“Broken Hearts” is an unbelievably frustrating, incredibly compelling, out-of-its-mind bonkers, terrifically engaging episode of television. I loved the shit out of it. I also hated it. The more I think about it, the more that applies to this season of Homeland, which is sure to score high on my year-end top 10 list (indeed, somewhere in the top few places), even as it drives me crazy with its plotting. It’s a show neatly split in two, between character moments that have almost entirely worked and plot moments that I’m increasingly tired of waiting-and-seeing on. The show has put so much weight on its final two episodes this season that I’m wondering if there’s any possible way for it to elegantly wrap all of this up, even as I sort of already know the answer to that question. And yet all of the things that make me angry about it also make me love it all the more. It’s paradoxical, and it’s the sort of thing that can almost never be sustained for long periods of time, but it happens sometimes on TV, and there’s nothing quite like it. (The last time I felt this way was probably the fifth season of Lost.)
But let’s talk about issues of plausibility! I’m going to make some of you think I’m a bad critic here, but I just don’t really give a shit about issues of plot plausibility. If a show tells me something is possible, I’m usually willing to go with it within the context of the fiction. Abu Nazir can pop up in the middle of the U.S. and go to a gas station, largely because he shaved his beard? Sure. I’m willing to buy that. (I probably wouldn’t have recognized a clean-shaven Osama Bin Laden, after all.) Abu Nazir can take Carrie hostage and use her to get Brody to give him a pacemaker serial number so that he can utilize the apparently one computer technician he has left to kill the vice president via long-range heart attack? Sure, I’ll go with that, too, particularly if you throw in a reference to the New York Times (an article that apparently exists, if this interview with Henry Bromell and Howard Gordon is to be believed).
When I start getting touchy about plausibility, however, is when those issues of plausibility cross over into emotional plausibility. I’ll buy all of Carrie’s crazy machinations this season, because I really do think that her relationship with Brody has left her at sea, and that she really does think the last, best card she has left to play is getting him to fall even more in love with her. At the same time, weirdly, I’m not sure I’ll believe that Brody will put everything on the line like this for Carrie or, crucially, that Abu Nazir really thinks Brody would do everything he wants to ensure Carrie’s life. In the moment, I more or less went with it because I was sort of toying with the idea that the show might really kill Carrie (even as I knew it wouldn’t), but the more I thought about it, the less I really thought that Brody’s feelings for her ran that deeply. I’ve always seen him as viewing her as another part of a life he can’t quite get under control, and not the person he loves more than anything (as Carrie obviously feels about him). The connection between the two of them is palpable, but it can’t explain everything.
And yet nearly every interpersonal scene in this episode—and there are a lot of them—is a knockout. Once the show gets away from having Carrie race back into the abandoned mill to capture Abu Nazir on her own with a pipe (a weirdly muted cliffhanger) or from having Brody find the pacemaker information or what have you, it dwells on meet ups between characters you’d never really expect to meet up in these contexts, and those scenes work, by and large. Think, for instance, of that scene between Carrie and Abu Nazir, which could end up feeling too much like a writerly conceit designed to show how both fight for sides that might have more in common than either is willing to acknowledge but, instead, feels visceral and real, thanks to some really strong acting and some wonderful dialogue in Bromell’s script. (In particular, I’m fond of the use of the word “exterminate.”)
Or take the moment when Walden finally dies. On a plot level, it’s completely fucking stupid. But on a character level, it’s awesome. Brody finally getting to mostly drop the veneer he’s had to keep up around this man all this time, getting to look him in the face and tell him he disagrees with everything he stands for, then hold him down so he can’t reach the phone, is great. Damian Lewis has to put so many layers over the core of Brody that it’s rare that we get to see the real Brody like we do here, but now, we can see just how warped and frustrated he’s become by serving dozens upon dozens of masters. He’s a little scary. He’s weirdly triumphant. And the fear in Walden’s eyes as he sees what’s happening is a nice jolt of tension. We know how this story ends, but we also know what’s roiling in this man’s head. It’s kind of beautiful, so long as you can ignore everything about it that’s not. Or, perhaps even better, it’s kind of beautiful because of everything about it that’s not. This season has been most compelling as a character study of Nicholas Brody, and in this moment, we see him at his most emotionally naked. It’s what we’ve been building toward, and if you can’t separate the silliness that gets us here from the wonder of that moment, that’s too bad, I guess. But for me, it was great.
I realize that sounds like the worst kind of equivocation, but it gets at something I’ve long felt about television but have had trouble properly articulating: Watching TV for plot is a fool’s game, and it’s just going to end with you being disappointed. But watching TV for long-term character arcs can be very rewarding, particularly if you’re in the hands of writers who keep an eye on the characters in a way that keeps them more or less consistent. It’s all but impossible to blow through plot at the level Homeland does without running out of room (and I think the show is probably screwed next season if it tries to keep the Brody storyline going without a major reboot), but it is possible to keep the big character moments coming, and the show has done an excellent job of that this season.
What’s more, I find character stuff more emotionally satisfying, generally. What I admire most about this season of Homeland is the way that it dropped a bombshell back in episode two—Saul finds the Brody tape—then played out fairly logically how all of the other characters in the show’s orbit would react to that happening. Outside of Roya, who’s more plot device than organic character, I’ve more or less bought everything that’s happened since on that level of the characters behaving rationally. That seems to be the modus operandi of this season: Something big and occasionally ridiculous happens, and then the show goes out of its way to examine just how the characters would react to said ridiculous happening. I suspect if you’re someone who watches for plot primarily, you get stuck on the big thing happening. Dana and Finn kill a guy! Abu Nazir is in the U.S.! Brody goes AWOL! But for character watchers, the real meat comes after the inciting incident.
