Let’s just accept as fact for the moment that Claire Danes is giving the best performance on TV. She’s at that sweet spot where both she and the writers are discovering new things for her character to do, but there’s a wonderful foundation beneath everything she does, built by the first season. A TV performance is at once about seeing new things out of the actor, things you wouldn’t have expected, but also knowing roughly where the character is coming from, so you’re both surprised and secure, able to try to fit what they do into the picture of what you already know of the character. Danes is at that place with Carrie Mathison, and as both she and the show’s writers are at the height of their powers, it’s been thrilling to watch. She’s having one of the all-time great TV seasons, to the point where I suspect the last seven episodes of the season could just feature her doing her own rendition of “The Old Grey Mare,” and this would remain the case.
Yet I don’t know that she gives the best performance in the riveting, tense “Q&A,” one of the best hours Homeland has ever done. The scene—you already know what I’m talking about—in which she questions Brody or, more specifically, tries to get him to break and admit to what he did is a masterpiece of both acting and writing, and it’s mostly just Carrie monologuing for well over five minutes. (It’s hard to get an accurate read on these screeners.) Yet so much of the scene is shot so that we’re looking at Brody from across a table. We are, quite literally, in Carrie’s shoes, watching for any signs that he’ll crack. Since we have an advantage over Carrie—we know for a fact that he was wearing that bomb—we’re in the position of omniscience in this scene. And as Carrie gets closer and closer to the heart of Brody’s secrets, he sinks lower and lower in the frame. Where once we started at roughly equal level with him—as he stared Carrie in the eye and denied wearing the bomb—we gain increasing power over him.
This is, basically, direction 101, but none of this comes from the director moving the camera or subtly inching it higher and higher. Both we and Carrie are watching as Brody physically sinks lower in his chair, as his face crumples into tears. And that’s all Damian Lewis. There’s no harder task in acting to just sit there and be present, to let the audience into your thoughts and fears using only your face. Having no dialogue can be torturous for some actors, yet half of acting is reaction, is sitting attentively and letting your scene partner hold the space while you just listen. The more intimate the medium or venue, the harder it becomes to rein this in, to not overact but also not appear like you’ve checked out. And television, of course, is the most intimate acting medium of all, all close-ups and over-the-shoulder shots and inviting the actor into your own home.
So here’s what Lewis does. He sits back sort of haughtily. Even though Brody knows he’s been caught in a lie, he knows the CIA can’t prove he was wearing that bomb, can’t really pin him with an actual crime (though he surely knows he can disappear, can be dragged into a legal black hole he’ll never escape from). Brody has gotten so good at lying that he’s pretty sure he can skate through this one, too. And he handles Quinn very well, even if he gets a knife in the hand. He understands on some level that Quinn is just like him, that Quinn can be manipulated via bluster. He’ll either win the guy over, or he’ll provoke him to such an extent that he’ll be removed from the equation. And it works! Quinn stabs him, and he’s taken from the room, and it looks like Brody is on his way out. Surely, the CIA wouldn’t send a United States Congressman to Guantanamo. You can’t make such a prominent public figure just disappear.
So it’s Carrie who has to save the day. I was talking with a friend who suggested that it’s mildly unrealistic that Carrie is always right, that she’s always in position to do the right thing, and so on. And while I can sort of see her point—Carrie’s on something of a hot streak right now—I also think this bolsters season one, when Carrie was hitting low after low, and it seemed like she’d never be taken seriously again. Carrie takes huge risks, and that makes a character fun to watch, but not when she is constantly beaten down. She has to win a few times, and it’s almost as if this first half of season two is karmic retribution for how the universe kicked the shit out of her in season one.
Yet she doesn’t have real power over Brody. Remember: The camera positions the two as rough equals when the scene begins. So she goes for the one place she knows will be able to bring Brody down if she picks at it enough. She harps on his lies. She exposes the vulnerability between them. She keeps talking and talking and talking, circling what she knows to be true but needs him to admit. She’s like a bird that takes several swoops toward the ground but never settles. Her tactic reminds me of the old adage that it’s best if you can attack your enemy at his strength and try to turn it into a weakness. Brody is so good at lying that he hasn’t really considered just how many of them he’s had to tell. And now that Carrie is bringing him closer and closer to realizing the truth about Abu Nazir and what he’s done to both Brody and countless innocent people, he can no longer face what he’s done. His eyes begin to tear up. His lip quivers a bit. And at every moment, Lewis is letting you know exactly what he’s thinking, exactly which memories and moments are racing through his mind. It’s masterful, and I doubt we’ll see a better acted scene of television this year on both ends.
I can already see a complaint that this scene robs season one of some of its complexity. After all, Brody’s reasons for turning against the United States might have been foolhardy, but at least they were reasons. Being angry at the government’s drone program and believing it abandons what makes this nation great is a completely justifiable position, even if a more appropriate way to fight back would be to protest or write letters to the editor or even expose Walden’s cover-up of the attack that killed Issa to the press. (There would have to be some paper that would relish the chance to expose the current administration and hobble a presidential campaign in its nascent stages.) Yet now, the show—via Carrie—is arguing that Walden isn’t that bad of a guy. Or, at least, it seemingly is.
