Conspicuous Consumption

'Homeland's Carrie Mathison, Workplace Hero


'Homeland's Carrie Mathison, Workplace Hero

Photograph courtesy Showtime

Who hasn’t wanted to walk out of a never-ending meeting, or grown impatient with a co-worker’s dawdling? And who hasn’t wanted to interrupt the dull drone of a company conference call by yelling, as Carrie Mathison does in the season one finale of Showtime’s Homeland, “The world is about to end, and we’re standing around talking!”

Homeland, about to wrap up its second season, stars Claire Danes as Mathison, a CIA anti-terrorism agent who repeatedly tramples on procedure, disobeys orders, and breaks so many rules she makes Jack Bauer seem like a Starbucks (SBUX) employee of the month. She’s arrogant, hotheaded, unmanageable, and utterly unencumbered by either office politics or geopolitical reality. Mathison lies about taking psychiatric meds, sleeps with an admitted terrorist, and withholds crucial information from her bosses because she’s sure they just won’t get it—or act fast enough. “You are really something, Carrie,” an FBI agent tells her. “There’s no bridge you won’t burn. No earth you won’t scorch.”That might be an understatement.

Two seasons in, it turns out that Homeland isn’t just a war-on-terror drama, it’s a workplace fantasy, a kind of wish-fulfillment playground for those of us who like to fancy ourselves outside-the-box thinkers and rogue geniuses. Mathison isn’t just an anti-terrorism hero working for The Company, she’s an anti-bureaucratic hero for anyone who’s ever worked for any company.

Like Hugh Laurie’s eccentric doctor on House or Idris Elba’s maverick detective on Luther, Mathison acts while others deliberate. By-the-books superiors may stress rules and common sense, but Mathison trusts her gut and gumption. Toward the end of season two, every CIA operative is working on a plan, while Mathison is storming through that mysterious door into a pitch-black, empty warehouse to confront a terrorist mastermind, armed only with her bare hands. In season one, she summed up her attitude toward middle management nicely when she asked her mentor Saul (Mandy Patinkin), “When did you become such a pussy?”

Obviously, Mathison’s career path—sex with a terrorist, absurd risk-taking on matters of national security—isn’t for everyone. But for many employees, being the rule-breaking superstar in a situation that isn’t life-or-death is a potent daydream. “At a lot of companies, if you make the sales numbers, you don’t have to follow all the policies,” says management consultant Monica Wofford, author of the book Make Difficult People Disappear: How to Deal with Stressful Behavior and Eliminate Conflict. “If you become the superstar, the rules don’t really apply.”

Yet Mathison was fired at the end of season one and hospitalized, about to undergo shock treatment. Her impetuous actions might make her a bold field officer, but it’s impossible to imagine her ever getting a promotion at Langley. That’s certainly best for our fictional national security and maybe for Mathison, too. “More maverick, attention-seeking people like Carrie have to tone down or suppress behaviors or lie to be promoted,” says Wofford, “but often they choose to stay in that superstar role instead. They like it.”

Much more common in the middle, and at the top, is the grinder who’s in before everyone and out last. Like Mathison always says: “Everyone’s not me.”

Hill is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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