“Homeland” is a show that I have loved and hated, admired and been embarrassed by over the four years it has been on the air. But even as it has mounted a striking revival in its fourth season, I’ve lost a certain amount of faith in it. “This is always the big problem with shows that use specific characters to dig into the guts of big institutions, isn’t it?” I told the audience. “If you want the show to run forever, and the main character is the big hook that you use to loop audiences into the show, that character is always going to be limited in what they can learn about their institution and how much they can turn against it.”
At the time, we were talking specifically about “Homeland,” but my answer reflected a growing shifting in my thinking, which was particularly underscored by yesterday’s release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA detentions and interrogations. I have been writing about pop culture professionally since 2011, and in that time, I have become much less optimistic about the ability of movies and television to mount a comprehensive critique of America’s use of torture in the war on terror.
One of the strengths of pop culture is its ability to make visceral things most of us will never experience. But one thing the torture report makes clear is that the imaginations of CIA interrogators ventured places that mainstream pop culture rarely dares to tread.
A schlock franchise like the “Human Centipede” series may attribute degrading acts to madmen, and Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story” brings a campy sensibility to atrocity. I’m hard-pressed, though, to think of a television show on any network or a movie that would provide a straightforward depiction of “rectal feeding and rectal hydration,” to which at least five detainees were subjected without the protective filter of genre conventions to distance audiences from what they were seeing. Even “Zero Dark Thirty,” which had harrowing sequences of torture, including one where a detainee had clearly soiled himself, was not so graphic.
Any film that would do so would almost certainly be rated NC-17 or have to be released without a rating, a status that would make it prohibitively difficult for many viewers to see it in a theater. Anal sex references may be showing up on broadcast television shows, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a standards and practices department that would give a pass to air images that blunt in network primetime. Premium cable channels such a Showtime and HBO, which already air more violent and sexual images than their counterparts in the networks or basic cable, might be willing to take greater risks. While I would be gratified to see them do so, I do not count on it.
The other challenge to a true condemnation of torture in pop culture comes from the way fiction often takes us inside impenetrable institutions. Rather than seeing the CIA from the perspective of outsiders, we have to accompany agency employees as they do their work. The need for us to identify with them and to invest in them makes it exceptionally difficult for us to wholly reject what they do.
Characters such as Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), the bipolar CIA agent at the center of Showtime’s “Homeland,” and Maya (Jessica Chastain), the stubborn analyst who is the main character in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” are tragic figures, people who embody the deforming effect that the war on terror has had on American intelligence personnel. Every part of Carrie’s life, from her sexuality to her friendship with mentor Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), has become instrumental: There appears to be no part of herself she will not exploit to further the fight against terrorists. Maya, by contrast, has no life at all. After Osama bin Laden is executed by Navy SEALs and Maya identifies his body, she drifts into the dark night, devoid of purpose.
But Carrie and Maya aren’t monsters, or even villains. Instead, like the people they torture and kill, they are presented as victims, too, casualties of a war in which their country asks that they do terrible things.
There is a precedent that writers, directors and showrunners could follow if they want to tell a different story about America’s use of torture in the war on terror: “The Shield,” FX’s drama about police corruption and brutality. Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), the violent cop at the center of the story, might have been a damaged person, but he was no casualty of the Los Angeles Police Department, forced into brutality against his wishes or inclinations. Over the course of the series, “The Shield” made a detailed accounting of the damage Mackey had done and presented it in an unstinting fashion to both viewers and to Mackey himself. And ultimately, dedicated detectives were able to do what their real-world counterparts so often do not in cases of police misconduct: hold Mackey accountable and end his career.
A similar show about the CIA’s use of torture that breaks through the fog of self-pity that so often colors our storytelling about the war on terror would be wrenching but oddly optimistic. Fictional people could do what our government has not done: actually imprison or sanction the people who ordered torture and conducted it. If “24” suggested that the use of torture is both routine and effective, pop culture could pay off a small portion of the debt that show incurred by fostering a new set of expectations about torture: that it is wrong, that it does not work, and that it is a crime, not a tactic.