How ‘Homeland’ Glamorizes Torture


As the first half of the television season begins to wrap up, and some series with shorter seasons hurtle towards their finales, shows have started their usual ramp up in narrative pace. The stakes get increasingly a little higher, as audience adrenaline runs a little faster. This season of Homeland has filled my Sunday evening Twitter stream with variations on, “OMG HOMELAND!!!” — until two weeks ago, when it was all “WTF HOMELAND!?!” and then this past Sunday, where it was more: “Hmmm. Homeland?” This is not what we were expecting.

But the season isn’t over yet, and Homeland still has time to pull a fast one on us, then leave us hanging until next season. It’s been a shaky and oftentimes bizarre last few episodes, and viewers are starting to get nervous – spinning their own conspiracy theories about how the whole thing might play out. “The show has to be smarter than this,” is what they seem to say. As much as any TV fan is devoted to their shows of choice, the kind of devotion witnessed with Homeland viewers is its own special case. Since winning all the laurels of Best New Television Ever, the show has kept its cohort of intelligent viewers through its much lauded script, acting, and cleverly networked plotlines. Homeland can’t just end! It has to end with emotional and narrative realism, with political integrity. But when the pacing of Season 2 has been so sloppy, and even its use of technology so unrealistic, could that possibly be where it will end up?

Rather than explain Sunday’s episode into narrative sense, I want to consider why we might feel less than satisfied with what Homeland actually did present to us. Rather than see it as a decoy episode on the rise to some final climax – I want to pause and see why last night felt so anticlimactic. Dramatic tension is, as we’ve learned from horror films, generated though the expectation of violence. Was Homeland anticlimactic simply because it lacked such suspense?

To repeat something Alyssa Rosenberg wrote last week, I “wonder if our television needs to take a chill pill for a while.” In a way, that’s what Homeland did this week. Perhaps death doesn’t always need to be paraded – perhaps it’s in a show’s best dramatic interest to represent violence without any visual display or cathartic maliciousness. (Has anything been so brutal as The White Ribbon?) The list of contemporary shows on overkill certainly doesn’t end with Homeland, as Rosenberg notes also Scandal, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Revenge, and Sons of Anarchy, among others.

Still, Homeland seems to be perceived as more realistic than the shows above, which are accepted as schmaltzy and melodramatic. Game of Thrones is notoriously juicy – so good because, in many ways, it is so bad. And on Game of Thrones, a show that is frequently thought of as a guilty indulgence, the violence takes place in a semi-fantastical realm that resembles the Middle Ages. Game of Thrones was then; Homeland is seen as very much now.

Of course, that’s the cursory view: Homeland is as melodramatic and gothic as any other show. But, like any good interrogator, we might watch it for its emotional narratives, while still trying to tease out the hard facts. What happens if we try to think of all these shows outside of their genre- or time-settings? For something like torture, does it become as reprehensible in Homeland as it is in a show like American Horror Story?

Torture is so pervasive in American Horror Story that one can grow acclimatized to its occurrence, whereas in Homeland, torture is justified by the eventual acquirement of crucial information. Can American Horror Story get away with it because Murphy’s show sits so clearly in a horror genre setting? Does torture here get a pass because it’s always performed with a wink to the audience? I wonder if this only makes the occurrence of horror tropes outside of its genre worse.

Richard Beck is not a fan of Homeland, largely due to its use of torture and nationalistic justifications of violence. Homeland manipulates feeling – political or personal, it’s all the same on this show – to justify all ends. Nazir tortures Brody until he’s weak enough to be turned; the CIA interrogate-tortures Brody until he’s weak enough to open up about his past with Nazir. In the “Q&A” interrogation scene, Carrie explains to Brody (who has just been stabbed by Quinn) that Nazir won his loyalty through an emotional appeal that came only after much physical torture – while she performs the same tactic herself. The fact that there are two opposing ends both achieved through torture should prompt us to detach torture from its “justifications.” This means also separating torture from its place in any emotional or political narrative. Homeland places feeling, and most often love, as the basis for all proper action – in such a situation, love for one person can justify another’s death.

In a way, Homeland often does to viewers what it does to its interrogatees: pull them in by way of human relations, and then hit them when they’re least expecting it. The audience will work with what you give them; the audience will think it’s even right. At this point, many of us are caught on the spiraling narrative of Homeland, and our love-hate relationship with it could definitely be seen as somewhat torturous. This kind of investment – one that makes us complicit in Homeland’s ideologies – distracts from the fact that there is almost always a hit. Trained to expect a grand hit, we’ve also grown to desire it, and when it doesn’t come, we grow suspicious.

Abu Nazir’s unceremonious death (occurring before the season finale no less) seemed shocking because it was handled with so very little shock. Especially for a show notorious for its shock value, Homeland treated the death of its terrorist mastermind with none of the usual dramatic glorification. It didn’t involve gruesome or drawn-out violence. There was no interrogation, or revelation of new information. They didn’t find a mole, and no one can be sure of Brody’s allegiances. Abu Nazir feigned for a gun at his side, and then the CIA shot him.

Killing off a character – even if the character is more looming specter than active, rounded player – means something for any show. Now that Nazir is dead, there have been floating theories of Nazir’s evil twin, and predictions for Brody’s eventual death. The point is: death must mean something, especially in a show about terrorism. Death should amount to or answer for something. Unjustified death just won’t fly, and unglorified death seems somehow just as wasteful. In the most basic sense, death means in the television plot. That this death also needs to be accompanied with appropriately sadistic and showy violence is, however, something we might not wish to contemplate for so long.

Just because torture furthers American political efficacy and national security in Homeland doesn’t make it any less reprehensible than when it’s campily flaunted in American Horror Story. Call it “enhanced interrogation techniques,” dress it up with parameters of so-called justification – torture is still torture. Beyond that, there also stands little point in asking if Zero Dark Thirty , 24, or Homeland endorses torture. They certainly do. What remains more urgent is to prod why we remain so continuously surprised by this fact. Maybe, at least on TV, death can be made to mean differently.