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Homeland: "Crossfire"

Though I mostly enjoyed it, there was something… off about “Crossfire.” It took me a while to put my finger on it, too, because after the shocking revelations of the last couple of weeks, this was a return to meat-and-potatoes-style, character-based storytelling. Saul’s sorrow over Mira mostly played out in the background. We got a long excursion into Brody’s past. Carrie laid out—as best she could—what might be her guiding philosophy as a person, a philosophy the show tried to both lionize and hold up as hopelessly naïve. And Tom Walker went for a short walk in the woods, one that ended with tragic results for a hunter named Dan.

After a bit of thinking on it, though, I think what bugged me about this episode can be summed up in one word: editing. The editing of “Crossfire” isn’t atrocious—there’s a matching cut between the past and present when Brody’s talking with Abu Nazir via high-tech Skype that was pretty great, and the smash-cut to black at the end is also wonderful—but the whole thing ends up feeling a bit top-heavy for one simple reason: The Brody flashback doesn’t get isolated within the episode’s structure and is presented as running roughly contemporaneously to what’s up with Carrie and Walker. Again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this—it’s not like I couldn’t follow what was going on—but it creates some odd leaps between storylines, particularly since the Carrie and Walker stories are more-or-less straightforward, while the Brody flashback is filled with slow dissolves and other hazy filmmaking techniques, meant to put us in the dream-like state of the passed-out man. Furthermore, all of this cross-cutting suggests these stories are happening at more or less the same time, but Brody’s story seems to take several days (even if it doesn’t, ultimately), while Carries seems to take the better part of a day. Even being generous, there’s no way Walker’s story takes more than six hours to play out. This is a kind of nit-picky detail, to be sure, but it kept throwing me off of the subtle rhythms the episode was trying to build. 

The traditional way to play out a flashback in a show like this is to isolate it. The classic example would be the one good episode of this summer’s Torchwood: Miracle Day, which featured a lengthy trip into Captain Jack’s past, one that ended up having bearing on the present. The episode had a present-day framing story, but it was mostly there to make the shift into the past not feel so abrupt. While I really appreciate Homeland’s attempts to play around with expected thriller structure, I can’t say that I would have said no to a full episode spent on Brody’s time in captivity, particularly at this point in the season, when we know roughly what the end game is going to look like, but we still have some time to kill. Put another way: When Isa wandered on screen, I realized that he was probably going to die in a way that would make Brody sign on for whatever Abu Nazir had planned. But because we kept cutting away from the story, there was less dramatic momentum to the formation of Brody’s relationship with Isa, to say nothing of not having enough time to really get it across. 

The show’s been fairly linear up until this point, and the editing played havoc with that as well. We’ve had flashbacks before, but always brief snippets of dreams or memories Brody’s been having, not as full-fledged additional storylines. And, yes, I guess you could make the argument that Brody was having this flashback at the same time everything else was happening, so when he “meets” Isa, it’s at the same time as Carrie having her first meeting with the imam or something. But the haziness of the Brody flashbacks—which take place over months—plays around with the fact that everything else is happening on the same day. It’s destabilizing to the narrative, and while you can follow what’s going on, that destabilization doesn’t really accomplish anything.

This is too bad because the episode surrounding “Crossfire” is pretty good, all things considered. The “Carrie deals with a PR nightmare” aspect of the episode is very much a stalling tactic, and I’m not sure what was accomplished by watching Walker wander through the woods, but the Brody stuff, which took up most of the hour, was largely strong, and I liked that it continued the show’s policy of making nobody too good or too bad. Even Abu Nazir, who’s apparently plotting to assassinate the president or something (if the Marine One revelation from “The Weekend” is any indication) comes off here as someone with understandable motives. He’s just not exactly achieving his goals through acceptable means. 

