“The Drone Queen”: Carrie Mathison in Homeland season 4, episodes 1-6

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NB: Spoiler alert!!!!!!

Having renounced network television last century out of a mixture of boredom and disgust, I viewed the first three seasons of Homeland on DVDs checked out from the public library. That is how I have watched all of the “big” television productions of the twenty-first century: The Wire, The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards, MI5 (Spooks), and others, with no doubt more to come. Not every boxed set makes the cut, of course. I axed Oz and others early on (not sure yet whether I’ll be returning to Breaking Bad…). Apologies to devoted fans of Downton Abbey, but I threw in the tea towel near the end of season 3. The disappointments have not diminished my faith that future quality productions will achieve the heights of HBO’s finest fare and be worthy of my time.

Despite Homeland’s evident popularity and inadvertent endorsement by President Obama, who reportedly watches the show (perhaps fishing for foreign policy ideas?), this production, from Showtime, is not in my estimation top-tier. The gaping logical holes with which the plot is riddled make it sometimes a tough slog. The worst of the worst was the dirty trick in season 3 played on viewers—major spoiler alert!—who are asked to believe that Carrie’s neglect of her meds and subsequent institutionalization for an entire month were all a part of an elaborate and ingenious scheme, even when she feigned outrage while sitting before her television all alone watching her discreditation nationally broadcast. Problem: the inchoate ruse could not have lured the Iranians into bugging Carrie’s apartment before the ruse! In reality, she would not have needed to playact any outrage at all while sitting all alone within the privacy of her own home. Indeed, she should have been smiling with glee.

Notwithstanding such preposterousness, I stuck it out through the bitter end of season 3 because of my special interest in the subject matter: the CIA’s big and ugly role in the war on terror. When Carrie Mathison made ridiculous blunders of tradecraft, such as sneakily effecting a mirrored compact switcheroo with Lynne Reed before proceeding to speak with her à haute voix in the middle of a public place in graphic detail about the asset’s coming mission, I told my ever-charitable self that such incompetence could be read as a subtle critique of the CIA. Were the producers not intimating that the people who work for this organization may be marginally smarter than the average person walking down the street, but they are also a lot more concerned with their careers and success in contemporary society?

This explanation for Carrie’s questionable competence may have the added virtue of being true: given the historical record, it is quite plausible that many intelligence agents’ aspirations far exceed their talents. (See Timothy Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA for much, much more on this topic, with examples drawn from reality—not made up for the pleasure of Showtime viewers!) The tangible advantage of spies derives not, as they may wish to believe, from their scintillating intelligence but from their capacity to act with impunity under cover of State Secrets Privilege. To err is human, so Mistakes are made, but the victims end up written off as natural deaths or accidents. Even in the best case scenario, when those sacrificed are US government employees, they wind up as anonymous stars on the wall at Langley. Whoops. Oh well, another person (or dozen!) bites the dust thanks to yet another of the caustic incompetence agency’s “brilliant” schemes.

With the ghastly demise at the end of season 3 of Sergeant Nicholas Brody, who was executed by hanging—ostensibly by the Iranian government but essentially at the US government’s request—I was not at all sure that I’d be taking up Homeland season 4. Having now discovered that these twelve episodes are all about lethal drones, I feel obliged to see the series through to the end, come what may. I have been immeasurably enabled in this quest by Soho-pop up (available at the place where I am staying in New Zealand), which is binge broadcasting the complete series of Homeland before season five begins in October. The whole shebang, from season 1, episode 1, through season 4, episode 12, lasts only twenty-four evenings!

I cannot say that the loss of Nicholas Brody from Homeland was anywhere near as devastating as the departure of Stringer Bell from the end of season 3 of The Wire—Damien Lewis is no Idris Elba—but there was a considerably more horrific quality to Brody’s exit. Watching him slowly strangle to death dangling from a noose before a hate-spewing crowd was repulsive in its own right, but the reason for his death was also pretty tough to stomach. According to a superficial reading of the script, Brody’s sacrifice was “necessary” to eventually be able to achieve a détente with Iran over their nuclear program. In reality, there were plenty of other ways to achieve a more normal relationship with Iran, as the recently concluded negotiations in reality have revealed.

Brody’s death was instead symbolic. He was killed, in effect, for having considered blowing up a group of political elites responsible for sowing endless misery and death abroad. The former marine had been persuaded to believe that he should carry out an act of revenge on behalf of innocent victims killed in the US drone wars. During his time as a prisoner of war over eight grueling years, he had been indoctrinated (by Abu Nazir, his captor) to believe that he needed to avenge the deaths of 82 children killed in a drone strike authorized by the man whom Brody intended above all to kill, the vice president of the United States. One of the children had become near and dear to the prisoner, who had been serving as the boy’s English tutor. The boy, Issa, was also Abu Nazir’s son.

In fact, the reason for Brody’s plan to assassinate the group of political elites was virtually indistinguishable, in moral terms, from the logic driving two full-scale wars and occupations in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The warmongers and terrorists alike all believe that something must be done, that the acts of homicide committed by their enemies cannot go unanswered. Both resolve to retaliate, not by singling out the individual perpetrators, but by shooting in the dark, using any and every available means.

Sergeant Brody did not go through with the plan, although he did eventually manage to aid and abet the killing of Vice President Walden, who had ordered the drone strike on the school even while knowing that children would be killed. Walden had reasoned to the other members of the “kill committee” in the room—as sanguinary technocrats always do—that if any innocent people were killed, that would only be because the evil terrorists had evilly embedded themselves among civilians.

