Spies Like Them

‘Homeland’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’: The Dilemma of the Female Spy

Jace Lacob explores the thematic overlaps between two female spies now stealing our collective attention: Claire Danes’s character on ‘Homeland’ and Jessica Chastain’s Maya in ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’ WARNING: the following contains plot details from the latest episode of ‘Homeland.’ If you are not up to date, read at your own peril.

12.06.12 9:45 AM ET

“We fight with what we have.”

On the most recent episode of Showtime’s byzantine terrorism thriller Homeland, Carrie Mathison, the damaged, disgraced, bipolar CIA analyst played by Emmy-winner Claire Danes, finally came face-to-face with the terrorist that she had been doggedly pursuing for years, a hunt that put both her career and her sanity in jeopardy.

While the fanatical Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban)—responsible for the death of countless innocents and for brainwashing Marine Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) and transforming him into an instrument of vengeance—had the upper hand in this standoff, the tête-à-tête that followed was remarkable for the fact that Carrie was staring into the face of her adversary, and the words that he spat out at her, hogtied though she was, reflected Carrie’s own indomitable will.

“Do you have the perseverance, the tenacity, the faith?” a seething Nazir asked Carrie, referring to his own will to “exterminate” the American people, even if it takes “three centuries” to do so. His extremism is a distant relative to Carrie’s own, her flawed moral compass guided by the belief that Abu Nazir was planning a major attack on the United States and that Nicholas Brody had been turned.

But what their conversation revealed was that Carrie does have all of those characteristics, embraced on the long road to tracking down Nazir, qualities shared by Carrie Mathison’s sister in arms, Jessica Chastain’s Maya, in Kathryn Bigelow’s sensational Osama bin Laden film, Zero Dark Thirty, which opens Dec. 19 in New York and Los Angeles.

It’s impossible to watch the remarkable Zero Dark Thirty without thinking of Homeland or of Carrie Mathison. Like Abu Nazir, they too fight with what they have: drawing on a wellspring of tenacity and perseverance, and an unerring faith that what they are doing is not only right, but just.

In the case of Chastain’s Maya—based on an unnamed “feisty” female CIA analyst codenamed “Jen” who was instrumental in bringing down bin Laden, according to a 60 Minutes interview with former Navy SEAL and No Easy Day author Matt Bissonnette—the burden of 3,000 American deaths from the 9/11 attacks weighs heavily on her conscience, just as it does on that of Danes’s Carrie, who believes that she “missed something” that day, something that could have prevented the tragedies.

Carrie, like Maya, is very “loosely modeled” on a real-life female CIA operative, and according to a Wall Street Journal interview with Danes, the actress was given access to the CIA officer and her colleagues at Langley. “I met in the hallway the man who was the head of the Pakistani division and had just returned to the U.S. [after the killing of Osama bin Laden] and it was like, ‘Wow this really exists,’” said Danes of the experience. “They were surprisingly forthcoming.” Danes’s comments lead some, including the Daily Mail, to ponder whether the women on whom Carrie Mathison and Zero Dark Thirty’s Maya are based could be one and the same.

Zero Dark Thirty, while on the surface about the 10-year search for bin Laden, is also really about the evolution of Chastain’s Maya, as she transforms from a seeming naïf at the start of the film to a confident woman by the film’s conclusion, hardened by her experiences and tempered by loss. It’s her very self-assuredness that convinces a Navy SEAL team, lead by Joel Edgerton’s Patrick, that Osama bin Laden is where she believes him to be, not in a remote cave, but rather in a suburban neighborhood in Pakistan, just down the road from the country’s equivalent of West Point.

Maya’s beliefs, however, are based on a mixture of facts and gut instinct (embodied by a theory that a courier is the key to finding bin Laden), just as are Carrie’s. Young, intelligent, and attractive, they’re often the sole women in a traditionally male world, their judgment questioned in ways that their male colleagues’ aren’t. Carrie’s grasp on her sanity (and her struggles with bipolar disorder) is one of Homeland’s strongest virtues, depicting the way that her overworked brain copes in the wake of frustration, failure, or betrayal.

Pushed past the brink of mental collapse, Carrie underwent electroconvulsive shock treatment at the end of the first season. While Maya’s sanity is never in question, she undergoes a staggering series of emotional wrenches that push her toward the breaking point; a mid-film crisis finds her curled up in a ball in the corner of her office, a rare moment of stasis for a character who is always palpably moving forward.

Unlike Carrie, however, Maya doesn’t use sex as a weapon, either against her quarry or herself. There is no sexual relationship between Maya and Jason Clarke’s Dan. There is no sex at all, to be honest. Maya’s entire world is her job, her pursuit of bin Laden, and her righteous crusade against the world’s most wanted man. Whereas Homeland depicts the psychosexual tug of war between Carrie and Brody, Zero Dark Thirty’s Maya is more or less asexual. (“I’m not that girl that fucks,” she tells a colleague at one point. “It’s unbecoming.”) While Carrie can rely on Saul (Mandy Patinkin) no matter how many times she disobeys his orders, Maya maintains uneasy friendships with her colleagues; her camaraderie with Jennifer Ehle’s old-school CIA analyst Jessica—also based in part on a real-life operative—mostly consists of IMs sent via satellite phone.

Maya may be a loner, distant and isolated, but she’s not androgynous: Maya’s fiery red hair isn’t chopped short or an afterthought, but a part of her identity. She may wear the power suits of the intelligence community, but we never for a second forget her and Carrie’s femininity, a combination of soft and firm, curves and angles, that mark her as an outsider within the most inside of all companies.

And, like Carrie, Maya isn’t given to silence or filtering. Both women have made themselves a nuisance to their respective bosses, and they’ve earned their reputations as troublemakers. One of Maya’s bosses in Zero Dark Thirty goes so far as to tell her that he’s learned that everyone is happier if he placates her. Vexing though it may be, it’s a side effect of their steadfastness. When Maya comes face-to-face with Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini), she’s been sidelined in a conference room, told to sit away from the main table, despite the fact that she is responsible for the meeting being convened, a discussion of what tactics to use to take out Osama bin Laden.

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Maya, in fact, refuses to be placed in the shadows. “I’m the motherfucker that found this place,” she tells Panetta with trademark succinctness. Despite the efforts of their colleagues to dismiss Maya and Carrie, both women have an extraordinary ability to follow their instincts rather than be forced into the role of unheeded Cassandras. Their confidence isn’t hysteria, but resoluteness.

While the audience is given glimpses of Carrie’s past—via the tension with her boss, David Estes (David Harewood), and that with her family—Maya remains a tantalizing cipher at the end of the film, her backstory hauntingly unclear, a tossed-off stray remark about being recruited for the CIA straight out of high school, the only clue that Maya existed before her first appearance within the film. Rather than separate the viewer from the character, it’s a lure cast out by screenwriter Mark Boal, awakening a desire within the audience to want to know more about “Maya,” whoever she may be in actuality.

But what we’re left with, ultimately, is the sense that while the real “Maya” may be unknowable, her intensity and drive—at the cost of any real life outside the mission—almost single-handedly brought down bin Laden. The danger for those around her and Carrie is to mistake them for fragile creatures. These women—and those on whom they’re based—are instead nothing less than warriors.