Week 9: Season 3 Episodes 9-12: How Real is the CIA depicted in Homeland?

21-homeland-ep4-6.w529.h352The final four episodes of Season 3 of Homeland contained action, suspense, violence, and the elimination of one of the show’s protagonists.  In other words, all the stuff that makes Homeland such an engaging and entertaining show. The gripping depiction of the CIA in its fight against terrorism serves as the linchpin to all the other elements that make up the show. Many of the main characters have pivotal positions in this agency and at the end of Season 2, a bomb ripped apart its headquarters in what was deemed as the worst terrorist attack since September 11th and positioned itself as a key narrative detail.

Many analysis have been written featuring the characters and plot lines of Homeland so I wanted to find something unique to focus my analysis on this week. There have been many changes to the CIA in Homeland’s world in the aftermath of the bombing, so I felt the time was right to delve deeper into this mysterious and prestigious agency in the federal government.  A fraction of Season 3 was devoted to hiring a new director of the CIA and trying to restore its tattered reputation.  For a while, Saul took the reigns as the director since he occupied the highest ranking position of the staff who survived the bombing.  However it is in the middle of Season 3 that we learned Saul’s days are numbered at the CIA. Although he was able to buy himself some time in his directorship of the CIA in order to finalize a crucial mission, it was in the final episode of this season that Lockhart was ultimately confirmed as the new CIA director.

All three seasons show an almost glamorous look at the CIA: from the offices at Langley, to traveling to exotic locations, to its employees being one of the elite few having access to classified national and international information.  Although I know Hollywood tends to exaggerate plot lines and characterization for sake of creating pulse pounding entertainment for its audience, I was curious about what a career in the CIA is really like.  Are the days really fraught with excitement and danger?  How often do employees of the CIA get to hobnob with the President, Vice President, Congress, and other high ranking government officials?  Is Carrie, a mid level case worker (prior to her promotion at the end of Season 3), really allowed to flagrantly violate her orders in a mission and still be able to maintain her position within the agency? It turns out that however glamorous the CIA appears on screen, in reality a career at the CIA is not quite as fantastical.

Original Headquarters Building (OHB)

The CIA’s original headquarters building

According to Jon Swaine of The Telegraph, many details and story lines are unrealistic. Starting with the portrayal of the agency’s headquarters in northern Virginia, the work spaces are far uglier than the elegant steel-and-glass shown on the show.  Also the real job as an analyst is around 15-20 percent awe-inspiring and dramatic moments while other times analysts are writing reports. Since watching a scene depicting an analyst at a computer writing a report is about as exciting as watching paint dry, it’s understandable that the writers concoct all sorts of crazy and outlandish situations for our protagonists and pluck the all of the action in exotic locals.

Carrie’s character is a prime example of fallacious characterization.  One CIA counter terror homeland-season-5-episode-2-claire-danes.Rveteran stated that someone with such a “drug-addled and neurotic persona certainly would have raised numerous red flags in real life, and she likely would have had wound up in a job in the mail room to keep her out of trouble”.   According to another former CIA official, “bureaucratic concerns would ensure mid-ranking case officers such as Carrie did not glide in and out of the offices of agency bosses such as David Estes”.  In the past I have been critical of Carrie being so unwavering in her dedication to her job, despite any cost to those around her.  That sort of recklessness was prominently featured in this season: Carrie was willing to sabotage Saul’s plan when she was trying to stop Franklin from shooting the Langley bomber.  It took Quinn to shoot her in the shoulder to stop her in her tracks.  In what was probably a more flagrant example insubordination, Carrie warned Brody of the two men Saul and Der Adal dispatched to kill him in Tehran.  I find it hard to believe that just these two instances were not enough for the CIA to terminate Carrie’s employment.  Instead, Carrie was offered a cushy job in Istanbul.

The C.I.A. sisterhood is fed up with the flock of fictional C.I.A. women in movies and on TV who guzzle alcohol as they bed hop and drone drop, acting crazed and emotional, sleeping with terrorists and seducing assets.

Perhaps the biggest blunder in accuracy depicted in the show is centered on the central plot line.  The CIA would not even be allowed to investigate Brody as a turned Marine since it unfolds inside the United States.  They would not even attempt to do so, as they are concerned with terrorism overseas.  The FBI and Homeland Security handle domestic terror incidents.  Instead Homeland portrays the FBI almost as bumbling buffoons,  assisting the CIA when domestic terrorism events strike.

