As ‘Homeland’ ends, what kind of TV hero will fight terrorism’s next form?
For all his scrapes, personal losses and ridiculously close calls, Jack Bauer, the gruff and personality-challenged counterterrorism agent played by Kiefer Sutherland on the Fox network hit “24,” had it relatively easy compared with Carrie Mathison, the resilient but often deeply compromised (and, as it happened, bipolar) CIA agent played by Claire Danes on Showtime’s “Homeland,” which ends Sunday after an impressively consistent eight-season run.
Jack and Carrie came to separately represent the pressing global crises of their times. “24” premiered weeks after the September 2001 terrorist attacks and the responding drums of war, at a moment where it could have been perceived as either wildly inappropriate (it opened with a woman setting off a bomb on an airliner) or topically spot-on. American viewers found they were able to project a lot of their anxieties about national security onto the show, which functioned as a one-hour, adrenaline-soaked workout, expressed in increasingly contorted (and less plausible) plot points.
Catharsis was harder to come by in “Homeland,” but that made it a far better and more relevant show. The defeats suffered by its characters (mainly Claire Danes as Carrie and Mandy Patinkin as Carrie’s mentor, intelligence adviser Saul Berenson) made “Homeland” more believable, as the 21st century’s real-life war against terror dragged endlessly on.
The puffed-chest mood Jack Bauer and his fictional Counter Terrorism Unit captured in the 9/11 era shifted to “Homeland’s” depiction of a beleaguered, politically hamstrung CIA, seen through the distortions of an agent’s justifiable paranoia.
Carrie Mathison’s story was in no way meant to be seen as a sequel to Jack Bauer’s (even though both shows shared an executive producer in Howard Gordon). Still, it was immediately clear from “Homeland’s” first season that Carrie would be navigating the far more complex and murky territory that Jack left behind — an era roughly measured in our world between the May 2011 U.S. military operation that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the 2019 impeachment hearings of President Trump, in which intelligence expertise is at first lauded, then vilified, and, ultimately, punishable by White House dismissal.
“Homeland’s” prescience included many instances of rogue activity by intelligence officers, who are always galled by executive-branch ineptitude, which the show treated as a chronic condition from one president to the next.
Co-created and meticulously overseen by executive producer and writer Alex Gansa (and adapted originally from an Israeli TV series), “Homeland” began as a fascinating thriller about the trustworthiness of a recently rescued Marine POW, Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis).
While the nation celebrated Brody as a war hero, Carrie worked to discover whether Brody was a convert to radical Islamic terrorism. Seven seasons later, “Homeland” had flipped the script: Carrie, who spent months in a Russian prison deprived of her psychiatric medications, is now distrusted by her colleagues for a whole list of reasons, not the least of which is that she may be a Russian spy.
Between then and now, “Homeland” demonstrated an eerie knack for staying a half-step ahead of the news. It was obsessed with online Russian propaganda and right-wing chaos-makers just as the nation began to see (and ignore) the strings attached to so many puppets.
In its final go-round, “Homeland” is preoccupied with Saul’s long-sought peace accord between the United States and the Taliban. The American president (Beau Bridges) traveled to Afghanistan to seal the deal, but he was killed when his military helicopter crashed — an event designed to look as if it the Taliban shot down the aircraft.
Defying her CIA minders, Carrie has spent great effort in recent episodes finding (and then losing) the helicopter’s black-box recorder, proving it was an accident. We are once again at the spot where “Homeland” always thrived: A world on the brink, with tensions escalating between the United States and Pakistan, and a whole lot of men who are determined not to listen to a woman everyone thinks has lost her marbles. A recap of “Homeland’s” entire story arc could just say: Nevertheless, she persisted.
Like some early fans, I tried to be one of those viewers who turned away from “Homeland,” but just never could. I was more admiring than critical of the show’s swerves and plot shenanigans (“craziness” is the wrong word, given the show’s commitment to portraying Carrie’s mental illness). “Homeland” was an unusual study in the art of midseason course correction, coming up with surprising and provocative solutions to the corners it painted itself into. Chief among these was Carrie’s decision, in Season 7, to surrender custody of her daughter — the only TV mother I can think of whose solution to the work-life balance conundrum was to stop being a mother. It was a painful and powerful comment on the frantic state of the world, hers and ours.
When it comes to shows that are so strongly relevant, the best ones always leave a question in their wake: Who or what will take their place?
What sort of contemporary hero would be the natural successor to Jack Bauer or Carrie Mathison? And what will be the focus of their mission? Who or what is the enemy — domestic terrorism? Vladimir Putin? Climate-change deniers?
Is it, perhaps, an FBI agent who thwarts American hate crimes and fake-news kooks, in a show about a divided nation rotting from within? (“Homeland” has dabbled in this.) Could it be a show about a sort of special-ops team of former diplomats, tasked with restoring a previous administration’s global damage?
Is it about an epidemiologist who fights disinformation campaigns? Is it a cybersecurity expert, even though viewers tend to run cold on shows about people sitting in front of computers? (“Homeland” unfortunately killed off its most promising spinoff potential, Carrie’s loyal techie, Max Piotrowski, an increasingly hardened but dedicated soul, compellingly played by Maury Sterling.)
Is our next Jack or Carrie an outside rogue in the vein of Rami Malek’s hallucinating hacker in Sam Esmail’s “Mr. Robot,” or could it be the betrayed and mentally manipulated soldiers and therapists of Esmail’s other show, the conspiratorial “Homecoming,” which returns next month?
None of the above, I suspect. Like the world itself, the job is now wide open and unsafe as ever. The character who gets the gig is destined to be tortured, literally and figuratively.
Homeland (70 minutes) series finale airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on Showtime.