In the past week, there’s been a bit of concern from faithful Homeland viewers that the show is skewing too close to 24 territory. The Boston Globe’s Mike Gilbert wrote about this, and I’ve heard it from numerous fans I’ve talked to. The aggrieved parties usually cite two different points: Finn hitting a woman with his car while Dana was in the passenger’s seat, and the strike on the tailor’s shop by Abu Nazir’s strike team in last week’s episode. Both of these events seem… highly improbable, let’s say, even to those who can muster up a defense of them on thematic or story grounds. (Weirdly, no one seems as bothered by Brody’s trip to the woods as me, so it’s probably time to let that one go.) Now, season one of the show also had its share of highly improbable events, but at the same time, we were watching the show figure out what it did best. The expectation—or, rather, the hope—would be that the show would skew away from its more sensationalistic elements and toward the deeply human moments that make it what it is. And that isn’t really happening.
But I’m in absolutely no concern about the show turning into 24, and I have one reason for that: It has a long memory. 24 was great fun when it was on its game, but it was always forward momentum, never stopping to look back and instead plunging ahead, so relentlessly sometimes that it could be dizzying. It didn’t stop to make sure the plot made sense, trusting in that momentum to carry viewers who would otherwise be reluctant along. The offshoot of that momentum was that essentially everything disappeared down the memory hole. Once a plot point was over, it was largely done within the show, too. Jack Bauer never really sat back to think about the convoluted events that had brought him to where he was because that would have killed the show. The really big events—the death of Jack’s wife, say—reverberated throughout the seasons, but that was about it. 24 was TV as Bond films, a constantly resetting experience that hits on many of the same tropes.
Homeland can’t do this. It has its moments of forward momentum, sure, but it’s a show that is built to be haunted by the past and by poor decisions. Carrie’s stuck in the prison of her mental illness, while Brody is driven by what happened during those eight years he was in captivity. These characters have pasts and histories that inform everything that happens, not just the plot points that require them (as, say, Jack Bauer’s history in the Baltic wars did). And the best way to realize that is to see tonight’s episode and discover that the series is bringing us all the way back to the story of Aileen from last season—one of the two things showrunner Alex Gansa told me he wished the show had done a better job with last season in our walkthrough of season one (which you should all really read)—and that it’s going to use this to pull us right back into all of the mistakes and regrets these characters have from last season.
Great TV storytelling is cumulative. It’s a series of bricks that builds ever higher and only works because the earlier bricks are there to support it. I hadn’t forgotten that Saul was once married, but it had more or less retreated to the back of my head. Yet when Aileen brings up Mira and Saul’s face floods with sadness for just an instant, I was right back in the moment last season when he finally watched her go. The pain is always present with him, informing his every move. It’s why he went to Lebanon, and it’s even possible it’s part of why he’s so forgiving with Carrie when anyone else would have cut her loose long ago. (The fact that every hunch she has turns out to be accurate helps.) Now, I wasn’t sitting here, saying to myself, “Gee. Why did Saul move to Lebanon?” as the season began, so it didn’t really require explanation. But knowing about it now makes the earlier episodes all the more poignant.
“The Clearing” has a remarkably high degree of difficulty. It attempts to pull the messy, disparate elements the series has established this season into a cohesive whole; direct all of the storylines in the same direction; and offer explanations for previously unexplained and slightly implausible elements from this season. (My favorite one of these is that Brody is such a contender for the VP slot because Walden’s rich donors—well, one of them, at least—like him so much, in a fashion similar to how Mitt Romney’s rich donors wanted Paul Ryan on the ticket and got him. It immediately snaps that storyline into place.) It’s naturally going to feel a little overstuffed and stumble a bit here and there. Yet it mostly sticks the landing in a way that’s largely moving, and it does so because it constantly keeps its eye on Nicholas Brody.
