Homeland: “Game On”
B

Homeland: “Game On”

B

Homeland

“Game On”

Season 3, Episode 4

Because all of the major plots on Homeland are so disconnected from each other, I’m going to steal a page from my old Rescue Me days and write about each of them separately, then offer a grade for each plot at the end, before trying to average them all together at the end of the article. Let’s start with...

Carrie Mathison IN Psych Ward Purgatory: Except for what could turn out to be a fairly major quibble, this did a pretty good job of answering why this show remains Carrie’s, even though very little of the story is running through the character right now. (I suspect the end of this episode will flip that on its ear.) In particular, the final scene of this episode—and this storyline—was the first that made me feel like I didn’t know where the show was going this season. The episode did such a good job of putting viewers in Carrie’s shoes, of making us feel like she did, as if her agency and her country had abandoned her, that when the storyline had the twist to reveal it was all a deliberate long con—on both those interested in recruiting Carrie for what information she could provide on the C.I.A.’s internal workings and the audience—it could have felt infuriating but instead felt quite satisfying.

A big reason for that satisfaction stems from the fact that Carrie and Saul’s relationship returns to the center of the show in a big way. I spent most of last week wondering if she would try to let Saul know she’d been approached by people who were trying to recruit her to be a double agent, and the end of this episode answers that fairly definitively: She did, and Saul used her to get at the man behind the Langley Bombing. He’s going to have Carrie alone in a room with the Magician, and while that will be as unpredictable as always, it’s far better of a deal than he had before. Plus, that final sequence where he tells her how brave she’s been, then gives her a hug as she dissolves into tears, is a great reminder of why it seemed last season as if the show should just be retooled to be about Saul and Carrie and letting Brody stew in his own juices for a few seasons. (And more about him in a bit.)

Before we get to the caveat with this storyline, I wanted to point out how good the show still is at playing around with the idea of spying and being spied upon. Where Carrie spent that first season watching Brody, for the bulk of this episode, writers James Yoshimura and Alex Gansa and director David Nutter place us directly in her point-of-view as someone—the CIA? The Iranians? Both?—expertly pulls the strings behind the scene. Think of that shot as she walks down the driveway from the one-night stand she had with her former hook-up, a connection she used as a lifeline when trying to hide out from the agency and the mysterious banker. She reaches the sidewalk and turns toward the camera, and in the background, a van, hazy and out of focus, silently begins to glide toward her and the camera. It’s a relatively basic trick, but it’s used so well to make the audience feel that paranoia as surely as Carrie does. There are forces at work here beyond her control, and there’s no way she’s getting out unscathed.

That concern extends to everybody who wants her doing something for them. It gets to the point where the psych ward—where she felt so much like a prisoner and where Dar Adal apparently was pulling all the strings—starts to feel like the only place she might be slightly safe. When she meets with the lawyer representing the Magician, he takes great pains to couch his offer not in terms of her taking the job but what will happen if she doesn’t. It’s not a threat, not exactly, but he makes it clear that his firm can protect her, far better than she can protect herself. (After all, the last guy she spirited out of the country is rotting away in an ad hoc prison in Caracas.) It’s also chilling just how easily the CIA can shut down her life. Her car is confiscated, her credit cards are canceled, her bank account is frozen, and travel outside of the country becomes impossible. Unless she’s going to go and buy a truck stop in Nebraska and take up a life as a short-order cook, she’s trapped in a prison built for her by men she thought she could trust.

Of course, it all turns out to be a ploy, a plot hatched by Carrie and Saul to draw out the Magician. And yet for as much as the episode plays this as a warm moment between two colleagues with a paternal relationship, there’s also that underlying feeling that Saul, too, might love Carrie, but he’ll use her up and wring her out. This is not, by any means, a woman who should be conducting high-level spy work, no matter how gifted she is at it, but she’s the one in the position to do it, so he’s going to use the tools he has, no matter the cost. The great thing about that final scene is the way that it sells all at once that this is the big “win” Carrie’s been needing for a while, but it’s also a sign that the CIA cares about her as little as the lawyer said they did. They’re just going to kill her in a very different way.

