I'm besotted with Claire Danes' Carrie

'Homeland' offers another damaged-person role to the former star of 'My So-Called Life'

Kent Smith/Showtime/Everett Collection

Claire Danes stars in the TV hit Homeland where she plays yet another damaged person. This time, her lank blond hair and burning eyes are in the face of Carrie, a brilliant but bipolar CIA agent who hides her medicine in an Aspirin bottle since an agent on clozapine would apparently not get security clearance. If the CIA could actually be fooled by this sleight of hand America is in major trouble.

I happen to be a huge fan of Danes ever since I saw her in the movie version of Steve Martin’s book Shopgirl where she played the also-damaged but integrity-ridden young salesgirl listlessly standing in front of the glove counter and gobbling anti-depressants in her walk-up apartment. Danes’s first major role was in the misery series My So-Called Life as the damaged but full-of-insight 15-year- old Angela Chase given to crying jags and panic attacks. Her second Golden Globe was for playing Temple Grandin, the autistic woman who has become a major cow scientist and if you think I’m going to append “damaged” to autism, have a clozapine. I’m sure she has done roles full of light and laughter and I know that her hair can actually be made to bounce instead of going into strands of clinical depression but as you look at the list of her credits, with grimly wretched films like The Hours, which is somehow about suicides tied in some extremely confusing way to Virginia Woolf, you begin to wonder if the mood disorder seeks the role.

Homeland, loosely based on an Israeli series called Hatufim, won the top drama Emmy this year. Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody, captured in Iraq and held captive for eight years, endures terrible torture and after rescue returns to the U.S. a superhero. But unfortunately he’s been “turned” by fictional top terrorist Abu Nazir into a sleeper suicide bomber. Only Carrie senses this because, well, she is brilliant and manic depressive and has been in pursuit of Abu Nazir since 9/11. I got so besotted that I actually signed on to the Rogers Super Channel, desperate to find out what happens to Carrie, who ended season one with a blue rubber plug clenched between her teeth as she underwent voluntary electric shock treatment for her illness.

Season two has the new Congressman Brody being considered for the job of vice-president of the United States and texting Nazir warnings of an ambush—while he’s in the company of the military chiefs of staff and the American VP. And that’s not a spoiler because each episode ends with a real U-turn moment. I don’t even mind that Homeland’s casting has been done by someone with a Ph.D. in how to make non-PC drama inoffensive. This is after all a series about nasty Islamists even though the Afro-American director of the CIA counterterrorism centre is marginally more noxious than the caring if ruthless Abu Nazir.

So, the Jewish intelligence officer who is Carrie’s mentor is married to a “brown” person, as he puts it. There are a number of super nice Muslims like the helpful imam’s wife, which is perfectly credible, and a helpful Hezbollah commander’s wife who spills the beans on her husband’s plans (find me one of those and I’ll produce a skating woodpecker). Curiously, not one suicide terrorist is a young Arab Muslim, which is slightly weird since suicide terrorists these days are often young male Arab Islamists and not as one would think given your experience at airport security lines dour Scottish Presbyterians or old white ladies.

Homeland is interesting because it reflects today’s version of the 1950s Cold War hysteria about brainwashing. Twenty-one U.S. POWs chose not to come home from North Korea in 1953. Others were said to have corroborated with the enemy and some came back with “progressive views.” This grave situation led to a binge of U.S. government studies and congressional hearings. Even Betty Friedan had a moment, writing in her 1963 classic The Feminine Mystique that the softness of the Korean POWs “is strangely reminiscent of the familiar ‘feminine’ personality . . . apathetic, dependant, infantile, purposeless.” The Korean War was the first time torture had been used for thought reform and ideological indoctrination and it had apparently a tiny success.

Not so surprising. The political indoctrination of North American and European middle classes against their own best interests in the name of socialism, Communism, feminism and anarchism is a form of brainwashing and occurs pretty frequently sans torture and imprisonment. British intellectuals almost routinely became Cold War warriors on the other side. Agents of influence like the Toronto CBC producer who worked with the Soviets during the Cold War years played at masquerade. One man’s persuasion is another’s brainwashing.

Suicide attackers are nothing new. There were Japanese kamikaze pilots in the Second World War and suicide squads throughout history. Young people, for whom death is an abstraction and something romantic, kill themselves for a failed examination, a rejected love, a nasty look. Doing it for their country or Allah seems almost rational. I’d find it more surprising if Islamic suicide bombers were middle-aged or elderly, people who cling to life having actually glimpsed the shadow of death.

Just because I can’t find any record of American POWs who like Brody have been turned through torture and then returned to murder in their own society by remote control à la Manchurian Candidate doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen once in a blue moon. Entertainment and literature are based on infrequent possibilities. I suspect, though, that just as Lenin’s New Man (Homo sovieticus) turned out to be a fraud, so the CIA’s 1950s experiments on behavioral modification (code-named MK Ultra and Artichoke) came to the same conclusion. Humans can’t be reliably programmed against their original values. Brody will come round to loving hearth and family; Carrie will take her medicine but retain the insight sometimes peculiar to loopy mental states. And elderly white women will still get special searches at airports.