WARNING: Spoilers through season 4 episode 10 ‘13 Hours in Islamabad’
This week on Homeland: Peter Quinn kicks terrorist ass with a handgun! Slips underneath a comprehensive all-out order! Ducks a tail! Captures ISI agent Farhad Ghazi, who had street eyes on the Sandy Bachman mob execution! Aw yeah!
Then … Quinn brings Ghazi to a dark room where he’s already laid out a light brunch of torture apparati, and I sat there for a moment and said to my TV: “Now you’re gonna get it, motherfucker.”
Whoa. Whoa. Whoa.
That’s not cool! But at that moment it felt righteous. It felt justified. Because this season on Homeland, and possibly every season of Homeland in some way, has masterfully elucidated the grey areas of international tension and upheaval. How much ground level, real-time policy is in the hands of people (on both sides) with mental illness or personality disorders? How many kill orders are based on gut-level impulses? And what sort of lasting generational vendetta does all the killing engender? What percentage of actual American foreign policy is refracted by miscalculation at best or incompetence at worst over the last decade and a half?
This is a theme several shows are tapping into. Obviously, Jack Bauer’s robo-achievement setting wasn’t deterred by qualms about immoral ambiguities. That was the point of all of the improbable but weirdly satisfying mauling of bad guys.
You can blame Arnold Schwarzenegger for that. His 1996 movie, Eraser, was the first movie I ever remember seeing where the protagonist, the good guy, commits premeditated murder. It’s not an anti-hero defending himself. It’s not a soldier of fortune firing back at an enemy. It’s not Han shooting Greedo (first) to evade capture. It was at the end of the movie. Schwarzenegger drives a limo with the bad guys in the back of it and intentionally parks it on a railroad track as an oncoming train approaches. It was calculated. I had never seen anything like that and I braced for America’s reaction. How would they react to their John Wayne, their white hat, being a very obvious murderer?
They barely noticed. And that just opened the floodgates. Since then we’ve basically broken every unspoken rule of film and TV that used to be sacrosanct. We’ve killed children. We’ve killed dogs. We’ve made fun of disabilities. We’ve shown graphic violence. We’ve shown torture. Hell, we’ve sewn people together. We’ve killed off the main character, over and over and over again. People have made entire careers doing exactly what you were never supposed to do on film. It’s why Eli Roth is anything. So it shouldn’t really surprise anyone that Peter Quinn is headed down this dark path. He’s got lots of company.
On episode 10 of Madame Secretary, “Collateral Damage” for example, Elizabeth McCord came clean to her teenage daughter about her role in authorizing (or at least not preventing) enhanced interrogation techniques. “It’s still wrong, not to mention against the law” says the younger McCord. “Technically it wasn’t.” Responds Leoni in a voice reminiscent of a younger Bill Clinton clarifying the definition of sex. The writers chose to then take a position. They made the daughter offended. They show her giving her mom the cold shoulder both in and out of the home. She actually moves out of her parents house because of how disgusted she is with her mother’s actions. But that character fails as the Greek Chorus for instructing us how to feel, because for some reason, it didn’t work. McCord’s stock didn’t plummet because of the revelation. Why? Is it the general ineffectiveness of teen offspring roles in high-tension dramas? The Dana Brody-Grace Florrick effect? Or is it that Leoni’s whispery boudoir scenes and fitted blouse boob-to-waist-ratios serve to speed all forgiveness?
I don’t know. For years I’ve wondered if there was any way to head off the seeming inevitability of a world war around theological ideologies, specifically one that pits western Judeo-Christian ideals against Islamic ones. When you read utterly heinous things like this it seems that the war might already be going on, and those of us who want to believe that we’re all the same under the skin may be fooling ourselves. Certainly, you cannot paint all of Islam with the brush of its most radical wing. But you can wonder what role the vast, overwhelming majority of more moderate, sane Muslims are taking to rein in the crazier ones. I don’t want to sweep your house. You sweep your own damn house. Maybe we just don’t hear enough of the good stuff because we’re conditioned to focus on the negative.
Take the situation with Saudi Arabia, the United States’ closest Arab ally. A government which adheres to sharia law, run by an absolute monarch. The country where 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers came from. A country where women cannot drive, where public floggings are a regularity, where unmarried men and women get lashed for sharing a car and where beheadings are commonplace for crimes like “sorcery.”
Sigh. That’s our pal? That’s who we break bread with? If we’re going to go out for a night on the town this is the dude we call? Captain Theocracy? That seems like a weird couple. The intricacies of geopolitical power mechanics are fascinating and I knowingly oversimplify them here. But man, you have to wonder if (or for how long) Saudi Arabia is playing both sides. Because I identify as a progressive person, but I don’t want to be a goddamn sucker. Where is the exact fulcrum of clarity on that particular teeter-totter? The whole Middle Eastern dynamic often leaves the layperson feeling incredibly rudderless.
