Showtime: Please Don’t Let Carrie Become Jack Bauer

Homeland did not have the best night at the Emmys Sunday. Some critics may say that is because the show is going downhill, but we just have one suggestion for this quality series: Stop turning it into 24!

Homeland had a precipitous fall at Sunday night’s Emmy Awards. Despite being the toast of television only a year ago when the then-freshman series proved to be everyone’s new favorite by picking up golden statuette after golden statuette for Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series and, most deservingly, Outstanding Lead Actress in A Drama Series, the show this year did not walk away with the grand prize of the night. Instead, the Emmys found themselves back in the loving arms of AMC, finally ready to embrace critical darling Breaking Bad with an Outstanding Drama Series hug. Fortunately for Homeland fans, the series remains evergreen still in the categories of Writing and Lead Actress. How could they not award Claire Danes’ nuanced and methodically channeled mania? Yet, she was not the favorite of the night going in. The odds makers were all looking at newcomer Kerry Washington for ABC’s Scandal (a network drama winning, were they serious?). Some were also even pegging Vera Farmiga for Bates Motel. The reasons are two-fold. The first is that we are very much in a golden age of television drama thanks to the flourishing competition on cable. The other is the small but growing chorus of detractors who have turned on Showtime’s flagship in its sophmore year. Their criticisms were obviously widely accepted enough to cost the show Best Drama and point to a crescive issue that if not addressed could “Tom Walker” the whole series. This seeming repudiation of Homeland is falling under the building pop culture narrative that shifts directions like a mid-day tide: Season 2 of the Showtime CIA drama is just not very good. However, this suddenly acknowledged nugget of wisdom is not accurate in the least. Homeland is still a great show; we’re just worried that it’s becoming the one starring Jack Bauer and that insidiously ticking clock. Upon its premiere in 2011, Homeland hit viewers like a well-hidden rush hour surprise. Very loosely based (primarily for the show’s initial concept) on the Israeli program Hatufim, the Showtime remake changed the main focus from several prisoners of war returning home to that of CIA intelligence officer Carrie Mathison (Danes) and her unshakable conviction that one of these long-lost POWs, Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), is in fact a turned sleeper cell terrorist. Just as Brody found a new religion in Islam during his eight years of captivity in Iraq, so too did Carrie quickly discover a level of feverish devotion to the belief that Brody was a traitor, a tenet so blinding and all-consuming it was terrifying to any agnostics in the audience.
 What followed for nearly the whole season was a cat-and-mouse con game where the writers of the series continued testing the audience to both believe Carrie and despise her obsessive vilification of a man who clearly suffers a form of severe PTSD. From the way she spies on his crumbling domestic life to how she stalks him at support group meetings, it remained consistently difficult to believe she’s doing the right thing, especially after she starts shagging the terror suspect. But what really underlined this wonderfully serialized drama was how believably gray and ambiguous its morality appeared. If Brody was indeed a terrorist, he was not of the ilk found in most of pop culture, including the previous decade’s 900-pound televised gorilla, 24. Once confronted with the suffering that Brody experienced as a POW and continues to endure when he lacks the ability to sleep in his own bed, much less make love to his alienated wife, Carrie and the audience are forced to sympathize with him. This is particularly true after it’s revealed that a child he mentored while a prisoner, one he came to love like his own (as his two children grew up without him oceans away), was killed by an illegal drone strike executed under a hawkish vice president and sycophantic CIA director. However, for whatever pathos the show carefully cultivated for Brody prior to the big reveal, it was far wiser in the development of its true protagonist. Carrie is intentionally not the action hero that comes to define most spy games. Other than for a tearful confession, she never picks up a gun for the entire first season, and despite being mentally the toughest and most vindictive of all the spooks in her office, Danes and creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa never shy away from the feminine. Throughout the season, Carrie is forced to face the realistic consequences of her lifestyle and constantly compares herself to her sister, a mother of two children. Indeed, it is a peculiar thing that she only allows herself to be intimate with married men or white-collar narcissists in D.C. hotel bars. Most intriguingly, she suffers from an acute form of bipolar disorder, which she hides by having her pharmaceutical sister medicate her under the table. Carrie is a brilliant and tumultuous sea of conflicts and contradictions that are always battering against her psyche like she’s in the perpetual eye of a storm. She is both the Javert Hellhound of Justice and the insecure little girl constantly seeking the approval of her surrogate father Saul (Mandy Patinkin). In short, she is the most interesting protagonist on television because she is such a hot mess. She is heroically tenacious and damnably infuriating without ever going for the cheap audience thrill of shooting a rival down or dropping instant quotables like “I win.” This is probably because no matter what happens, she’ll never win.
