I’ve been thinking a lot about what ails Homeland in the past few weeks. And I don’t really mean what objectively ails it, but, rather, what ails it in the eyes of much of the critical community and the crankier elements of its fanbase. The show is plowing ahead through a season that may end up with better ratings than its second, but the vast majority of press written about it is meant to tear it down, and that which isn’t takes on an almost wistfully defensive tone. “Okay, maybe this isn’t working, but this could all still come together!” it says, because a lot of us—myself included—want to believe that we weren’t wrong about this show, that it wasn’t an elaborate shell game designed to fool us into thinking we were watching something profound that, instead, just wanted to be something entertaining and a little goofy. As someone who’s written pieces excoriating the show and hoping against hope that it will find its way back, I can relate all too well to both approaches.
It’s that first season that hovers over everything here. If we’re looking at the plot of season one and comparing it to the two seasons that followed, then there are plenty of moments and elements in it (most notably the fact that Brody turns against his country because of his friendship with Issa) that simply don’t pass the smell test in terms of plot plausibility. But what season one had that the latter portions of season two and much of season three lacked was emotional plausibility. It was as if the show knew exactly how to tune itself to key us into the fundamental instabilities of its characters, to show us how messed up and co-dependent they were. It was a show that was still deeply attuned to its own themes of a country bruised by the War on Terror, and it was almost rigidly certain of who Carrie Mathison was and what she would do to protect her country and/or prove one of her own hunches correct. (It was also very attuned to how she came to think of those two things as one and the same, one of the things that made her so fascinating.)
It’s easy enough for me to sit here and armchair quarterback about how I think the show has lost sight of what makes Carrie tick and it probably won’t find that again until Brody is somehow written out of it. It seems simple to me because there are still so many elements of the show that work when viewed in isolation. The direction is usually very good (tonight’s work from longtime TV director Daniel Minahan is nicely disorienting in all the right ways), and the acting remains stellar. And for as much as the writers have come under fire for how little the masterplots on the show sometimes make sense, they remain very good at crafting scenes and moments, at building new characters and putting them in the orbits of our existing ones, whether those characters last across seasons or are there for only one episode. (Think, for instance, of how invested the show got viewers in those Marines in last week’s episode.) The element that, to me, seems most glaring here is that Brody simply doesn’t fit in whatever universe the show is building, and when Carrie’s around him, she has a tendency to break the very thin leash she has to character plausibility and take off running.
Yet an episode like “Big Man In Tehran” is a fairly convincing argument in the other direction. It’s probably not enough to make me think the show should keep Brody around for its fourth season, but it’s an episode that very succinctly shows us why Damian Lewis and the character of Nicholas Brody are so tempting to keep around for this show and this network. Even the writers seem a little exasperated at thinking up new situations to put him in at this point—for much of its running time, “Big Man In Tehran” amounts to Nicholas Brody playing all his greatest hits—but there’s something magnetic about the way the guy gets into and out of scrapes, the way that you can never quite predict what he’s going to do. And when Lewis gets on screen with Claire Danes, as I said a couple of weeks ago, forget it. The two of them together—even if they’re talking on the phone across a crowded mosque courtyard—make for something almost spellbinding to watch, even as I’m finding myself actively irritated by some of the decisions being made around them. For as much as I don’t think this show works any more if Brody lives past next week, this episode’s cliffhanger—Brody standing over the body of Akbari and pleading with Carrie to figure out how to get him out of the IRGC office over the phone—very much has me invested in where these two find themselves in the immediate future. Maybe that will have to be enough.
In its earliest episodes, Homeland worked, no matter the plot chances it took, because it was always asking viewers to imagine what, exactly, Brody was up to and where his allegiances were situated. If nothing else, “Big Man In Tehran” restores that quality to the show. After the aborted meeting in which Brody gets nowhere near Akbari and is, instead, spirited into a house where he meets with Abu Nazir’s widow (who’s been tasked to vet him), Brody is greeted on the street by many Iranians who cheer him on and capture cell phone footage of him going back to his car. He has to make a statement, and he can’t speak the truth, so he has to return to his cover story about how he’s there seeking asylum, only to realize that said cover story is almost certainly going to start looking more and more like reality the longer it continues. The assassination failed, the extraction fell apart, and now, he’s trapped in a new life, one where he’s hauled on state TV to talk about how much he hates America. It might be an act. It’s probably an act. But Brody knows too much, so the CIA has to take him out.
Homeland, even in its shittiest episodes, has always been good at portraying the weight these sorts of actions have on the characters who undertake them, and the moment when Saul realizes that he’s going to have to order Brody’s death is great in this regard, as is the moment when Carrie slowly realizes that being told to come back home means that the agency has decided to cut Brody loose. I’ve mentioned the phone call between Carrie and Brody as a highlight earlier, and I did like the very real sense the scene had that the two just might decide it was time to hightail it for somewhere in the middle of the Himalayas and live among the Sherpa. But no. Brody’s already tried that. He can’t do it again. And even if the CIA is trying to kill him, he’s going to make it on his own. (He really should have tossed a hat in the air.)
What I liked about the sequence from there to the end of the episode was that I didn’t know what Brody was going to do. I assumed he was going to Akbari’s office to assassinate him, but there was the genuine possibility—stoked by Carrie letting him on to the killers coming for him outside the mosque—that he would turn on his country all over again and inform Akbari about how Javadi is working for the CIA. That this was precisely what he did left me a little stunned. (I couldn’t imagine the show keeping Damian Lewis under contract to occasionally pop up in a YouTube video spouting anti-American rhetoric, but stranger things have happened.) I’ll be honest that I was a little disappointed that he then killed Akbari using a heavy dish and a nearby pillow (and, honestly, it’s kind of silly that Akbari let himself be alone in a room with this dude, but whatever), but those final moments were still terrific, and I’m genuinely excited to see what happens in next week’s episode. I don’t know how he gets out alive, and for the long-term health of the show, I hope he doesn’t. But for the short-term health of the show, I somehow hope he does, and that’s not a trick I thought Homeland capable of pulling anymore.
