Fictions of Terror: Complexity, Complicity and Insecurity in Homeland
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Fictions of Terror:
Complexity, Complicity and Insecurity in Homeland

At the 2012 Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, I seemed to be almost alone in my negative criticisms of Homeland’s (Showtime, 2011–) first season. Although the critical enthusiasm for the program from many of my colleagues was a welcome corrective to the relative absence of sustained scholarly discussions of entertainment television and ongoing US wars, I was surprised by what I saw as an emphasis on the putatively positive and progressive aspects of the program at the expense of Homeland’s more regressive ideologies and repressive politics.1 To be sure, Homeland intensifies the “many meanings, or polysemy, that television [already] offers” through its complex narrative and complicated characters to produce a level of enigmatic ambiguity that provides ample interpretive space for the overwhelming laudatory critical reception it has received.2 Yet these positive evaluations require a highly selective critical reading that problematically ignores or downplays the more salient and dominant meanings produced by the series. In what follows I elaborate on some of these meanings to argue that Homeland successfully exploits post-9/11 insecurities, psychological trauma, and narrative complexity to produce “quality” television propaganda for the Obama administration’s “overseas contingency operations” and its unprecedented domestic surveillance on the home front under the umbrella of an $80 billion US security state.3 [End Page 139]

There is no question that Homeland stands out in important ways from other examples of “terror TV” for, among other reasons, “its central premise that the trauma of war does not disappear,” for “calling attention to the covert and largely unreported drone wars,” and for its representation of the “psychic turmoil and bipolar extremes that have characterized . . . America’s collective response to the [2001] terrorist attacks.”4 I would argue, however, that Homeland is a complicit validation of these post-9/11 insecurities that in turn contributes to the public acceptance of arguments in favor of increasing homeland security at the expense of individual rights. In addition, agent Carrie Mathison’s gender, bipolar disorder, unorthodox counterterrorism methods (including illegal wiretapping and “sleeping with the enemy”), fierce independence, and “nearly pathological . . . devot[ion] to her job . . . [all] challenge the conventions of the male-oriented espionage thriller.”5 It is significant in this context, however, that Mathison’s obsessive work is being done for the CIA, which makes her character another example of television’s broader recruitment of fictional women to support the war on terror or to assist in covert operations at home in programs like The Unit (CBS, 2006–2009), Army Wives (Lifetime, 2007–2013), and Covert Affairs (USA, 2010–).

Similar to the Cold War logic of deterrence through arms escalation, according to Homeland, covert operations are necessary to prevent terrorist attacks while also having the inescapable consequence of creating more terrorist enemies. This is one of the many contradictions of the current US “democratic security state” that leads to increased support of military operations abroad and increased surveillance and counterterrorism operations at home.6 Homeland thus represents what we might call, following Richard Hofstadter’s classic Cold War thesis, a paranoid style in American television in which “the imitation of the enemy [is the] . . . fundamental paradox.”7 As Susan Buck-Morss notes in Thinking Past Terror, the result is that “terror produces terror . . . [as] we [are] subjected to the common paranoid vision of violence and counter-violence, and prohibited from engaging each other in a common public sphere.”8 Homeland’s paranoid style is biologically wired into Mathison, whose highly emotional and manic episodes provide her with a “superpower disorder” (as Danes and Homeland’s producers describe it) through which she is able to gather, interpret, and intuit intelligence in [End Page 140] ways that her rational male superiors cannot.9 When combined with her willingness to become emotionally connected to “assets” and terrorist suspects, Mathison becomes a uniquely effective and affective weapon in the “war against terror,” as the paranoid bipolar CIA agent off her antipsychotic medication is the one person who is able to see the post-9/11 world objectively enough to find the terrorists in our midst.10

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