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Homeland: “Grace”

An interesting sequence opens the second episode of Homeland. Brody is dreaming about his time in captivity, when he dug a hole, seemingly to contain his corpse. As he does so, he sings the “Marines’ Hymn,” seemingly incurring the wrath of his captors, who seem nearly ready to put him out of his misery. And then he wakes up.

Actually, he doesn’t wake up. Carrie wakes up. And for a split second, we’re wondering what the hell is going on. Is Carrie dreaming about what she thinks Brody suffered while in captivity? Has she somehow established a psychic link with him? (Though unlikely, it’s not like former X-Files­ guys Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa would have never encountered such a story point.) Or is the show just taking us to another location, no rhyme or reason to the editing? Turns out the truth is slightly more complicated than any of those things, as we learn in the very next image: Brody was having a nightmare, and when he woke up, he also awakened Carrie, who passed out while watching him, via camera, on her monitors. The only link between these two is the same link we share with them: One is being watched and doesn’t know it, and the one doing the watching has invested so much energy in trying to parse out what the former is doing that it’s almost as if she shares that psychic link with him.

There are lots of these little games throughout “Grace,” which also features a moment where Virgil (who just might be my favorite new character of the season, if we’re going on a “pure entertainment” level) starts to get really into the complicated relationships weaving around each other inside the Brody household. Did Jessica sleep with Mike? He thinks so, and he starts getting into evaluating the relationships on the screen like he was watching, well, a serialized TV drama or a reality show. What Virgil or Carrie are doing is functionally no different from what you and I are doing. Sure, the need for them to get their analysis right is far more pressing than our need. And we have an extra layer here—in that we’re watching the watchers watch the watched—but there’s a sophisticated critique of voyeurism at the heart of Homeland, one that implicates the audience almost as much as it does the characters.

And it’s not like the characters get off easily either. There was some discussion in comments last week about whether the show is all for the surveillance state or whether it’s subtly condemning it. And while I’d say it’s too early to tell (even having next week’s episode), I’m leaning toward the show condemning that state, but doing so in a way that lets the audience put the pieces together. The key to my reading is the scene where Saul goes to get a FISA warrant from a federal judge—played by the always great Michael McKean—and seems to lean more on personal connections and potential blackmail material than any actionable intelligence to get that warrant. When Carrie is presented with the document, she says she’s “legal” now, but, again, nothing much has changed, except that Saul got a judge to give him a piece of paper that will let Carrie cover her ass, a piece of paper granted without any real understanding of the case or what’s going on.

Now, it certainly seems like Brody has been flipped (though I am going on the record now that I wouldn’t be surprised if this is an elaborate, season-long long con that will result in somebody else being the bad guy, and Carrie’s theories about Brody being wrong, thus lending her no way to stop the real threat). He took that long look at the Capitol building last week, and he concludes this week by flashing back to when he staggered out of the cell he was being held in to see the sunlight but then looked over to see Abu Nasir looking upon him with something like kindness as he took part in morning prayer. In a haunting image, Brody cracks open the garage door just enough to let in sunlight that frames him against its brightness, then drops to his knees on the rug he just purchased at the mall and launches into a prayer in Arabic. Brody—who subtly refused to take part in the Christian prayer said before the meal earlier—is obviously now Muslim, and if Carrie could see this prayer (Virgil didn’t get eyes up in the garage), she’d surely have the proof she thinks she needs.

So from that point of view, I suppose, you could argue that the show is saying surveillance is A-OK, since it’s pretty much the only way to get at who Brody really is in his private moments (though, as Saul points out, a lot of the things Carrie sees are what you’d expect someone recently returned from captivity to be doing). But I think one of the show’s larger points is that surveillance doesn’t paint the whole picture or even half of it. We know more than Carrie (as is our surveillance privilege as the audience), and we’re just as in the dark as she is about what’s going on. All we know is that Brody is now a Muslim. The show tries to play on our inherent prejudices about Islamic terrorists—particularly in filmed entertainment—but it stops just short, every time, of saying that Brody really has been flipped. It’s giving us answers, but it’s not giving us the whole picture. We, like Virgil, are left to speculate.

