Homeland: “New Car Smell”
A-

Homeland: “New Car Smell”

A-

Homeland

“New Car Smell”

Season 2, Episode 4

I didn’t realize how much I had missed watching Brody and Carrie bounce off of each other until they were actually doing so in the stellar last 15 minutes of “New Car Smell,” an episode that sends the season rocketing in yet another new direction. The plausibility concerns of the last couple of episodes are largely gone (unless there’s something I’m just not thinking about), and the series is once again reduced to its rawest, most interesting relationship: Carrie Mathison and the man she loved and/or became obsessed with. The thing about this is that any time I try to explain it to people, it sounds like it shouldn’t work. A CIA agent falls in love with the suspected terrorist she’s been watching on surveillance cameras? It sounds like something out of a bad romance novel. But something about the chemistry between Claire Danes and Damian Lewis heightens every scene they’re in, and you just buy it. Every time.

What’s also thrilling is how the livewire work by Danes and Lewis continually forces the writers to pay attention to how their characters might really behave when thrust into these situations together. By the end of this episode, viewers will be forgiven for thinking that, hey, Brody and Carrie are going to carry out a mutual seduction that is also quite possibly somewhat real, at the behest of their mutual handlers, that they’re each going to try to exploit the other for mutual advantage. Instead, Carrie, convinced that Brody has made her by seeing her flinch when she talks about her electroshock therapy, simply calls in the cavalry and has Brody hauled off, hood over his head. It’s a dark, devastating moment, oddly triumphant for Carrie but also a moment where she seems to almost be flying off the rails, making all of this up as she goes along. What she does sabotages an elaborate operation Saul and Estes have put in place, and the blowback could be considerable. Yet there’s a triumph to the moment, too. Carrie’s finally gotten what she wanted, and she’s not giving it up.

This, of course, plays into the way the show has been speeding up its storyline past the point where you’d expect it to go for something like 20 episodes now. No matter what you think of how these plots play out—and I thought some of last week was very odd—I think you have to admire the way that the writers are committed to not having things play out at the expected times. You kind of know how this story is going to go, but the beats come when you’re least expecting them to. For instance, it seemed likely that Carrie would get the best of Brody this season, but in episode four? That’s the kind of risk-taking storytelling too many other shows shy away from. That’s a season finale move, as surely as having Saul find the Brody tape was a next-to-last episode move. If the show wants to signal that it’s playing for keeps, it’s doing a very good job of it.

What’s kind of awesome is that the show is simultaneously setting up, in seemingly every episode, new premises that seem like they might make for a really great season of television. I could have watched a few more episodes of Saul and Carrie working their way through Beirut, and I would have been more than fine with watching Saul, Estes, Carrie, Virgil, and Quinn slowly build a case against Brody by trying to find his handlers. (I really liked, for instance, that Roya wasn’t on the list the team made of Brody’s top three possible handlers. Instead, they were more focused on the guy at the car place.) That would have gotten the show back to its roots in an interesting way, the way that every season of The Wire eventually featured a wiretap in one way or another as one of the few connective tissues between seasons. In season one, so much of this show was about abuse of the surveillance state, and getting back to that in season two would have made sense.

Instead, the series sends us off into uncharted waters again. It’s understandable why series are so reluctant to do this. Once you abandon the well-worn territory, there’s a whole lot of rough terrain surrounding the road, and any bit of it could lead to everything falling apart. But I sort of think Homeland threw caution to the wind when it had that time-jump between episodes three and four last season, and it’s been trying to stay ahead of its audience ever since. In one of my reviews last season, I likened this to jazz: You know all the notes the story is going to hit, but you’re not precisely sure which order those notes will come in. It’s so pleasurable to have one of those notes arrive in such an unexpected place that it’s hard to talk about anything else.

But there were roughly 35 minutes worth of episode before the shattering final act, and they were, also, mostly good. If I have a complaint here, it’s probably the series’ strained attempts to keep Mike involved in the storyline. Yes, he was an important part of season one, but now that he and Jessica’s affair has been exposed, his role in the show has ramped down considerably. Having him always be around for Jessica is too heavy-handed, and also having him and Lauder start to piece together the truth about Brody was really ridiculous. On the one hand, this feels incredibly strained. On the other hand, the show is already so far ahead of those two lummoxes that I find it hard to care. There’s very little to this storyline tonight (I think it’s just two scenes), and by the end of the episode whether Mike figures out that Brody was working with Tom Walker is essentially beside the point. Brody’s in jail, Mike! There’s nothing more for you to do!

