Magazine article The Christian Century

Spies and Traitors

Magazine article The Christian Century

Spies and Traitors

Article excerpt

I got into Homeland for local reasons. The action takes place in Washington, D.C., but the Showtime TV series is shot in my state--in Charlotte, North Carolina. Mandy Patinkin, the marvelous actor who was memorable as Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride ("You killed my father. Prepare to die"), plays Saul Berenson, the mentor to Claire Danes's lead spy. He's not only been spotted around Charlotte, he's made his home there and said nice things about it. As a southerner I find myself beholden to such niceties.

The show is a redux of a redux. It's based on an Israeli book and TV series about captured Israeli soldiers turned into spies by Hamas. That story was based on the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate. The Israeli show was popular and controversial: people worried that it would encourage kidnappings and attempted turnings. The show's genius lay partly in its ability to make persuasive the scenario of turning a soldier into an enemy spy. In Homeland, the worry is that a U.S. marine has become not only a Muslim but a spy for al-Qaeda. Herein also lies a problem with the series: Do we really need another show equating Islamic practice with terrorism?

As marine sergeant Nicholas Brody, Damian Lewis is so convincing that even his Islamic prayer seems elegant. He washes his hands, sweeps the floor, puts his hands behind his ears and intones, "Allahu Akbar." That he's doing this in his garage without the knowledge of his wife and children is key to the plot. That he's doing this at the terrifying conclusion of the show's first episode is supposed to cement in the audience's mind that this man is a mole, a traitor, a terrorist.

At other times the show goes out of its way to suggest that not all Muslims are terrorists: some become informants for the CIA, others carry out important ministry to the downtrodden, and lots of others are innocents blown up as a result of U.S. mistakes or faulty policy. The figure of Brody, the idealized marine hero who prays like a Muslim, captures a primal American fear: maybe "we" are not so different from "them."

The first episode opens with a group of marines blowing their way into a bunker in Afghanistan and pulling out, to their surprise, a scraggly red-headed American POW. This rescue is a coup for the CIA, but one agent smells a rat. Operations officer Carrie Mathison had heard from an asset in the region that a U.S. soldier had been turned. She's skeptical of Brody from the start and so risks jail by illegally spying on him. She fidgets nervously as she watches the Brody family readjust to one another: husband and wife together in bed, children with a father they last knew when they were toddlers. As viewers, we're watching her watching them. Is anybody not under surveillance anymore?

Berenson is the show's conscience. He is Gandalf without the wizardry, here packaged as a Jew from Indiana who doesn't practice his religion much but knows how to say kaddish over a dead body. When he learns of Mathi son's clandestine operation, he advises her to get a good lawyer. But she manages to convince him that Brody is up to something. Still, he shuts the surveillance down: all the hunches in the world are not enough to "violate the constitutionally protected right to privacy of the Brody family. …

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