The deaths in such cases are invariably written off as “collateral damage” and regarded as nowhere near excessive, given the intended über-evil high-value target of the strike. The right to launch missiles against civilian targets in their homelands is blithely assumed by US elites, who claim to be acting in the defense of their own compatriots, located thousands of miles away. “Why do they hate us?” I’m afraid that it does not take a foreign policy genius to answer that question. It does require a modicum of common sense, which, alas, is not so common among the people who run the drone program.

Fast-forward to the end of season 3. Brody is dead, and Carrie Mathison—who does not lie when she tells a protégé that recruitment is “seduction”—is pregnant with Brody’s child. She has second thoughts about the pregnancy rather late in the day, around her eight month, but in the end decides to keep the child—or so it seems…

Season 4 begins with Carrie working not as the station chief in relatively pastoral Istanbul, as she had been promised at the end of season 3, but in Kabul, a war zone where children are not allowed. Because Carrie’s career comes before all else, her sister is now in the position of having to care for the baby back home. In some ways, this seems unsurprising. Throughout the entire story of Homeland, beginning with day one of episode one of season one, Carrie Mathison has been a mess. Indeed, this is a rare case where I would be willing to go so far as to wield the phrase hot mess.

She suffers from a bipolar personality disorder which she manages through the use of clozapine, a drug which for years she has been procuring illegally from her sister, a medical doctor. The reason why Carrie has hidden the truth about her “illness” is because she would not be allowed to work in sensitive intelligence matters and would indeed lose her security clearance if anyone found out. Except of course that they do, and she doesn’t. Even lithium gets thrown into the mix and nobody bats an eye! (Lest anyone forget: when Tony Soprano’s therapist, Dr. Melfi, decided to supplement his Prozac with Lithium, he came to believe that his hallucinations were real.) No, Carrie Mathison continues to work for the CIA through thick and thin, ‘til death do she and every person she recruits depart. Lynne Reed? The professional girlfriend of a Saudi prince? Whoops. Nicholas Brody? The war hero and former POW? Whoops. A Pakistani medical student whom Carrie seduces to lead her to an evil terrorist who was supposed to be present at the wedding disrupted by a Hellfire missile launched under her authority? Whoops.

Carrie’s sister gets to change the diapers of the red-haired Brody baby and supply her sister with drugs. Meanwhile “The Drone Queen”, as she has been christened by her comrades, spends her work days “making the call” from a command center in a secure bunker. Carrie Mathison, a career CIA professional with analogues in reality, has been conferred the authority to decide when Hellfire missiles should be launched to extirpate evil terrorists from the face of the earth, and how much collateral damage is “reasonable”.

She is ruthless and singleminded in her quest to eliminate evil. She is also clueless when it comes to the beauty and goodness which she is ready and willing to destroy at the very same time. Terrorists to Carrie are the most important persons in the universe. If killing them requires annihilating countless people who might have gone on to become great forces of good in the world, had they not been “lit up”, then so be it. In fact, that possibility simply does not register in her mind. People are either evil, or they are expendable. There is no place in Carrie’s anthropology for sources of positive morality and value. The world is black and white for Carrie Mathison. There are no shades of gray, much less color.

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No matter that Carrie’s brain has become infused with so many chemicals that it is hard to believe that she can even remember her name. In addition to both clozapine and lithium, in season 4, Carrie is now also taking clonazepam, nortriptyline, and Ambien. All of these pills are washed down with huge gulps of Chardonnay swallowed from mega-goblets. The woman’s brain is literally saturated with psychotropic substances, and yet she is still being allowed to “make the call”, to order drone strikes when she deems fit. This authority has been delegated to her by the director of the CIA, who in turn has been delegated the authority by the president of the United States. In the just war tradition, the “legitimate authority” has been specially selected by God almighty to decide whom to kill, where and why, in “wars” which he (God’s delegate) deems to be just.

In some ways, Carrie’s addled psychological state merely muddies the moral waters of what could otherwise be an incisive critique of the drone program. The questions raised throughout Homeland about the authority to kill and the alleged necessity of doing so, as determined by the CIA, are all valid questions in their own right. We don’t really need to have the complicating factor thrown in that Carrie Mathison is a walking medicine chest.

The problems with what Carrie, “The Drone Queen”, is doing are much more general, and apply to every person involved in the drone program. What is the CIA doing in other countries killing people who never set foot in the United States and never would have, even if they had been permitted to live? What is most interesting about the constructed character of Carrie Mathison is that her pathological state perfectly reflects what has become akin to an institutional pathology verging on paranoia.

A small group of men planned and carried out the attacks on September 11, 2001. Since then, people who look like those men, but otherwise bear very little similarity to them, have been systematically hunted down and killed in the name of national defense. Along the way, plenty of other people have also been destroyed, and the members of every community over which lethal drones lurk have been terrorized. Strategy has been supplanted by crude and savage tactics. What’s worse, those tactics are manifestly counterproductive, as the surging ranks of ISIS in Iraq and Syria attest. Jihadists often claim to have been specifically galvanized to act in retaliation to US drone strikes.

Homeland makes an admirable effort to show both sides of the conflict, offering pithy and fully comprehensible monologues from the terrorists permitted to explain the injustice of what is being done to their people. None of their words, however, are capable of shaking the steadfast determination of Carrie Mathison and her ilk, who have killed so many people that they could not possibly own up to the magnitude of their mistake.

The institutional killing program continues to expand as more and more people complicit seek to prove to themselves that what they have already done is right. Only the most courageous of perpetrators are capable of facing up to the enormity of this type of error. Bureaucrats do not typically number among them, and yet bureaucrats call the shots. Literally, in the drone program.

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For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; Chapter 8: From Conscience to Oblivion

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