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Stop Calling “Homeland” The Anti-“24”

What’s “Homeland”’s secret?

The Showtime hit – which debuts its second season on Sunday and, earlier this week, won Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actor, Outstanding Lead Actress, Best Writing, and Best Drama – has definitely got one. More than one, actually, as a plot recap makes clear: Marine-turned-al-Qaeda hostage Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) returns home to a hero’s welcome after his rescue by American forces. From the first episode, though, CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) believes that he’s secretly an al Qaeda agent. However, Carrie – hiding her bipolar disorder from her employers – can’t convince them, leaving her swinging between an urgent desire to act and paralyzing self-doubt.

There’s certainly something to “Homeland” that goes beyond cat and mouse, cloak and dagger. Some critics, like the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, say that the appeal of “Homeland” is that it’s the anti-“24.” That show, the argument goes, was W’s righteous might writ large for the small screen, a cinematic case that America could be trusted with harsh interrogations and military force. “Homeland,” meanwhile, embodies the wrenching ambiguities that cable loves: Carrie’s wavering is that of an America that, after its fraught interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, now doubts the morality of hard power. (Certainly, the motivation for Brody’s actions, when revealed, suggests that an excess of American force can lead to blowback like nobody’s business.)

But questions of moral power aren’t really what make “Homeland” tick. In fact, its characters have few qualms about using harsh coercion when they decide it’s necessary. Whether it’s bullet-ridden battles through the streets of Washington, an interrogation of an al Qaeda agent using Bush-era “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or the illegal bugging of citizens’ homes, the central characters are hardly reluctant warriors. Even Carrie’s far more cautious mentor and superior Saul (Mandy Patinkin), generally understood to be the show’s moral compass, has been known to tell State Department representatives to screw the CIA charter.

Characters only feel regret when coercion doesn’t work. And that seems to be the show’s point: it’s not about morality, but capability. Mirroring Carrie’s bipolarity, “Homeland” swings between exhilaration and frustration, jubilation and despair. But these shifts are about success and failure, not about right and wrong. (Blowback isn’t about morality; it’s about whether you really finished the job.) Impressively, the show doesn’t simply match manic energy with hard power and depressive lassitude with soft. The infectious mania of success can appear as powerfully from a slow process of psychological persuasion or a flash of insight as it can from flash-bang grenades.

And then there’s the flip side: the depression of failures – failures of hypotheses (on our part as well as the characters’: we keep getting things wrong, and wrong again, as the writers continually confound our expectations); failures of action; failures of character. It’s in this last area where the most depressing spectacle is raised. Because ultimately, the show’s challenge is not whether or not hard power is right, or even whether or not it works. The show’s deepest concern is about the capacity of America’s soft power – of the homeland, in other words – to defuse the implacability of its enemies.

“Homeland” – in part, perhaps, because it is a show, a creative fiction – believes in the power of persuasive narrative. And because it’s a high-pedigreed cable show of our day and age, where a program’s merit stems from its ability to weave character nuance and social panorama together, it believes the most persuasive narratives are, well, homelandesque: where the stories of people are the stories of our society. What will bring terrorists to their knees is bringing them to our side, by showing them that the promise of democracy is the promise of domestic bliss: two sides of the same American coin. In a seemingly minor –  but deeply indicative –  scene, Carrie successfully coerces a Middle Eastern diplomat not by threatening to out him as a homosexual, but by threatening to cut short his daughter’s successful flowering in the Ivy League by deporting her back to the Middle East, where her intellectual prospects would wither. Similarly, Brody’s family pulls him back from the brink: when Carrie and Saul’s operational capacity fails, the lure of Mom, children, and apple pie will succeed.

Or will it? The show’s endorsement of soft power is not wholehearted. “Homeland” also raises the prospect of its potential failure, speaking to an age where Americans are not only anxious about the decline of their hard power but are questioning the lure of the American dream itself. Even after the Middle Eastern diplomat aids Carrie by arranging a meeting between her and a terrorist suspect, his efforts end in disaster. The suspect remotely detonates a briefcase bomb in Washington D.C.’s Farragut Square, killing three civilians and, most jarringly, the diplomat himself. The attack also triggers Carrie’s bipolar disorder, preventing her from stopping Brody as he, despite all the pie in the world, turns back to al Qaeda and, but for a faulty trigger, nearly assassinates the entire leadership of the U.S. government. Such ambivalence about soft power speaks to an age where Americans are not only anxious about the decline of their hard power but are questioning the lure of the American dream itself.

As season two begins, the big question looming over the show is what happens when soft power also fails. But don’t expect that question to be answered soon, if at all. Like “The Wire,” “Homeland” isn’t afraid to suggest that the fights it portrays, whether against terror or the vicissitudes of bipolarity, are ongoing struggles. (Pretty useful, one might add, for a series which aspires to many seasons.) Victories are fleeting; defeats are gradual and corrosive. In the end, Brody’s story may conclude, dramatically or not; Carrie may flame out or somehow keep it going. (Here, of course, the meta-narratives of the entertainment industry have something to say about it, too; it’s hard to see Showtime continuing with the show if, say, Danes pulled out.) But the true secret to “Homeland” is that it can go on as long as America faces threats, tries to confront them – and, in doing so, ponders the means of its success.

Jordan Chandler Hirsch is a J.D. Candidate at Yale Law School and a former Staff Editor at Foreign Affairs. Jeremy Dauber is a professor of Jewish literature at Columbia University and teaches in the American Studies program.