The episode is penned by Meredith Stiehm, responsible for last season’s “The Weekend” and the fourth episode of this season. Stiehm is excellent at taking plot twists that shouldn’t work and forcing you to take them seriously, all because of her talent for writing these characters as human beings. Like all serialized thrillers, the characters on Homeland can edge up to feeling like the little figurines in animated cuckoo clocks, moving according to their preordained patterns, pulled along by a great mechanism. Stiehm, then, is one of the show’s secret weapons, as she’s always able to pull things back to the human level and make them make character sense. I’ll be sad for the show when she leaves to do her new FX series (though thrilled to see what she’ll do as a cable showrunner).
Yet Stiehm’s scripts have largely been about Carrie or the Carrie/Brody relationship so far, and that makes sense. That’s where the show’s bruised heart has always been. Increasingly, however, season two is focusing more and more on Brody, a lost and wounded man who’s starting to realize that he’s just a prop to literally everyone who knows him, with the possible exception of his immediate family. He’s only useful to Abu Nazir the closer he is to the vice president. He’s only useful to the CIA the closer he is to the terrorists. He’s only useful to Walden as a way to look tough on terror and as rich-donor bait. And on and on and on. And the more he comes to terms with this, particularly after Carrie so thoroughly broke him down in their interrogation, the more he realizes that he still hasn’t really dealt with what happened to him those eight years in captivity. He’s holding himself together, but only barely, and in “The Clearing,” he discovers just how little his life is his own. He’s a lonely man, sitting at the bottom of a swimming pool. (And while shooting a character who’s losing it underwater is a fairly cliché way to indicate that at this point, John Dahl’s camera nicely isolates Damian Lewis amid all that blue, making him truly seem like a man who’s drowning.)
We seemingly talk about the heroic acting feats of Claire Danes and Lewis in this space every other week, but in this episode, yet again, Lewis is magnetic. I don’t know if he’s being asked to carry so much of the show because of Danes’ pregnancy or what (I’d bet anything Quinn was brought in as a character because of this, to lighten the amount of action Danes was asked to perform), but the show has somehow made Brody even more important than he was in season one, and it’s deepened his character in really interesting ways. The scene between Brody and Carrie in the clearing starts out feeling like someone in the writers room thought it was time for the two to kiss again and ends up becoming something truly dark and horrifying, as Brody realizes just how thoroughly Carrie—who’s long been known to use her sexuality to her advantage—is using that sexuality to play him and, even worse, how a part of him doesn’t care about being used. He talks with Rex, the guy who owns the palatial estate where the fundraiser is being held, about coming home from war, and when Rex talks about how Abu Nazir wasn’t able to break Brody, the man flinches almost imperceptibly. (You have to know to look for it, and we are.) And when, at the end of the episode, Brody wants to take his daughter to the police to do the right thing, he’s told he can’t by Carrie, of all people. There is no right thing for Brody anymore. There’s only what everybody tells him to do.
Season one gave us a fairly shaded psychological portrait of Brody, but it was one that was mostly in pursuit of a question of whether the man was a terrorist. In season two, the show has delved even more deeply into hints from season one that this is a man who probably could be a terrific leader, but is also one who reverts to follower almost all of the time. He’s a guy who follows orders, and eventually, the people who lead him around, no matter what side they’re on, are going to exploit that. He may be ostensibly fighting against terror now, but the CIA uses emotional manipulation as thoroughly as Abu Nazir did. Brody’s a guy who can be led around by the nose, and it’s difficult for powerful people not to take advantage of that. My big fear when Brody was flipped to a double agent back in episode five was that he would steadily turn into more and more of a hero. I shouldn’t have worried. The show has, instead, steadily turned him into more and more of a wreck.
