“Beirut Is Back” S2 / E2
- A- Community Grade
That was pretty awesome, no?
I mean, if I want to nitpick, I can. It feels just a little too coincidental that Carrie just happens to grab the bag that has the item she’s been hoping for all along in it. I can certainly buy that Abu Nazir is in possession of said item, and I can buy that Saul is the one to find it, almost accidentally. I can even buy that Abu Nazir would give it to a trusted lieutenant for safekeeping! But that particular item being in that particular place and being grabbed by that particular person at that particular time strings way too many coincidences together in a way that sort of falls apart if you start to think about it too hard. Yes, coincidence is the thing that drives drama, but there comes a point where it just becomes too much, and “Beirut Is Back” nudges up against that point.
But it doesn’t matter because it was still awesome. Now that we’ve hopefully warded off anyone who’s reading this without having watched the episode, let’s talk more fully. Saul plugging the data chip into his computer, then frowning to see an image of Nicholas Brody would be one thing. Saul plugging it in to reveal the tape that Brody made in last season’s finale, the one where he confessed to the suicide bombing that never happened, is quite another. The second that tape started to play, I wasn’t thinking about coincidence or plot convenience (since this is pretty much the only way to get Carrie back in the CIA’s good graces) or anything like that. I was giddy. This was a show I loved revealing that it wasn’t going to play safe this season. It was going to blow up one of its biggest plot bombs in episode two, and it wasn’t going to be Carrie remembering the name “Issa.” It was going to be the Brody tape.
The only show on TV that’s better than Homeland at backing its characters into impossible corners, then waiting to see if they can weasel their way out of them is Breaking Bad. As on that show, there’s always the sense that the writers are pushing buttons in such a way that they could break the show by pushing too far, but also that they always know just when to pull back from the precipice, often at the last possible moment. The Brody tape reveal feels like one of those moments, and unless this utterly tanks the season (which, to be honest, it could), it’s also the moment where the show confidently reasserts its late season-one swagger. Season one got props for being a fairly intense character study of two deeply damaged people, to be sure, but it was also a confident, briskly paced thriller. It didn’t move a mile a minute like, say, 24, but it was still enormously exciting, particularly later in the season. The season première was a very good episode of TV, but it was also heavily into the character-study side of things. “Beirut Is Back” drills down into the thriller half of the show’s DNA, reminding us just how enthralling it can be.
Now, the show has backed Brody into a corner he’s seemingly not going to be able to get out of, but for the rest of the season to function at all, it’s going to have to figure a way for him to move forward. (My guess for what the series will do is in the stray observations.) Yet, what I like is the way that the episode reminds us that, hey, this guy’s pretty good at lying right before it yanks the rug out from under us with that closing scene. The buildup to the mission to take out Abu Nazir is as good a traditional thriller moment as any the show has done, with Carrie and Saul watching the strike team on their monitors, even as Brody himself is watching the feedback at the Pentagon as the guest of the vice president. One of the unique gifts of this show has always been its ability to make people watching video monitors oddly electrifying, and this scene is no different. We spend lots of time watching what’s going on out there on that Beirut street via these monitors, trying to figure out if Carrie’s put American lives on the line in a setup or if her intelligence is actually good. And once Abu Nazir shows up, the tension shifts to Brody, who’s going to need to warn his boss in time.
Yet this isn’t just a great way to inject some thrills into the middle of the episode, it’s also a reminder of how attached to these characters we are because the show’s capable of making us worry for both of them—even though their objectives are diametrically opposed! We shift from hoping that Abu Nazir will show up so the strike team can kill him and Carrie will get the glory to hoping that Brody can figure out a way to warn him in time. In typical Homeland fashion, the show finds a way to have its cake and eat it too, with Abu Nazir appearing just long enough for Carrie’s vindication, but Brody dashing off a warning text message—the date Osama Bin Laden was killed—quickly enough for Abu Nazir to escape. The team still knocks out two of his chief lieutenants, but they don’t get the primary target. Both Carrie and Brody get what they want, and we get to continue examining our uneasy feelings about how easily the show puts us in situations where we want terrorist masterminds to stay alive so that the said U.S. Marine mastermind turned in captivity can preserve his position within the organization. It’s a tricky balance, but “Beirut Is Back” nails it.
That the episode follows this up with a terrific action sequence is the icing on the cake. While picking up Fatima—the woman who gave Carrie the information that led to the mission to take out Abu Nazir—that the CIA might spirit her away to Detroit, Carrie, still stinging over the failure to get Abu Nazir, races into the house, looking for anything she might find in Fatima’s husband’s things. With the two men killed on the street, she must surely know that there will be an eye out for American operatives, but she doesn’t seem to give a shit. She needs more vindication than she’s already gotten, and if she has to die trying to get it, well, that’s what she’s going to do.
