'Homeland' returns steeped in D.C. dystopia

TV offers sharpest look at why we hate Washington

September 27, 2013|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

It is hard to imagine any city in the nation being more reviled by Americans these days than Washington.

The standoff last week among the White House, Senate and House of Representatives as the clock wound down on the country’s ability to pay its bills was yet another example of the partisan posturing and dysfunction that so dominates life in the nation’s capital.

Meanwhile, our leading news channels have become more ideologically oriented and less interested in helping viewers sort through the self-serving lies and spin. The priorities of some like Fox News and MSNBC are obvious, but CNN is just as bad, with such shows as “Crossfire” trying to package warfare as entertainment.

Happily, there is one realm of media that is offering informed commentary on the dystopia that D.C. has become: scripted series television, with such set-in-Washington productions as “Veep” (HBO), “House of Cards” (Netflix), “Scandal” (ABC) and “Homeland,” which returns for its third season at 9 p.m. Sunday on Showtime. All four were on prominent display at last Sunday’s Emmys telecast.

While I have been reporting on and writing extensively about “Veep” and “House of Cards” the last two years because they are made in Baltimore, it is the return of “Homeland” that reminded me of the deeper ways in which these fictional series are raising issues and asking questions about Washington that even journalism isn’t.

The third season opens almost three months after the car-bomb explosion at CIA headquarters that took 219 lives in last year’s finale of “Homeland.” A global manhunt is under way for Nick Brody (Damian Lewis), the alleged bomber.

Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) is now the acting head of the agency, which is fighting for its life after its failure to protect its turf in Langley against terrorism.

As Sen. Andrew Lockhart (Tracy Letts) puts it at the start of a closed-door hearing into the bombing: “It’s beyond argument that the agency is severely crippled — its management ranks decimated and its reputation in tatters. The question before us is plain: How can the CIA be expected to protect this country if it can’t even protect itself?”

The agency is trying to demonstrate its mettle by targeting terrorists linked to the bombing for assassination. One thread of Sunday’s episode involves a meticulously timed campaign to kill six of those terrorists in a 20-minute window.

It makes for great TV drama, as Saul is given a rundown of people on the “kill list” and is asked for approval to execute the campaign.

Urging him to greenlight the kill is Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham), another old CIA hand, who now appears to be Saul’s primary confidant despite their differences in philosophy. Adal argues that without a big “win,” the agency could have its charter revoked and be out of business altogether.

He underscores the precariousness of the agency’s existence by pointing out to Saul that no effort has been made to repair the damage done at Langley by the bomb, while the “jackhammers and cranes” were at work repairing the damage to the Pentagon one day after 9/11.

But Saul, being Saul, wants more time to think it through. And the more he thinks, the more existential and depressed he gets about where he and the agency have gone.

In an intimate, dark-night-of-the-soul scene, Saul is asked by his wife, Mira (Sarita Choudhury), what’s holding him back from going ahead with the assassination of the alleged terrorists. Like Adal, she sees it only as a “win-win” operation.

“We’re not assassins,” Saul says sadly. “We’re spies. We don’t kill our targets if we don’t have to. We troll for them. We develop them. And then we redeploy them against more important targets.”

The moral force and melancholic tone with which Patinkin delivers the “we’re not assassins” stopped me cold as I watched the scene. I stopped the DVD to think about his words. And as I did, I realized how dramatically our national character had changed since 9/11 — from the president on down to regular citizens like me.

Where was the questioning or national discussion when we found out that President Barack Obama and top counterterrorism officials were meeting on a regular basis to review “kill lists” — some of which included Americans, according to a New York Times article in May 2012?

And how did the Times find out? Was it the result of a leak from the administration itself — a leak that was intended to portray the president as a tough leader in a dangerous world?

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