There's also another caveat, which is: When the fuck did Saul and Carrie even launch this plan? My assumption is that it has something to do with Carrie’s dad contacting Saul at her behest, and then Saul talked to her at some point between then and when the two met up later. And yet there’s this little thing at the back of my head that insists the show is trying to sell that this was the plan all along, which is just insane. If the show is going to tell me that Saul and Carrie hatched this plan sometime between her first meeting with the lawyer and the last scene of this episode, fine. I can get on board with that. But if it’s suggesting that all of this was done with the idea of simultaneously getting heat off of the CIA proper and drawing out someone who might try to flip Carrie, I think that’s a little too much like 11-dimensional chess on Saul’s part, and I call shenanigans.

Let’s grade this storyline a provisional B+, which could go up or down based on when the show tries to sell us on Carrie and Saul hatching this little scheme. It also featured Virgil, who is worth a plus all on his own, particularly thanks to his rather quick-witted code talking. It made up about 50 percent of the episode, so that’s a good thing.

Saul and Fara IN Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Money: The CIA action takes up a fairly short amount of time this week, but it does the grunt work of keeping us locked in on the building, slowly developing spy plotline that seems to be the season’s main plot structure. On the latest episode of my podcast, A.V. Club writer Zack Handlen talked about how he wanted this season to have a big story, a unifying structure that tied together all of the show’s many disparate elements. And while Saul and Fara’s pursuit of the Magician isn’t yet that—in that I have no idea how the Brody family’s going to get involved unless Leo starts talking about the soccer team he just happens to own down in Venezuela—it’s doing a great job of incorporating most of the other storylines on the show, right down to the fact that the season’s villain has been located hiding out in Caracas, which just so happens to be where we left Brody last week. (I can’t decide if it would be awesome or stupid to have, say, Quinn pursue the CIA’s man into the Tower of David and accidentally come upon Brody in his little hole. It would depend on execution, probably.)

See, it turns out that the Magician went to ground in Venezuela but couldn’t resist his passion for soccer. He’s been using the club he’s majority owner of to launder the $45 million he stole from the Iranian government by skimming it off their bank transfers. Fara wants to just put that information out there. Saul wants to sit on it and wait to see what happens next. What happens next is that the Iranians try to flip Carrie, and it looks like he’ll get his man. But the CIA stuff this week gives the show the jolt of energy I was talking about last week. It’s in so little of the episode, but it makes everything else feel as if it’s headed somewhere, as if these various stories are pointed at something and not just meandering around. That and the fact that Fara is turning into a pretty great character (and Saul’s new BFF, apparently) are enough to give this an A- from me, even if it only took up about 20 percent of the episode.

That sounds like a pretty great episode, huh? Like Homeland slowly getting its groove back, right? Oh, dear reader, you just watched that episode, and you know that’s not true, because we also have…

Dana and Leo IN DANA AND LEO ARE IN LOVE SHUT UP: Ohhhh, Dana. I’m so sorry.

You guys know I’m willing to cut the Dana Brody storylines more slack than just about anybody, going back to the scene where she somehow got a hold of her dad while he was in that bunker in the season one finale. I think Morgan Saylor is a really great young actress, and I like how she’s not afraid to play the impetuous side of the character and all but dare us to not like her. The “Dana and the Vice President’s son run over a woman” plotline last season didn’t really work, but I liked what the show tried to do with it by comparing and contrasting her with her dad. And I’ve enjoyed watching the aftermath of her suicide attempt this season, particularly in scenes that just focus on her and her mom. Hell, I even liked her visit to the military base in this episode to reminisce about the last true thing her father ever said to her. In general, I’m liking the Brody family storyline the more that it intersects with their own individual memories of the man who marked them and destroyed their ability to offload the family car on a chop shop without being recognized by a skeezy mechanic. (Another good scene in this regard: Jessica talking to Mike—ugh, Mike!—about how she could kill Brody.)

