I dunno, you guys.
I finalized my year-end top 10 list about 10 days ago (before I’d seen either of the final two episodes of this season of Homeland), and after I settled on my number one, I had little to no idea where to go next. I had, quite honestly, something like a 50-way tie for second place. But that’s not the way top 10 lists roll, so I had to put stuff in order. Fairly early on, I put Homeland in second place, and then kept trying to bump it down. If I was being honest with myself, it was nowhere near as consistent as some of the other shows on the list. If I was being honest, it took giant, giant leaps of logic, on both a plot and character level. If I was being honest, the shows below it were all far more solid on a week-to-week basis than Homeland, which sometimes seems to follow the wildly vacillating pattern of its protagonist’s moods.
But I kept coming back to one thing: The show I look forward to watching and writing about and arguing about the most every week, the show that I watch in a sort of feverish anticipation as soon as I get a screener (or as soon as it airs) is Homeland. The show that’s given me the most pleasure this fall is Homeland. And even when it’s bad—and it has been very, very bad—I’m vastly enjoying myself. The season has unfolded in roughly three acts, with the first five episodes building up to that stunning interrogation scene that’s still one of the best things I’ve seen on TV all year, then the next four building up to Abu Nazir’s arrival on U.S. soil, then the final three wandering all over the place before landing on a shot of Saul’s at-once relieved and pissed-off face, perhaps the perfect way to leave a season that’s horrified and pleased the viewership in roughly equal measure, often over very different things. I loved the first two acts. I found the last act problematic. But I still found the show often intensely moving and weirdly exciting. I loved what I hated about it, and I hated what I loved about it. So I left it in second.
I’m comfortable with that decision after the season finale, but I may look back on that call in four years and wonder what the hell I was thinking. This is the kind of season finale that presages a great creative upswing for the show, as it leaves behind the wild terror attacks of the Abu Nazir years and moves into something more small-scale. It could also be the kind of season finale that presages the show descending into gibbering madness, trying to top itself endlessly with twists upon twists. In my heart of hearts, I hope that the producers of the show have the good sense to keep Nicholas Brody off the radar of the series for a good long while, at least a couple of seasons. It’s fine to have Carrie spend her spare time trying to exonerate him. It’s fine to have Saul start to wonder if maybe Brody’s not dead. But let’s leave Brody off in the middle of nowhere for a while, like James Bond at the start of Skyfall, then bring him back for the series’ endgame, whenever that might be. (This being Showtime that will probably happen in 2025.) The Brody storyline has gotten so implausible that it needs time to stew in its own juices, time out of the spotlight.
The problem is that in my heart of hearts, I also know that the people who write and produce this show will never be able to resist the temptation to bring Brody back as soon as possible. Damian Lewis is a phenomenal actor, and television contracts are hard to structure so that someone commits to another season at some nebulous point in the future. And, frankly, the producers of the show have rolled the dice and bet on the Carrie and Brody relationship in a way that doesn’t really work as well as it needs to carry the show, so I have trouble seeing them giving up on it anytime soon. I’d love to see an almost standalone season of Homeland with Carrie trying to figure out who set Brody up in the background of everything else going on, but I don’t have a lot of faith that will happen. I’ve always said I would take Brody being written off the show as an acceptable alternative to him dying, as I don’t know that the show can continue to spin out the Brody mystery ad infinitum. My problem here is that I just don’t know if this is really the guy being written off the show, and God only knows episode three of next season will open with him swooping in on a pterodactyl, guns a-blazin’. (Actually, that would be awesome.)
Let’s return to what I said in that last paragraph, because it’s key to one of the things that ultimately means I’m not sure this episode works as a season finale, even as I love it as an episode of television. (My brain is a crazy place, people. You don’t want to move in there.) The Brody and Carrie relationship was one of the best things about season one, and the series has shown nothing if not a willingness to double down on the things that made season one work so well. But what made that relationship work as well as it did in season one was the unexpectedness of it and how thoroughly rooted it was in the two characters’ inability to find anybody else to relate to. In season two, they were suddenly number-one soul mates, particularly in the late going, and it just didn’t track for me. One of them losing him or herself in the middle of the fiction created to protect Brody? Sure. But both of them? I can buy the argument advanced by some that Carrie is integral to the deal Brody has cut, so he latches onto her as his way out. But I’m not sure if I can buy the moments when they stare soulfully into each other’s eyes and declare their love. These are messed-up people, and when they’re together, the show sometimes loses sight of that.
