HBO’s Newest Satire Brink Hits Close to Home

BrinkSomewhere between Veep’s hilarious satire of Washington politics and Homeland’s gripping intrigue of counter-terrorist intelligence, HBO brings us its newest geopolitical “dramedy”: Brink.

The show kicks off with a nightmarish scenario in which the fraying threads of Pakistani political control officially unravel, leaving the country’s hundred-some nuclear warheads dangerously unsupervised.

While we would hope events in this show to be reserved to fantasy, in fact, Brink’s pilot episode hits almost too close to home.

Nightmare in Pakistan

The underlying threat of this show’s central crisis is one that should keep every American awake at night: what if terrorists got their hands on even just one of the world’s deadliest weapons?

Nuclear experts agree: Pakistan is one of the world’s most dangerous countries. It has an unstable government, a fragile economy, it is ridden with extremist groups (including but not limited to Al Qaeda), it has an estimated 100-120 nuclear weapons, and is continuously clashing with its nuclear-armed neighbor, India. That’s why the premise of Brink is so frighteningly realistic. We may be just one contested election away from a scenario quite like this one.

The thought of loose nukes in Pakistan is unimaginable, and the characters in Brink immediately set out to find a way to prevent a catastrophic act of terror—a thousand times worse than 9/11—and global nuclear war.

Diplomacy v. Force

As the show’s President Julian Navarro and his cabinet sit around the situation room table weighing options for how exactly to contain loose Pakistani nukes, a classic International Relations 101 debate between realism and idealism unfolds.

Immediately, the Secretary of Defense pipes in with the expected: “the answer to bombs is always more bombs” kind of solution. The Secretary of State plays his counter, and begins to advocate for an emergency summit of the United Nations Security Council to resolve the crisis diplomatically.

Now, we’ve seen this tension before, most recently in the ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 in an effort to come to terms over Iran’s nuclear program. There are hardliners in both Israel and the United States who, some secretly and some not so secretly, would prefer to bomb the bejeezus out of Iran’s nuclear sites, just as the Pentagon chief has advised in Brink.

Further complicating the issue, President Navarro’s hands are tied by his Israeli counterpart, who uses his direct line to call the President with an ultimatum that is growing old: if the U.S. doesn’t launch a preemptive strike first, we will. This almost happened in early 2012, when an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear sites seemed inevitable and imminent. Prime Minister Netanyahu did not hold back on pressuring President Obama to strike first, while the U.S. persuaded Jerusalem to hold its fire in exchange for tightening sanctions against Iran.

Others, including the President of the United States of America, a majority of the American people, and probably most of the world, would prefer to see a diplomatic solution that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran, and does not require yet another military excursion into the Middle East.

This is exactly the wisdom used by Brink’s Secretary of State, who argues against a rash and thoughtless rush to war against Pakistan. “All the sites you miss will be sold to the highest bidder,” he says. “You’ll see a long-range ballistic missile on eBay, Mr. President.”

The Man with his Finger on the Button

The writers of Brink cooked up an entertaining story, but the best—and perhaps most disturbing—part about any satire is that somewhere buried beneath all the hilarity, there’s always a shred of truth. 

In several instances in the pilot episode, we’re left thinking to ourselves, “It’s too outrageous to ever be true.” For instance, the Navy pilot “Zeke” who has established a sophisticated operation of dealing Xanax to his fellow sailors, claiming the pills are “the only thing keeping us awake.” A bad combination of alprazolam and testosterone has the naval pilots chomping at the bit to “bomb the s**t out of” a country…any country. As a result Zeke and his co-pilot are high out of their minds when they get the command to strike an Islamabad nuclear site—but Zeke mixed up the pills, and it’s not just Xanax that they’re flying high on.

If it seems like an outrageous recipe for disaster that servicemen sitting behind the controls of a high-stakes mission would deal and abuse substances, well…it’s not unprecedented. Last year, news broke that Air Force officers responsible for manning the nation’s nuclear weapons silos were found cheating on proficiency exams and abusing drugs at six different bases.

In Brink, the pilots launching strikes under compromised mental capacities is mirrored in the show by Pakistani coup-leader General Umair Zaman, who is discovered to be certifiably (as in, there’s a doctor’s report) insane. Both Zaman and the pilots are—whether by nature or narcotics—mentally incapacitated, and have their fingers on buttons that could very well lead to a nuclear world war. The only difference is: Zaman is taken about as seriously as Kim Jong Un, and the naval pilots are the brave soldiers responsible for protecting the homeland from nuclear attack.

Too Real

Now you may be wondering: how on earth is this show, brimming with horrifying geopolitical crises, a comedy? Well, first of all, I’ll give you two words: Jack Black. But even more so, there are elements of this show that are so bone-chillingly accurate to the global security landscape and to U.S. foreign policy practices, that many of these crises just don’t seem very far off. After forcing us to confront some of our deepest fears, it seems like all there is left to do is laugh—oh, and work on ridding the world of its deadliest weapons (as we do each day at the Council and Center) to make sure the events in Brink never really happen.