Several friends had to talk me into watching the current season of Showtime’s “Homeland,” which premiered its concluding episode last Sunday. I had grown weary of the show’s extravagant plotting, which has included the blowing up of CIA headquarters and the assassination of the vice president of the United States. I felt there was little more entertainment to be had from watching Mathison court and elude mortal danger. I’m glad I changed my mind. This was the spy thriller’s finest twelve-pack of episodes by a considerable margin. It tells a tale dear to those of us who teach people how to practice politics as a vocation. [Warning: Spoilers to follow!]
Mathison is a super-operative, capable of seeing things no one else at CIA does and acting presciently to protect her country from terrorists. (Her intelligence gathering often involves sex and freak-out episodes consonant with her bipolar disorder.) She began this fourth season with new executive responsibilities as station chief in Afghanistan, shifting to Pakistan in the second episode. Can this lone wolf learn to manage staff and negotiate? What will happen to her seemingly preternatural powers with institutional considerations cluttering her mind? This being long-form television, where storylines span seasons and beloved characters go bad and sometimes die, we watched Mathison move with the knowledge that we might see awful consequences from her choices at any time.
As a traditional action hero in the first three seasons, Mathison’s adventures were constrained and compromised by self-interested political climbers, rule-following bureaucrats, expedient double-agents, ruthless enemies, and pleading relatives. They remain in her field of vision and action. For a while this season she relied on her own off-book team, a sort of CIA’s CIA. But by episode eight (the 44th in total), when the aforementioned dialogue and actions occur, she occupied a seat at the proverbial diplomatic table (the depiction of which could be constructively used in a classroom).
American ideals suffuse the rhetoric and beliefs of “Homeland’s” players: we bring all our soldiers back, we do so through rescue missions or swaps but not ransoms, we are not occupiers, we don’t torture. (In the episode that premiered two days before the Senate Report on CIA torture was released, it looked as though Quinn might resort to torture, but he did not.) Other ideals, however, did not fare as well.
“Homeland” transcended its genre this year, effectively dramatizing Max Weber’s classic contrast between the ethics of society and politics. “It is true,” the great sociologist wrote in his 1919 lecture and essay “Politics as a Vocation,” “that any ethic of the world could establish commandments of identical content for erotic, business, familial, and official relations.” But since political actors in some government offices wield violent powers consonant with the state’s “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force [italics in original] within a given territory,” they must constantly struggle to reconcile “an ethic of ultimate ends” with “an ethic of responsibility” to a cause, a high-wire act that entails intensive engagement with other actors in a world that defies ethical comprehension.
Or as Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham), a recurring character whose loyalties are constantly suspect, put it:
“It’s a sentimental idea, Saul. It always has been.”
“That we’re loyal to our people.”
“That our people come before the mission.”
Weber’s framework for understanding politicians in power allows us to imagine how agonizing it is to have one’s “hand on the wheel of history.” So does good fiction. What counts as victory or success? What qualifies as the right thing to do? Getting Saul and Quinn home safely were about the only triumphs of Mathison and her colleagues’ year. Dozens of others died in an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad (unlike the bombing of Langley, very realistic, obviously). The attack’s instigator Haissam Haqqani (Numar Acar), an apparently fictional leader of the Haqqani network, escaped with his charismatic authority — to throw in another Weberian concept — greatly enhanced. And many innocent locals perished, as last week’s news reinforced.
Every choice has wrong consequences, but some are less wrong than others and some also come with right consequences. Unfortunately, one’s accounting of wrong and right varies by ethical perspective. And the chain of choice and consequence never stops. In last Sunday’s final episode of the season, Mathison turned to family matters, but as usual, the more intel she gathered, the sharper-edged her choices became. Berenson had recovered from his travails and may regain his authority over her, acquiescing to a deal Adal made with Haqqani. She tracked down her estranged mother and discovered she has a half-brother. The temptation to run away to a “normal” apolitical life proved a mirage. In the last shot, Mathison was driving back to Washington DC to deal with what faces her in both her personal life and the political arena.
Michael Cornfield is Associate Professor of Political Management at George Washington University. He disavows any knowledge of Dennis Boyd.