When Homeland didn’t kill Nicholas Brody at the end of the first season, a certain segment of the show’s fanbase cried foul. The show, it said, hadn’t displayed that it had any guts at the most pivotal moment. It had chickened out at the time when it most needed to demonstrate that it was committed to the prospect of being a serious, important drama. The show had utterly forfeited whatever goodwill it had built up with this segment of the audience, and those fans were all over comment sections about the finale, registering their displeasure. Now, to some degree, that displeasure seemed to dissipate in between seasons, as these things often do. If Brody was going to survive, well, then why not give Homeland the benefit of the doubt as to what it was going to do with him? (Or maybe all of the people who were upset just stopped watching the show.)
I think it’s safe to say at this point, however, that those people were wrong. And not even wrong for the reasons I argued they were wrong back when the finale aired, to be honest. They were wrong because the show has needed to sideline Claire Danes somewhat this season—for reasons largely out of its control, most likely—and it’s needed an actor of her caliber to stand at the center of the show and ground it. And, hey, surprise, surprise, it happened to have Damian Lewis on retainer, and it could really put him through the wringer. Without Lewis’ work this season, without the Brody character arc, there’s every chance that this story plays out as a ridiculous thriller, with lots and lots of bizarre twists and sudden, unmotivated decisions. But with Brody there at the center, this has become a riveting examination of one man’s dissolution, of the realization by a bunch of characters about just how little control they have over their own lives. Sgt. Nicholas Brody is falling apart. Maybe everybody on this show is.
It’s amazing how skillfully and believably the writers of Homeland have taken Brody from an otherwise-respected Congressman with a potential line on the vice presidency (no matter how unbelievable that might be) and severely undermined everything about him. He was cut off from his terrorist support group several weeks ago when the CIA got him to flip. Last week, he soured on the CIA as well, as they also saw him as a pawn in a more elaborate chess game. And his relationship with his wife has been slowly fraying all season, even as his relationship with his daughter—the one thing tethering him to what was left of his old life last season—appears to have been sundered. I complained a bit back in episode three that the final fight between Brody and Jessica seemed to come out of nowhere, but I have no such qualms about the one that hits early in the episode here. These are two people who’ve done real, irreparable damage to their marriage, and the only reason they haven’t done anything about it is that inertia is keeping them in place.
Homeland is a show that’s fond of the big moment. It has plenty of subtle affectations—like Dana mulling things over while she waits for Mike to answer the door or any scene where a character just sits there and thinks things through—but if it has a chance to go for something huge, it’ll almost always seize that moment. It’s hard to call the performance of Danes subtle, for instance, but it doesn’t need to be. She’s capable of playing the quieter Carrie notes when she needs to, but she’s also very good at the kind of outsized work that’s necessary for the character and show. In this second season, Lewis is showing himself to be every bit as good at playing the big moment as well as the small one. (If I had a mild complaint about the first season, it would be that I found some of his bigger, more emotional scenes a touch unconvincing at times, not nearly as good as the ones where he simply existed as this man trapped in a world he no longer understood.) When Brody explodes at Jessica, “I can’t. I can’t. I can’t!” it’s a big, over-the-top moment, but Lewis sails along with it, keeping it in check and returning it to Earth. And when the episode needs him to huddle in a hallway, utterly broken and unable to move forward, he’s right there to do that, too.
The major thematic concern of Homeland has always been motivation. Why does someone do what they do, and what does it mean to adhere to something larger than yourself? The first season certainly grappled with the sorts of political questions that got the show all of its buzz, but at their center, these questions, too, are about trust and motivation, about how you can never really know what somebody else is thinking. The second season has twisted those questions into something else, something more personal: How can you really know that any action you take is your own? And by shifting the focus from Carrie to Brody in this section of the season, the show is tackling that issue with aplomb.
Pull back a little bit. We all, ostensibly, have free will. We all make our own choices about our lives and decide what we’re going to do each and every day. But the more you think about it, you actually have very little say over your own life. You have to answer to other people. You have to answer to your school or workplace. And even if you somehow cut yourself off from all of that—if you’re a hermit, say—then you have to answer to nature and the very DNA that makes up your genetic code and the psychological impulses that snake through your brain. Freedom, as a concept, is nebulous, because none of us is really free. We’re constantly beholden, even if it’s to ancestors we’ll never meet. Philosophy and religion have grappled with this question, but it can be difficult to dig into in serialized storytelling, because serialized storytelling operates on the illusion that the protagonist has some sort of control over the situation. (Think of how Carrie is trying to play five or six different sides off of each other and maintain her tenuous hold on the operation unfolding this season.) To watch episode after episode about someone trapped not just by circumstance but by their own faulty wiring would eventually get exhausting.
What’s kind of remarkable about the Brody storyline on this season of Homeland is that it’s exactly what I described above, but it’s weirdly riveting. This is one of the most psychologically claustrophobic storylines I can think of in television history. It’s about a man who’s constantly boxed in, by circumstances, by the people around him, by the camera itself. (Notice how often Lewis is framed in tiny little close-ups, or in boxes within the frame. Notice how often his controllers—even Carrie!—seem to loom over him, as in that hallway shot in this episode. Notice how the show is also doing this with Morgan Saylor, subtly playing up the thematic parallels between father and daughter.) It’s tough to watch without getting squeamish, and even when the story gives you a burst of release—a sex scene, say, or a big action moment—it’s one that just digs the guy in deeper.
