America loves politics so it’s no surprise that the political thriller and the political drama have been successful genres of American television for years. In addition to the huge success of these genres in Hollywood blockbusters like Zero Dark Thirty or Argo, television shows like The West Wing and 24 have demonstrated that there is an audience for political genres no matter the format. The popularity of these genres has undoubtedly produced many recognizable cliches. When I first heard about Homeland, I wasn’t expecting much beyond a remake of 24 only this time Jack Bauer is a woman. However, after watching the first season, I was blown away by the stellar quality of the show’s content. What impressed me most was how the show managed to take a stale genre and breathe new life into it. It’s not only the best show in its genre that I’ve seen in recent memory, but it’s also one of the best shows I’ve seen in the last five years. Here are three cliches of the political thriller Homeland defies in its first season. (Minor spoilers ahead).
The Super Duper Female Agent:
For people in my generation, it might be difficult to remember that there was a time when a female protagonist in an action role would be considered unusual. With the rise of feminism in the world storytelling, female action leads like Ellen Ripley, Buffy Summers, or Sarah Connor have not only become commonplace but also iconic figures of pop-culture. However, like anything that reaches iconic status, the tough as nails female action hero eventually became cliche as well. Much like their male counterparts (the uber-macho figures from the eighties, the bread and butter of actors like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger) the unstoppable female action hero needed deconstructing if it was going to evolve any further.
Homeland’s Carrie Mathison is a great example of this kind of beneficial deconstruction. Her character breaks down and examines a very specific branch of female action hero, the ambitious female secret agent. If I described an unnamed character as a female government operative who is willing to do whatever it takes in order to get results, who doesn’t let the fact that they are playing in a “man’s game” get them down, you could probably think of a handful of other characters that fit that description. Carrie is really a bundle of female agent stereotypes rolled into one. She bends the rules. She’s married to the job. She uses her sexuality as a weapon. Her methods are dangerous but in the end she gets results. These are all traits we’ve seen many times before in the political thriller and espionage genres.
What makes Carrie a fascinating character, however, is the way these traits are presented to the audience. Carrie exhibits all of the qualities we are used to associating with a strong female character, while at the same time, behaving as an undeniably terrible and emotionally fragile individual. There is absolutely no pedestal here. There is just a woman who is mentally troubled and her deficiencies just happen to make her a great CIA operative. Her obsession with finding Abu Nazir is like something from the mind of Joseph Conrad or Herman Melville. She manipulates the few friends and family members who will still trust her until they abandon her. She neglects her body and her emotional well being, and when things start to fall apart, she falls apart with them. But she’s good at what she does, perhaps even the best. At the end of the day, she’s less hero and more antihero, a role of which we’ve had few true female examples, especially in television, despite living in a world of Don Drapers and Walter Whites. In our haste to tear down male society’s preconceived ideals regarding women, we often unintentionally put women on a different kind of pedestal, but a pedestal nonetheless. Overtime these new stereotypes have become just as limiting in the creative sphere. The flaws that make Carrie an interesting heroine are the same flaws that make her a realistic and believable character.