I’m much more partial to the slow-building flirtation between Dana and Finn Walden, the kid with two last names (or two first names, if you want to look at it that way). The series seems to realize that it hasn’t really build Xander into a believable romantic partner for Dana, and he pretty much just pops up tonight to offer to get stoned, only to be rebuffed. To be sure, Finn is kind of a tool—entering the under construction Washington Monument just because you’re the Vice President’s son is a dick move—but I like the way this storyline is teasing itself out, and I’ll be interested to see what happens to this relationship once it’s revealed that Brody has fallen off the face of the Earth. Does Dana tell Finn what she knows? There’s a tension to this that feels very different from a lot of other obligatory teen romances on shows like this. It doesn’t hurt that the scene where the two of them are looking out over Washington is gorgeously shot. I love the way director David Semel uses their reflections in this scene, isolating them into a pair of faces coming closer together.

There are lots of little grace notes like that throughout this episode. Take, for instance, how the whole thing begins with Saul bringing Estes the tape and making him watch it. It’s one of those things most viewers would have expected to happen in this episode, but the show gives it the right weight and gravitas. David Harewood plays the moment when he realizes how thoroughly he’s been fooled perfectly, and I love the way he takes a back seat to what Saul wants to do. Estes was sometimes the weak link of season one, but he’s been very good in his more limited role this season, and every time he starts to talk about whatever it is that Abu Nazir is up to, it feels like the show is dangling in front of us where it’s going to head in the second half of this season, before just as quickly snatching it away. Harewood does some fine work in this episode, and I’m hoping that means we get even more of him as the season proceeds.

While we’re at it, I also like Rupert Friend as Quinn. Quinn seems to so transparently be the new love interest for Carrie, the one that she’ll take up with after Brody is written off the show, that I can only assume he’ll be dead by episode seven, because this is that kind of show. Quinn is a tough character to write and play well, in that he’s meant to be a dick but kind of a charming dick, one who can disarm those who would call him out on his asshole behavior. That’s a cliché type, one that drama has been turning to for millennia, and it’s often hard to find new spins on it. I don’t know that Quinn is a new spin on it, but I like throwing that type into Carrie’s path and seeing what she does to get around it. He clearly rattles her just a little bit, but she gives it back just as readily. Anything that throws Carrie off her game just a slight bit is good for the show, so I’m confident Quinn will be a plus for the series headed forward.

But in the end, it all comes down to those final 15 minutes. The first meeting between Carrie and Brody at Langley (shot with the two of them separated by a wall filled with holes, almost a symbol of the permeability of the walls they tried to put up between each other) is all well and good, but it’s when he calls her to his hotel and has a drink with her that the show reminds you just how good it can be and just how good it often was last season. The dance around the question of just what she’s going to do when she thinks she’s been made is just as good, and I love how often the camera just isolates these two thinking, considering their next move.

And then it all ends with a moment that could feel crazy and over-the-top and too melodramatic but somehow doesn’t, as Brody tells Carrie he really liked her, and Carrie howls “I loved you!” It’s something out of Days Of Our Lives, really, but Danes and Lewis find all the horror and emotion, even as the circumstances are insane. This show has always been about two people who forged a strange, unbreakable connection, and no matter how far they push that connection, it never seems to snap. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Stray observations:

  • As if all the rest of the good in the episode wasn’t enough, Virgil is back, and he’s with the team that hauls Brody off at the end. Just having him tailing Brody all season would have been enough for me. He’s good at what he does!
  • I will forgive everything in the Mike and Lauder storyline if Lauder starts calling in to late-night radio talk shows to discuss the truth about the attempted assassination of the Vice President. In some ways, this whole storyline feels like Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa letting their X-Files conspiracy theory flag fly, and I can grudgingly enjoy it on that level.
  • Jessica is dancing so close to being Rita from Dexter that it’s not fun to watch. I’m just hanging onto last week’s excellent speech in hopes that that will be the norm going forward. When she yelled at Brody that she needed him an hour ago, I found myself wondering if she knows he’s a U.S. Congressman, and I’m normally the first to defend the put-upon wives in these sorts of shows.
  • That image of Brody with the hood over his head evoked a lot of horror without really calling attention to itself. Great stuff.
  • I’m also fond of Semel isolating Carrie in the middle of that hotel room, slowly pulling back and back as we watch her face crumple. Excellent camerawork and acting there.
  • I liked the theories you guys had last week about how the real target was Brody, and how Abu Nazir’s men were going to eliminate him and the tailor at once. That said, this episode doesn’t really bear that out.
  • Some nice, understated political commentary on both ends here, as Saul admits they should start with the Arab-Americans, but the racial profiling leads to the team picking all of the wrong people, even if it could have led them to Roya. It’s never as easy as it could be.