This is perhaps at the center of the fact that the scenes I found most emotionally involving in this episode almost all involved Saul. (I was moved, at least a little, by Carrie and Brody’s “final” goodbye. I mean, I’m not made of stone!) The show hasn’t leaned very heavily at all on the connection between Carrie and Saul at any point, particularly in this season, and that makes it all the more moving when he’s worried for her safety, or when he says the Kaddish for the dead, thinking she’s among them. One of the things that makes me think Homeland will bounce back in a big way in season three, even for its haters, is that it has kept the character of Saul mostly intact and will apparently have him taking on a greater supervisory role now. A lot of that has been because he’s been off in his own world much of this season (to the point where he spent much of the last two episodes locked in a room by himself), but it greatly enhances his scenes tonight.
Anyway, where I still find the Saul and Carrie relationship immensely affecting, the Carrie and Brody relationship has had diminishing returns, as the writers of the show almost seem to lose focus of the fact that the relationship is inherently fucked up on several levels. The ending of the episode is meant to portray their romance as a doomed one, straight out of a Shakespearean tragedy, but I have trouble buying that when both of them have treated it as a relationship of convenience at multiple times. Granted, the show swings along with the overdramatic nature of its protagonists’ mental states, so I totally buy that they themselves would see their parting as the worst thing in the world, but I needed that distance from the show, that sense that the writers and producers and directors know that, yes, there are a lot of problems here. I’m not sure I got it.
The episode hinges on a scene around its midpoint, and everything before that scene walks right up to the line of being frightfully boring. (If you think Carrie and Brody should be in love forever, you were probably more into it than I was.) There’s some good stuff in here—especially that confrontation between Saul and Carrie about how she could possibly give up her career for this guy, and that confrontation between Brody and Dana, which has been coming since the end of season one (the show can play a long game when it wants to)—but for the most part, it’s all buildup to the moment when Brody’s car explodes right next to the CIA memorial for Bill Walden. That means everything before becomes a set of clues for what comes next: the question of whether Brody planted the bomb or not. Now, granted, there are some tantalizing clues along the way—when we see him going to rendezvous with Carrie, he’s outside! —but for the most part, I think the finale exonerates him. Carrie buys his story, in that it’s enough to stop her from pulling a gun on him, and Dana also says he’s innocent when the story goes national about him being behind the bombing. Carrie can be wrong, though seemingly not in season two, but Dana’s the show’s moral compass. It seems unlikely she would be wrong. (The release of the tape also seems like something designed to clear Brody in the minds of the viewers.)
Yet the episode gains a terrific looseness following the bombing. It’s not immediately clear how on earth Carrie and Brody get out of CIA headquarters, but other than that, I enjoyed their mad dash from the law. I like the way the show continues to clean house of elements that bog it down in the great battle against Abu Nazir, as Estes is confirmed dead in the episode. Saul’s search for Carrie was great, and I even liked when the Brody family finally sees the truth about who their husband and father really was—long, long after that was still true. (This, of course, assumes that the show doesn’t have some additional twist up its sleeve for a future season, in which we find out that Brody really did set up that car bomb.) I liked the not-knowingness of it, the fact that I wasn’t sure whom to trust anymore, something the show seemed to lose quite a bit of this season. And I loved the way that the car bomb tied together so much of what happened this season and retroactively made so much more of Abu Nazir’s plotting make sense, in a way that didn’t resort to pulling the rug out from under the audience. Of course he would realize Brody had turned against him and set the sergeant up. Of course.
Yet, those first 35 minutes were hit-and-miss, and again because the show has bought into the Carrie and Brody relationship in a way I just haven’t. This is ultimately why I hope Brody stays off the show for at least a season or two. If Carrie’s carrying on her quest in the dark, with Brody suspected to be both dead and evil, then we’ll get a stronger sense of just how much she really longs to have him back and just how much of this was her riding the high of the moment. Though there was only one scene that made me guffaw (more about this in the stray observations), I liked the solemnness of those scenes without being quite sure they were wrapping up the same season of television as I’d been watching. It sometimes felt like this was an excellent finale to some other season entirely, like we’d wandered off into crazy town the past few weeks, only to come back down to earth, where the show usually excels. With just the one explosion, the show was able to focus on its characters in the way it’s so good at, but it also found itself insisting on things I didn’t really want to go with.