 Carrie’s greatest triumph in Season 1 is her biggest defeat. As it turned out, Brody was a terrorist who planed to blow up the vice president, the joint chiefs and the leadership of the CIA with a suicide vest. Worse still, when he realized how close Carrie was to getting under his skin, he ratted out his former lover for having a mental disorder to the CIA brass who would then treat every one of her theories as the ravings of a crazy woman that broke the law to work at Langley. Carrie unknowingly prevents Brody from blowing himself up when she convinces his daughter to call daddy and talk him down, but Brody still ends the season as a war hero destined for a shining political career in the Democratic Party, and Carrie concludes it by being humiliated and disgraced, forced to ignore Saul’s objections and undergo electroconvulsive therapy. It is a quiet, harrowing ending that unapologetically denies audiences closure on the twelve episodes that they have witnessed. Such an articulate, character-driven series that avoided ever having a sincere action sequence, yet still somehow featured the most suspenseful climax of the year, surprised audiences with its verisimilitude. In reality, the thought of Carrie being able to fool the CIA into believing she had no mental illnesses is as improbable as Brody becoming the poster child for the DNC less than six months after returning home. Truly, the show’s most cartoonish aspects—D.C. politics condensed to moustache twirling fiends—probably were the most accepted by viewers at home. Still, everyone in the Beltway also loved its meticulously sordid web of lies and manipulation. Consider U.S. President Barack Obama calling it one of his favorite shows, and the giddy correlations made between Brody and Carrie’s affair to that of short-lived CIA Director David Petraeus and his biographer. In our post-9/11 world, the humanity of these characters hits closer to home than any scheming villain. Such a level of chilling nuance and grounded reality particularly surprised many of the show’s earliest critics who assumed that they would be getting something a little pulpier from creators Gordon and Gansa…two of the most well-known writers and executive producers from 24.
 When cultural historians and critics look back at the post-9/11 years for a window into the art and mindsets of Americans during those harrowing days, they’ll likely be better served by The Bourne Trilogy, The Dark Knight, and 24 than by any Oliver Stone or Kathryn Bigelow picture. Only in total fiction, even in the fantastic realm of superheroes, could our fears and anxieties be so freely and so uncompromisingly explored. And there was no bigger superhero for that era than Kiefer Sutherland’s perpetually pissed off Jack Bauer. The sole anchor of an eight-season series (besides latecomer audience favorite Mary Lynn Rajskub as Chloe O’Brian), Bauer was an ends-justify-the-means kind of guy who had no qualms about enhanced interrogation techniques. Hell, when an ACLU jackass tried to protect the civil liberties of an unrepentant terrorist, Jack tortured him too! That’s how you get results! Premiering only two months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, 24 bought into the Bush Era paranoia hook, line and sinker. Each season brought about a new “the end is nigh” terrorist plot that was always mere minutes from succeeding. In the series’ universe, two separate nuclear bomb attacks were implemented during separate occasions upon U.S. soil, a nuclear plant had a meltdown, and two sitting U.S. presidents were assassinated. Hell, another out-of-office president was assassinated by THE SITTING PRESIDENT in the first two minutes of the Season 5 premiere. And these successful attacks were always preludes to the REAL plan that Jack would prevent in the nick of time, but first there would need to be 22-23 hours of water-boarding, electro-shocking and phone-screaming to prepare audiences for the pyrrhic victory. In retrospect, 24 is a wonderfully camp artifact. A cultural relic from a horrifying time in the American psyche that will likely be viewed with the same fondness (or eye roll) as Red Dawn (1984) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Of course, it will also be remembered for how a tightly-woven and masterfully executed first season gave way to lesser quality years that eventually culminated in an episode where Jack Bauer literally put on a superhero costume to kidnap the Russian president who murdered a fictitious Middle Eastern leader to avert a peace treaty in the UN. In other words, it got pretty damn silly. And considering all the villains began in a shade of brown, before usually being revealed as Arab pawns for Eastern European, Chinese or Russian big bads, it will not look any better as time passes.
 Thus when Gordon, who was with 24 since its inception, and Gansa, who only came aboard near the end, teamed on a new terrorist-themed spook show, nobody was more surprised than 24’s harshest critics by its humanistic view of Muslims, and it’s decidedly non-heroic view of much of the CIA. Plus, to date Brody is the only terrorist mole (that we know of) inside the U.S. government. If this were 24, there’d be about two-dozen at this point. Unfortunately, Homeland Season 2 was not quite so flawless in its execution. Personally, I believe that there are two second seasons for Homeland. The first five episodes, more or less, revisit the white-knuckled thrills couched in a field of logic. Is Carrie being drawn back into the CIA in the first two episodes, which necessitates her running around Beirut to avoid local dissidents and authorities, realistic? Likely no more so than Brody being able to sneak a suicide vest into the same bunker as the VP was in Season 1. But Danes’ reliably fantastic performance, which displays equal amounts of fear and self-doubt to go along with her determination, sells returning to the line of fire just fine. Those first five episodes end at the natural climax of the show’s entire premise: Carrie confronts Brody about his terrorism with no excuses or dodges at the U.S. Congressman’s disposal. As much the wounded lover as disgusted patriot, Carrie blows the CIA operation to out Brody when she confronts him for his treachery in a shocking Episode 4 climax. “You’re a disgrace to your nation, Sgt. Nicholas Brody. You’re a traitor and a terrorist, and now it’s time you pay for them.” She practically spits this sweeping condemnation as he is blackbagged. But unlike that other spies and ‘splosions show, Homeland takes the moment to linger a minute longer on Carrie after Brody is dragged out of the room; she’s almost in tears. The concept reached its natural conclusion in the following episode when Carrie uses her romantic history with a still PTSD-raddled Brody as a tool to bend him to her will. He confesses everything in what could have been the show’s final hour, “Q&A.”
