By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
4:56 PM EDT, September 27, 2013
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?
Nowhere in the media has the moral question of such kills been explored with the texture and depth that “Homeland” brings to this one little scene Sunday. And it was the same last season, as viewers of “Homeland” were repeatedly reminded of the U.S. drone kill of the 10-year-old son of Abu Nazir (Navid Negabhan) and the way that death underpinned subsequent acts by Nazir and Brody.
Shame on the news channels for not questioning the morality of such “kills” ordered by our leaders in the real Washington. Conversely, all praise to Showtime and Barbara Hall and Alex Gansa, who wrote Sunday’s episode, for trying to touch our social conscience with the art they bring to their depiction of elected leaders in their fictional capital. (Hall is a coexecutive producer; Gansa is showrunner for the series.)
There are other moments in the season opener that also resonate with the grandstanding, rancor and irresponsibility of the real political life of Washington these days.
The addition of Letts, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (“August: Osage County”), as the chairman of the Senate committee investigating the bomb blast at Langley, is inspired. From the Dick Cheney-like snarl on his lips, to the hectoring and menacing tone of his questions to Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), his Sen. Andrew Lockhart appears to be the face and voice of a Congress where favorable headlines and the destruction of one’s enemies matter far more than governing. You can see and hear them any day or night on C-SPAN.
Is there an inch of space left for a conscientious public servant in the Washington that’s portrayed in “Homeland” this year?
No spoilers here. But that’s the question many viewers are likely to be asking themselves at the end ofSunday night’s episode when they consider Carrie’s situation.
We know what the answer feels like in the real Washington these days, don’t we?
On TV: The third season of “Homeland” premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday on Showtime
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