I liked the episode, and I think it mostly works as a finale, hence the high grade. But it’s also the kind of episode that ultimately erodes trust. I’ve loved season two of Homeland more than many critics and more than most of you, but I also think that its stutter-y, jazz-influenced storytelling needs better grounding to work consistently. In his write-up of the show for our top 30 list, Noel Murray argues that the series works because its crazy plot elements are grounded in character in a totally unexpected way: The craziness is reflective of the way Carrie Mathison sees the world. And that’s a great reading of season two, and it’s one that makes me like some of it better than I did before I heard it. But it’s also something I’m not sure I want to see the show try again. I loved Homeland season two, but I also find myself increasingly unwilling to give the show the benefit of the doubt. I trusted it before, but if season three gets right back to Carrie’s attempts to exonerate Brody, I’m going to be very disappointed. It’s always a weird thing to lose trust in a show, and I’m not quite there yet. But it’s also a weird thing to have to spend the next nine-to-10 months in a state of flux.
- So, about that bad scene… I’m not sure the show has done anything as goofy as the scene where Quinn threatens Estes in his bedroom by telling him that he kills bad guys, then strongly implying that Estes is the bad guy he needs to kill, not Brody. Yes, I take the show’s point that the real villains are the higher-ups on both sides of the war on terrorism, but it felt weird and out of character for Quinn to just suddenly stop being the good soldier. Alan Sepinwall said to me that it might have worked better if we’d cut back to Quinn post-bombing to see his reaction, but we never do, and I agree with him. Hopefully, that’s still in play come season three. Other than that, the character scenes in the episode are very well-written, acted, and directed, even when I’m not sure I buy the emotions underlying them.
- One supposed “plot hole” that’s not that I’ve seen going around on Twitter (and I’ve had someone from Showtime confirm this for me): The president isn’t at Walden’s memorial because it’s not actually Walden’s memorial. It’s a CIA-specific memorial for the guy, since he ran the agency for so many years. This is pointed out in dialogue, as is the fact that Nazir’s hatred of the U.S. seems to have a weirdly CIA-specific bent to it. (Also, if Nazir had wanted to strike at any memorial the president was at, it would have been very difficult to do so, given the increased Secret Service presence.)
- One thing I realized as Quinn had Brody lined up in his gun sights was that this season has been quite the indictment of the Obama administration’s pursuit of the war on terrorism, only all of the writing about the crazy plotting has obscured that fact. Indeed, administration policies drive much of the crazy plotting. We have secret assassinations, drone strikes, and numerous other elements that are fixtures of Obama policy that drive many on the right and left nuts. (Okay, I don’t think the Obama administration is fucking with anybody’s pacemakers just yet.) And when the terrorist leader says in his statement that the war goes on, the series underlines the futility of perpetual warfare. These are people marked by a war that cannot end, who will only be able to release it when they die. It’s sobering stuff, and it keeps popping up in a series where magic helicopters can appear. The inherent trashiness of some of what went on (and I’m not insulting trashiness here) meant that the show’s more substantive policy discussion—or, rather, depiction—got ignored this season.
- If there’s one thing that’s exciting to me about season three, it’s that the series can completely clean house if it really wants to. The only givens are that Saul and Carrie will be involved, and Carrie will be working to exonerate Brody somehow, perhaps as section chief somewhere. Also, and this is a potential spoiler for season three, so don’t read on if you don’t want to know: Alex Gansa said to Entertainment Weekly that the writers are hoping to pull back from the crazy epic nature of season two in season three and get down to something more intimate and inspired by John le Carré, which would be more than fine by me. (I love le Carré.)
- Quinn asks Estes if he has any mistakes in his romantic past. He does, Quinn! Those mistakes include dating Roya and getting involved with Carrie, to the degree that it broke up his marriage.
- Contrary to my statement last week, we did get a scene with Chris in it this episode. It just involved him learning that his dad had plotted to bring down the United States! Wheeee!
- I’m not entirely sure how Brody’s going to hide out when he’s the most wanted man on earth, but I’m willing to go along with the idea that Carrie has all the best contacts.
- Sure, all of his coworkers are dead, but it looks like Saul’s marriage might have a shot at patching itself up, so he’s got that going for him.
- As always happens when Saul starts reciting the Kaddish, many seem to think he was speaking in Arabic. He’s not! It’s Hebrew! (That said, the two languages share some word roots, so… ah, nobody who’s making this complaint speaks Arabic.)
- RIP, Estes. You were yelling in that one still for that one episode, and that was awesome.
- Thanks again for taking this wild ride with me this season. I definitely hope the show finds a way back to the smaller-scale wonder it was in season one, or if it decides to float on off into crazy town that it does so with relish. I don’t know if I could take another season pitched halfway between the two! We’ll see you again next September, and I will revise this grade in 2015, when we know which direction the show took from this point on.