Television and America’s Dual Identity

Warning: Contains spoilers about Dexter, Homeland, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men.

What is America? I often hear opposing extremes on this question from the far right and far left—the former believes it’s a nation of liberty and democracy for all, while the latter feels it’s an imperialistic force for oppression. And both sides at times seem to have their points.

Well I think I’ve found a closer answer to all this. And I discovered it from a very unlikely source—my regular television viewing schedule. With this past Sunday came the season premieres of Showtime’s Dexter as well as Homeland.

Much like its favorite TV show characters, America has a dual identity, that regularly oscillates between good and evil.

During this most recent viewing, I noticed that both shows deal with main characters struggling with identity issues. Dexter follows a blood-spatter analysis at the Miami Police Department who leads a secret life as a vigilante serial killer—killing only those he deems a menace to society according to his late father’s code. Similarly, Homeland involves a recently freed prisoner-of-war U.S. Marine who has secretly become sympathetic to aspects of a terrorist organization’s cause because of his captivity in Afghanistan. Both these men are capable of good and often evoke feelings of sympathy from the viewer, yet both also are capable of great evil and just as equally can evoke feelings of horror and disgust from the viewer.

And the more I thought about it, the more I saw this duality repeated in American television. One of the most popular shows on TV right now, AMC’s Breaking Bad, also deals with a main character in a Manichean struggle over identity. The show’s main character’s public persona, Walter White, is a meek, quiet family man who goes with the flow. Yet as the show progresses, White’s dark side emerges as he takes on the role of the cold, merciless, self-interested methamphetamine cook and drug lord “Heisenberg.”

Another AMC hit show, Mad Men, delves into the struggles of identity through its character Don Draper, who adopted the name from a fellow Korean War veteran he accidentally killed during the war. Draper’s new persona, the one we see in public and in his place of work, is one of confidence, focus, and superiority. Yet Draper also contends with his former self, Dick Whitman, who is more passive, nervous, and, yet, also more caring.

It strikes me that it is these nuanced, complex characters that often draw not only me but the American public to these shows. Part of the appeal of shows like The Wire and Game of Thrones are the complex characters that fill the story, no one standing purely “good” or “bad,” all acting from their own perspective and sympathetic motivations.

In a way these shows are more realistic of the human drama. None of us pictures ourselves the villain. All of us are complex beings, capable of both great good and great evil.

And the same goes for the nation we make up.

America is a country of great good. We inspire and assist in democracy and liberty abroad in cases like Libya. We dedicate, publically and personally, great assistance to foreign aid and international development.

Yet, we are also a country of great evil at times. We also suppress or stay silent about oppression at times, such as in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. In addition, we often support international economic policies that stifle economic growth and freedom abroad.

America is both these identities, contending against each other.

The good news (or perhaps the bad news?) is that, much like the characters in these shows, these dual identities are coming and will come to a point where one has to be suppressed to the other. Especially with the growth of technology and interconnectedness (specifically via the internet), secrets are becoming harder to hide—separate identities are becoming harder to sustain and conceal. Sooner or later America will have to make a choice. Hopefully it is the better angels of our nature that come out on top.