There’s no such thing as a bad nationality. Iranians aren’t “bad.” Saudis aren’t “bad.” Americans aren’t “bad.” Everyone has as many assholes per capita as we do. Right now, if you believe Thomas L. Friedman (and I often do) the Saudis are helping us wage a high stakes war of economic sabotage against Russia and Iran with the main chess piece being….you guessed it…oil!
But did you know that on America’s 238th birthday we became the world’s top producer of oil? That was six months ago! Whoooooo hoooooooo! It’s over, everyone. Middle East solved! Let’s bring our boys home! Milkshakes and flag balloons for everyone!
Obviously it’s not that simple. None of this is simple. Every time I think we’re out they pull us back in. Can you imagine being elected president tomorrow and having to navigate all this shit? For those of you who have done a home remodel on an old house you know how you’re shocked if you ever find a right angle. There are no truly right angles in international relations. Everything is just a shade of grey. Every repair happens in partial darkness, a feeble attempt to fix problems you yourself didn’t actually make. “How the hell did they let it get this bad?” you say about your predecessors. “How the hell did they let it get this bad?” Your replacements will say about you. It’s enough to make you want to tear it all down and just start over.
Homeland has done a great job portraying all of this over the course of its lifetime. This range of confusion. Difficult ethical quandaries. Conflicting allegiances. Inane, emotional decisions. And they do it effectively for both sides. While I didn’t necessarily agree with the position of Abu Nazir, I understood it, and respected his intelligence. I was sympathetic even to Hassam Haqqani until he killed Fara. Now I just want to see him hunted down like an animal. And Peter Quinn is just the man to do it.
Do I feel badly about that? Yes, kind of. But imagine how you’d feel if drones killed your whole family. Imagine if a drunk American soldier killed your husband or an off duty American sailor raped your daughter. This happens. It happens all the time. “Oops! We blew up the wrong house. Sorry! Oops! We used a choke hold on an asthmatic man! Whoops!” You can see how any human being would be filled with rage. You could see how your heart would cry out for vengeance. This is the oldest primal response we have after hunger and lust.
So how do we view Peter Quinn going forward? Is he the archangel of vengeance? Is his vigilante mission the type of oversimplified wish fulfillment that makes video games so appealing? Is Haqqani just the boss fight at the end of the level? What if Peter Quinn torturing ISI agent Farhad Ghazi could have saved the four kids under 15 that ISIS beheaded and chopped in half? Would that justify the torture? What if you were an American interrogation official who chose civility over barbarism and then that type of thing happened on your watch? How would you react the next time in the same situation?
It’s TV. So Peter Quinn will likely kill some people. And those people will have unseen relatives who will also be rightfully pissed. And they’ll unleash the Islamic version of Peter Quinn who will reap sweet sweet vengeance for his side. And then we will. Then they will. On and on until what? We’re all gone? One side is wiped out? What’s the ultimate goal? That we’re all either Islamic or not? Over what? Oil? A 1400 year old book? Hundreds of thousands of square miles of desert? Drone-free skies? The right to not be told what to believe? Energy independence?
Look at these 10,000 people congregating in Dresden to protest against the “Islamification” of Germany two days ago. Are they just xenophobes? Are they patriots? Is protecting a Judeo-Christian ethic a noble thing or an insular thing? Why does it need “protecting”? Shouldn’t it be able to just co-exist, and be strong enough to withstand any potential ideological challenge on its own? What’s the difference between these people in Dresden and American citizens on the Arizona border yelling for Mexican and Central American orphans to be shut out of the USA? What would that particular border look like if the refugees were Islamic? Does cultural relativism transcend basic human rights?
The more we read about just how miserable and depraved our CIA interrogation techniques have been, the less surprising it is that we’ve engendered so much hatred abroad. They’re just people, too. Something along the line twisted them from children themselves into people who would chop a child in half. Somewhere along the line our people went from innocents to people who implemented “rectal feeding.” We all really are similar on the inside, with basic similar needs. And we break to the dark side in similar ways, probably telling ourselves all the same lies or justifications. It’s all pretty sad and pathetic.
Where do we land on all of this and how does it inform our position? We all need to ask ourselves that question when we watch what hellfire Peter Quinn is about to unleash on Homeland, lest we allow those final places of light inside of ourselves to descend into darkness.
Like Schwarzenegger at the end of Eraser.