Homeland: "A Red Wheelbarrow"
B+

Homeland: "A Red Wheelbarrow"

I’ve been dragging my heels and kicking and screaming all season long, but “a red wheelbarrow” does something that I wasn’t sure was possible at this late date: It makes me more or less invested in the season’s storyline to a degree that I would keep watching on a weekly basis even if I wasn’t having to review the show. (I probably would have started letting episodes pile up a few weeks ago if I weren’t on this beat, then caught up over Christmas vacation.) There are plenty of clumsy things in this episode, and I’m still troubled by the notion of an exoneration for Brody and/or Carrie’s pregnancy, but the episode does some interesting things to complicate both storylines, and it ends with some really great and unexpected moments. Does everything this season hang together? Not really. But enough does that I’m willing to give the other stuff the benefit of the doubt.

Early on, I took note of all of the times the characters—particularly Saul—were saying the word “depends,” because I wanted to place it in the context of William Carlos Williams’ titular poem, which reads, in its entirety: “so much depends/ upon/ a red wheel/ barrow/ glazed with rain/ water/ beside the white/ chickens.” Williams was an imagist, meaning that he wanted us to find deeper meaning by evoking pure images that one could picture vividly in the head and thus move on to deeper philosophical understanding of ourselves and the world around us. “a red wheelbarrow” is probably his most famous poem because that image is so clear in the mind when you read it and because of that opening bit: “so much depends/ upon.” What depends upon a red wheel barrow and white chickens? “So much,” it would seem, but it also could be “everything” or just “something” or even “nothing.”

So I was going to write this whole disquisition about how so much of the plotting on this show hinges on that narrow, unpredictable phrase: “It depends.” Will Saul manage to effect regime change in Iran? It depends on if he’s properly read Javadi’s loyalties. Will the CIA manage to keep the whole operation going when it becomes clear that Franklin is going to kill the real Langley bomber (who, in a turn I really liked, turns out to just be some guy—though I half wondered if he was Javadi’s son)? It depends on if Carrie can be kept from jeopardizing the operation by announcing the CIA’s presence. Will Carrie’s pregnancy be carried healthily to term? It depends on if she can curtail some of her self-destructive behavior—to say nothing of how she needs to step back from the CIA’s high stress environment and probably stop getting herself shot in the shoulder.

Now, the real reason this episode was entitled “a red wheelbarrow” was because that was how Carrie confirmed her meeting with Franklin, which took place in a Greek Orthodox Church that was eerily lit by director Seith Mann and the show’s team. But I still think there’s something to my original thesis: Everything these characters do hangs by a thread that can be snapped at any time by somebody behaving unpredictably. I’ve grown a bit tired of Carrie’s bipolar disorder being jerked around by the whims of the plot, and I’m especially tired of her all but howling, “BRODY!” in slow motion while throwing herself into yet another stupid situation (even as I’m starting to think Javadi told her and Saul separate stories to drive a wedge between them in regards to this particular issue). But her race down into the hotel parking lot to preserve the life of the Langley bomber underscored the episode’s major theme: Giant chess games like the one Saul is trying to play rely on everything falling into place with exactitude, but the people in your life—your protégé or your wife or even your new protégé—are rarely going to do exactly what you want them to.

Of course, what Saul would never acknowledge is that he’s the most unpredictable element of them all, as we find out at episode’s end, when he turns up in Caracas (on that trip he kept mentioning throughout the hour) and steps right into the room where Nicholas Brody is waiting for death. I half expected Saul to walk into the room and plug Brody right in the head, but that would have been too interesting (and, alas, probably would have marked Saul as a bad guy, except in terms of understanding the ruthlessness of narrative necessity). Instead, the two men regard each other, and we’re meant to wonder what part Brody will play in the final four episodes of the season. It’s a neat cliffhanger, mostly because by the time the episode ends, I have far more questions about where this story is going than answers, and for the first time this season, they’re questions I’m mostly interested in.

That doesn’t really apply to Carrie’s pregnancy, which I was half convinced she was going to terminate in this episode. But, no, it’s Brody’s baby, so she’s going to try to hang onto it, even though she’s pumped the fetus full of both lithium and alcohol. (She’s going to make an excellent mother.) Homeland seems convinced Carrie’s pregnancy is something the audience should be invested in, but it ends up manifesting as this sort of ghost of the show that was, and every time the show brings it up, it reminds me of how much more compelling things would be if we simply left that show behind and focused on the Saul and Carrie storyline the series has built this season. Is this the most compelling storyline in Homeland history? No. But it at least suggests a way forward for the show, a way that the series can keep evolving and hopefully get back to the state of that marvelous, unpredictable first season. Having the ghost of Brody hanging around was kind of interesting for a couple of episodes, but that ship has long since sailed.

Homeland has always been pretty good at personal storylines, which means that it’s a bit surprising to me to see how the show is struggling with them somewhat this season. For instance, Alain turning out to be a spy who wants to plant a bug in the Berenson house is just dumb. The marriage of Saul and Mira is probably the best personal storyline of this season (he said, extremely relatively), but the Alain complication hasn’t really worked because Alain is just some guy. The scenes where Mira has tried to explain her connection to him to Saul have been pretty good, but the few times we’ve actually seen Alain, he’s been this figure sort of lurking at the edge of the series. And now his whole purpose in seducing her was to spy on Saul? When he’s about to be ousted as director of the CIA and may leave the agency entirely? When Saul almost certainly doesn’t do that much spy work from home? I’d almost prefer it if Alain was just some crazy, vengeful ex, who wanted to listen in on Mira’s life because he couldn’t let her go. And we all know how bad that would be.

