Teetering on the High-Wire of Suspense in Homeland

When you set out to watch the Showtime series Homeland, whose cast of characters includes CIA operatives, high-level politicians, double agents, assassins and terrorists, you know the show is likely to be suspenseful. And, if it’s any good, it’s going to be suspenseful a lot of the time. Because suspense is a required texture for a good spy story. A spy story without suspense is like sex without romance — all mechanics and no foreplay. 

And since the show has been loved and fêted by viewers and critics alike, it’s also likely to have strong and complex characters and a propulsive, possibly addictive, plot. 

This seems even more probable when you learn that President Obama is reputedly a fan, along with former President Clinton — and both, of course, are intimately familiar with the complicated machinery and ethical tangles that characterize the modern “War on Terror”. 

Though it’s better to go into a show either blind or with rock-bottom expectations, I’m happy to report that Homeland’s reputation is well deserved. It’s intelligent and gripping right from the pilot through its three nail-biting seasons. 

But, for me at least, the show held one additional, unexpected twist. And, befittingly, I’m not entirely sure if it’s a good or bad one.

In the very first scene we meet the lead protagonist, CIA agent Carrie (played by Claire Danes), who is focused, highly capable, and uneasily intense. She is doing something that looks crazy but it is actually a reasonable, and, in a way, the only strategy — she is infiltrating an Iraqi prison to gather important information from a man about to be executed. You immediately sense that Carrie is the lone operative able to manage these crazy/brave moves that will result either in glory or disaster.

The intensity of the scene is notable, but even more notable are the subtleties within the workings of her strong character. In our first glimpse of Carrie she is not heroically bursting into the prison, but rather pleading on the phone with a superior who is unwilling or unable to help her. Her annoyance and stress level intensifies, but it doesn’t look like the garden-variety, my-boss-is-an-ass, reaction. Her anxiety looks deeper and much more internal, like a character whose professional standards and beliefs will not allow her to simply give up. 

As the show unfolds, you can see that this is not just true of Carrie, but of all the characters. They are rich and substantial, with interesting flaws, ticks and weaknesses that are brought to life alongside flashes of brilliance and compassion. These are not automaton characters manufactured to hit the mark on their various plot points. Instead their messy humanity seems to burst through even in the most unlikely and unfortunate circumstances.

This is even more remarkable if you consider the polarizing nature of the storyline, which features the U.S. and allies pitted against al Qaeda — for in such a contest there is no mystery for whom most of us will be rooting.

In short, the story surprises you in the way that all excellence catches you off guard — but it is also what you would expect from a well-executed and sophisticated hit show.

But, for me at least, there was an unexpected surprise in store. And it was not entirely a pleasant one.

Before I watched Homeland, I would never have imagined that too much suspense was likely or even possible in a spy show. Spy shows tend to fail in much more prosaic territory, and suspense is not easy to build. Hard to imagine a scenario where the problem would be too much of it, and Season One and Season Two were suspenseful — but in entirely enjoyable, juicy ways. 

But in Season Three, something changed. I still liked the show and wondered what was going to happen, but I found myself unable to watch it in one consecutive sitting. I would watch for about ten agonizing minutes, and even then usually while crouched on the sofa, hiding behind a pillow. 

After that I usually gave up. The suspense had become unbearable.

So I was basically turned off. Though the show was still fabulous for many, it was too much for me. And I was also curious. It was impossible not to wonder how its creators were able to sustain such powerful suspenseful notes so extraordinarily well.

The developers and writers of Homeland seem to excel within a matrix of moods that I would characterize as paranoid, morally ambiguous and, above all, taut with anxiety.

I cannot think of single other show that uses anxiety to such dramatic and suspenseful effect. There are tense shows, melodramatic shows, explosive shows, but I can’t think of any where the characters are so uniformly anxious — from the PTSD-suffering, ex-military-officer-turned-traitor, to his everybody-please-be-normal banal wife. Even the kids are anxious and, as they rebel, they manage to create even more anxiety for everybody. 

Though we may look to the cat-and-mouse plot for an explanation, I don’t think this entirely accounts for it. In fact, anxiety is rarely employed in suspenseful shows — they tend to generate more tension than anxiety. The lead characters are usually confident, happy, successful — and, as the plot thickens, heading for a fall. 

Before this show I had not given a lot of thought to the difference between tension and anxiety, but there seems to be quite a big difference in the shape and feel of the resulting story. Perhaps this persistent infusion of anxiety is what makes the show relatable to those of us who are not chasing terrorists around the globe.

(And I wonder: what exactly does that say about us?)

So, though it means keeping an awful lot of balls in the air, I think the time and energy the Homeland writers et al spent developing the complicated and stressful lives of characters has paid extraordinarily high dividends.

And though I may not enjoy it all the time, I can’t fault the creators for exploiting it to powerful and dramatic effect.

It may be uncomfortable, and its persistent anxiety may be contagious, but Homeland is still addictive. So when Season Four rolls around, chances are I’ll be watching.