And that has nothing to do with the horrors inherent in all of this, in the way the show trusts us to draw the conclusion from the scene with Saul and the judge that this is, at the very least, in one giant ethical grey area that should be entered a lot more solemnly than Saul and the judge seem to. Or take, for instance, Carrie’s asset, Lynne, whom we meet for the first time this week evaluating new potential girls for a Saudi prince’s harem. She’s a bright, intelligent girl who’s been talked into this line of work by Carrie, even though she knows the risks involved. Yet Carrie’s superiors at the CIA refuse to give her any kind of back-up in protecting Lynne, even though she’s the first person to have given the CIA actionable intelligence on Abu Nasir in years and years (when she films him meeting with her prince boyfriend while hidden, apparently, in a closet). My continuing criticism of these first few episodes is that Carrie’s boss is just sort of an all-purpose asshole, rather than an actual character, and I’m hoping that he’s given more character shades before Lynne ends up getting killed.

But the Lynne storyline points to another thought: For all of the crowing about the massive surveillance state set up in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and how it’s prevented additional attacks, when an attack is foiled on American soil, the story is almost always more mundane than someone catching something on a phone wiretap. For instance, the potential car bombing of Times Square that was foiled was stopped because street vendors noticed something suspicious and reported it up the line. (You can find numerous other versions of this sort of thing happening; this is just the most obvious.) Homeland succeeds best when it balances our all-purpose panic about terrorist attacks with a more creeping sense of unease at what’s being done to stop them. Put another way: Both Lynne and Carrie get information by watching someone carefully, but only Lynne’s information—gotten completely legally, mind—is of any real use just yet. Brody may have flipped, but the only real terrorist in the episode is filmed by a scared girl from Sandusky, Ohio, on a cell phone. In between the two is that vast gulf of moral relativity, and Homeland is venturing to see just where the line is.

Stray observations:

  • We also get a brief interlude with Carrie’s family here, in which we learn that she has two nieces, a sister, an unseen brother-in-law, and an unseen father, who shares her “illness.” The coyness with which the show plays around with Carrie’s illness is irritating, but I like the idea that her sister has started giving her meds at a less steady clip, so she’ll have to drop in and explain what’s going on. Giving Carrie tethers to the real world is a good idea, particularly as she seems to spend so little time there.
  • Saul, meanwhile, meets with the judge at a club that doesn’t allow Jewish members, a not-so-subtle reminder of the sorts of religious discrimination that exist to this day in high places, and the sorts of religious discrimination (in re: Islam) the show both calls on us to use—to further our suspicions and the storyline—and to question.
  • How does a nice girl from BYU end up auditioning for a job as a harem girl? And does she like anal sex? I sort of suspect Showtime is ready to set up an insta-spinoff for this character to immediately follow in the 11 p.m. hour.
  • Carrie and Saul seem a little too certain that Brody’s big move to start answering questions (after punching a reporter in the throat in a chilling scene) is a sign that he’s been flipped. Indeed, their certainty is a big reason I’m no longer sure he’s a bad guy. (And, indeed: He isn’t a bad guy yet. Even if he has harmful intent, he hasn’t carried that intent out, nor has he actually done anything to start planning. It’s an interesting debate on whether intent equals a criminal action.)
  • Meanwhile at the Brody household, Dana’s being a little too much of a spoiled teenager for my tastes. Then again, I can never quite stomach these kinds of characters. The scenes between Brody and Mike and Brody and Jessica were nice, though.
  • Also not so subtle: “Dad, what’s it like to kill someone?” The follow-up scene to this was quite good, though, and well-acted by Damian Lewis.
  • "On hold. Kenny G. Welcome to America."

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