I don’t think it’s that clear cut. Yes, Carrie says that what matters is who is targeted, and while Abu Nazir targets places where he knows there will be maximum innocent casualties, Walden made an awful mistake. Notice here that Carrie isn’t letting him off the hook for not having better intelligence or better judgment, and she’s not letting him off the hook for covering the whole thing up. What she is saying is that motivations, on some level, matter, and that ties into the show’s whole theme in a nutshell: If you have motivations that put you in line with terrorists but haven’t actually done anything, does that make you a terrorist? And if you turn on your terrorist bosses and start working for the CIA to stop their apparently gigantic attack on the U.S., does that automatically erase any previous planned misdeeds? To what degree is thinking about committing a crime a crime, if the crime is heinous enough. In many ways, that’s the whole question behind the War on Terror, and in Brody’s indecisiveness and his inaction, the show has almost accidentally stumbled upon a way to interrogate the last 11 years of U.S. foreign policy. At what point does trying to stop terrorism become an exercise in Orwellian futility? If a woman gets a wild hunch and does a bunch of immoral and unethical things to confirm that hunch, and it turns out to be right, does that mean what she did was right? Motivations matter, and the second season of Homeland, even more than the first, seems interested in this question.
“Q&A” isn’t perfect. It’s damn close, but any episode that has that regrettable scene where Dana and Finn run over a woman while trying to evade his Secret Service detail is going to make me roll my eyes at least a little bit. What’s too bad about this is that I’ve been more or less enjoying this storyline—even if it’s so transparently a way to give an underserved but terrific member of the cast (in this case, Morgan Saylor) something to do—but now that the show is incorporating whatever comes of this storyline, it’s become a very obvious attempt to just offer everybody who’s not one of the central four characters something to do. Carrie, Brody, Saul, and Jess are tied into the main storyline organically, and it’s easy enough to work Estes in there, too. But the show also has to service a bunch of other characters, and that means subplots of variable importance. I could try to fit this in with the show’s thoughts on privilege and how it’s often abused, but it honestly just seems like the episode needed a big “shock,” and that shock came in the form of a pointless plot point in the road.
That’s not enough to drag down the episode, however. Honestly, the rest of the episode could have been static, and so long as it surrounded the scene described at length above, it would have been worth an A. Some scenes or moments have such gravity that they drag everything else toward them, making them seem better in comparison, and I’d say Carrie’s interrogation of Brody is one of those. Plus, everything else in this storyline—outside of, arguably, Quinn stabbing Brody, which is another very transparent shock—is exquisitely paced and played, from the way that Quinn baits Brody by having him lie over and over before showing him the tape to the way that Saul subtly takes command of the room again once Carrie gets Brody to break. The interrogation of a tricky suspect is a standard feature of both the law enforcement and the espionage story, and this episode—which, I should say, was scripted by the great Henry Bromell—handles that plot point perfectly. It’s a natural fit for Emmys all around. (It’s early in the TV season, but the only drama script I think comes even close to Bromell’s is the Breaking Bad finale.)
The episode also effectively reboots the show’s premise yet again, but in a way that gets back to the series’ core strengths. The first three episodes of the season didn’t suffer from having no Carrie and Brody scenes, exactly, but once I saw those two together last week, I realized what I’d been missing in those episodes. Now, we’ve got a very clever setup that allows us plenty of Brody and Carrie action, while also placing him in a position where he essentially has no power, which is a neat reversal of their relationship from last year. My one concern here is that Brody might become too much of a hero, might eventually end up a vital part of the CIA task force or something, and that would ultimately damage the show. But I think the writers are playing honestly here, are setting up a situation where the most likely outcomes for him are either dead or off in Witness Protection somewhere.
Because for all of the political questions and thematic wrangling this show features, it’s ultimately a show about one man and one woman who have a certain damaged connection between them that they can’t shake. I don’t know that anyone would have predicted that when the show began, but it’s true of the show now, and the series is the stronger for it. What gets us through the scenes of Vice Presidential sons hitting people with their cars or Detective Mike investigating his best friend are the scenes that let us watch these two people reduce each other to devastated rubble through mere words.
- I love how Carrie pieces together what happened in the bunker last season just through watching Brody’s expressions and pushing a bit on the few things she does know. It’s a great way to show just how good she is at this without making too big a deal out of it.
- Hand stabbing aside, I’m still really liking Quinn. His brusque manner fits in well with the rest of the cast.
- I didn’t comment at all about Jessica above, but I liked the way that she became a fly in the CIA’s ointment, how she wouldn’t take pat answers for answers because of her general suspicions about her husband. I’m going to guess the whole CIA excuse won’t hold together long for her either. It might be amazing to have Brody manage to find his way toward immunity only to have his wife piece together the truth. (Remember: Jessica, Dana, and Mike all have bits of information that could paint the full picture of who Brody is if they compared notes.)
- I don’t know how much you guys get to hear of the closing credits, but the reworking of the main theme in mournful jazz piano was really nice.
- One other thing to like about this: It totally invalidates last season's cliffhanger! It no longer matters whether Carrie remembers that she knew about Issa.
- I just want to say that if this is all the ultimate long con by Brody and Abu Nazir, I’m going to be very angry. But I think it’s genuine on Brody’s part, and I like the way the show has dropped all these hints about Abu Nazir’s big plan without telling us anything.
- I would just like to say, for the record, that I called this.