Tag Archives: Marin Ireland


Showtime’s Homeland debuted on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. The series stars Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, a CIA operative who’s learned that an American soldier in the Middle East has been “turned” and now works for an Al Qaeda cell. When Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) is found after eight years in captivity and returns to a hero’s welcome, Carrie is certain he’s the double agent.

Since she can’t persuade her dubious CIA superiors to follow her instincts, Carrie goes rogue, setting up an illegal surveillance on Brody’s house and then engineering a personal relationship with him that lets her follow her own course.

The series plays the country’s paranoia for all it’s worth, constantly turning the plot to keep viewers and characters off guard. The performers hold their characters’ secrets close; they’re as difficult for us to read as they are for one another to truly understand, even though viewers are given key bits of information early.

For instance, Carrie’s surveillance cameras can’t pick up the inside of Brody’s garage, where we know well before Carrie that he retreats regularly for Muslim prayers. Hearing his chanting and seeing him perform the rituals seems chilling, but it later appears that the show’s producers have played on mainstream viewers’ stereotypes about Islam to enhance our sense of foreboding.

In a later episode, Brody explains to Carrie that he adopted Islam because he needed religion—any religion—to survive the ordeal of his captivity. Because Lewis plays Brody so convincingly, it’s difficult not to be persuaded and even moved by his explanation. But the most recent episode’s plot twist once again upends our understandings, playing both with and against viewers’ presumptions.

Nonetheless, it’s impossible for a series about terrorism not to trade on knee-jerk expectations of which characters will be good and which bad. The Arabic-accented, Middle Eastern-appearing men are instantly marked as villains. The only thing that makes Brody truly interesting is that he’s a red-haired, archetypally American soldier who might, in fact, be working for the enemy.

And in a subplot that hasn’t yet been consistently developed, a young Middle Eastern professor and his blonde American wife have moved into a neighborhood that puts them within shooting range of a U.S. military landing strip.  The CIA believes the man might be Brody’s Al Qaeda contact, but it turns out that it’s his wife, Aileen (played by the always wonderful Marin Ireland), who is the mysterious operation’s architect.  Her back-story gives her ample reasons to love the Middle East and to despise the United States, but her centrality to the series’ plot has so far been tenuous.

Homeland’s producers, then, try to keep twisting the plot so that the binary of American/good, Middle Eastern/bad won’t maintain.  But its visual scenario tells a different story.   Middle Eastern male characters are constantly beaten, attacked, or killed by white military or intelligence officers.  The guard who confined Brody for all those years, whom Brody beats when he asks to visit the captured man in prison, subsequently slits his wrists with a razor blade somehow smuggled in to him.  Aileen’s husband is killed when CIA operatives catch up to him and Aileen and blast automatic rifle fire through the walls of their motel room.  (She escapes.)

Even the henchman of Abu Nazir—the archenemy who Carrie suspects is the mastermind behind a new plot to attack America—is nearly strangled when Brody breaks into his house to confront him about his presumed dead comrade, Tom Walker.  Homeland invites viewers to watch with a kind of vengeful pleasure as these brown men endure violence meted out by righteous white men.  Although the series wants to disrupt our assumptions, its images nonetheless secure conventional ideology about the Middle East as the dangerous, obvious locus of terrorist threats.

Danes plays Carrie, the smart, difficult, unruly operative who receives the intelligence that a soldier has been turned and rests her suspicions on Brody.  Danes does a wonderful job communicating the obsessions of someone high up in the CIA’s ranks who takes it as her personal responsibility not to let 9/11 happen again.  In fact, in Danes’ voiceover on the show’s credits, Carrie insists that she should have caught the clues, that she should have seen the 9/11 attacks coming and been able to prevent them.  The weight of personal guilt for a national tragedy fuels Carrie’s passion and her mania.