These inaccuracies aside, the show accurately portrayed Lockhart’s acquisition as the new CIA Director. The Director is a civilian or a general/flag officer of the armed forces nominated by the President.  It was during the hunting expedition that Saul learned of the President nominating Lockhart for the Director position.  Although some details were glossed over as in order to become Director.  For example, the candidate would also need the concurring or nonconcurring recommendation from the DNI, and must be confirmed by a majority vote of the Senate.

The end of Season 3 shows a touching scene – akin to a tribute to the now deceased Brody.  CIA Memorial WallAfter getting rebuffed from Lockhart for getting Brody a star to display on the CIA memorial wall, Carrie used a marker to draw in a star.   It will be interesting to see how the CIA will hold up without Saul, especially given his successful mission in evading war with Iran.  Will Carrie be bringing baby Brody with her to Istanbul?  Will she embrace motherhood when her daughter is born?  Homeland will undoubtedly explore these questions along with their unique mix of political intrigue, excitement, and action in Season 4.


8 thoughts on “Week 9: Season 3 Episodes 9-12: How Real is the CIA depicted in Homeland?

  1. Great post! I had assumed that much of this was glorified in an attempt to make the series more exciting. Of course, this practice is pretty typical for the entertainment industry. I can’t help but think about the ways that other professions are portrayed. Lawyers, for example, are often depicted as trying case after exciting case in the courtroom, but most of the job (in reality) is research and writing (much the same, it would seem, as the average CIA analyst).


  2. Very insightful post. In response to your post I think there are some interesting parallels between Saul’s last days and Obama’s in that each tried very hard and craftily to install a meaningful legacy in a tattered and disheartened political system. I also think Homeland’s use of rouge CIA agents ties into many of the Obama administrations use of covert and “under the radar” personal to pull off high risk situations. For example what would he have done had Seal Team 6 been captured by Pakistani forces? Although Homeland appears more dramatic, I think it purposely addresses some of Obama’s policies as the creators knew he watched the show.


  3. Carrie is like 24’s Jack Bauer in a lot of ways…she can do whatever she wants, get a slap on the wrist, and continue doing whatever she wants. Why? Because it turns out that she ends up on the right side of major situations. However, the end of this season sort of puts Carrie in a new position for the show. She ends up being unable to convince people of her position, and she must watch the “love of her life” die. Her mixed devotions to the CIA and Brody now being annihilated, it will be interesting to see how often she still fights against the powers that be in order to do whatever she wants. We do now know, though, that she won’t be taking anymore bullets from her friends in an attempt to clear Brody’s name.


  4. I think your estimate of 15-20 % excitement is on the high side. I’ve heard police officers say their job is 1% excitement. But when tv comes around, even being a professor is made to look exciting–check out Indiana Jones!
    The go-to guy for commentary on the show’s accuracy is Robert Baer, the former agent who wrote “Syriana.” He’s very interesting on Carrie’s sexual exploits. He says its been known to happen, but the repercussions afterwards don’t make for much of a career. Mata Hari indeed!
    Generally, I don’t remember Congress ever making much of a squawk about CIA director appointments.


  5. I appreciated the action factor of this as I already assumed it would be really boring to watch the daily life of a real CIA agent. Probably only doing paper work and drinking coffee. What keeps me interested in the job factor despite the position is that most, if not always, anyone showing that amount of blatant disrespect and refusal to follow orders of their superior wound have been fired a long time ago not just “sent to the mailroom.” The simple fact that she got an excellent promotion regardless already shoes be this was a work of fiction.


  6. I do enjoy the tracking shots from the sky around the CIA headquarters that usually precedes a scene within the building. But anyway, very interesting post and I’m wondering if this show has resulted in an influx of people attempting to be CIA agents. I remember when CSI first hit the scene on CBS and there were tons of people who tried to go be crime scene investigators thinking it would be similar to the lifestyle depicted on the show.


  7. Good post! I like Marilyn’s point about TV or film lawyers. I watched “A few good men,” when I was younger and thought I wanted to be a lawyer so I could yell “I want the truth!” (In reality, I just wanted to play a lawyer on TV.) So I think that any career as it’s depicted in television and film is always a bit over the top. But since a lot of the general public has less interaction with CIA agents than they do with lawyers or doctors, it creates a sort of curiosity of “I wonder if it’s really anything like that.”
    You briefly mentioned the FBI in this post– that’s something else I’ve been curious about. I wonder how often these two agencies work together, and if there is anything like the kind of tension portrayed in the show?


  8. I knew a kid in high school who was determined he was going to work for the FBI–even at that young age. When I get a second, I need to google him and see how he turned out.


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