Homeland: “A Gettysburg Address”
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Homeland: “A Gettysburg Address”

The first time I watched “A Gettysburg Address,” I thought it was the messiest, most scattered episode of the season, and probably the weakest. There was nothing as glaringly stupid to me as Brody’s weird sojourn in the woods with Bassel, but the whole thing felt like it was working far too hard to integrate every single plotline the show has developed this season into a cohesive whole. The second time through, I still found the episode messy and scattered, but I found myself enjoying it more once I knew that was the plan. In particular, I liked the way the episode drew the previously stupid Detective Mike storyline into the midst of the other stories. It didn’t make it more believable, but putting Mike in contact with Saul highlighted just how out of his depth Mike is, even if he’s jumping to the right conclusions. Plus, it increases the tension around the character inadvertently cracking the case where it pertains to Brody’s true motivations. If he does so now, the whole house of cards the CIA is building could crumble.

But let’s not talk about that anymore. Let’s talk about Dana.

The Dana storyline is something I’m finding more interesting in theory than in practice. I quite enjoyed her flirtation with Finn, and their first kiss was one of the minor highlights of the season. But once Finn ran over a woman last week and then left the scene of the crime, I worried, because there was essentially no way for this storyline to go that wasn’t a distraction. Now, a number of you pointed out last week that the show is using Dana to be a sort of physical conscience for her parents. Where Jess was unable to tell Brody that she’d moved on and fallen in love with someone else in his absence, Dana immediately told Xander that he was no longer the guy she was in love with. (Granted, it’s easier to break up a high school relationship than a marriage.) And now, both Dana and Brody have been put into impossible positions by the actions of a member of the vice president’s family. They’ve both been forced to confront how, for a Walden, the only real concern is for himself.

Again, this is all more interesting in theory than in practice. This storyline mostly seems like a chance for the writers to give Morgan Saylor something to do, and it’s hard to understate how terrific she is here, even when she’s doing something patently dumb, like talking to the daughter of the woman Finn hit at the hospital. Saylor’s eyes convey all of the anguish Dana is feeling so perfectly that there almost doesn’t need to be dialogue. The understated manner of these scenes very nearly makes up for the fact that the way the whole storyline began is vintage mid-period 24, when the show would need to come up with something for some supporting character to do for an episode or two and then come up with some completely incidental plotline to toss that character into. The thematic cohesion and Saylor’s performance make this a fair sight better than, say, Kim Bauer running into that cougar, but it’s hard to overcome just how little this has to do with anything else right now. It’s one thing to understand that Dana’s going through a smaller-scaled version of what her father went through; it’s quite another to have to watch that scene where Finn turns into a mustache-twirling villain because the plot needs him to. (This is not to say he couldn’t have been a mustache-twirling villain all along, but the shift here seems incredibly sudden.)

This week’s storyline in the main plot is a far cry from last week’s as well, but, then, how couldn’t it be? I’ve noticed that this season of Homeland is burning through plot at a terrific speed, but it’s also generally giving us an episode every few weeks to let us get used to the new status quo. Think, for instance, of how the show dropped that bombshell about Saul finding the Brody tape, then gave us a whole episode of letting that information hang over the old status quo before blowing things up all over again. It’s a nifty way to build a season, but it also makes those status quo episodes pale in comparison to the big story-shifting episodes surrounding them. This means that “A Gettysburg Address” feels like it’s merely marking time, even though several huge, huge plot-advancing events happen in it, including the deaths of at least one and potentially two fairly major characters. (I know that Quinn sitting up at the end of that scene was supposed to be the universal television signifier that he’s going to be all right, but man, those wounds looked rough.)

One other thing that’s interesting to consider in light of this episode is the way that this show’s political reality subtly differs from ours. We’ve already seen this in the way the show’s Lebanon is the sort of war-torn Middle East we might picture in our heads (where the real Beirut is a cosmopolitan city), but we’re also seeing it in the storyline of Israel having launched strikes against Iran, and in Abu Nazir having the sort of level of control over a terrorist organization that it’s hard to imagine a terrorist having in the immediately post-Bin Laden era. (I could be wrong about this, but I’ve struggled to find a real-life Abu Nazir analogue.) Homeland takes place in the ever-useful “five minutes into the future” setting, where things are sort of like reality, but just far enough off to make for more dramatic conflicts.

