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Homeland’s Guilt Trip

The show started out exploiting fears of Islamic terror. The latest season represents an awkward transition to a new political era.


Since leaving its original setting of Washington, D.C., three years ago, the show Homeland has undergone a shift in scenery with each season. But the current season, the show’s sixth, has seen a sudden shift in ethos, as well. It offers a reformed and repentant Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), who is now working with a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to Muslims in the U.S. In the premiere, the former CIA counterterrorism officer rages at the police for “demonizing an entire community.” “This whole country,” she later says, “went stupid crazy after 9/11.” It is an indictment that could be read as a mea culpa from the show itself, a vestige of the post-9/11 mindset that now finds its values exposed to the cold light of a very different political environment.

The show’s abrupt change in tone prompted Dorothy Rabinowitz of The Wall Street Journal to complain of a new “politically correct” Homeland. Fox News, frightened and/or confused, published the headline, “Homeland takes a left turn? New season focuses on Muslim civil rights, female president-elect’s CIA battles.” The new season also features hoarse, abrasive monologues by a talk show radio host modeled on the conspiracy theory–monger Alex Jones. No wonder Rush Limbaugh, a disillusioned former fan, wrote, “Homeland Premiere Will Make You Feel Angry, Betrayed.”

Even for liberals, the shift is sharp and strange—and awkwardly transparent. Homeland has long been criticized for stoking Islamophobia with its relentless perpetuation of the Muslim terrorist stereotype. (A Salon article dubbed it “TV’s most Islamophobic show” back in 2012.) So why the change of heart? It would seem that, after watching Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric grow darker throughout 2015 and 2016, the showrunners woke up to the repercussions of their contribution to America’s understanding of Islam. It certainly must be disconcerting to realize you’re a primary cultural engine for the stereotypes that make a bigoted demagogue’s rhetoric politically viable. And it is especially uncomfortable if you consider yourself “way left of center,” as showrunner Alex Gansa does.

So Homeland must make amends. As Sophie Gilbert noted in her Atlantic review, “Homeland’s Crisis of Conscience,” this season has attempted to flip the script, “turning U.S. intelligence agencies into [the show’s] primary villains.” We are introduced to a new Muslim character named Sekou Bah (J. Mallory McCree), a young Nigerian-American wrongly arrested on terror-related charges. He is a victim of the state, defended by our hero with her trademark recklessness and conviction. Sekou is an example of how young, black, Muslim men—marginalized in their communities, disillusioned by American imperialism—can be crushed for even a whiff of dissent. The season’s early episodes spend a lot narrative energy exploring the corruption of the FBI for entrapping him. He engages in an instructive, ideological debate with Carrie over the uses of inflammatory speech. So far, so good.

Then, at the end of episode four, he’s blown up.

In an interview with CNN early this year, Gansa attributed Homeland’s rejiggering, in part, to the November 2015 attacks on Paris, which occurred the day before the show was set to film the season five finale about an Islamic State attack on a Berlin train station. The attacks made them question their responsibility in telling “a story like this,” said Gansa, who started to wonder if they were “sensationalizing stuff.” It took this dreadful parallel for Gansa to conclude that, for season six, “we’re not going to do a terrorist attack in New York. We don’t want to pile on in terms of the fear that prevalent in our culture right now.”

Fear, however, has always been Homeland’s modus operandi. Its first season told the story of an American soldier who has been converted to Islam and brainwashed into conducting a terrorist attack against his own people. The fear of Islam is mental, spiritual, physical; it is all-encompassing. With season six, Homeland’s central plot for the first time is not about trying to prevent an attack by Islamic terrorists. But, as in real life, fear of the other cannot so easily transition to a wholehearted embrace.

In a narrative set-up that offers room for a great deal of interaction with Muslim characters, there have been really only two non-terrorist Muslim characters before this season. These were Fara (Nazanin Boniadi), a Persian CIA analyst who grew into a significant supporting character over the course of two seasons, and Aayan (Suraj Sharma), a Pakistani medical student and Carrie’s unwitting asset. Both were largely developed in season four, and both were fridged in quick succession. The choice to kill off Fara, in particular, was somewhat inexplicable. She was a growing character whose backstory was compelling, whose subplots were enjoyable to watch. When a Taliban villain puts a knife to her throat, perpetual background character Max yells, “Take me!” And it’s hard not to wonder…why not him? Sekou serves a similar function in season six—he is collateral damage in the writer’s room, which disproportionately sacrifices its Muslim characters in a bid to develop Carrie’s own.

There was also the bizarre decision to suddenly out Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham), now the sixth season’s cartoon villain, as the show’s only gay character, which came off as the grown-up version of queer-coding bad guys. (Plus, Dar is the only character with an ambiguously Arabic name, for some reason.) In this new enlightened version of Homeland, the only explicitly Muslim character left is Javadi (Shaun Toub), an Iranian double agent who blew up Langley and brutally murdered two women on camera in season three.

But if we set decisions about casting and character development aside, we see another, even bigger problem—one that rests with Homeland’s form. My colleague Jo Livingstone once wrote of Sherlock that a successful detective story requires the presumption of a stable society. The spy story, in contrast, requires the presumption of a world in constant turmoil—where stability is a paper-thin veneer over a sinister undercurrent of outsider threats, presided over by corrupt or incompetent government. As showrunner Howard Gordon told the New York Times, the mission of the show is to “talk about the folly of government, of American policy, of misunderstanding, misapprehension.”

The most successful spy drama currently on TV, The Americans, returns to the historical moment that birthed the spy drama, and is now relevant in ways that its creators could not have foreseen. Meanwhile, Homeland is stuck with the Soviet Union’s successor as an existential threat, “radical Islam.” The whole premise of the show is that radical Islam poses a grave danger to the stability of American life, which is kept at bay only by a handful of super-spies who flout the rules on things like torture or surveillance. (It’s worth remembering that Gordon was also behind 24, the purest distillation of the American id following the September 11 attacks.) But while the threat of terrorism is real, it turned out the even greater danger was where this obsessive fear of the other would lead us.

In reality, Muslims live in our country. They endure prejudice and violence. Most are not terrorists. But as most Americans rarely or never encounter a Muslim person in their actual lives, they are routinely subject to television’s views of them. On just the night it aired, the season six premiere of Homeland garnered two and a half million viewers. Season five, which focused on Islamic terrorism in Europe, had an average weekly viewership of six million. That is almost twice the size of the entire Muslim population of the United States.

The “conundrum” is, as Gordon himself noted, that “the show is about counterterrorism.” Does Homeland make entertaining television? Sometimes. Has it been harmful? Very probably. Is a counterterrorism spy drama capable of making the kind of meaningful insights its showrunners aspire to make? Frankly, no, at least not without making itself incoherent, as season six threatens to do. Homeland’s creators are claiming, more self-consciously than ever, that the show has always been a critique of the American government. But it comes off as a tardy attempt to rip out the Islamophobia that has always been its essential center.