What was even better about all of this was how, yes, it kept playing so much of this as Brody’s greatest hits, as slightly muted cover versions of things he’d already done, to the point that it contrives a reason for him to have equal personal weight in killing Akbari as he did in killing the vice president last season in another closed room. But those ripples of things he’d already done also did a terrific job of underlining the show’s growing assertions that it doesn’t matter if the side you’re fighting for is all about truth and justice, not so long as they’re willing to use you as an underhanded assassin to get what they want. I doubt anybody making this show would want to trade in a life in the United States for one in Iran, or that they sympathize with terrorist groups, but I definitely think they believe that any action that gets the hands dirty tends to spread the stain elsewhere, and in carrying out these sorts of clandestine operations, the United States has a tendency to damn not just its operatives but itself. Brody closing himself in a room to kill Akbari for the CIA is presented as functionally no different from closing himself in a room to kill the vice president for Abu Nazir (and, by extension, apparently, the Iranians). It’s all part of the same continuum of blood and horror, a continuum Brody’s long ago wanted to rid himself of, if only the world would have the decency to kill him.
Perversely, this is how the writers have turned the character’s cockroach-like survival power into an asset, instead of a liability. Again, it’s an asset of limited use, I think, but it manages to make the fact that he’s still alive into something more sorrowful than worth shouting about. In so many ways, Brody should die. He even wants to die about 95 percent of the time (the other five percent, he’s staring soulfully into Carrie’s eyes and composing secret sonnets to her). But he’s trapped in a game where he ends up being of use to the terrorists, which makes him of use to the CIA, which makes him of use to the Iranians, which makes him of use to the CIA, and on and on. He’s a character trapped in this endless ouroboros of pain, and the longer he stays alive, the more ridiculous his story becomes to us, the more tragic it becomes to him. I don’t know how long the show can spin this trick, but it’s worked very well in the last two episodes.
Ultimately, what this all comes back to is the contract you make with the show, whether you’re willing to reapproach it as something new and evolving, rather than as something you can write off because it made some missteps along the way. I don’t know if I’m back at the point where I have unquestioned faith in Homeland. Maybe I never will be. But in the last episode and this one (which, I’ll admit, is probably a touch overstuffed), the show went a long way toward redeeming not just Brody’s continued presence in the series but also Carrie’s character. She got to return to the pragmatic, hard-nosed operative of seasons past in these two episodes, rather than the starry-eyed romantic who’s dragged down so much of these past two years. When this episode ends, she’s a woman equally let down by her country and by the man that she loves, and that’s an interesting character to watch—especially when the latter informs her that he’s somehow pulled off the impossible, and now she has to pull off the doubly impossible.
Will this be enough to get me salivating about season four? I’ll be honest and admit probably not. The show is what it is now, and I’m always going to miss the possibility it held in season one of being something much more. But I’m emotionally hooked into these characters again, no matter how tentatively, in a way that I just haven’t been since probably “The Clearing,” if not “Q&A,” and when one is emotionally hooked into what a show is trying to do, there’s nothing about the plot that can be so stupid or implausible to shake that kind of faith. That’s what Homeland had in season one, and that’s what it can regain, perhaps, with a really strong finale next week. The wild thing about this show is that the greatest tests it sets for itself are always on the horizon; there’s nothing it could do that would leave me unshakably certain it will always be on track. Sometimes, a show has to boil down to something as simple as a guy asking his lover to get him out of a seemingly impossible situation. For once, I’m excited to see what comes next.
- Thanks to Sonia for filling in last week, though I’m sad I had to miss that episode (which I think was probably the best of the season—I would have given it an A- too). Homeland has very quietly been rebuilding its spy stuff this season, in a way where I think it would do well to redouble its focus on the CIA storylines in season four.
- Fara’s uncle turns out to be a fairly minor plot point in the season, though I’m guessing we’ll learn next week that his niece’s involvement in the CIA will turn his life to ruin, because that is what this season is trying to teach us.
- For a while, I thought Akbari was the Stupendous Yappi from The X-Files, but alas, it was not. I will give this show five dollars if it brings back Yappi, though.
- One criticism: Akbari being sort of the “Big Bad” of the season didn’t have much weight because he’s mostly been a theoretical character until this episode. Thus, his death holds little to no weight, outside of playing as a question of what Brody’s motivations are (and I love how Lewis plays that moment as if he’s just deciding to kill Akbari then and there; for all we know, he is).
- The scene with Abu Nazir’s widow was a bit of a curious one. On a dialogue level, it was beautifully written, if pushing a bit too hard for some writerly bits, but on a plot level, it felt kind of crazy and convenient. That describes this whole season, come to think of it.
- Though he’s still far from my favorite element of the show, I’m impressed with how the show has turned me around just a bit on Senator Lockhart in these last couple of episodes. If he sticks around past this season, I’d like to see that rehabilitation continue.
- Saul slipping out of the conference room to chew out Carrie over the phone was just terrific. I really do hope the events of this season put some irreparable wounds between them.
- Guys, why did Carrie have to take a look at the start of her baby bump in the mirror like that? I thought we all agreed to pretend the pregnancy wasn’t real.
- Okay, everyone: Last call for predictions. Does Nicholas Brody live or die? And if he lives, what’s his role in the show next season (if he has one at all)?