Two Americas on Screen: Homeland and the Cavalry Trilogy

The Covid-19 collapse, civil unrest bordering on revolution, and now the Bostock decision by the Supreme Court re-defining sex, all seem like the old American republic’s version of the “three horsemen of the Apocalypse” in 2020, from the standpoint of traditional American culture.

But this year also marked the finale of the highly rated Homeland TV series, after eight years of addressing issues of American identity and what it means to be a patriot.

In many ways, disastrous events in America since the airing of the finale season, which began in February and continued into the Easter season of shutdown, were foreshadowed by Homeland’s underlying ethos for Generations X, Y, Z. As the musician Gil Scott-Heron’s voice intoned in some of the openings: “The revolution will not be televised.” But it sure can get deep into our heads.

One may have to go back 70 years to find another visual story-telling cycle as emblematic of its time, but by contrast anti-revolutionary in support of our constitutional republic. Notably John Ford’s classic Cavalry Trilogy of Western films, which appeared annually from 1948 to 1950, marked very different views of America for the Greatest and Silent Generations, transitioning from World War II into the Cold War and the start of the Korean conflict.

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Homeland

First, consider the Twenty-first-century American epic.

The heroine, Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Dames), is a CIA agent who is seriously bipolar and “sex positive” with men involved in her work. For example, she sleeps with a young virgin Muslim medical student to recruit him as a CIA asset. A poster-lady for 21st-century American careerism, she is an unmarried single mom who almost drowns her baby on purpose, then gives up the child to pursue her covert spy work without entanglement. The baby’s father, btw, the love of her life, is a US veteran turned double agent for terrorists, who is executed in Iran.

During Mathison’s time in the CIA, one US President is forced from office while another is killed in a helicopter accident, amid a backdrop of palace coups, all related to her projects. In-between, there is much Russophobia, although she ends the series living in Russia with a Russian spy as a double agent, covertly helping the US while having published a book Tyranny of Secrets: Why I Had to Betray My Country.

From revealing sexual escapades to bipolarity and reputation as “the drone queen” for killing Muslims long-distance, to assumption of an anti-American social justice warrior role near the end of the series, Agent Mathison is a model of postmodern deconstruction and irony. There is nothing simple or honest there, even though she can be charming and alluring and sometimes admirable. Everything about this character, like her country, is layered and tangled and contradictory.

That’s the final word on American patriotism in the series: It’s complicated, not really worth it, but something to hold cynically at arms’ length for the sake of career loyalty. In the last scene, she’s lovingly with her Russian spy lover listening to African-American musicians play jazz at a swanky Moscow venue, while pondering how she has just betrayed her lover and new country by sending missile secrets to her old boss and career mentor at the CIA. She seems to define elite privilege in a deep-statish “woke” kind of way, to which many young American professionals now likely aspire.

Mathison is secret agent for today’s global elite class. Not coincidentally, she exemplifies in her career Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s double maxims of the Soviet Gulag system: “Survive at any price” and “only material results matter.” But she practices these principles in an ironic placeless postmodern way, exemplifying Western soft totalitarianism merging the Deep State, cultural Marxism, and “woke capitalism,” as if in one of the jazz riffs she loves. She is a couple generations beyond James Bond in Western cultural decadence–pomo, post-Cold War, post-Christian (despite dabbling in rediscovered Catholicism, a spiritual-but-not-religious none). Her American heroic cycle celebrates the will to power in a nihilistic setting: Prequel to shutdown, New Depression, revolutionary identity politics, and the Bostock decision’s betrayal of social conservatism.

The Cavalry Trilogy

To America’s Greatest” and Quiet generations, Director John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy offered a cycle of three films on American identity and patriotism, featuring a U.S. Cavalry officer variously named (at various ages) Capt. Kirby York, in the first film, set after the Civil War (Fort Apache); the widowed Captain Nathan Brittles on the verge of retirement in 1876 in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon; and the estranged-from-his-wife Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (different spelling), in 1879, of Rio Grande. All these figures are essentially the same character, as played by John Wayne, interacting with the ensemble of actors from Ford’s troupe, in harsh but lovingly presented Western landscapes centered on Monument Valley.

In Ford’s Trilogy we see the national seeds of themes in the later American epic Homeland: The hero dedicated to duty to a degree neglectful of family, and the sins of empire. But here the circle is squared by the hero’s reconciliation with his wife and son, his piety as an older widower toward the grave of his dead spouse, the lack of irony, dissipation, and double-mindedness in his love of country, the encouragement of new family life in marriage and children invoking care for generations to come, and faith.

In the background, palpably hovering, lies the Christian civil religion underlying the old American republic, under attempted revival as the Cold War began, morphing into what was called the “Judeo-Christian” values of the Eisenhower era, with its insertion of “In God We Trust” onto coins and “one nation under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance, in the fight against atheistic world Communism.

When the son of Sergeant Major Michael O’Rourke returns home, the Irish Catholic father is reading a well-used Bible with domestic religious symbolism in the background, instead of attending the fort dance for George Washington’s birthday. Sergeant Major Quincannon and the child Margaret Mary stoop and cross themselves as they run from the ruined church where children had been held hostage by hostile Indians. There are Christian Scripture readings and heartfelt prayer at a battle-side funeral.

Alongside stereotypes amid Indian Wars comes a focus on national reconciliation, in stories that include Indian allies and noble as well as villainous Indian leaders, some of them friends of the hero, and the honoring of the Navajo Scout Son of Many Mules at the Trilogy’s end. There is also reconciliation of veterans and families divided by the preceding Civil War. The hubris of empire is critiqued in the disastrous machinations of the arrogant Colonel Thursday against hostile Indians, with Thursday modeled on George Armstrong Custer, and in the corrupt and capitalistic government agent preying on Indians. Above all, the Cavalry Trilogy offers a view of history as tragic, rather than merely ironic, with care for the common man, transgenerational in the hopes of family and faith. The latter includes both faith in God and faith in the American republic.

Mixing resurrectional comedy with tragedy, and more than a dash of anti-establishment subversive satire, the older cycle doesn’t mistake the seriousness of the project of the republic for the narcissism of nihilistic self-essentialization seen in the later series.

As the narrator intones at the end of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: “So here they are, the dog-faced soldiers, the regulars, the 50-cents-a-day professionals, riding the outposts of a nation, from Fort Reno to Fort Apache, from Sheridan to Stark, they were all the same, men in dirty shirt blue and only a cold page in the history to mark their passing. But wherever they rode, and whatever they fought for, that place became the United States.”

The Trilogy’s final image is of the Navajo Scout Son of Many Mules riding off into the American landscape, together with Yankee and former Confederate cavalrymen, to grow a republic.

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