I touched on this above, but it’s worth mentioning that this episode brings the “Finn hits somebody with his car” plot back into the general orbit of everything else. It’s still a completely forced thing, to the point where the writers seem to have dropped that woman in front of Finn’s car from out of the sky, but the fallout this week is amazing to watch, particularly when Morgan Saylor bluntly says, “We killed someone,” when Finn’s mom and Jessica are asking the kids what’s wrong. Using this to drive a wedge between Brody and Dana—the most dangerous wedge that could be driven, given what she knows—is smart, too, and I liked the way the episode set up the difference between the Brody family, which is the political equivalent of nouveau riche, and the Walden family, which has been in power so long that it doesn’t know how to do anything but abuse that power. The Waldens could be comically evil mustache twirlers, and they sort of are, but I also think the writing is getting at something very true about how they don’t know any other way to be. When Finn’s parents find out he killed that woman, the question isn’t how to rein him in, and the idea of doing the right thing seemingly never crosses their minds. The question is how quickly they can cover it up.
But then Homeland is becoming obsessed with questions of power and privilege. I said last season that on this show, power is a perpetual-motion machine, dragging even otherwise good people into terrible acts of complicity, and that’s never been more true than it is now. There’s a scene where Brody steps into a room of well-meaning, old white guys who want to hand him the keys to the kingdom, while only knowing him as a symbol of something they can’t pretend to understand. (Even Rex fundamentally misreads him.) And there’s just this flash across Lewis’ face as he sees all of these men, and you realize that Brody is, ever so briefly, questioning his judgment calls, wanting to pack it in and run for the border and out of this mess he’s wandered into. Power and privilege use, and use, and use until they wring every last ounce of usefulness out of you, and then they toss you aside, and it doesn’t matter who has the power. The CIA can use you as surely as the terrorists can. The ultimate ends might be more palatable, but it doesn’t make you feel any better.
Or, put another way, look at that scene where Saul takes the image of Aileen from the “alive” board and places it on the “dead” board, the collection of Abu Nazir associates who have died in the past year of fighting him. The “alive” board holds only a few images. The “dead” board holds many. All too often, people end up being pawns for men like Abu Nazir, or like Walden, or like Estes, or like Rex. And when those men have expended their usefulness for their pawns, they end up as just another photo on a board, tossed aside without ever thoroughly understanding just how completely they were misled.
- Okay, so, this episode isn’t perfect, but I’m stunned by how well it manages to pull a bunch of random plot points into the same basic orbit. I won’t be surprised if you found it a little frenetic or messy, but I think it’s that way by design. (My chief complaint: There was nobody else who could go to the police department to meet Brody? The CIA was really going to send Carrie? Really?)
- One scene that didn’t work: Saul goes to the warden to get Aileen a room with a view. The warden dicks Saul around for no real reason, then insults Saul’s beard. How dare you, sir?!
- Goddammit, Danny!: Somehow, Danny has survived being shot multiple times. He’s in a coma and seems likely to die, but on TV, that’s shorthand for, “He’ll be chasing down terrorists in two weeks. Just you wait.” By killing neither Danny nor Quinn, the show undercuts some of the power of the strike team scene from last week. (That said, I did enjoy Quinn and Saul’s discussion about Danny’s condition late in the episode. This one had some very funny moments.)
- It seems a little stupid that Saul leaves Aileen with so many items that will allow her to kill herself, but I guess he’s caught up in the moment. The look on Mandy Patinkin’s face as he shouted, “Aileen!” was worth it, I think.
- Speaking of which, I loved Dahl’s use of light in the Aileen scenes, the way that he used it to constantly suggest the presence of the window without showing it constantly. (I know this was actually the work of the DP, but Dahl’s framing always has the suggestion of the window just off-camera.)
- The episode has Brody tell Jessica that he was involved in Tom Walker’s death so early that I pretty much forgot it had happened until just now. That is how packed this episode is.
- I can’t think of a storyline as redeemed by one line as the car accident one was by Saylor’s reading of “We killed someone.” Sure, the old contrivance problems are still there, but that single line allowed the ridiculousness of everything to shine through for just a moment, letting the show take things seriously with a bit more ease afterward.