Content note: this piece contains spoilers for the fourth season of Homeland.
"Homeland" is a strange adrenaline jolt of a TV series. Even as I have had frequent misgivings about its troubling portrayals of and assumptions about Muslim people and actual terrorists (and how it often conflates the two), I've not been able to quit watching it. Even in the third season, as its shift from espionage thriller to deranged romantic melodrama was complete, I couldn't quite break the habit.
I'm glad I hung in, however, because the fourth season -- which has required some reworking after last season's dramatic and final death of Nicholas Brody -- shows signs of returning to its less overwrought beginnings, and Carrie is even more conflicted and dark than usual, her endemic unhappiness no longer simply a desperate and obsessive need to be with the man she destructively loves, but now manifesting in a chill-inducing moment in which new-mom Carrie seems to seriously consider how simple it would be to let her infant daughter drown during a bath. If I had harbored any concerns that the series writers would employ motherhood as a hackneyed device to ground and soften Carrie, I am no longer worrying about that now.
But what I really want to talk about is the fat girl.
A subplot in the second episode takes an unexpected turn. Having returned to the US, traumatized CIA assassin Peter Quinn crawls into a bottle at his earliest opportunity. He is discovered, profoundly drunk, beside the pool at his apartment complex by the building manager, a young, pretty fat woman. They have a brief conversation, and then the scene cuts to the two of them having sex in Quinn's living room, the fat woman (whom I am repeatedly referring to as such since her character doesn't seem to have a name, according to IMDB) on top.
Under different circumstances, this might have been the end of things. Certainly, had the woman in question been slender, and were this a different show, this scene might have been trotted out merely to illustrate Quinn’s apparent self-destructive behavior. But what raises this circumstance from the commonplace is that we see the couple post-coitus as well, a choice that, if I’m honest, surprised me.
Sober morning-after Quinn is faced with an awkward woman in her underwear in his living room. She tries to explain her own presence away, to tell him he doesn’t have to pretend to ask for her number, to allow them both the chance to forget this ever happened. Quinn, however, looks amused at this woman who is clearly unsure of what to expect from him -- and he doesn't go the moped route, but invites her to breakfast. In public.
At the diner, Unnamed Fat Lady rattles on about being "addicted" to some kind of "bad" food and it's both sad and real, given that so many fat women feel constantly pressured to explain and apologize for their bodies, and the how and why of their existence. I would prefer that Quinn's lay was all "WHATEVER I'M GONNA EAT SOME POTATOES LIKE I HAVE A RIGHT TO DO SO AND NOT NARRATE THE JOURNEY FOR YOU" but I get why she does. She then apologizes for talking so much, and Quinn tells her he’s enjoying it.
She asks if he’s “okay” -- apparently he slept restlessly after the sexin’ -- and he admits he would love to tell her about it, but he can’t. The contrast between her comparatively small emotional damage in the form of slightly wobbly self-esteem with Quinn’s much more significant brokenness is striking, and yet to look at them, most people would probably ascribe the biggest problems to the fat woman, and assume Peter Quinn to be utterly normal.
Of course, this conflict immediately comes to the fore. Two bros at a nearby table are whispering and giggling in a way that is familiar to any woman who’s ever been mocked for her weight by strangers in public. When his lady companion rises to go get a refill on her soda, Quinn notices their laughter, and walks over to the table to ask what they’re finding so humorous. After one of the bros repeats his joke -- and seriously, it is possibly THE OLDEST FAT JOKE IN THE WORLD -- Quinn proceeds to smash his bro-head into the table, bloodying his face, and to break the hand of bro #2, who rises to defend his buddy.
As Quinn raises a napkin dispenser, ostensibly to turn bro #1’s skull into pulp, his lady friend stands in the background, looking horrified. If there is a romantic way to violently defend a woman’s honor, this is very much not it, but even I have to admit feeling a surge of terrible gratification at the rage Quinn inflicts on these dudes, and when he lowers the napkin dispenser it’s a bit of a bummer.
Because I consider it a matter of professional interest, immediately following the episode in which this character makes her debut, I went hunting for information about her. The unnamed woman is played capably by Emily Walker, who brings a believable blend of toughness and vulnerability to the part, and near as I can figure she has spent several years as part of Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe. I do have it on good authority that we haven’t seen the last of her, so let’s hope she gets a name at some point, since not only does she have a substantial speaking role but a damn sex scene, however brief and mostly-covered-up it may be.
I also looked for other people’s responses to her scenes. Among them I found Judith Warner’s very curious recap in the New York Times, which reads in part:
...Quinn’s first stateside sexual encounter — a drunken tryst seemingly fueled more by despair than desire — is profoundly weird, and more than a little disturbing. One minute, our black-ops tough guy is on a lounge chair, so drunk he can do nothing but slither helplessly, and the next, he’s underneath a lady twice his size, with a really creepy smile on his face that could, frankly, be a rictus of pure fear. Beyond the politics of using a fat woman as a virtue-enhancer (or a sight gag), what was the scene supposed to convey?