 Giving a “Series Finale” worthy episode less than halfway through the second season was a shockingly inventive move by writers who were already infamous for leaving audiences loopy from a constant barrage of twists and turns. However, there were still seven more episodes in that season alone. It is at this exact moment that the shadow of Jack Bauer began to grow around Carrie Mathison. Brody may have been broken, but instead of arresting a U.S. Congressman who actively plotted the murder of dozens of Americans (and had already killed a few others at this point), the CIA offers him a deal: Help them nab the Osama bin Laden-esque Abu Nazir, Brody’s captor and former friend, in return for quiet anonymity for his actions. Things of course do not go entirely to plan. In the next several hours of television, Brody manages to secretly assassinate the object of his anger, the admitted war criminal VP, and help Abu Nazir carry out the logistics of the murder with considerable ease. It couldn’t be too difficult, as Abu Nazir was chilling only a car ride away in Maryland. Imagine for a moment, if we discovered that bin Laden had been hiding in the D.C. suburbs scheming away against Dick Cheney when SEAL Team 6 got him, and you get the sense of the rest of Season 2. The final shocks of Season 1 were painstakingly set up from the very first episode—Brody’s long dead friend Tom Walker is alive; Brody is working with Tom; a fake-botched assassination (that we’ve been building toward since the second episode) will get the bomb through the metal detector with the vice president! The groundwork was long laid before the payoff. In contrast, the latter half of Season 2 is full of unbelievable curveballs that feel awkward for Homeland, but would have felt like the home turf of 24. The spies use a well-placed terrorist traitor to land an international name; said big name is hiding only a few miles from the Capitol; Carrie gets to lead the team that kills him. It is all very…convenient. Nothing is so much laid out as hastily thrown at the screen to create the sense of shock. By the time the last minute bomb goes off that takes out most of Langley and a few thousand people, we’ve left the authentic playing field of ill-equipped cowards and the most sophisticated intelligence community in history to an imaginary land where the terrorists are omnipotent and almost supernaturally predisposed to coyly slaughter tens of thousands every year. Season 2 ends by resetting the table and literally creating an inversion of the first perfect year: Brody is on the run for a crime he DIDN’T commit and is believed to be a terrorist by the whole country…save for Carrie Mathison who has a near religious fervor in proclaiming his innocence. How different, yet strangely familiar. The obvious worry is will Homeland become the next 24? After Carrie exposed Brody in 2×04 and broke him in 2×05, is there anywhere to go except further down the rabbit hole of scripted absurdity? I would like to think not. Perhaps the show has beaten the Brody storyline for all its worth at this point, and it may be time to seek greener pastures. Lewis is fantastic as the tragically used and abused former sergeant, but if I hear him scream once more into a phone, “WHERE IS SHE?!” I am unsure if I could handle the 2002-era Fox Network flashbacks. Brody works so beautifully, because he is a tightly wound ball of exposed nerves that looks ready to pop at any moment from the slightest touch. Then they got smashed with a hammer repeatedly during the Season 2 Finale. How much more punishment can he take as a now-permanent terrorist fugitive? Conversely, can Season 3 expand on the CIA storyline without it becoming a hunt for more moles and new threats after the much-targeted VP and CIA Director are in the ground.

 

 And yet, despite what snarkers Tweet, it’s way too early to proclaim that Homeland has jumped the shark. Consider the best news possible: Gordon and Gansa, along with series creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran and star Sutherland, have resurrected 24 for a 12-episode ninth season on Fox. Yep, Jack Bauer will see how the post-Iraq and post-Bin Laden world is treating him in 2014 when 24: Live Another Day premieres in May. The best medicine for such melodramatic plotting might be to allow the writers to indulge their guiltiest of twisty pleasures on another show. Meanwhile, they can focus on resuscitating the heart of Homeland from the ashes of TV Langley. The new trailer’s ponderous tone would suggest the showrunners did notice the quiet backlash to the end of Season 2. While there are brief, worrisome snippets of Brody pumping shotguns in what appears to be a South American jungle, the focus tends to be on how his family deals with his coming-out-party as a terrorist and, more interestingly, how Langley suffers the repercussions. For all the moles and successful terrorist attacks executed under CTU’s watch in 24, Jack Bauer never once had to stand before a congressional committee to explain how things got so FUBAR, as Carrie and Saul apparently do in Homeland’s Season 3 trailer. The trailer promises to go in some directions fans could not predict. But for Homeland that is always expected. The main concern is how much verisimilitude can be sprinkled atop that? Showtime, if you want to again reign at the top of the Emmy stage, please don’t let Carrie become Jack Bauer. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing.