Idiot Box: TV’s moral insurgency

October 9, 2014

Politics and television are hardly strangers—the drama, intrigue, and pantsuits of the former are often perfectly suited to the latter, if a tad exaggerated. The challenge of political TV is bringing the politics to a personal plane, humanizing the suits behind the decisions, and resisting the urge to make morally simplistic portrayals.

The new season of Homeland is an ethical tug-of-war, taking the real-life contention of drone strikes and posing troubling questions about means and ends. Our familiar protagonist, Carrie, is caught in the middle of this Machiavellian conflict. Her role as a decision-maker behind an ill-advised strike on a wedding party places her in a position of justifiable blame that she blithely shakes off.

When a lieutenant confronts her about the attack, calling her a “monster,” it’s difficult to be truly sympathetic to her side. Her lack of remorse for collateral casualties casts her as a cold-hearted bureaucrat objectifying figures on a screen. A clever device allows us to see the story on the other side of that screen: a boy whose family was killed in the strike gets unwillingly caught up in the subsequent media circus.

While his story is a good balance for the narrative arc, he’s often cast as a little too noble, leaning too far to one side of a moral binary that Carrie seems to be on the other side of. “I try to see the bigger picture,” she says, a simple, yet chilling statement when human life hangs in the balance. It begs the question of how leaders differentiate between political strategy on the macro level and the less palatable consequences on the micro level.

This isn’t a Carrie we’ve seen before. The power and security of finally having a stable job, after seasons of fluctuating in and out of the CIA’s good graces and payroll, appears to have corrupted what used to be her previously impervious moral compass.

It’s a development that both makes her a less likable character and also provides an interesting complication to the show. What happens when a person downtrodden by the system has to turn around and pick up the pieces of her life?

Carrie’s answer is switching off emotion and exiling herself to a war zone, buying into the morally ambiguous status quo in order to grasp any traces of stability. That is, of course, when Carrie’s idea of stability means divorce from any kind of emotional relationship, including with her baby daughter.

The first two episodes of the season, in fact, read as a handy guide for “How Not To Be A Mother.” It kind of makes you wish Oprah would swoop down in a deus ex machina moment and tell Carrie how to be her best self. Obviously, there’s a double standard at play here; a bad mother will almost always get more flack than a bad father would, as Don Draper of Mad Men and Walter White of Breaking Bad prove.

It’s strange, however, to be putting Carrie on the same plane as a couple of TV’s greatest anti-heroes at all. Their motivations are not so simple, though power and fortune seem to be common denominators. What appears to tie anti-heroes together is initially a good motive for morally questionable actions, often twisting into something far less justifiable. 

Carrie, the former truth crusader who went through all levels of hell to exculpate the good guys and bring the bad guys to justice, is now an expert manipulator. She blackmails without blinking in order to stay in the field and avoid her maternal duties.

Staying on this track and manipulating her way into declaring peace in the Middle East is unlikely, but I’m curious enough to see how her worldview might change over the course of the season. 

This is a new and fresh Homeland, back with a litany of ethical problems to solve in the political arena. Carrie may be less likable, but that’s the typical reality of powerful people. It’s challenging, yet imperative to see flawed characters like her on screen, so we might exercise restraint in putting people on either side of a moral dichotomy in real life.

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