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Main Titles Up Close: Showtime's 'Homeland’
December 14, 2012  | By Eric Gould  | 6 comments
 

Sure, Homeland has had a couple of wheels actually lift off the train tracks this season. (Were we really buying the remote control-murder plot from the Emmy-winning series that stood firmly in dead-level plausibility for most of Season One?) But, despite howls to the contrary across the internet this week, the show hasn’t gone completely off the rails. Homeland is still one of the more gripping dramas we have, and has delivered some top-notch television from the beginning. And I mean from the very beginning. From, in fact, the opening credits of Episode One.

The Homeland main title sequence — a montage of jump cuts, grainy footage and superimpositions — wonderfully pulls together the back story and motivation of main character Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) in a seeming rush of a dream. It submerges us into Carrie's troubled childhood of watching terrorism on TV, and her now-adult role as a CIA counterterrorism agent. Grown up, she’s emerged as a bit of an intelligence-agent savant, but plagued with an inherited bipolar disorder.

But as loose as those fragments may seem, they're incredibly well devised. The title's main theme is the classical Greek myth of the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, showing Carrie’s target, Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), an ex-Marine and possible terrorist, standing inside the maze. (In classical mythology, the Minotaur was a cursed offspring, with the body of a man and the head of a bull, who grew to be out of control as an adult. The beast was trapped and kept in a maze it could not find its way out of.)


I mentioned the myth on the telephone this week to Chris Billig, executive producer of the project for TCG Studio in Los Angeles. Billig led the project for Thomas Cobb, the head of TCG and writer/director of the clip. Cobb and TCG have created title sequences for Weeds, Friday Night Lights, Eli Stone, and many others.

I added that while the use of the beast in the maze made sense to me in terms of the danger and invisibility of extremist terrorists, I could not finish the puzzle. Why is Carrie is shown as a child with an animal mask, inside the maze herself? It's a departure from the classic story.

Billig jumped in quickly, seemingly ready for the question.

"When we read the pilot," he explained, "it became clear that Carrie would do whatever it takes to win her battles. There's literally nowhere that she's unwilling to go. And that includes enemy territory." He added that the myth and the maze reflected TCG's idea that the Homeland pilot needed something to "imply a cat-and-mouse effect, and the labyrinth was perfect for that."

The Homeland title sequence compresses an impressive variety of devices, both visual and musical, in a scant 90 seconds. Among those are intentionally rough cuts to represent the anxiety of Carrie's job. She's a loose metaphor for the country at large, at once steeped in the mundane banal of the everyday, and wired like a cat at the prospect of swift mayhem and violence. (There are zooms of her eyes wide open and shut, trembling in REM state.)


There are reversals, both in contrast and in orientation, such as when a clip of President Obama is suddenly flipped upside down. Those evoke the unsteady world of battling domestic terrorism. It's a shadowy chess game with no real enemy in sight.

That's expressively suggested, too, in a few seconds in a tight shot of people walking through an office building lobby. This seems at once ordinary, but somehow off, and after a couple of showings, you realize that the footage is upside down, and we are watching shadows, with the legs are inverted at the bottom of the frame.


I told Billig that it had taken me some time to figure out why TCG used images and sound clips from Louis Armstrong, the great jazz trumpeter, well-known for his improvisational style in the Thirties, and up to his death in 1971. It seemed to be a parallel to the improvisational nature of Carrie's method of working, which sometimes seems involuntary, due to her disorder.


Billig agreed, saying the sound design was intentionally "frenetic and crazy and off-setting" to evoke Carrie's disorder, but added that it was initially inspired by the pilot episode. "Carrie listens to jazz as a way of calming down... She uses it to mellow out."

Billig also was gracious enough to give readers a new "TVWW Extra" into the use of the clip of Bush 41 (H.W.) uttering the famous phrase "This aggression will not stand," before the U.S. invasion into Iraq in 1990. Turns out it's the exact same clip as the one used in the Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski. Billig lobbied hard to keep it in as his homage to the Coens, since he was inspired to work in television, in part, because of his early love for their work.

While Billig said that "there are no breadcrumbs" in the Homeland title sequence that might infer an eventual plot line or conclusion for the series, it seemed to me, after we spoke, that maybe, even if inadvertently, for this season there were.

