In Slate’s Homeland TV Club, June Thomas will IM each week with a different partner—policy experts, intelligence researchers, critics, and even Slate commenters. This week she chats with Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter who now writes the best-selling John Wells series of spy novels. The seventh, The Night Ranger, will be published in February 2013.
June Thomas: Let’s start with that raid. As a man who writes fiction these days, how did the assault strike you, dramatically speaking? I liked that it was so sudden and confusing—by the time I’d stopped panicking and trying to figure out who the hell was doing all that shooting, it was over—but “sudden and confusing” aren’t always unalloyed positives in a piece of drama.
Alex Berenson: I very much liked the raid. Yes, it was sudden and confusing—and in that way much more realistic than most episodes of violence we see on television or film. Filmed violence typically falls into several categories, all equally absurd. There’s the A-Team PG version: thousands of rounds fired and yet no one gets hurt. There’s the Die Hard PG-13 version, where hero and villain exchange an endless series of witticisms before finally deigning to pull the trigger. And there’s the Quentin Tarantino/John Woo R version, which includes the witticisms but adds visual tricks that make the gore of exploding brains and bursting blood vessels look almost beautiful.
All three have little to do with the realities of close combat, where the guy who fires first usually wins—and quickly. A man with an assault rifle can kill a whole lot of unarmed civilians (or even lightly armed police officers) in a matter of seconds, and there’s nothing pretty or noble about the violence. The raid captured that reality. And though it was confusing at first, by the time the terrorists left the store, what had happened was clear enough.
Thomas: Indeed it was. The only thing that wasn’t immediately obvious was how many of the feds had survived the attack. (It looked to me that Peter Quinn was the sole survivor.) But as you said over at Esquire, it’s surprising that Abu Nazir could gin up that raiding party given how recently he had to call on a congressman to spirit the tailor away from his shop. Then again, the element of surprise–and really good arms and armoring, which as we saw in the recent Colorado shooting spree is all too easily acquired–can allow a small group to do a lot of damage.
Even having thought about the raid for a while, I don’t know what it will do for the show. Will Carrie’s project now become Priority 1 for the CIA and the entire security establishment? It’s hard to imagine something like that being kept secret, even though I know that CIA agents who are killed in the line of duty sometimes stay clandestine.
Berenson: Yes, I think Quinn survived—I hope he did—but he was clearly severely wounded, and I don’t know how quickly he’ll return to the field. We’ll see how the show decides to play the response to the attack, though it has sharply bent reality twice now in response to previous violent incidents.
The bomb that Tom Walker set off last year would have produced a national response. After all, it killed a high-level Saudi diplomat. Instead, it was basically forgotten. Later, the CIA would never have been allowed to investigate Walker’s death—both the FBI and the local cops would have had something to say. In fact, Walker’s murder would still be reverberating nationally—he was suspected of trying to assassinate the vice president, and his death by gunshot in an alley would have provoked a high-level investigation—as well as big-time conspiracy theories.
My broader point is that Homeland sometimes has to bend the space-time continuum to keep its focus on Carrie, Brody, and the people in their immediate vicinity. So I wouldn’t necessarily expect the show to have the sort of full-scale response to the shooting that we would see in reality.
Thomas: I’ve also been thinking that Homeland is pulling some 24 moves in underplaying the impact of these huge events. Just as 24 once exploded a nuclear device in California and then didn’t really mention it again, the incident at the State Department would have been Topic A in every conversation for years (certainly more than Israel bombing Iranian nuke sites).
It also strikes me that the press is invisible in this show. Other than Roya Hammad, who strides around the CIA and House office buildings casually questioning GS-15s and sitting congressmen, there’s no sense of the media investigating anything that has happened. Apart from the bombing and the shootings at the State Department that you mention, what about Walker just showing up in D.C. years after he was captured in Iraq? Sure, he turned up dead, but the press would go all-in on trying to find out more about his journey to that back alley. It wouldn’t be a freelance operation by a pair of his corps-mates.
Berenson: You’re correct on every point. The question, I suppose, is how much authenticity we are going to demand from the show. This is a problem I’ve faced over and over in my novels—how to invent plausible scenarios where one man (or woman) can play a huge role in these world-shaking events. The solution Hollywood usually favors is to create grand conspiracies, where everyone turns out to be against the hero. But I find grand conspiracies cheap (in the real world, getting a group of five together to meet for dinner is hard enough). 24 used them to a fault. Homeland, to its credit, doesn’t.
Instead, it has simply slipped past events—a technique that works, for a while, if the show has enough narrative momentum to keep our focus moving forward. Nobody cared about the fact that the bombing wasn’t properly investigated at the end of last season, because we were all so focused on the way Carrie was unraveling. Eventually, though, this narrative sleight-of-hand can catch up with a show—too much has gone unexplained or unexamined—and I worry that Homeland may be reaching that point.
Thomas: That makes me hyperaware that we we’ve barely mentioned Brody and Carrie—and I think that’s fine. I’ll force myself to bring up the next generation quickly: Finn Walden proved himself a self-centered d-bag; Dana is left alone with her guilt. End of story. Either because they’ve been overanalyzed already, or because I think understand them at this point, I don’t feel a need to spend any more time on those characters right now.
One thing did worry me, though. When Roya told Brody that the feds were now inside the tailor shop, it was clear that Abu Nazir had eyes on the place—either literally or, as you mention in Esquire, his CIA mole had clued him in. We’ve known about the mole since early in the first series (remember when one of Brody’s guards got his hands on a razor blade while he was being interrogated by Saul), but the show encourages viewers to forget about him—or her—for long stretches. I’m guessing Mr. or Mrs. Mole will return to the fore soon. But if Abu Nazir did have people watching the tailor shop, Brody and Carrie need to up their game—he’d just told Roya a big old lie about having been with Carrie the night before. If Roya’s people are watching Brody and/or Carrie, they’re not going to be able to get away with fibs like that for much longer.
Berenson: Again, agreed. Homeland walks a tricky line. At its best, it is a convincing psychological portrait of two very damaged people (and their families and co-workers)—and a genuinely tricky spy thriller where the CIA must stop a realistically plotted terrorist attack. Last season’s second-to-last episode was the show at its finest: The plot to get Brody into the safe room was smart and unexpected, and the moment when Carrie used Dana to convince him not to detonate his vest was brilliant.
This season, I think Homeland has centered on Carrie’s psychology—how she fits in with the CIA and Brody after last year’s debacle—and has been a little less convincing as a thriller. In the last couple of episodes, Carrie and Brody have seemed overly focused on each other, and they’ve forgotten that what they’re really trying to do is stop a terrorist attack. (Carrie is, anyway. Whether Brody wants to stop one or carry one out still remains TBD.)