Michael Cuesta’s direction of this action sequence is propulsive, certainly, but I occasionally found myself wondering where things were happening within the geography of the building. The filming is obviously influenced by Paul Greengrass’ influential work on his two Bourne films, but where Greengrass turns all of his shaky camerawork and quick cuts into a very clear look at the world Bourne is occupying, I’m not sure Cuesta manages the same here. Carrie makes it to the roof of the building, then races across to… duck from the bad guys firing upon her, then… runs down another staircase? It’s all a little confusing, and it’s not helped by the way the men who pursue Carrie into the building are mostly faceless antagonists, to the point where it’s not immediately clear just why they’re after her. We assume they’re allied with Abu Nazir, but why are they here? Are they after Fatima? Or are they part of the mob surrounding the car down on the street?
Still, the stakes are sufficiently high for Carrie that none of this really matters. And when I say the stakes are high, I don’t just mean that she’s in mortal danger, because we’re aware at all times that the show wouldn’t really bump off its main character. No, the stakes are high because Carrie needs to find something that will help her in her quest to win the renewed respect of those she used to work with. Now that she’s been back out in the field and nearly led to the death of the foremost terrorist in the show’s universe, it’s obvious she’s got a hunger for even more. Claire Danes is so good at playing these moments when Carrie’s mania overtakes her and she has to dive forward, lest she be knocked back. The action sequence isn’t perfect, but as a way to set up Carrie’s character arc, it’s great. By the time Carrie’s dragged back into the car and back to safety, it’s almost more of a relief that she got there with the bag full of intelligence in hand than it is that she’s still alive.
If there’s a flaw in this episode, it’s the Mike storyline. Without the ongoing connection between Mike and Jessica, there’s no real reason for the character to be on the show, and it’s obvious the writing staff isn’t sure what to do with him just yet. To that end, they turn him into somebody who’s just been reading some stuff on the Internet and is just asking questions about what really happened that day when Tom Walker almost killed the vice president, man! It’s fun to see Brody’s old Marine buddies again, particularly as they give him shit for how ineffectual he is as a congressman, but I can’t imagine a version of the Brody storyline that ends with Mike bringing him down that would be at all satisfying. Maybe you can, but I’m struggling.
That’s not to worry, though, because Saul has found that tape, and now the noose is really going to start to tighten around Brody. Damian Lewis’ finest moment in the season so far came in the parking lot after he sent his text message warning to Abu Nazir, when he meets with the journalist and tells her he can’t be sending fucking text messages when he’s in a room with the joint chiefs of staff. And he really can’t! The greatest risk the show took when it didn’t kill off Brody was that he would eventually turn into an uninteresting villain, somebody who constantly got away with things because the show needed him to and somebody who lost the intriguing nuance the character had in season one. What the writers of the show have realized is that by not killing himself, Brody damned himself even more than he would have if he had been able to flip the switch on that suicide vest. Now, he’s in a place where he’s just waiting to get caught, where the inevitable downfall will be swift and brutal and will take down so many others with him, from his wife to his political supporters. He’s gotten so high so quickly, that the collapse will be horrible and tremendous.
And he knows it’s coming. You can see it in his eyes. He just doesn’t know how quickly the reckoning will arrive.
- Todd’s crazy theory corner: Obviously, you can’t string much more than a handful of episodes out of the CIA knowing Brody’s committed treason without bringing him in. You’ll maybe be able to get an episode or two where Saul and Carrie show people the tape, then maybe an episode or two where they tail Brody. But that’s about it. My assumption here is that they’ll convince him to help them bring down Abu Nazir, in exchange for a reduced sentence of some sort. Of course, that’s probably wrong.
- As if to hammer home just how much Brody has to lose, look how often the show simply observes Jessica in her element in the life of a political wife. It’s as if she’s found the life she was always meant to lead, even if she didn’t know it.
- Carrie’s initial meeting with Fatima quickly demonstrates that she hasn’t forgotten any of the tricks of the trade. Apparently, being a spy is just like riding a bicycle.
- Mandy Patinkin’s work in the scene where Estes leaves it up to Saul to determine whether to launch an operation to take down Abu Nazir is so great. Saul paces and stews and isn’t sure whether he can believe Carrie, but he ultimately realizes he has to. In some ways, he’ll always have her back.
- The monologue from Carrie about how she was sure of everything until Brody is a nice little piece of writing from Chip Johannessen (assuming he actually wrote that particular speech). I liked the way it mentioned how Carrie trusts the her of five years ago, even if she doesn’t trust the her of now.
- So I guess Dana and the vice president’s son is going to be a thing, huh? I did like the shot of her flipping him off through his burka vision, as well as the show raising the question of just what Brody believes, this time more subtly.
- Speaking of coincidence, I could be churlish and complain about how Brody was in the Pentagon when the operation was going down, but I don’t think I will be. The episode did a good job of laying out the exposition about how he’d be in the building earlier on, so when he just happened to be there at the right time to warn Abu Nazir, it felt at least somewhat foreshadowed.