Is it a little cheap to have Brody’s terrorism be driven by a little kid he meets, who dies when U.S. strikes flatten his school? (I definitely hope that the show doesn’t have Abu Nazir kill his own kid via some sort of explosion to get Brody on his side; he’s already approaching territory where his ability to carry out incredibly complex plans and always have contingencies in place is slightly unbelievable.) Yeah, it is. And is it a little cheap to have Brody’s relationship with Abu Nazir be centered on that dead little kid? Of course. But the revelation of the role Isa played in Brody’s life more or less makes sense of why Brody did what he did without utterly submarining the good character work done on the character so far. (Keep in mind that Isa would probably have been only a few years younger than Brody’s own son would have been at the time of the flashback.) One of the biggest problems Homeland has always had hanging out there is just how it was going to explain Brody’s brainwashing, and while this is a little cheap and easy, it’s at least something that makes sense. People beat the shit out of Brody. Then a man was somewhat kind to him. Then he got to live in a nice house with indoor plumbing. Then he befriended a kid. Then the kid was killed by the very military he was a part of. It tracks. It’s not incredibly elegant, but it works.

The stuff with Carrie was fine, but it felt more like a distraction from what Brody was going through than it probably should have. That’s unusual for this show, since it almost always features the two characters with roughly parallel stories of interest. I thought the scene where Carrie met with the imam and his wife was very well done, and I liked how she laid out her idea that it’s up to the good guys—the people like Carrie and the imam—to band together and do what they can to stop those who would rather just have the world burn down around their ears. The whole thing exists primarily to put Carrie and Saul on the track of that Saudi diplomat (and nice touch to have Brody leave just as they get there), but it ends up feeling a little inconsequential, particularly for something that’s apparently been such a PR nightmare for the CIA and FBI. (And, hey, whatever happened to Carrie's partner spying on her to figure out what she's really up to? I hope the show hasn't forgotten about this, and I assume it hasn't.)

But it’s that idea of good guys I want to return to. One of the things I like about Homeland is that everybody in the series believes, on some level, that they’re doing the right thing. Even Abu Nazir believes he’s striking back at a giant that can only be brought down through destabilization, rather than through direct strikes. His point-of-view makes sense, no matter how much you might disagree with it. So does Brody’s. So does Carrie’s. So does Saul’s. Everybody in this show is pursuing what they believe to be the proper course of action, but in many cases, they’re pursuing courses that are diametrically opposed. Though “Crossfire” wasn’t the best episode of the show, it reaffirms the show’s commitment to adult storytelling—not just piling twists on top of twists—by letting us in on just what all of these people believe they have to do to become the “good guys.”

Stray observations:

  • I wouldn’t hold this against the show (since I believe it’s a Showtime thing), but that final cut to black and the perfect song choice—Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”—was hampered by the fact that there was only enough time to play the briefest snippet of the song. That was really calling out for a longer, Sopranos-style credits, with more of the song playing.
  • Dan the hunter is my new favorite incidental character in the show. Good thing he picked up that USA Today before he headed out into the woods! Bad luck he came across Tom Walker.
  • I have to assume that the woman who’s the V.P. liaison is in on the terrorist plot somehow. If she’s not, Abu Nazir’s plan to bring Brody back to the U.S. and just hope somebody pegs him for office is kind of nuts. That said, if Abu Nazir’s plan is to destabilize the country via packing Congress with people who will slowly chip away at public goodwill, he’s obviously already done a pretty good job of that.
  • One of the things this show does well is the fact that it tells its stories in ultra-close-up. But that also leaves us wanting perspective, and I’m just dying for that moment when we pull back and realize that the story we think we’re involved in is something else altogether, or where we see how all of the pieces fit together.
  • The start of this episode was nicely done, with the humdrum aspects of everyday life contrasting with last week’s big revelations. And then the men take Brody. (Also, finally someone recognizes him!) 
  • I love that Saul's attempts to come to terms with Mira leaving take place almost entirely in the background. The moment when he says, "So I've been told" is beautiful.
  • Todd's Crazy Theory Corner: I got nothin'. What have you got?

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