Even within that setting, though, I find the idea of Abu Nazir’s men invading the CIA-occupied tailor’s shop and gunning everybody down slightly hard to believe. Within the reality of Homeland, terrorists are almost regularly launching attacks on American soil, but nobody really seems to care all that much. (Maybe we really would get that blasé about terrorist attacks after several years of having them happen every few months.) Now, granted, we cut away from the gun battle after it’s over—and after Abu Nazir’s men have removed the mysterious crate from the wall—so it’s possible that the good people of Gettysburg noticed what went down and started freaking out. But it sure seems as if it takes place in a vacuum, and I hope episode seven does a little something to clear up. (As it is, it’s mostly pretext to let Carrie collapse into Brody’s arms at the end of the episode when she realizes that, no, he didn’t have anything to do with what happened. It’s a nice moment—as are all of the Carrie/Brody moments in this episode—but the buildup to it is a little strained.)

After spending all of that time complaining, though, I can’t say that I was incredibly let down by this episode or anything. Most of the flaws I’m complaining about are ones that occurred to me in hindsight, or flaws that somehow enhanced the rest of the storytelling. For instance, as much as it makes it feel like the world of the show is simply inured to terrorist attacks to immediately cut away from the tailor’s shop, it sure enhances the suspense in the rest of the episode. Cutting away at that exact moment makes it feel like anything could happen anywhere else, and that’s the kind of space in which Homeland most thrives. It also allows us to question our reactions to Brody and lets us wonder if he’s really turned the corner like he said he did. All serialized-TV storytelling is a balance between these sorts of things—between plot momentum and character development, or between consistent world-building and just keeping a string of interesting things coming. There are episodes of Homeland that lean more toward the mercenary side of things, and this was definitely one of them, but that doesn’t mean the show has utterly fallen apart on the job or something. It just means that the show is doing the necessary work of moving us from point A to point B, even if it’s occasionally inelegant.

In some ways, the sped-up pace that’s made this season so fun and unpredictable is the whole reason much of this is happening. To get episodes like “Q&A” or “Beirut Is Back,” we need to have episodes that build the bridges, that do the work of pushing certain characters in certain directions, even if we in the audience don’t always think that’s what that character would do in that moment. This is just the necessary evil of any form of serialized storytelling, and the mark of a good show is how much that can be minimized while still existing. “A Gettysburg Address” mostly overcomes some of this by moving as quickly as it can to allow you less time to think about its various contrivances than you might normally have. And when it’s blatantly reveling in those contrivances—as it is in the Dana storyline—it’s putting them in the hands of actors who are so good that it doesn’t matter. The great tension in a serialized show is sometimes just wondering if the writers are going to be able to pull some of this shit off, and Homeland is definitely at that point now. But so long as it’s hitting the big moments, I’m going to give the show all the slack in the world for the lesser episodes.

Which brings me right back to Detective Mike, a storyline I would have thought irredeemable before now, but one that this week’s episode did its level best to redeem. Mike bumbling and stumbling his way toward the truth is one thing, but the series found an effective way to bring it into the middle of everything else. At one time, seeing Jessica and Mike learn the truth about Brody seemed like a huge, huge moment that would be important to the Brody storyline’s endgame. Now, it’s the sort of thing that could blow up everything else the show has built. Homeland has slowly taken something its audience wanted to see happen and turned it into something that will seriously complicate everything else if it does happen. That’s deft storytelling, and even if it took some stupid steps to get there, I’m that much more excited to see how it will turn out, particularly if we get more scenes where Saul benevolently tries to tell Mike to get the fuck out of his half of the show.

Stray observations:

  • I really liked the scene where Carrie talks Brody through what it means to be a spy. If we’re going to have these two working together, I’d like more scenes like this and fewer scenes like the one where she collapses into his arms (though that scene was fine, too). I like to see Carrie when she knows what she’s doing.
  • Even Quinn seems pretty amused by the way that Carrie’s hunches pay off so often when the two have a conversation while he’s hanging out in the back of the tailor’s shop. (And as much as I like Quinn, I can’t help but feel that that scene in the shop will have more impact if he turns out to be dead.)
  • As implausible as I found the idea of Abu Nazir’s guys gunning down all of those men in the back of the shop, I did like the way their arrival was presaged by the sound of the door dinging. The show somehow made that sound ominous.
  • Goddammit, Danny: Assuming Danny is dead—and I do—this is our final goddammit, Danny ever. And he doesn’t even really deserve it! But he at least got to go out a hero, preposterously taking on men with machine guns.
  • Brody comes clean with Jessica about working for the CIA… then immediately starts lying again when he assures her he’s not working with Carrie. She’s out of the CIA! She had a nervous breakdown! Telling lies is just in his blood now, it would seem.
  • Chris has apparently turned into Drew from Parenthood from as little as he has to do on this show. Here’s hoping the series figures out something to do with him other than hanging out with Mike. (And isn’t it bizarre that Mike would immediately jump to the conclusion that the missing bullet was used to kill Walker? I mean, I get that he’s paranoid and all, but c’mon!)
  • Guys, if Mitt Romney wins the election on Tuesday, is this show going to have to redo its credits?

 

 

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