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Why 'Scandal' is Doing a Better Job of Channeling American Fears Than 'Homeland' This Season

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire November 5, 2013 at 3:42PM

"Homeland" has introduced a queasy new antagonist, but it's one who's a little closer to home on "Scandal" who really resonates this year.
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Kent Smith/Showtime Claire Danes in 'Homeland'

The article below contains spoilers through the current seasons of "Homeland" and "Scandal."

Majid Javadi (Shaun Toub), the latest baddie to emerge on "Homeland," is a man capable of incredible brutality. Such was made clear in this past Sunday's episode, "Still Positive," when he expressed his ire at getting bested by his old foe and colleague Saul (Mandy Patinkin) by driving to a nearby suburban house and murdering the two women inside while the baby playing on the floor cried. The location was not chosen at random -- the women were his daughter-in-law and ex-wife, who'd fled to the U.S. after the Iranian Revolution with help from Saul, an act of revenge against Javadi for a betrayal.

Outfoxed, Javadi used his narrow window of remaining freedom to answer the decades-old salvo in ways that were hard to watch. He killed his former spouse by stabbing her repeatedly in the throat with a broken bottle. In retaliation, Saul punched him in the nose, but Javadi definitely came out on top in terms of the lengths the two spies were willing to go for spite. He'd been called out, his embezzling of government funds putting him in a tight spot, but he also acknowledged his own value as an informant -- as he taunted Saul, "you don't look like a man who just landed the biggest asset of his career."

'Scandal'

Abu Nazir, the antagonist Javadi has replaced, was a terrorist, a member of Al-Qaeda. But Javadi, the man apparently behind the bombing of the CIA, "The Magician," is a high-level Iranian intelligence officer. "Homeland" is so prone to breakneck twists that it wouldn't be surprising if in the next episode or two it's revealed that Javadi has been acting at the behest of some malicious, nationless billionaire who lives in a blimp-mansion hovering over international waters, but at the moment, the show seems to have laid blame for a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil, on a U.S. agency, at the doorstep of the Iranian government -- as represented by a guy who just ruthlessly slaughtered two women.

"24," the series "Homeland" showrunners Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa worked on before their current Showtime drama, was a show that generated a lot of debate about its depictions of Muslims and terrorism, portrayals it cushioned with the use of fictional countries like the "Islamic Republic of Kamistan." The use of real countries and organizations in "Homeland" at first made the show seem both more daring and more grown-up -- but at this point, given the wild swings the series has taken in its second and current seasons, its wading into the mire of our relationship with Iran this way while, in real life, our governments engage in talks strikes an undeniably sour note.

The "Homeland" of season one might have been able to pull this off -- but the "Homeland" of seasons two and three is a sillier show with a much looser sense of plausibility that just doesn't feel capable. And the introduction of Nazanin Boniadi as the competent new Iranian-American analyst Fara Sherazi now seems like preemptive countering of Javadi before he ever arrived, before, with an added sting, he used the name of beloved soccer star Nasser Hejazi as a cover for his financial dealings. It seems unlikely that "Homeland" will present a world in which the U.S. is at war with Iran in season four -- though who's to say? But the series has prioritized soap operatics over any more grounded portrayal of the war on terror of late -- hence the continued attention to Dana Brody's (Morgan Saylor) angst and the reveal about the Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) drawer o' pregnancy tests -- and the idea of such fraught actual international tensions being used as fodder for more summons a sense of dread.

ABC 'Scandal'

"Homeland" is a soap opera underneath the aspirations toward seriousness, while "Scandal" is openly one, albeit in a way that has actually freed it up to feel more relevant that the higher-end cable drama this season. As on "Homeland," national interests and personal ones are hopelessly intertwined on "Scandal," but the latter has never had to worry about maintaining the same sense of credibility as the former -- and it even has its own Carrie and Brody (Damian Lewis)-style desperate, impossible romance in Olivia (Kerry Washington) and Fitz (Tony Goldwyn), aka the President of the United States. The show exists in a cynical, just-alternate universe in which the country may be large, but the group of people that matter are an attractive oligarchy of self-serving psychopaths, even our allegedly white-hatted heroine.

The show's latest antagonist, Rowan Pope (Joe Morton), Olivia's frightening father, is in charge of B613, the highly secretive, powerful black ops agency for which both Huck (Guillermo Diaz) and Jake (Scott Foley) used to work, one that's responsible for, among other things, torture and high level assassinations. His apparently limitless power serves as an exaggerated but pointed echo of the claims of ignorance from the President and the Senate Intelligence Committee that greeted the recent NSA spying revelations -- Rowan apparently doesn't answer to anyone, even the man in charge of the country. In the most recent episode, "More Cattle, Less Bull," White House Chief of Staff Cyrus (Jeff Perry) reacted with terror when Fitz asked how to get rid of B613, pulling him to the corner and whispering like they're surrounded by bugs that "this is something you can't control, Mr. President" and that previous people who've questioned the division's existence or budget have been killed.

The assumption is that B613 has listening devices in the Oval Office, and that they've flourished in an environment of paranoia and plausible deniability to the point where their ideas about acting in the country's best interest are no longer subject to any outside oversight. And it speaks to how "Scandal," as heightened as it is, has a much bleaker view of power and governmental institutions than "Homeland." In fact, "Homeland," coming from points of view inside the CIA, has placed a fundamental trust in what its characters are doing and their perceptions of the world, subject as they are to under-informed Senate Committee hearings and political maneuverings. They've made some reckless decisions, but their hearts are in the right place -- whereas the "Scandal" version of the CIA, or at least B613, is seen from the outside, a malignant force acting in a warped vision of what's right.

'Scandal'

No one in "Scandal" is fundamentally trustworthy -- not Fitz, who unknowingly cheated his way into office and may have shot down a plane carrying Olivia's mother; not Cyrus, who's done some almost B613-worthy things to protect the President; not even Olivia, who's done a lot of damage in the name of doing good. And all of these people see themselves as doing what's needed for the greater benefit. And that mess of shifting loyalties and multiple parties acting out in conflicting self-interest and self-justifications may often be ridiculous, but in spirit feels more on point that Carrie and Saul's top secret excursion to take down a bomber by themselves before they're shut down by likely new boss Senator Andrew Lockhart (Tracy Letts), who really isn't being that unreasonable in saying he wants to avoid having anymore Carries and Brodys in the agency. Wouldn't you?

This article is related to: Television, TV Features, Scandal, Homeland, ABC, Showtime