Why 'Homeland' Fans Should Watch 'Prisoners of War'

Since its premiere in 2011, the television series “Homeland” has thrilled American audiences. The Showtime spy drama focuses on a rebellious C.I.A. agent and a P.O.W. who has returned to the United States  -- and to the family left behind -- after 7 years spent in captivity.

But what if instead of one prisoner returning after 7 years, there were three prisoners returning after 17 years? This is the backdrop for “Prisoners of War” (“Hatufim" in Hebrew), the Israeli dramatic series created, written, and directed by Gideon Raff, and on which “Homeland” is based. Novelist Stephen King named "Prisoners of War" to his list of best T.V. shows of 2012. While “Homeland" is certainly exciting, in my mind, it has never come close to the emotional resonance of the Israeli original, "Prisoners of War." "Hatufim,” which translates in English to “Kidnapped” or “Snatched,” shows what happens when three prisoners of war who had been kidnapped 17 years earlier are returned in a prisoner exchange with Lebanon.

“The more I learned about what happens to prisoners of war when they come back home, the more I realized that the first day home is not the happy ending that they all wish for but actually the beginning of a very hard journey to reintegrate into society,” Raff said in an interview at KCET. “The more I learned that very few people really do come back from captivity, I felt a sense of responsibility and I wanted to tell the story in a very personal way and that's why I wrote and directed every episode,” he added. 

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What to Watch For

The first season explores the experiences of the three families and the soldiers as they all adjust to their new reality. When recently released prisoners Nimrode and Uri catch a glimpse of Israel from the air for the first time in 17 years, they can’t help but marvel at how much the young country -- with its new skyscrapers and urban development -- looks like America. While Uri has a slower adjustment to the idea of being free to come and go as he chooses, Nimrode begins to assert his free status almost immediately, demanding of his army driver that he be permitted to drive back to his home. After some protest, the driver acquiesces, but once behind the wheel, Nimrode is at a loss: “Where do you -- we -- live?”

The reunion with family members uncovers intense, intricate, and deep layers of emotion in each family. Nimrode has to get to know his wife Talia all over again after 17 years apart, and he meets his sarcastic and hypersexual daughter, who -- in his absence -- has developed a tendency to hook up with men his age. Talia focused her entire existence on fighting for her husband’s return, to the detriment of her own life and the lives of her children.

Nurit and Uri have their own source of tension: Nurit married Uri’s brother while he was imprisoned. The Israeli newspapers called Nurit a “betrayer of the nation,” while Talia had remained faithful to her husband.

One of the things that makes watching “Prisoners of War” so addictive is the vast array of characters and their ever-shifting motives and alliances. Raff only gives the viewer bits of information about each character, but not enough for us to know as much as the characters do -- a prisoner may have been turned during their captivity, or a family member may be hiding resentment or anger. Even the Israeli government that freed the prisoners seems to emerge as an antagonist, concerned with state security more than with the psychological well-being of the returned prisoners. It’s as if every episode of “Prisoners of War” is asking us: who do you believe when everyone seems suspicious?

Cultures of Terrorism

Fifteen years after 9/11 and toward the end of the most unusual Presidential race in history, there is a shift in parts of America from optimism and the idea that we are the most powerful and ethical nation in the world to a more pessimistic, distrustful reality marked by moral grey areas, justified by American leadership's rooting out of “evildoers” who had attacked us on our home soil. The creation of the department of Homeland Security, the ever-increasing security measures, especially at airports, and the increased police presence in “high-risk target areas” has underscored the awareness that we are not as safe as we had thought.

In contrast, the modern state of Israel -- despite a history much shorter than America’s -- has been dealing with the threat of terrorism and attack since its founding and even before. Israelis never really had the luxury of believing that they were completely safe. The terror attacks that happened during the last 15 years or so, during and after the second Intifada, have happened not to uniformed military personnel, but to Israelis who were going about their lives at cafes, bars, restaurants, on buses and on city streets. In some ways, Americans have never been better positioned to understand this kind of uncertainty and suspicion.

Only half of one percent of Americans serves in the army. But in Israel, army service, or some kind of substitute national service, is required for all adults over 18. This means that Israeli citizens are intimately connected with army service, and (with a few exceptions) every family has a stake in the fate of a single captured soldier: he or she could be anyone’s relative, and usually is.

Watch a preview of "Prisoners of War"


Real-Life Inspiration

While Raff was writing “Prisoners of War,” the state of Israel was fixated on three missing soldiers: Ehud Goldwasser, Eldad Regev and Gilad Shalit. In the streets of Israeli cities, banners flew from apartment windows and in front of businesses, urging vigilance and action on behalf of the kidnapped soldiers. One poster urged the government to eschew complacency and “bring the sons back to their borders,” a quote from Jeremiah 31:16. While the word banim means “boys” in Hebrew, it also means “sons,” and because it’s in the plural in this gendered language, it can also mean “children” (of any gender). The “Bring Them Home” banners shown in “Prisoners of War” recall this real-life prisoners of war drama playing out in the hearts and minds of Israelis.

In 2008, Israel traded five Lebanese militants and the bodies of 199 militants for the bodies of Goldwasser and Regev, who had been captured by Hezbollah two years earlier. It became known as the “Israel-Hezbollah Prisoner Exchange.” During that time, Shalit remained in captivity by Hamas, and anyone doing negotiations for the return of the deceased soldiers’ bodies undoubtedly also knew what the exchange of Shalit, as a live soldier, might entail. When Shalit was released in 2011 in a prisoner exchange of 1,027 prisoners collectively responsible for the killing of 569 Israelis, he was the first captured Israeli soldier to be released alive in 26 years.

While the return of Israeli soldiers from captivity is certainly great news for their families and friends, and may encourage many citizens who were lobbying on their behalf, their return sometimes comes at a price that not every citizen may be willing to pay.

There is a growing movement of Israelis who believe that the cost of prisoner exchanges is too high. What if a Hamas or Hezbollah militant was freed in a prisoner exchange, but then went on to plan and implement terror attacks that resulted in loss of life? Is the Israeli government responsible for those lost lives? Is the family of the returned soldier in some way accountable? Even if legally or rationally, the answer is no, those who suffer losses in terror attacks may see things more emotionally.

There's something powerful to the American hardline of "we will not negotiate with terrorists," a phrase that’s repeated on CNN and in shows like "Homeland" alike. But Israel does negotiate when it has to, not just as political entity, but as a country where the heartbeat of its very life comprises the heartbeats of many soldiers and civilians.

Whatever other challenging issues may exist in Israel, the country feels a responsibility to each of those heartbeats, and this devotion serves as the dramatic backdrop for “Prisoners of War.”



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