As season one of Homeland draws towards it’s thrilling conclusion, I’ve been thinking a lot about ambiguity in drama.
So much of the appeal of Homeland has been the level of uncertainty about the motives and trustworthiness of both the central characters. Carrie is psychologically unstable, impulsive, and so driven that it compromises her career. Brody may be a traitor, but in some ways that’s the least of his problems: he’s traumatised by his experiences, confused about his place in the world, and being manipulated by most of the people around him. They’re both deeply ambiguous characters – but what is ambiguity?
Paul Ashton, from the BBC’s writersroom, says that ambiguity isn’t when we don’t know what’s going on. Neither is it when there are several contradictory answers to a question. Both these situations are confusing and alienating for the viewer. Rather, ambiguity is when there are two (or potentially, more than two) answers, both of which are equally supported by the evidence.
At the end of Inception, is Cobb in a dream world, or the real world? Both answers are equally possible, within the evidence we’ve been given. In early episodes of Homeland, the evidence pointed equally to Brody being a traitor, or an innocent man struggling with traumatic experiences. Is Carrie correct about him, or dangerously off her medication? Again, both options seem equally possible.
So how are the writers managing this level of ambiguity so effectively? Several clever techniques:
They’ve made us question what is real. Brody’s memory and psychological state are fragile, and Carrie’s on medication – indeed, her behaviour in the first episode is reckless and self-destructive. Neither of these people can be entirely trusted, even when they believe themselves to be telling the truth.
They’ve set the story in a world where anything is possible. The world of the spy – at least in fiction – is a world of shifting boundaries. A country that was an enemy yesterday is an ally today, and a threat again tomorrow. A deadly enemy agent, once turned, can be your most valuable asset. Against this background, every character is suspect and loyalties can change at any time. That’s the value of genre to the writer – among other things, it can create an atmosphere that supports ambiguity.
The two ambiguities reinforce one another. If Carrie’s sane, Brody is a traitor. If Brody’s a genuine hero, then Carrie is deluded. Or so it appears. In fact, it’s logically possible that Brody’s a traitor and Carrie’s deluded, but that’s not an option we’re ever presented with. The argument is always framed as an either/or situation. So every piece of evidence for or against one character simply increases the ambiguity about the other.
Finally, they’ve kept us off-balance with a series of small goals. Follow the money trail; find the terrorist contact; turn the diplomat funding the operation. Each of those twists and turns appears to push the plot towards one answer or the other, before restoring it to the state of ambiguity. Crucially, none of these goals actually impact on the big question directly. Preventing the terrorist attack won’t prove whether Brody is a traitor or not. It certainly doesn’t impact on Carrie’s fitness to do her job. And it shouldn’t. Providing hard evidence one way or the other every week would feel contrived and ridiculous; instead, the writers shift the general tone of the episodes towards the positive or the negative, giving the illusion of leaning in one direction or the other without actually altering the central ambiguity.