It should be noted that Warner’s perspective seems to happen in a universe in which Quinn is forever pining away for a clueless Carrie, instead of one in which Quinn is struggling to see Carrie as the often toxic person she is. I had read their shared scenes, independently of Quinn’s late-night intoxicated dalliance, as Quinn marveling at Carrie's seemingly boundless ability to keep her emotions so rigid and compartmentalized, while Quinn's own boundaries are rapidly crumbling. This is not to suggest that Carrie doesn’t feel, we know that she does, but that her option to close that part of herself off in the interest of serving the “bigger picture” -- the “mission,” as she tells the pilot back in Kabul -- is what enables her to survive. Nevertheless, it is survival, and not actually living.
Still, even going with this more romantic motivation, there’s a lot to unpack in Warner’s assessment, not least the assumption that sex with a fat woman is literally terrifying (“rictus of fear,” really?), and that it’s inconceivable that Quinn could be enjoying the sex. Because she’s fat! She’s a fat lady! No men enjoy sex with a fat lady, because they’re too worried about being crushed to death! That’s only something men do to illustrate their “virtue”!
I’m also not sure that I agree that the episode itself reduces the character to a “sight gag,” especially considering the scenes that follow. However, it’s certainly possible that viewers who have never been able to consider that fat women have sex -- and that said sex is often pleasurable for all involved parties -- might have trouble reading the sex scene, as well as the woman in it, as anything more than a perplexing cartoon. WHAT CAN IT MEAN? wonders Warner, because it certainly can’t be a portrait of a man seeking the pleasure of sexual contact from a woman he finds attractive.
Contrary to popular assumption, the world actually isn't neatly divided into people who only fuck fat women and those who never under any circumstances would do so. Even narrowing things down to hetero pairings, men are not all uniformly Team Fat Women, or Team No Fat Women Ever.
Some fat women have relationships with men who have specific attractions to fat women, and some fat women also enjoy relationships with men who aren't sturdily committed to either a pro- or anti-fat stance. Sometimes, people are just attracted to other people and the process doesn't adhere to some rigid ruleset of sexable body types (and, I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m inclined to think any dude who can only conceive of screwing a singular and precise size and shape of body is probably going to be shit in the sack anyway -- that's a sure sign of both a lack of imagination and a habit of putting his own needs first).
Nor is fat sex is always administered out of pity; it is not always a magnanimous favor to sex on a fat lady; and not every dude who does wakes up the next morning being all EWWW WHAT DID I DOOO TIME TO SHOWER IN BLEACH about it. More than that, Quinn’s having sex with a fat woman does not necessarily make him a fetishist or a chubby chaser; it may simply mean he met a woman he found attractive, and she happened to be fat.
By describing this dalliance as “weird,” “disturbing” and “creepy,” the implication is that “manly," "tough" and conventionally attractive dudes like Quinn don't have sex with women who look like our nameless property manager (or that dudes that look like Patrick Wilson don’t have sex with women who look like Lena Dunham, for that matter). If they do, it's only because they're drunk. Or extremely emotionally damaged. And it is a tragic waste of their looks and personal appeal to condescend to such abysmal levels.
From this perspective, the only possible reason for Quinn to do any of this is to demonstrate to the audience that he is a “nice guy.” On a different show, this might be the case, but this read doesn’t fit with either "Homeland" as a series -- which has never demonstrated an investment in making ANY of its characters “nice” before now -- or Quinn himself, who already has a dark, uncertain and wildly complex background that precludes him being recast in such a way.
In a broader sense, this perspective relegates fat women to a place of only being sexual beings at the behest of the men who fetishize them -- they cannot have sex lives founded on healthy mutual attraction, but are forced to wait for some kind-hearted (or emotionally broken) soul to deign to fuck them. It removes any sexual agency from the women themselves.
I think there is a reason "Homeland" put the fat woman on top, and it might even have been to “disturb” the viewer, but not because a fat woman on top during sex is intrinsically inappropriate and distressing. Putting her there without apology, and then giving Quinn the unexpected decision not to chuck her out in disgust the following day, but to pursue some kind of tenuous relationship with her -- this is instead deeply disturbing to many of our most unshakeable cultural convictions of what fat women are, and how men treat them.
And even if this wasn’t the writers' candid intention, it is still a thing that happened.
At the end of the episode, Quinn is released from jail and returns home to find a note from the woman he tried to defend stuck to his door. Once inside -- and after first pouring himself a drink -- he opens it, and it reads, “No one ever fought for me before.”
Although the author of the note cannot know it, it sure seems like this simple phrase is really speaking to Quinn’s inner turmoil over whether he is doing good in the world; who is he fighting for, after all? It’s possible (and even likely) that Quinn’s efforts to befriend his property manager will end in tears -- this is "Homeland," after all -- but given the subplot’s reluctance to follow established expectations so far, I am hopeful that there is room for this sideline to continue to “disturb” viewers, albeit in the best possible way.