Monday, September 17, 2012

Keep The Home Fires Burning

The noble, resilient, resourceful, and, most of all, faithful Penelope waited 20 years for Odysseus' return.  During that time, in a patriarchal society, she managed her husband's palace and simultaneously hosted and rebuffed a slew (pun on the fact that they all get slain! he-he) of suitors, all of whom are vying for her hand in marriage, while eating and drinking her out of house and home.

It took an unbelieveable woman to accomplish all of this, while still maintaining both her beauty and her honor, so a reader of The Odyssey is not surprised that Penelope does all of this.  After all, she is an unbelieveable person, a larger-than-life woman, an "epic" wife who is granted both courage and a few divinely-initiated facelifts from the deities on Mount Olympus.

But there's another nagging little issue at the back of all this:  if Penelope had been unfaithful and Odysseus had come home and found out about it, he would have killed her.  Immediately.

Even after 20 years, when the assumption that he was dead (instead of having sex with various goddesses, higher beings , and royalty, among other adventures) was more like a certainty.  Heck, how long was Tom Hanks on that island in Castaway?  When he returned home, his girlfriend had moved on, almost without apology.

Such is one of the conflicts at the core of emotionally-complex Homeland, now available to those of us who don't have Showtime. (NOTE TO READERS:  There is no spoiler alert necessary.  Everything I will discuss is revealed in the first 10 minutes of the series).  A husband goes to serve in the Iraq War, disappears during that conflict, and is declared dead, officially, as in a Marine coming to the wife's door and telling her that her husband is dead.  After 8 years, he is discovered as a prisoner in a camp by some U.S. soldiers, and when he is brought Germany and able to reorient himself, the first thing he wants to do is to call his wife.  When she answers the phone, she is in bed with another man.


Or is it an oops?  Having been told that her husband was dead, she still waited for him for 6 years.  When they have a conversation about it, she tells her husband that she waited for those 6 years and then she "screwed up."  But did she?  What are the social conventions for waiting?

There's an interesting unspoken standard here, and not just because of, in Penelope's case, Odysseus' extra-curricular activities.  No, the real issue is that it is the warrior who goes off to fight, while the warrior wife remains to keep the home fires burning, and keep those fires burning she must, or she risks moral judgement and disgrace.  At best.

Homeland, being edgy television, amps the situation up by making the lover in question the husband's best friend and by making the wife an exotic, beautiful woman whom every other man in the unit apparently desires as well.  But those are extraneous details to the main concern.

The faithful wife, expected to be as faithful to the memory as to the man himself, is an archtype that really doesn't play as well in the modern world, where that wife is likely a woman with an independent career and a set of interests that may be seperate from, even though complementary to, her husband. 

What is hard for any character in any of these situations to articulate is how many ways people change in those 8 years, especially because for the wife to detail the changes in her is a bold admission of all of the ways that she had to adapt to her husband's absence.  She had situations she had to figure out on her own.  She had ways that she needed help.  She may have moved from housewife to employee, from dependent to independent or differently dependent.  However happy she may be to see her husband alive, she doesn't "need" him in the same way that she once did, and she never will again.

The Odyssey, of course, doesn't deal with these issues at all.  Penelope and Odysseus are both expected to pick up where they left off, their bodies made young and beautiful by the gods.  Only Tennyson's poem, "Ulysses," with its characterization of that hero as

an idle king,By this still hearth, among these barren crags,Matched with an agèd wife
confronts the realities of the long-gone warrior come home.

But Homeland, it understands. For these are real characters trying to reunite, and the sex is awkward and out-of-sync, the husband seeks someone who gets what he's been through, the wife misses her lover in ways that don't cancel out the effort she's making with her returned husband, and all of the other disconnections, about the children she's raised alone and about the years that have passed, get in the way of everything.

No, this isn't the central issue in the show, but all of the rest of it would seem cheap and sensational without the anchor of family. And I mean that both in terms of stability and weight. As is said of another character on the show, his family is his "Achilles' heel," and that seems to be true of all, warrior and, especially, wife, who thanklessly kept the "homeland" all together for those long, lonely years. 


Billy said...

The family dynamics of the various characters on the show was a powerful part of the story for me, too. Carrie and her sister and father. Saul and his wife.

What tells me we still have a long way to go before reaching gender equality, however, is to imagine the gender roles being reversed in the Brody household. What if Sgt. Jessica Brody had been presumed dead for eight years while Nicholas remained home to raise the kids? We wouldn't bat an eye if Nicholas had "moved on" and was sleeping with another woman. Or women.

Culturally, we are more forgiving of women in acts of violence and more judgmental of them in matters of family and "loyalty."

Susan said...

Oh, I really dont' need to jumbp into this fray, but yes, Billy, you are correct. Mostly in that we still have a long way to go before reaching gender equality, and I'm stil game to discuss one afternoon when we can find time.