As the child-Carrie puts on the Minotaur's mask and goes into the labyrinth in the title sequence, so did the adult Carrie do the same thing, symbolically, in last week's penultimate episode. She went into the dark tunnels below the abandoned factory in her pursuit of the international terrorist character, Abu Nazir.

As Billig mentioned, she was willing to go anywhere, and do whatever necessary to get her target. And last week, she proved him right. She ran right in.

 

What will happen this Sunday at 10 p.m. ET, when Showtime presents the Homeland Season 2 finale? There's no telling, really -- but at least in the clever opening titles, it's guaranteed to be a-maze-ing...



12/21/2012 - Homeland, at the season finale, did not go completely off the tracks, but it lurched wildly. it's maybe just another routine TV drama with clever escapes and new adventures. But it's no longer relevant social commentary, or worthy of a national discussion. As good as the first half of the season was, you could feel the air leaking out of the balloon during the second. And the writers, left without a credible way for the plot to conclude, went to the usual bag of tricks. I might add that it wasn't a total disaster, because the finale was well directed, and of course, the acting was, and has been, first rate. But there's no doubt that the show has descended from its earlier, compelling heights. –EG
 
 
 
 
 
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6 Comments
 
 
Lynne
I'm a big fan of the opening title sequence....it achieves the exact right mix of unerving, jerky stills and soundtrack, brilliantly juxtaposed, capturing universal uncertainty centered around powerful imagery of the maze. It simply works.
Sep 24, 2013   |  Reply
 
 
Veteran4justice
Watched Homeland when had a few months of free showtime, liked the show, was going to order Showtime but when I realized Pres Bush was left out of the opening I can only assume that is a "political" call, after all he dealt with a greater portion of terrorism than any other president. Sick of political games trying to make a lousy president look better than he is.
Jun 4, 2013   |  Reply
 
 
Donna Roth
Has a Hitchcock quality to it. I find it rather compelling as well as elucidating and foreshadowing.
Jan 1, 2013   |  Reply
 
 
ryandawson
I've always admired this opening sequence. It establishes the exact right tone for the show, aptly summed up by one word: clusterf@ck. The age of terrorism leads everyone reeling, everyone in a maze trying to locate the evil of the other. There is a very potent thematic energy released by the intercutting of Carrie's dream visions (the jazz, the lion headed girl, the maze) and the scenes of terrorism, US presidents speechifying, etc. The first image is of a sleeping girl, the very picture of innocence, with a voice over of very serious presidential talk about war. This juxtaposition, of the calls to arms of the powerful with the blissful ignorance of the innocent, puts into motion the core dramatic tension underlying the show. Along with the jazz score, it leaves one feeling adrift in a mess without solution, in a raging juggernaut that devastates everyone in the end. Beautiful and sad, dramatic and energetic - it is one of the few opening titles that is an art work on its own.
Dec 18, 2012   |  Reply
 
 
Greg
I have alwayas wondered whether the juxtaposition of Obama, upside down and then right side up, indicates a political bias - hinting that Obama "flip-flops" on the issue of homeland security? Especially since it presents the words of so many presidents - Democratic & Republican - without the visual acrobatics.
Maybe the creators of the title sequence just randomly chose much of this imagery ??
Maybe I am overanalyzing and should find another hobby? LOL
Has anyone else been struck by this idea?
Dec 16, 2012   |  Reply
 
EG
Greg - Good catch. I discussed this with TCG Studio, and they said the Obama flip was purely a design thing, nothing more -- no embedded commentary. But, as you say, it's hard not to think that there is something else there. At the minimum, it certainly "flips" on Obama's style of speaking -- which is deliberate, and has long pauses. And the art of the clip is, of course, visual. The clip omits George W. Bush, and substitutes Colin Powell, and you are correct, it's a run down of Presidents since Reagan, otherwise. The Louie Armstrong quote, "And now, we're going to do one of the good old favorites for you" was used, according to TCG, as commentary that all Presidents use the same rehashed terms and phrases when it comes to fighting terrorism...but the threat always remains. –EG
Dec 17, 2012
 
 
 
Noel
We've come a long way since the "arty" opening of "The Wild, Wild West."
Dec 14, 2012   |  Reply
 
 
 
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