In Homeland, the wildly popular Showtime series, the United States is a troubled place. Week after week, the series shows us a parade of social ailments: mental illness, prescription drug abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, marital infidelity, surly teenagers. The authorities, meanwhile, are a mix of treacherous politicians and feckless, scheming bureaucrats who casually embrace illegal detention, criminal cover-ups, and domestic spying. And then there are terrorists -- lots of them -- running loose everywhere, one step away from causing another national catastrophe. (Warning: spoilers follow.)
The series centers on the relationship between a bipolar hot mess of a CIA case officer, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), and a tormented ex-marine, Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis). After eight years of captivity in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, during which he was "flipped" by the al Qaeda mastermind Abu Nazir, Brody returns to the United States with a mission to carry out a terrorist attack. He eventually becomes a congressman, a potential vice presidential candidate, and a double (or perhaps triple) agent. Carrie finds out that Brody is a terrorist, falls in love with him, goes off her meds, loses her job, and then effectively regains it, managing to thwart the evildoers most of the time along the way. These two characters, like much of their supporting cast, are irresistible studies in how to be highly functional while wrestling with inner demons.
Homeland is immensely entertaining. But how well does it represent reality? In truth, only partially. As a depiction of how U.S. agencies actually go about tracking down and apprehending terrorists, the series misses the mark. It focuses on a few dramatic human-oriented counterterrorism operations that rarely make a difference in practice, and it overlooks the technological capabilities and bureaucratic systems that constitute the bedrock of the country's counterterrorism apparatus. In short, Homelandportrays a CIA far less constrained than it is in real life but that nevertheless does not use some of the major tools of modern counterterrorism.