Late in the first episode of the new Homeland season, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is chilling out with beers and a televised baseball game in the CIA’s Kabul station canteen when she’s approached by a young Air Force pilot—the guy, it turns out, who flew the ill-advised bombing strike that Carrie had ordered the day before, in which 40 attendees at a Pakistani wedding party were killed. Their highly unpleasant interchange—he’s devastated by what he’s done and angry that she doesn’t feel rotten, too—ends with his denouncing her and all the higher-ups whose bidding he must do: “Monsters,” he says. “You’re all fucking monsters.”
He’s right. And therein lies the problem for Homeland’s devoted viewers (me included) as the series picks up Carrie’s story after the execution of her foe-turned-lover, Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), at the end of season three. Carrie and Brody were both morally problematic characters—to say the least—but they were humanized by their crazy romance and their willingness to go rogue, as necessary, to protect each other. Now, without Brody, Carrie seems to have no moral anchor whatsoever—not even their daughter, born after Brody’s death. Lest childcare intrude on her career, Carrie shunts the baby off to her sister. When she’s forced to spend one day looking after her during a visit home, Carrie comes this close to drowning her daughter in the bathtub.
This is not a well woman. But we were already well acquainted with Carrie’s schizophrenia and pathological narcissism. Beyond the ever-present mental health issues, something is horribly altered in Carrie. In a rage over Carrie’s parental irresponsibility, her psychiatrist sister yells at her, “There’s no diagnosis for what’s wrong with you!” But there is. Carrie is sliding into a territory that might as well be called by its proper name: evil. She plays the great game of espionage with smarts, skill and a nervous, self-conscious kind of chutzpah, but over this season’s first several episodes she seems to have abandoned any shred of conscience. Because defeating terrorism justifies any means whatsoever, there’s less and less to distinguish Carrie from the “bad guys” she’s at war with. They think nothing of slaughtering people and ruining innocents’ lives to advance their cause, and neither, it appears, does she. No more spoilers here, but her exploitation of the scared, emotionally ravaged Pakistani medical student Aayan (Suraj Sharma)—whose story is central to this season’s plot—is just plain sickening.
We’ve seen this kind of downward trajectory elsewhere. Breaking Bad’s main character, Walter White, gradually descended into a moral netherworld, showing himself capable of beastly violence and grotesque betrayal. But as depraved an antihero as Walter became, he somehow managed to remain sympathetic, perhaps because a flicker of his original purpose—to ensure his family’s well-being—survived to the end, or maybe because his misdeeds brought him such Job-like suffering.
Carrie’s purposes (proving her competence, saving the world) are more professional and abstract. She does suffer, but her suffering mostly consists of irritation that people, especially CIA hit man Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend)—a professional assassin who intermittently does possess a conscience—don’t automatically do what she wants them to. And while Bryan Cranston’s Walter White became scarier and scarier to watch, Danes’s Carrie grows ever more annoying. Danes equips her character with a diagnostic manual’s worth of aggravating tics—the eye-rolls, flared nostrils, frustrated pouts, and the way she constantly shakes her lank blond mane and pushes stray locks back behind her ears. It’s a masterful physical performance, and it’ll drive you nuts.
Homeland is posing a question that Breaking Bad and other recent series have asked—though, in my opinion, even more uncomfortably: Will viewers continue to identify with, or feel sympathy for, or even be willing to go on watching a protagonist who, beyond defects of temper and manner, has become a moral monster? For myself, I’m not sure. There’s lots I like about the new Homeland season: the languorous yet suspenseful pacing, the noirish visuals, the treatment of Pakistani characters as real, complexly motivated people, and—I’ve got to say it—Rupert Friend’s breathtakingly sexy body (on glorious view in episode three). But I’m really not sure how much more of Carrie I can take.
Photo courtesy of Everett