I’m not trying to say watching TV for plot is wrong. It certainly isn’t, and there are certainly shows that have been able to deftly weave rocket-paced plots that nonetheless provide room for character introspection in the moment. But at the same time, every story contains its plausibility concerns, and if you poke at them hard enough (or come at them from the right point of view), you’ll find them. (See Film Crit Hulk on this issue.) I certainly find watching TV more rewarding when watched from a character, thematic, emotional, structural basis, but I’m not here to tell you how to watch TV but, instead, to defend mostly enjoying this episode when I see the haters are already out in force for it. But the way I’ve always seen TV is heavily influenced by something our own Scott Tobias said in the wake of Landry killing that dude on Friday Night Lights: Serialized storytelling is often about throwing ridiculous plot points at already established characters and seeing how they react to them. More and more, I’m convinced that the “problem” with this season of Homeland many of you are having has less to do with the ridiculousness of the plot points and more to do with how the show didn’t exactly scale its way up to them but, instead, just jumped right to them. (For a good example of a show scaling from realism into ridiculousness, see Breaking Bad, which started out very naturalistic and recently completed a season featuring super-magnets.)
Anyway, before this review turns into an angry screed, let’s just highlight my continuing consternation with the “Estes and Quinn and Dar Adal are having some sort of weird plot to protect the vice president’s back on this whole drone-attack thing!” plot. By this point, I’m rather allergic to government conspiracies as a story element on TV, largely because it’s difficult to ever make sense of them, and I’m having trouble seeing a way that this story doesn’t resolve without a government conspiracy, no matter how large or small it turns out to be. I hate government conspiracies on TV because they almost inevitably don’t work on plot or character levels, because it’s hard to believe they could possibly exist, and it’s hard to believe that so many people would so subvert their own wills and intelligence to serve a multi-headed hydra. Granted, maybe this will all turn out to be awesome—after all, F. Murray Abraham is great, and that scene between him and Mandy Patinkin is probably the best of the episode—but the shadow of the Cigarette Smoking Man is lurking around the corner.
As stated above, I think this show may have written itself into a corner, plot-wise, and while I’m interested to see what happens in the final two episodes, I can’t imagine they won’t contain several logical leaps designed to keep everything moving relentlessly forward. (This is what those comparisons to 24 are all about; they’re not bashing 24, which was a good show, but a very different kind of show.) Some of that probably has to do with trying to top the thrill of the final moments from the second and fourth episodes. Some of that probably has to do with how relentlessly the show eroded its own foundation in the first half of the season (which was thrilling and absolutely the right call). And some of it still probably has to do with how the show’s original premise was unsustainable, so the series just kept inventing new ones. But it may have cornered itself, and without some fancy writing (which is absolutely possible), there may be no way out.
That said, I’m watching now not just for the answers to all of the mysteries and to figure out what happens next. I’m watching because the show has elegantly placed all of these characters into their own corners and I’m interested in seeing how they react. I’m interested because the season’s big themes of consequences and power imbalances are as present as ever. And I’m interested because, yes, I want to see how the writers get out of this one and half suspect they can’t. (That tension drives a lot of my serialized drama watching nowadays.) Is there a way to pull all of this together satisfactorily? Probably not, but that makes me love the show’s crazy level of ambition all the more.
Which brings me back to that beginning. I love the shit out of “Broken Hearts,” almost in equal measure to how much it drives me nuts. Homeland has sailed so far off into its own orbit now that it’s either never going to return to Earth, and we’re all going to be doing discussions about how it all went wrong, or it’s going to find its way back to firm footing, and we’ll all be marveling about how it figured it out. Either way, we’ll be looking at this episode as a turning point.
- My apologies for my Dar Adal idiocy last week. I watched the screener (which is seriously smaller than a postcard) saying, “Hey, when’s F. Murray Abraham going to show up?” then figured he was probably the guy on the bus, then completely forgot about that when writing the review. But still. Dar Adal. I was never going to figure that one out.
- One of the things I’m seeing criticized a bunch about this episode was that Abu Nazir was in a gas station, but I don’t find this all that implausible. Once he’s in the country and once he’s shaved, why should random gas-station employees recognize him? Would you expect to see the top terrorist in the world snapping it to a Slim Jim in your local 7-Eleven?
- Place your bets, everybody! Is everyone in on it, or just half of everyone?
- Goddammit, Danny!: This section makes its triumphant return as Danny stumbles out of the hospital, arm in sling, to help find Carrie, presumably against doctor’s orders. Who do you think you are, Danny Galvez? Some kinda superhero?!
- When this season is over, Carrie needs to just take a long drive and listen to Ellie Goulding’s “Anything Could Happen” on infinite repeat and get this Brody thing out of her system.
- Sad sign of how obvious Claire Danes’ pregnancy is becoming: When Carrie’s car was hit by Abu Nazir’s van, I thought, “I hope Carrie doesn’t lose the baby!”
- Finn comes to apologize to Dana, and while I continue to like this storyline more than many of you, mostly for how it’s given Dana some really wonderful stuff to work through, I don’t like Finn. You’re a douchebag, Finn! Go away!