Homeland is a series that will consume your every spare hour, and do not let that put you off. With the fourth season coming up in a few weeks and the first two now being available on Netflix, I decided to give this political thriller series a go. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Claire Danes in anything new, and I’m a fan of hers, and I hadn’t seen much of Damian Lewis before but really enjoyed him in the Much Ado About Nothing adaptation from the BBC series ShakespeaRe-Told in 2005. Watching the National Theatre’s live broadcast of Medea (well worth a watch, by the way) recently put me in mind of him, given his link with Helen McCrory, and so I was reminded that I had some homework to catch up on.
If you haven’t seen any Homeland, you’re missing out. It’s an addictive drama following intelligence officer Carrie Mathison (Danes) through her investigation into a returning P.O.W. marine (Lewis). The story is fairly simple; our protagonist is the only person who’s joined the dots the way she has, and everyone around her sees two and two making five, while to the audience it’s painfully obvious that we are working with four. Her voice within the C.I.A. is clearly a respected authority up to a point; convenient negations include (if you’re looking for it) womanhood and all its inextricable vulnerability, a Big Mistake somewhere in her working past, and a constricting mental illness that rears its ugly head as the series goes on. While the tropes are as frustrating as they are designed to be, the story is incredibly well-paced, making for compelling viewing. There are some predictable turns – no one really believes America’s most important bits are going to be ended in season one, do they? And there are reasons to be on edge about the acting before you’ve seen it – any actor attempting to live in a character for a whole series with an accent that isn’t their own is in danger of being too distracted by their vocal task to do a good job of convincing us of who they are. A white, red-haired, British actor who is so perfectly suited to the camp role of Benedick for instance, is now playing an almost thuggish, passive-aggressive, scarily unpredictable soldier with controversial motives. Throughout the series I felt incredibly uneasy around Sergeant Nicholas Brody, and I thought it might be for these reasons alone. But having finished the season and left it alone for a few days I’m now inclined to think that Lewis is pretty damn good, and that the awkwardness is simply down to how detestable and threatening his character is, albeit one you can somehow empathise with. After all, a surprising development in Mathison’s relationship with him that I initially declared unbelievable does seem to have struck a chord with me, on reflection. And, like Mathison, whatever I think of him, I’m hooked on watching him. I like to think the team would be pretty pleased with that kind of response.
Danes has a much clearer run at delivering an impressive character profile, with so many – successfully achieved – opportunities for really spreading her legs as an actor. I won’t go into any more detail there, it’s not needed. Her character and her acting are both really worth your time.
Many Patinkin (The Princess Bride) serves as a father-figure to Mathison and is as good as always. Her boss (David Harewood) is sadly completely uninteresting, but then, so are real people, sometimes. It just adds an unwanted layer to the frustration factor because we’ve heard so many stories these days that obstinately unquestioning and apathetic characters like these seem like an unnecessary detour from the real story being revealed; almost a cheat to get out of having to execute the impressive climax that the beginning really sets us up for here. But hey, what do I know, the pacing really worked and by the climax of series one I was practically panting, so maybe that stuff is an inextricable value of good storytelling.
I do feel a tad uncomfortable with some of the portrayal of bipolar disorder. I don’t know the illness very well, but the action didn’t seem completely compatible with what facts I have been taught, so they’re possibly taking a damaging step backwards in the minds of mental health awareness experts. But they’re not the first, and they seemed to have an amount of research and good intentions in there somewhere.
The production values are typically smooth for the high quality TV we’re used to in 2014; it’s a solidly attractive show. The sets and people look good, and the jazz-addled soundtrack – written and performed originally, I believe, by Sean Callery – is hauntingly unsettling and alien yet fitting, setting the tone for Mathison’s internal struggle perfectly.
I think what keeps me watching is mainly the actors – every one is compelling, and they’re allowed to be by the editing team, which is actually quite rare. I’m looking forward to delving into this story again. I’ll meet you at season four.
Season 1 trailer