Well. That was a day-brightener, eh?
I love when a show like this earns its cynicism. I’m an optimist by nature, but I love when a show sits down and says, ideally via Mandy Patinkin, “Kid, the world is all kinds of fucked up, and you don’t even know.” Here’s an episode of television where the protagonist saves the world and will never know she did, where her mentor figures out the big secret everybody’s been trying to keep from him but he’s ultimately powerless to do anything about it, and where the one terrorist who actually carried off his part of the plan gets shot in the head by the other one at the behest of his leader. It’s an episode that ends with the protagonist realizing she was right all along—only to have that get buried beneath memory-erasing electroshock treatments. It’s an episode where the show figured out a way to end its season one storyline satisfyingly while still setting up a season two with lots of loose ends. It’s an episode where a lot of people have just enough information to put Brody away, but they won’t realistically be talking to each other any time soon.
But let’s get to the elephant in the room. In a fall season when a lot of serialized dramas have had stories where it really seemed like one of the characters would have to die in the finale, even if that death would fundamentally alter the status quo of the show, I’ve seen people writing this episode off because Brody doesn’t die, because, indeed, he figures out a way to play his utter failure to blow himself up to his advantage. And I get that impulse, particularly after this fall, where only a couple of shows had the guts to pull that trigger, and one of them was a show where the dead could stay in the cast. Yet I thought the use of showing why Brody doesn’t ultimately do it was pretty masterful, all the same.
For starters, the show didn’t simply have the vest malfunction. It had the vest malfunction in such a way that we got to see that Brody was completely willing to blow himself up to take out the vice president. (I also bought that in the hubbub, when he was thrown around to get in the building, one of the wires would come loose.) Secondly, the show actually has him repair the vest, then head back into the room to do the deed again, when Dana reaches him on the phone. Was this a little convenient? Sure. (The Secret Service is totally going to make time for some teenage girl who needs to talk to her dad.) But it was also a moment that played off of what we knew about Brody and his family and a moment that randomly incorporated the season’s least compelling plotline—the teenage rebellion of Dana Brody—into the main plotline masterfully, paying off two storylines at once.
Finally, this show is just more interesting if it continues to be about Carrie and Saul vs. Brody. If Brody had died, season two would have had to come up with some newer, bigger terrorist threat, just to top what season one did. (For an example of this, look at how the show that leads in to Homeland, Dexter, has been forced to play crazy games of one-upmanship just to keep the show humming after it killed off the primary antagonist in season two.) Homeland has never particularly been a plot-driven show. It’s always been a character-driven one, first and foremost. And even though the show is able to do pretty interesting thriller plots—Abu Nazir’s plot to get a suicide bomber inside that safe room by exploiting the panic of the situation was ingenious—it’s primarily most interested in what makes its main characters tick. That’s what makes it a great show, and Brody not blowing himself up worked because it was a character moment, first and foremost. If this had been a show where we didn’t give a shit about any of these people, then, yeah, I could see the idea that this is some betrayal of what was set up here. But it’s not. I, at least, came to care about Carrie and Brody and Saul very much.
Let’s return to that cynicism, though, shall we? For me, this crystallized in that scene where Saul has figured out about the drone strike that killed the 82 children, and he threatens to go to The New York Times. Estes scoffs. Saul would never do that because it would put his agents in harm’s way. And Saul would never deliberately endanger his agents—or the country—like that. He’s bluffing. Homeland is best when it vividly paints these portrayals of its characters, then suggests the worlds they operate within don’t really give a shit about them. Saul—a fundamentally decent man (maybe the only decent person on the show)—isn’t going to drop what he knows on the Times simply because to do so would place people he aims to protect in danger. And that’s all the cover that cynical, nasty men like Estes and the vice president, men who see career opportunities in massive intelligence failures, need to keep moving up the ladder. (What I liked about the politics of the moment is that Walden is very obviously a younger Dick Cheney, but the whole “do we know enough to say whether or not this is the right move” moment most resonates with the recent raid to take out Osama bin Laden, which in an alternate universe—like this one—could have gone disastrously. In the world of Homeland, it doesn’t matter who’s in power because power becomes a perpetual motion machine.)
All of which brings us back to Carrie, poor, damaged Carrie who goes in for electroshock because she thinks it’s the right thing and realizes too late that she may be doing the wrong thing after all. The scene where she and Dana saved the world—and Carrie got arrested for her troubles—might have been my favorite in an episode filled with terrific ones, and if Claire Danes didn’t clinch her Emmy win next summer in last week’s episode, well, this is the perfect back-up argument for her to win, even though she’s not in the episode a whole lot, compared to, say, Brody. (That said, this is a great tape for Damian Lewis, maybe even one that could beat the venerable Bryan Cranston.) Carrie accomplished everything she’d always wanted to accomplish, but she also lost everything, from her job to the man she loved. And even if the quick flashes to the relationship between her and Brody were kind of cheesy, they culminated in that great Issa reveal.
Look, I could pick nits about this season or this finale. I could find stuff that didn’t work and worry about where season two will go with all of this out there for us to deal with. (I can already tell I’ll probably be irritated by how the writers make use of the “Carrie’s forgotten she knows about Issa” card.) But right now, I just want to luxuriate in a season of TV that not only explored a bunch of great characters but also told a thriller plot that worked about as well as you could expect one to work stretched over 12 hours. It was a season that featured exactly one episode I found even a little bit questionable, and one that produced a bunch of moments and scenes I know I’ll think back on time and time again. The first season of Homeland wasn’t perfect, but somehow, its raggedy edges made it even better to me. I’m going to miss it.
Finale grade: A
Season grade: A
- Favorite moment, hands down: Walker pats the woman whose apartment he just used to carry out his assassination attempt on the head as he leaves.
- I can’t say I’m going to miss Elizabeth, who always struck me as kind of a nothing character, though I entertained for a while the idea that she was in league with Abu Nazir. (Without her, I really have no idea how Abu Nazir figured out that Brody would be running for Congress.)
- Loose thread: Just who was the mole? I know a bunch of you might still say Saul, but I just don’t see why he’d work so hard to accomplish what he did in this episode without being one of the good guys.
- Then again, this show at least feints at having you wonder who the “good guys” are. But I think it’s essentially arguing that the powerful are almost always corrupt, no matter which system produces them. For as much as the show suggests Walden and Estes are bad guys, Abu Nazir isn’t ever presented as a saint either, and at the earliest opportunity, he gets rid of the guy who actually carried out his half of the mission, in order to pursue a new mission. (Also, is season two of this thing going to be more like The West Wing or what?)
- I’ve seen some grousing that it’s strange that Abu Nazir immediately agrees to Brody’s plan like that, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t do so. How often does a terrorist get a chance to have a man with the ear of the president?
- Acting moment of the episode: Brody’s daughter talks him out of blowing everybody up, even without knowing she’s doing it. Damian Lewis beautifully played the man coming apart at the seams, then making a decision. (I also liked how the show portrayed the aftermath, with him seeming really pissed at himself for not having the guts.)
- I hadn’t realized how skillfully the show had kept much of the main cast from each other until this episode suddenly saw Carrie facing off with Jessica.
- Virgil’s got some illegal shit in his van, and he’d rather you not root around in the back.
- Todd’s crazy theory corner: I don’t even want to think about what season two will look like. There are so many ways it could go wrong, but the show’s done such a good job of steering right so far that I’m going to assume it will nail the storyline, as per usual.