We also get a few insights into Fara’s life in this episode, insights that are initially set up as a bit of a mystery as to why she hasn’t gone into work on the day Quinn and Carrie launch their plan to track down the Langley bomber. It turns out that she is taking care of her ailing father, and the reason she hasn’t told him she works for the CIA—instead lying about taking a job at an investment bank (which he denigrates by asking why they aren’t rich—nice guy)—is because the family still has connections to Tehran, and those other family members could be killed should the Iranians ever learn her identity. (Of course, Javadi has seen her once or twice, but she seems to be an American citizen, born and raised, so it’s unlikely he would have the first clue how to place her.) Outside of that awful headscarf scene, Fara’s storyline has quietly become one of my favorites this season, and it’s one of the places where the show’s intent of displaying how hard espionage is on the people who practice it mostly pays off. Fara’s a new agent, someone who’s fairly green, and things like Javadi killing his ex-wife and daughter-in-law get under her skin in a way they might not for Carrie or Quinn, who simply see such a thing as yet another tiny piece of the crushing weight that threatens to bury them daily.

This, at least, gives a better idea of how to do these personal storylines in a more immediately interesting fashion. There are always going to be some fans of the show who wish the series would leave the personal stuff out of it—particularly when it’s going to be as poorly executed as Carrie’s pregnancy as been—but I think there are stories to be told about how these people try to live normal lives in the face of what they do. (Truth be told, I wonder if the disconnect many of you and many other critics feel from Quinn could be fixed by delving a little into his personal life.) Not every step of Fara’s story has completely worked—she was going to kill Javadi with a scissors!—but the pieces add up in this episode to a story where her choice to join the CIA starts to feel like the worst possible one she could have made. The characters this season keep holding up the idea that they live in “America” as if that has a deeper meaning in terms of their own freedoms and protections. But with every episode where the CIA goes to Fara’s house to order her to work or the murder of two innocent civilians is covered up to keep a new asset in place, those words seem a little more hollow.

All of which leads us to the scene at the hotel where the Langley bomber has holed up to wait for Franklin to help him in the exfiltration process. Carrie, from her vantage point, can see the gun Franklin puts together, and eventually, Quinn can as well. But it doesn’t matter. The CIA isn’t there to exonerate Brody, like Carrie is. It’s there to keep a major operation in play and figure out a way to keep tabs on even more of the multi-headed beast that it’s attempting to bury. The season has tentatively, shakily, been building a connection between Carrie and Quinn that hasn’t always worked but has been the closest thing the spy storyline has to a human center now that Saul has to be a bit aloof by design. When Carrie races across the parking lot to intercept Franklin before he can do anything, Dar makes the order to put a bullet in her, and Quinn eventually complies, putting one in her shoulder that sends her to the ground in a bloodied, screaming mess. I haven’t always been engaged with Carrie’s storyline this season, and I rolled my eyes when she raced after Franklin. But when she’s in the ambulance afterward, when she’s yelling at Quinn (somewhat hilariously, as Claire Danes finds the inherent bitter humor in Carrie’s lines) and trying to puzzle out just what’s wrong about the picture she sees before her, the series has dragged me back into a place where I feel like she’s the only one who can put all of this together.

That’s ultimately why you do the personal storylines, even if they don’t actually work, per se. This is a show about people whose lives are ground up by systems that see them more as expendable pieces in a giant system than it is a show about the missions these people go on. Its larger point has always been and still is, even in this often clumsy season, that any time you attempt to predict what people will do or control their behavior, you will fail, because people are complicated, messy creatures, and the spy game wants to make them into characters in a surveillance-based video game (or TV show), easily pushed around by men higher up in the food chain than they are, men who do not always realize that they will be buried just as easily when the time comes. It’s a tricky little word, “depends.” To depend on somebody is to know that they will always come through, and to depend on something happening is really saying that you need it to in order to keep your own hope alive. So much on Homeland depends on everything going right, sure, and even more depends on these people behaving exactly as Saul or Javadi or Dar hopes they will, but, ultimately, so much on Homeland depends on depends.

Stray observations:

  • Seriously, though, somebody make me a .GIF of Carrie racing through the parking lot with the words “FOR BRODY!!!!” flashing at the bottom of the screen.
  • I now hope that Quinn and Carrie get married and they tell their children later that they realized they were in love when he had to put a bullet in her. Ah, young love!
  • Look: There’s no way this baby is surviving the season, right? There’s no way this show becomes about Carrie Mathison, super mom, particularly if Brody somehow rejoins the story and becomes a stay-at-home dad (though now I’m imagining him cooking up pancakes for an unruly brood and giggling). And that scene with her doctor is basically the writers telling Carrie she’s going to lose the baby in so many words. I mean, Alex Gansa said, in my interview with him before this season, that there’s no way these two would be able to go to PTA meetings or what-have-you, so take that as a sign.
  • I hope Saul gets to hang out with the crazy pedophile doctor guy from “Tower Of David” for a while. I suspect they would have an amusing scene together.
  • That’s William Sadler as the president’s chief of staff (and, presumably, the guy who gives Saul the $10 million). He’s best known to me as Jaye’s father from Wonderfalls, but he’s a great character actor whose presence here suggests the White House will become a more important part of the series going forward.
  • As much as I liked that the Langley bomber was just some guy and/or Javadi’s son, I found myself briefly hoping it would be Virgil. What a twist!
  • I hope next week it’s revealed Senator Lockhart’s chief of staff is a giant bipedal dog named Muttley that chuckles every time Lockhart thinks he’s gotten one over on ol’ Saul Berenson. 
Filed Under: TV, Homeland

More TV Club