and demeaning. I can’t imagine him doing a similar schtick with Damien Lewis or Howard Gordon. I guess Claire Danes’ blond hair gives the Colbert and Lettermans of the world license to turn her art into a joke.
    I think you eloquently laid out how Homeland plays to our anxiety and paranoia about recent world events. I remain interested in how it’s a double structure to be both a critique of that anxiety but to also use the paranoia to accentuate these same fears. Hope that makes sense.

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    1. I agree. It was kind of a low blow on Colbert’s part. I am also interested to pay particular attention during this viewing regarding the double structure. This show seems to do a great job at pushing us back and forth across the fence (if that makes sense) so I look forward to looking at that aspect with a more critical eye this time through.

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  3. Marilyn, I really liked your analysis of the opening sequence. The analogy of the maze and the upside down images were especially poignant. I did not think about Jazz’s use of syncopation as a metaphor of the work intelligence does. That is very interesting!

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  4. Your point about the show giving just enough skepticism for each character is well taken! Seeing the images of Brody beating his fellow soldier to death really makes his “playful” attitude towards Carrie at the end of Episode 4 sort of eerie to me. I’m anxious to see how Brody in particular walks this “fine line” and how much sympathy we are asked to give him.

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  5. I like your approach regarding post-9/11 paranoia, but wonder how different this paranoia is than the paranoia of many war time/post-war time narratives. I know many scholars view the early films noir of the 1940s as capturing wartime anxieties, and there have always been films dealing with the threat of invasion/infiltration from enemy force. We can think of popular, well-regarded spy films, such as North by Northwest, or even less remembered ones, like the John Wayne vehicle Big Jim McLain, as examples of films playing on the anxieties of foreign-bred infiltration into America. Are the differences between Homeland and some of these earlier films greater than the similarities?

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    1. I think that you bring up a very good point and I am not convinced that it is much different than those earlier attempts to play on paranoia through film. If nothing else, this certainly illustrates the continuing effort by the media industry to effectively capitalize on a society’s cultural anxieties.

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  6. I really enjoy that you pointed out the hero and anti-hero going on between Carrie and Brody. The show has done an excellent job so far in making sure you are constantly on your toes and anxious about who is the bad guy. Its obvious that sometimes with Carrie she is doing things that many do not think is right. While on the other hand you feel sympathy with Brody because he had no control over what happened to him and how he has turned out.I’m eager to see how they continue this.

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  7. I like how you bring up “the unreliability of the show’s narrators.” I became conflicted when Carrie started flirting, in a way that seemed genuine to me, with Brody, who she has so far been convinced is up to something bad. I’m not sure how much we can trust her motives or what we think we know about her feelings.

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    1. I agree. And on Brody’s part, if he actually is up to something nefarious, I wonder how genuine his flirtation with Carrie actually is. Perhaps he already suspects that she is keeping track of him (in other words, does he actually believe their “chance” encounter is really all that related to “chance” at all?).

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  8. I enjoy your (very-well written,) insights on the first four episodes! What you discuss is something that I thought a lot about watching the first four episodes. The idea of “paranoia” when it comes to security is definitely something evident in the show, but I like that you pointed out the “skepticism,” we as an audience also have about each of these characters. You point out Carrie and Brody, but I think (as you mentioned,) it applies to each of the characters in the show. For example, Estes current motives are in question (considering he apologizes to Carrie after asking an agent to keep an eye on her..) I agree with Dr. Chown- I am interested to see if the show critiques our collective anxieties, or justifies them (and provokes them.)

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  9. I don’t remember enough to know if this opening sequence is used throughout the series or if it is changes with seasons. It does seem a bit out there and it surprises me that Claire Danes, herself, says that she doesn’t even fully understand what it means. While the visuals are intriguing, I question their relevance. The excerpts of dialogue from the pilot, however, intrigue me and lead me to believe (or at least hope) that more is explained about her role in 9/11 since it is important enough to include as the introduction to every episode.

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