Homeland suggests that only enormous ego or narcissism could explain one solitary CIA agent’s single-minded pursuit of justice and her insistence that 9/11 was in some way her fault.  At the same time, the show proposes that another terrorist event might in fact be foiled by a single agent.

The show seesaws between these two different desires.  It appeases our yearning for a hero who can stop speeding bullets with his or her bare hands (like Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in 24, on which some of Homeland’s producers previously worked).  But it also underlines that national security is a complicated priority that takes way more than a village, let alone any individual.

Homeland mostly resists 24’s fantasy that one man could save us all.  In fact, Homeland’s hero is a woman.  While the show admires Carrie for her superior intelligence and her willingness to dedicate her life to her job, it also burdens her with an unnamed but determining psychological problem.  Carrie can’t tell the agency about her condition or she’d be fired from her high-level security clearance position.  She pilfers drugs from her impatient, unsympathetic pharmaceutical rep sister to self-medicate and keep herself even.

By explaining Carrie’s obsessions as at least partly the result of her illness, Homeland cuts the character off at the knees.  We’re never sure if her paranoia is justified or chemical, and none of her reactions can be trusted because we don’t know what really fuels her obsession.

Her superiors don’t know Carrie’s medical history; they find her difficult because she breaks rules and resists censure.  She is a loose cannon in a carefully regulated world.  In fact, Carrie’s vigilantism is one of the least believable aspects of an otherwise smart show.  Certainly, an agent who bugged the home of a returning war hero without authorization would be summarily fired.  And certainly, an agent who initiated a sexual relationship with that war hero would be denounced.  (But then again, indiscretions like these didn’t hamper Jack Bauer, either.)

Instead, Carrie confesses her misdeeds to Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), her father-figure mentor.  He scolds her, knits his thick eyebrows together in deep disapproval, and then absolves her, hugging her tightly in understanding parental embraces that free her to go on drawing outside the lines of agency protocol.  Saul, you see, is also emotionally haunted.  His obvious though unnamed Jewishness—inescapable in any character Patinkin plays—emphasizes his moral ambivalence.

Like Carrie, Saul’s obsession with his job compromises his emotional and domestic life. In fact, his South Asian wife has decided to leave him after 25 years of marriage to return to her family in Delhi because he’s emotionally and physically inaccessible. Their scenes together allow Patinkin to indulge his hang-dog, maudlin side. The producers haven’t quite figured out how to bring more nuances to a character caught between his righteous ambitions and his sincere love for his wife. Their costly commitments to their jobs make Saul and Carrie the show’s real soul-mates.

Damian Lewis performs Sergeant Brody as a time-bomb set to detonate, controlled by unknown forces on an unknown schedule. Brody was isolated for eight years before being rescued by an American SWAT team. Lewis clarifies the force of will required to survive captivity, and never shies from inhabiting Brody’s vulnerabilities. He makes palpable the depth of Brody’s need for connection while he remained in captivity, after he was released from extended solitary confinement and torture.

After sustaining himself by making unimaginable moral choices, Brody returns to a domestic life that’s moved on without him. Brody finds that his wife, Jessica (Morena Baccarin), has been sleeping with his best friend, Mike (Diego Klattenhoff). But after being told that Brody was presumed dead, how long was she supposed to keep her life on hold?

Likewise, Brody’s friend and fellow captive, Sergeant Tom Walker, whom Brody is lead to believe he killed with his bare hands, left behind a wife who’s since remarried. Both couples have kids who barely know their fathers. One of Homeland’s conversations, then, also concerns the place of biological fathers in families that survive without them. The series implicitly asks whether men like Brody have any right to walk back into their patriarchal roles without acknowledging how their domestic spheres have closed around their absences.

Baccarin, as Jessica, plays Brody’s conflicted wife with emotional depth and precision. She’s given little to do—wouldn’t a soldier’s wife have to work for a living when he was presumed dead?—and she mostly reacts to Brody’s presence. But Baccarin communicates the complicated feelings of a woman who has to pick up a marriage that was suspended and presumed ended for eight years. Her struggle to play the dutiful, faithful wife makes Jessica more interesting in Baccarin’s performance than she is in the show’s dialogue.