But I’m sorry, the key qualifier above is that I like Dana’s storylines when they focus on Dana and her family. I could handle the Leo thing in episode two because it was a natural extension of how trapped she felt in her childhood bedroom. But now we’re onto a place where the show seems to be insisting I get really invested in this coupling for the sheer sake of them staring all moony-eyed at each other, and I just can’t get there. I guess there’s an offhand chance that this is some sort of meta-storyline about how the show sort of lost itself in the Brody-Carrie pairing last season, where we’re invited to realize how preposterous that whole thing was. But that’s me cutting this a lot of credit. I just don’t see a way out of this being anything other than “Dana is in love, but then her boyfriend disappoints her by leaking her nude photos to the press, the end,” and every step further along that path just makes me feel more and more forced to pay attention to something I don’t care about when Carrie and Saul are launching secret plots.

It might have been one thing if Dana and Leo were just stealing away for more forbidden romantic encounters, but, Jesus, they’re driving around in Jess’ car and listening to terrible music that probably didn’t cost the show much in licensing fees and reciting poetry to each other, and I was 17 once, yeah, and I can remember feeling like this, but I sure hope if my father had been the center of a prominent serialized cable drama, the writers of that show would have realized my romantic relationships were better left off to the extreme sidelines. It’s not that I don’t buy what Dana and Leo are getting up to. Teenagers are this stupid all of the time. It’s that teenagers being stupid is not the show I signed up to watch. The show is doing some interesting things in using Dana as a mirror to hold up to Carrie, just as it did with her and Brody last season. Why can’t we get back to that? Why do we need this insufferable Leo thing tossed on top of everything else? I like watching the family deal with putting the pieces back together. I don’t need Leo’s parents sitting there and silently judging Jess or Dana getting rid of the family car in trade for a far shittier one so she and Leo can just be free, man.

And things were going so well! I’m afraid I’m going to have to drop this one down to a C, and it seemed to take up 30 percent of the episode (though I’d wager in pure running time it was less). The show ground to a halt every time we had to pay attention to this, and I’m tempted to toss a minus on there for the presence of Mike, who is opposite Virgil.

So let’s average that out to a B. The good stuff was really good, but the bad stuff… geez. Then again, all bets are off if Leo starts talking about his Venezuelan soccer team and rips off his teenage boy mask. Then I’m all in.

Stray observations:

  • I liked when the lawyer was threatening Carrie about how the story wouldn’t be about CIA incompetence, it would be about a bipolar analyst sleeping with a  suspected terrorist, because it was such a succinct criticism of season two’s weird, weird focus issues.
  • Todd’s crazy (incorrect) theory corner: When we kept seeing that woman with the long blonde hair being sedated, I had this thought that the Iranian would pay the mental hospital staff to look the other way while she was placed in Carrie’s room to stay there in her stead while they took Carrie off to whatever they needed her for. Obviously, that turned out to be incorrect, but I thought it was a cool idea.
  • A nice directorial moment from Nutter: The focus on Carrie handing over her last bill to her cab driver. He takes note of it so you’ll remember it when she realizes she doesn’t have any money to her name.
  • I get that because he’s played by F. Murray Abraham, there’s going to be more to Dar Adal than there appears to be so far, but the more that we get little hints about him, the more the payoff better be spectacular. He’s got a finger in every pie, and I’m not sure I understand why just yet.
  • In case you cared, Leo had a brother who killed himself, and in case we didn’t get that from the scene at the cemetery, well, Mike is going to come back and explain it all to us. It’s okay, Mike. We know you’re on The Blacklist now. You don’t need to bring your unnecessary over-exposition back with you!
  • The adventures of Chris Brody: Chris sat at the curb after karate practice, waiting for someone to pick him up. “Anybody?” he wailed into the darkening Virginia evening. A car pulled up. Out stepped The Magician. “Hello, Chris,” he said. “I hear you’re in need of some… items. I am a man who can procure such items.” “What must I give you in return?” asked Chris, oddly formal. “Oh, nothing much. Just… your mother’s ear.”
  • Number of CIA employees this week: three. 

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