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Homeland: Series Premiere

By Carl Stoffers · October 6, 2011

Based on the teasers and promos for Showtime’s newest original series Homeland, I was fully expecting the standard Tom Clancy-esque thriller, with Claire Danes starring as the squeaky-clean, patriotic, brilliant “Jack Ryan” type hero. I was wrong.

That’s not to say that Danes’ character, Carrie Mathison, isn’t brilliant. Or Patriotic. Or easy on the eyes. She’s all those things. But the character is much more than that, and that’s what really sucks you in to Homeland.

CIA Agent Mathison is immediately introduced as the protagonist, and it’s clear right off the bat that she’s a bit of a maverick. Nothing incredibly unique there, right? She causes an international incident in Iraq and is sent back to Washington. However, here is where the character gets her depth. She’s not the smart, well-adjusted, James Bond spy. Instead, she’s got more emotional and personal issues than a girl dancing the day shift at the local strip club.

Mathison’s personal problems are an excellent use of character contradiction. Outwardly, she’s an educated, intelligent, attractive woman with an exciting and important job. Behind the facade, however, she’s something of a disaster. Her apartment is a mess, she’s consistently late for everything, and she can’t seem to leave home without popping a pill. She wears a phony engagement ring, because “it weeds out the guys looking for a relationship” when picking up random men in bars. If characters really are icebergs, we’re just seeing the tip with Mathison, and her journey is certainly going to be a wild one, compelling and unexpected. Her emotional issues and apparent promiscuity make her especially vulnerable, particularly in her line of work. Without such depth and development within the main protagonist, the show would be just another spy cliché filled with stock characters we have been groomed to expect.

Her personal internal obstacles, however, aren’t the only problems facing Mathison. The premiere episode subtly begins lining up external obstacles and adversaries that she will have to overcome in order to prevent the next terrorist attack. These include the CIA bureaucracy, her mentor Saul (Mandy Patankin), and the show’s antagonist, Sgt. Brody (Damian Lewis). Obviously, the conflict between Brody and Mathison is inevitable, and in the end, only one will win, as both of their goals are complete polar opposites of the other.Sgt. Brody is a brainwashed American prisoner of war turned terrorist, and Agent Mathison is focused on only one thing on earth: stopping him. But the writers have begun assembling this conflict slowly, not rushing into it and allowing tension to build. The foundation is being laid for an eventual showdown as early as their first interaction, when a routine debrief turns into a pseudo interrogation. While Sgt. Brody doesn’t take the bait and get defensive, his glare says more than words.

Mathison’s relationship with her mentor, Saul, is also intriguing. There’s history there, and only a hint of it is given in the initial interactions between them. Saul is both mentor and protector, and it’s obvious he sees something in her abilities, but he often doesn’t approve of her methods.We learn that Saul has bailed her out of serious trouble at least once, when she bribed her way into an Iraqi prison to speak to an informant. It’s a classic relationship. Think Robert Duvall and Sean Penn in Colors. The wiser, older, more cautious mentor who’s seen it all and the young, talented, tormented renegade who often frustrates the mentor while still managing to make him/her proud. 

Perhaps the most compelling thing about the Mathison character is the extreme lengths she will go to in order to accomplish her goals, particularly when framed within the context of her own issues.When the CIA refuses to grant her permission to place Brody under surveillance, she simply has a few civilian acquaintances wire up his house with hidden audio and video. She’s flawed, but we feel empathy towards her. She desperately wants to stop whatever terrorist attack may be coming, a feeling any decent human being can relate to. Agent Mathison is one of the ‘good guys’ who sometimes makes bad choices, such as placing illegal wiretaps in the homes of private citizens. She is entirely human, and that’s what makes the character work.