Brody is a man everybody wants to control, but he’s also a man who has no plausible exit strategy. There’s no way for him to step up and “get the win,” because getting the win—for either side—would just dig him in deeper. His best case scenario involves disappearing from the life he’s known and starting over. Is it any wonder he seems so defeated? There were some complaints last week that we don’t entirely know where Brody stands in regards to Islam now, but that’s intentional I think. Brody himself doesn’t know where he stands on anything anymore.
But the show isn’t just trapping Brody. It’s trapping all of the characters. Start with Carrie, whose whole career and psychological well-being hinges on the idea that she can keep this whole operation rattling along through sheer force of will. She reels Brody back in in that hotel room, using her sexuality as her ultimate weapon, as she often does. Yet there’s no guarantee here that she’s in control of the situation. She very well might be spiraling, very well might be losing the control she purports to have. Even Saul, who stands by her side when Quinn wants to haul her in, seems to be on the verge of doubting she has any fucking clue. (The sounds of Brody and Carrie’s desperate, animalistic sex playing underneath the scene where Saul talks Quinn down from bringing the two lovers in literally underscore the two’s concerns about Carrie’s well-being and place her in one of those boxes we’ve been talking about.) Carrie’s trapped both by her own problems and by her cocksure certainty that her problems don’t matter, that she’s got this, even though she in no sense of the word does.
Meanwhile, there’s Dana. I hear all of you who are hating this storyline, who think it’s dragging the rest of the show down. I understand where you’re coming from, but I also have to disagree. In this episode and the last one, the Dana story has become, for me, something of the heart of the season. I mean, yes, it’s preposterous, but in Dana’s attempts to do the right thing, only to find herself stymied at every turn, the character has unexpectedly become the moral center of the whole season. She’s the only person who isn’t compromised, the only cast member who’s more or less pure of motive and intent. And now the world is going out of its way to sour her on the idea that people can be good, that the right thing is something worth pursuing. You may think that the whole start of this story was stupid, but I hope you don’t fault it for that while ignoring the queasy way it’s playing out, how the series insists on following out every step of this and revealing that, yeah, there are people who get to play by their own rules. The scene where Dana learns that the family of the woman her boyfriend killed has been paid off by the Waldens is a gut-punch, like a moment where the girl learns how the world works and her illusions are shattered. The whole storyline was worth it for that one scene.
Dana, too, is trapped by a system that rewards the powerful at the expense of those lower than them. Finn Walden is always going to skate by, because he’s the sort of person that always gets to skate by. Dana could be that kind of person, thanks to the remarkable circumstances of her ascendency, but she doesn’t want to be. Yet you can even see in her mother’s eyes the relief at the thought that nothing’s going to happen. Jessica wants to support her daughter in her quest to do the right thing, but she also wants to have her daughter—whom she “thinks the world of,” according to Mike, our all-purpose exposition machine—around for the foreseeable future. When Dana cries into her arms, it’s a loss of innocence, in some ways, a realization that, no, her life isn’t entirely her own, and that sometimes you can have the best of intentions and wind up far, far away from where you meant to end up.
All of these characters are caught up in systems far beyond themselves, systems that see fit to simply grind up their hopes and ambitions and make them into more grist for the mill. Maybe there are people who control their own destinies, the Waldens and Abu Nazirs of the world, but they mostly use that control to make others’ lives miserable. On Homeland, you grab your solace where you can and hope for the best. And even when that’s the case, you might find yourself back on the job, trying to talk your way back into the terrorist plot you’re supposed to undermine, then whisked off via helicopter to stare into the eyes of the man you hoped you’d never see again. Your life is not your own. It’s someone else’s.
- I may have just come around on the Dana plotline because isolating her so much tonight made me realize that if this season was told from her point-of-view, it would become the film Margaret, which is an awesome movie, and you should watch it sometime.
- Man, is this the least a series regular has ever appeared in a season of one of their shows? Navid Negahban appeared back in “Beirut Is Back,” and hasn’t appeared since, so far as I can tell. Then again, it looks like he’ll be critical to the final four episodes, so he still has one up on poor Jessalyn Gilsig from season two of Glee. Also: It is weirdly fitting that only Abu Nazir addresses Brody by his first name.
- I love the looks all of the CIA analysts give Carrie when she walks back in after her night with Brody. I also love how little she seems to care.
- Quinn is recovering from that gunshot wound remarkably quickly. It’s also nice to know he remains handy with a quip when he needs to put someone down. (His description of Carrie hooking up with Brody as “stage five delusional” was great.)
- One of the nice things about this season’s off-kilter pacing: When Roya took Brody off the grid, I really did think that she might be taking him to be killed.
- Okay, so if this season told from the point-of-view of Dana is Margaret, what happens if you tell it from the point-of-view of Chris? It’s probably the oddest coming-of-age story ever.
- I’m still sort of surprised Jessica found out Carrie was working with Brody, but we didn’t see any fallout from that just yet. Then again, Brody would have to get home for the fallout to happen, so… it’s coming, most likely.