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Truth Troubles: A Review of ‘Homeland’

By Gloria Origgi and Ariel Colonomos

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
John 8:32

This passage of the Bible is inscribed on the marble walls of the lobby of the CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. After passing through heavy security, this is probably the first thing visitors entering the building would see. Homeland – the 2012 award-winning American TV series – Obama’s favourite, we are being told – raises one important question: What is, then, the price to be paid for knowing such truth?

“I have never been so sure and so wrong”. This line in the mouth of Carrie – a manic bipolar CIA officer determined to stop Nicholas Brody, a former Marine and prisoner of war, who has been released from Iraq after eight years of torture and has been “turned” by Al-Qaeda – is the quintessence of the whole series, now in its second season.

Homeland brings together two essential dimensions of truth and identity, in a breathtaking superposition of identity of the self and political identity. The two main characters – Carrie and Brody – have both multiple identities. Carrie goes through phases of mania and depression. At the peaks of her condition – when she is hyperactive or utterly dejected – she delivers essential truths about the identity of her counterpart, Brodie, and about the future of the United States.


Promotional Poster for 'Homeland' TV Series (Scaled-down thumbnail image used under Fair Use; non-replaceable illustration for review purposes)

Brodie is Carrie’s enemy and her raison d’être. As such, naturally, he becomes her lover. Brodie is an equally ambiguous character. He has been turned, yet not completely: as such, he is a classic case of double allegiance. He is a congressman and yet is ready to blow himself up in a room where the top US military and the vice-president are gathered. Brodie is the reflection of the fantasies of the West, whose patriots fear being invaded from within by their natural enemies: Muslim fundamentalists. Last but not least, Brodie is also bisexual, another fear of the “enemy within”, i.e. the deep drives of the unconscious we all have to deal with. Believe it or not (for anyone who has not watched the show, this might seem a bit of a stretch), Brodie has been sexually ‘turned’ by US number one public enemy, Abu Nazir – a fancy Bin Laden.

There is no truth without ambivalence. This is the striking message carried by Homeland. Heroes are also traitors, and masters of intelligence are also delusional. Yet, there is something special in the way in which ambivalence is staged here: the essential dramatic texture of the whole story is based on the fundamental ambivalence not only of the characters, but of the values they embody and of the emotions they solicit in us. As if the series was able to broadcast the slow but inevitable loss of the monopoly of truth – the Good Truth, the Right Truth, the one we attain through the appropriate methods – which America is facing today.

Carrie is a modern oracle. Her outstanding ability to track the truth is invaluable, and her bosses at the CIA know this very well. Yet, her methods are sometimes odd, based on intuition instead of evidence, and her style of inquiry too disrespectful of rules. She allows herself to make unauthorized moves in order to come up with results, thereby putting herself and the CIA at risk. At the same time, she is a very attractive woman, with a restless mind of rare subtlety.

Brody is the mirror image of Carrie’s ambivalent truth: he has actually been turned by Abu Nazir, but now that he is back, he hesitates, goes back and forth, from the horrible tortures he underwent in Iraq, to the memories of the discovery of a new world of values with Abu Nazir, who protected him, helped him and became his lover. His being turned touches upon all the dimensions of his life: psychological, sexual, political and religious. When – at the beginning of season 2 – his wife discovers that he prays as a Muslim, she exclaims in horror: “This just can’t happen!”.

Brody elicits in us mixed feelings: we are horrified by the intolerant and narrow-minded reaction of his wife, who cannot acknowledge another religious credo, but are also horrified when we discover that he is actually ready to kill the vice-president. Yet, his reasons for losing faith in his country are the killing of civilians, including children – notably, of Abu Nazir’s son.

Brody’s truth is unstable, Carrie’s truth is volatile, and the audience is trapped in their ambivalent posture, going back and forth between heroism and cowardice, between objective truth and intuition, between reasons that are too many in number, yet seem all in all plausible.

What is shocking to an audience of our generation is that, for the first time, a U.S. TV show puts on stage the duplicity of truth, as if discriminating between good and evil were a long bygone endeavour. And this state of permanent moral ambivalence permeates the psyche of the audience to the point of exhaustion: we simply cannot bear such an uncertain world. We oscillate between the two sides of the truth as the plot unfolds through a series of spectacular turns and twists that are the mirror of this feeling of instability.

Carrie and Brodie are imprisoned in their double truths and are looking for a way out. They disturb the certainties of the people around them. They also dissolve the simplistic commitment to “The Truth” and “The Good” of the other characters. Indeed, the other characters are monoliths by comparison. Thus, Carrie’s mentor is a (good Jewish) father figure, Saul Berenson, who has just broken up with his wife, an Indian woman, whom we see (towards the middle of season 1) leaving her husband to return “home”. There was no place to stay for her in Saul’s patriotic and monastic life in Washington DC. Brodie’s wife is middle-class America at its best, with all its limitations. Her truth is simple and transparent. She strives for stability and a linear career that will land her husband in the White House (and, as for herself, will ultimately allow her to host charity dinners with the wives of other DC power brokers).

The uncertainty of the global order becomes the psychical instability of its subjects, in a sort of “collective manic-depression” in which we can no longer choose the right course of action, but can only oscillate permanently between a two-sided truth. Ironically, during the Cold War, bipolarity was used to refer to the stability of the balance of power that ruled the relation between the Soviet Union and the United States. In the post-9/11 era, bipolarity is internalized in the deep instability of the self, which reflects the trouble relation between the US and its ‘devils du jour’, both internal and external.

Homeland reminds us that the moral and political order of our world and its cognitive/epistemic order are impossible to disentangle. The ‘homeland’ that we all miss today is the homeland of a simple objective truth about how things are and how they should be. A truth that used to reassure us and made our decisions and actions grounded on a firm footing. As Odysseus already knew, outside our lost homeland, there is hell, permanent doubt and, in the end, loss. 

Homeland (TV Series, 2011-)
Starring Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Morena Baccarin et al.
Showtime (CBS Corporation), New York.

Gloria Origgi is a philosopher and a researcher at the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris (Institut Nicod). She is the author of numerous articles in social epistemology and related areas; her most recent book is on the issue of trust as a philosophical problem (Qu’est-que la confiance? Vrin, Paris 2008). Ariel Colonomos is a senior research fellow at CNRS and a research professor at Sciences Po, Paris. He has previously taught at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and is the author of the forthcoming book The Gamble of War: Is It Possible to Justify Preventive War? (Palgrave-Macmillan, London 2013).

(c) 2012 The Berlin Review of Books.