The fifth season of Homeland just got a huge publicity boost — but maybe not exactly along the lines Showtime might have hoped.
Late on October 14, a trio of artists called Arabian Street Artists revealed that when Homeland hired them to "lend graffiti authenticity to a film set of a Syrian refugee camp on the Lebanese/Syrian border," they graffitied slams against the show instead. In the fifth season's second episode, which aired on October 11, Claire Danes and company walked right past insults against Homeland.
The gist, as seen in the below image: "Homeland is racist."
What are the Arabian Street Artists' complaints against Homeland?
Homeland, a show centering on a brilliant but unstable CIA operative working to fight terrorism, has never beat around the bush so far as its villains. There are rarely euphemisms for groups when the show references real-life organizations. The line between fiction and reality has always been blurred.
The Arabian Street Artists trio — composed of Heba Y. Amin, Caram Kapp, and Stone — wrote a thorough explanation of why they take issue with the series. They write that they were hesitant to take the job until they realized they could use it as a platform to quite literally air their grievances:
We considered what a moment of intervention could relay about our own and many others’ political discontent with the series. It was our moment to make our point by subverting the message using the show itself.
They then emphasized how they believe Homeland has misrepresented Middle Eastern issues from the very start, like its first season's implications that "Al Qaida is actually an Iranian venture ... not only closely tied to Hezbollah, but [that it] even sought revenge against the US on behalf of Iran."
They further argue that Homeland needs to be more cognizant of its implications, given pop culture's power to influence the greater public to accept sensationalized storylines as fact. "This dangerous phantasm has become mainstream ‘knowledge’ in the US," they write, "and has been repeated as fact by many mass media outlets."
As for how they got away with it, they explain that the Homeland staff simply wasn't paying any attention, since they were trying to construct an intricate set in just two days.
Still, it's impressive that the harsh graffiti got through all the way to air without someone flagging it. Footage goes through countless hands — editors, directors, post-production supervisors, and so on. While Homeland has had consultants from the CIA and beyond for the creative side of things, this oversight on the production end is a big one. As New York Times television critic James Poniewozik wrote about the graffiti: "All anybody in charge of bringing the episode to air was able to see was squibbly."
And so the Arabian Street Artists don't let Homeland off so easily for missing their insults. "In their eyes," they write, "Arabic script is merely a supplementary visual that completes the horror-fantasy of the Middle East."
This isn't the first time Homeland has been criticized for its depiction of the Middle East
As the Arabian Street Artists point out, they are far from the first to register displeasure with Homeland's vision of Middle Eastern politics.
The second season depicted Beirut's Hamra district as a desolate wasteland populated by machine gun–wielding terrorists, when in reality it is a thriving cosmopolitan center. Last year's fourth season drew controversy when it named a terrorist character "Haissam Haqqani," hewing rather close to Husain Haqqani, the former Pakistani ambassador to the United States.
Homeland's relationship to the Middle East is perhaps best depicted with the stark promotional image for the show's fourth season:
Claire Danes's character, a blonde agent from the States, looks back at us from amidst a sea of faceless black burqas. The image stresses her vulnerability and singularity in an unidentifiable, threatening mass of black — or what the Arabian Street Artists called that "dangerous phantasm" of the Middle East.
Homeland's response in a nutshell: "Well played"
Showrunner Alex Gansa released a statement the following day to Deadline:
We wish we’d caught these images before they made it to air. However, as Homeland always strives to be subversive in its own right and a stimulus for conversation, we can’t help but admire this act of artistic sabotage.
The statement is a canny pivot away from the issue at hand that compliments the show while avoiding addressing any of the artists' concerns.
In other words: It's a pitch-perfect crisis management statement that tells us nothing at all.