Homeland’s latest twists (Episode 9) stretch the credulity of an already somewhat confusing story. (I’ve noticed the on-line concern that the show might go the way of The Killing, last season’s atmospheric new series that finally irritated viewers with its cliff-hangers and unlikely plot turns.) But I’ll keep watching to see how Danes continues to bring depth and complexity to one of the more interesting roles for women on series television, and to see how the writers unravel the current host of secrets and complications and set us up for more in season two.

The Feminist Spectator

Homeland, Showtime, Sundays, 10 p.m., ET/PT

Link to original post on Blogspot.

Three Sisters

Austin Pendleton directs Paul Schmidt’s translation of Chekhov’s play with verve and surprising wit, giving the play a hint of contemporary relevance while maintaining a light touch over the production’s pace and tone. Schmidt’s translation is breezy and colloquial, sometimes awkwardly balancing the lyricism of Chekhov’s poetry with a vernacular style that sounds a lot like the way upper-middle class American young people speak in 2011.

The language makes the production at once a pleasure, tilting it on balance more toward the comedy than the tragedy in Chekhov’s “tragicomic” genre, but also makes it just a little difficult to determine what exactly the production wants to say to contemporary audiences.

The three sisters stand out in an extremely talented cast. Jessica Hecht’s Ólga (accents over the characters’ names come from the production program) is tired but empathetic, the first to sound the alarm about the encroaching Natásha’s excesses. Maggie Gyllenhaal brings Másha more than a little sultry sexuality and sly wisdom, which makes her abandonment by Lieutenant Vershínin at the play’s end that much more affecting. Juliet Rylance captures all of Irína’s ambivalent yearning for a way to be a better, more effective person, even as her suitor, the doomed Baron Tuzenbach (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, wonderful as the foolish, love-lorn solider) fails to capture her romantic imagination.

Instead of the isolation and stately loneliness some productions bring to the sisters’ relationship, Hecht, Gyllenhaal, and Rylance are girlish together, touching one another constantly, speaking directly into each other’s faces, always in proximity, and feeding one another’s illusions about how they’ll escape their country lives and leave for Moscow (or anywhere, by the play’s end).

Yet their girlishness doesn’t denigrate or diminish them, so much as it gives them a way to perform their hope for a different future and their faith in one another. Ólga, Irína, and Másha cling together in what the actors play as a well-worn pattern of mutual support and affection, as well as a physical strategy for keeping the real world at bay.

The strength of the women’s performances clarifies that the sisters rule their fading aristocratic home, but the end of their class privilege is signaled when Natásha instantly begins running the household after she marries their brother, Andréy (a soulful, befuddled, and finally furious Josh Hamilton). Chekhov invests in Natásha all the uncouth flailing of what he saw as the ascending middle-class. Her terrible French accent horrifies the sisters, who palpably dislike her, even before she begins reassigning their bedrooms so that her baby can have the house’s best air and light.

She moves Ólga and Irína farther into the house’s lower regions, dismantling their power and their right to their own property. And, of course, one of Natásha’s last stated intentions is to cut down the trees that line the family estate which, as always in Chekhov, represent stability, history, and the privilege of nobility.

The beginning of Natásha’s reign ends an era for Chekhov, with the aristocrats’ fall aided and abetted by an indolent military, represented in Three Sisters by the company of soldiers billeted with the family. The soldiers sit among the women, drinking, playing the piano, eating, and commenting with nonsensical self-importance on the non-events of the day.

Vershínin’s arrival, and his subsequent affair with Másha, propels the slender plot, and his departure, with the rest of the company of soldiers, marks its end. Peter Sarsgaard has a grand time with the pompous lieutenant, bringing to the static household a galvanizing charisma that re-enlivens the sisters’ hope for an elsewhere that never materializes.

Often, watching productions of Chekhov, I get lost in the too-similar Russian names and the indistinguishable, interchangeable characters, whose roles seem only metaphorical. But Pendleton and his superb actors make them all lively and distinct, so that even the minor soldiers and the townspeople become vivid and meaningful.

Each character’s trajectory is clearly plotted and fully delivered, so that what begins, for instance, as Andréy’s romantic, absent-minded artistry ends as his brooding, resentful parenthood, as he miserably pushes the baby’s carriage around the stage while his wife openly carries on an affair.

Natásha, inhabited beautifully by Marin Ireland, begins as an insecure, flibbertigibbet of a schoolgirl, and ends as an imperious, thoughtlessly cruel, impatient harpy, whose dismissal of the sisters’ old maid, Anfísa (Roberta Maxwell), is particularly horrific because it’s so casually heartless.

Pendleton crafts a series of fully interconnected but completely distinct moments of complex emotional and political interaction among the characters. Their delusions accumulate, one upon the other, so that the weight of their collective self-sabotage becomes at once heartbreaking and infuriating. Paul Lazar is particularly good as Kulýgin, the schoolteacher married to Másha, whose puffed up pride keeps him from seeing the extent of Másha’s betrayal.

Pendleton and his designers—Walt Spangler (sets), Keith Parham (lights), and Marco Piemontese (costumes)—use the Classic Stage Company’s modified thrust, with the audience seated very close to the stage floor action on three sides, to enhance the play’s claustrophobia. In the first two acts, he blocks the action around a dining table so large it takes up two-thirds of the space. The sisters and Anfísa lay the table with elaborate silver and stemware, as if preparing for holiday feast instead of a regular repast, and the dinner guests take their seats with the familiarity of those participating in a well-grooved ritual.

When the play opens, live flowers deck the domestic scene with fresh and colorful loveliness, which proceeds to pale as the production moves forward. In the second act, the flowers are gone and the table is bare, and the evening’s debauchery feels more desperate and less refined as the sisters and the soldiers sing and play drinking games with their glasses of vodka while Natásha scolds them for waking up her precious baby.

The claustrophobia of the interior scenes gives way in the final act to the outdoors, where old Chebutýkin (Louis Zorich) rattles his newspaper and sputters about how nothing matters, even after the poor Baron is killed in a duel with his moody, jealous colleague Solyóny (the dark, dashing Anson Mount). Chebutýkin’s tuneless humming, and his sneering insistence that marrying one man is the same as marrying another, becomes the play’s hopeless benediction.

The contemporary resonances sound most clearly in the second act, when Másha and her soldier friends play their senseless games, down their vodka, and declare that they’re bored. The assembled adults seem child-like when they whine, and their plaints ring with the rank privilege of those too wealthy and coddled to know how to amuse themselves.

Their moral vacuity contrasts sharply with Irína’s frantic desire to work, to contribute to the world in order to find it meaningful. But she, too, reveals her shallowness when she comes home tired and irritated that the work she’s found is only physical, not the spiritual uplift she expected from her engagement with a wider society.

Perhaps because the production itself is star-studded, I came away feeling that the contemporary allegory of Three Sisters had something to do with the wages of American celebrity, where bored rich kids like poor Lindsay Lohan and all the other too thin, hyper-sexualized, vapid young women and pretty, silly young men parade themselves for the world’s amusement while nothing on earth of substance happens to them.

The insipidness of their visibility recalls the static, empty privilege of the dying aristocracy Chekhov sentences to a kind of house arrest on the Prózorov family estate. It’s difficult to feel sorry for these young people, now or then. Pendleton’s production makes the characters compelling, their stasis sad, but it’s difficult not to say to them or to young privileged celebrities now, Please, just get a grip and do something.

The Feminist Spectator

Three Sisters, The Class Stage Companythrough March 6th. I saw the performance on February 5th, 2011.

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