I’ve seen “Tin Man Is Down” twice now—my two viewings months apart—and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. I liked it more the second time through, but I still have to admit that I was checking the time frequently to see how much of it I had left both times I watched. It’s a weird, ungainly piece of television that, nonetheless, possesses moments of real and raw power. It seems less interested in giving audiences what they might want than in pursuing what it’s interested in, and while that’s usually a good thing in TV, the end of season two might have made some of those audiences think Homeland wants only that which is cuckoo bananapants. At all turns, I admired everything “Tin Man Is Down” was trying to do without really liking it, if that makes sense. I thought it was a brave, gutsy piece of TV, but I was almost completely not entertained by it.
This is not to say that TV should always be entertaining. The above sentence essentially describes my reaction to the final season of Breaking Bad, which seems determined to rub viewers’ faces in just how terrible Walter White is and how deep his sin runs, and I’d agree with general consensus that that show’s final season is a stretch of terrific episodes, marred only slightly by weird character turns. Yet “Tin Man Is Down” doesn’t really have a plot arc. It’s an episode about ghosts, about what happens when somebody has left your life, yet their memory refuses to die. At all turns, it’s insistent on undercutting some of the certainty of season two (which I very much appreciated), while it’s also bullheadedly going to keep pushing forward on the story of what Nicholas Brody’s time in captivity means to all of these characters (which I was less certain about). At the very least, however, it makes one thing clear: Homeland is never going to be in any danger of turning into 24. Its sins will always be its own.
If nothing else, 24 was absolutely ruthless. If a character other than Jack Bauer needed to be written out, the show would find a way to do it, and usually not a moment too soon. It was a shark of a show, constantly darting forward in search of new prey. If the Nicholas Brody arc had come up on 24, the Congressman would have died somewhere in the back half of season one, probably even before the finale, and his death would have revealed the even greater threat posed to the nation that his being turned by Abu Nazir was covering up. There’s certainly no way the show would have even remembered his name, much less checked in with his family, for its third season premiere. That’s just not the way that show operated.
Homeland is different, for better and worse. There’s been plenty of debate among my critical brethren about the need for the Brody family to continue being a part of this series, but I’ll come out and say this: There was nothing in this episode as riveting and interesting to me as the travails of Dana Brody, even with the topless selfie you just know will leak to the press in episode seven. I liked season two more than many critics and more than many of you, but the more I’ve thought about it since it ended, the more I’ve realized that what that season was lacking were real, obvious consequences. Carrie and Brody behaved essentially with impunity, and the only consequences they suffered were of the nebulous variety that existed solely within the show’s reality. This was particularly true of the Carrie and Brody romantic relationship, my biggest problem with the season, which went from a strange connection between two damaged people to the truest love ever depicted on television. In a lot of ways, this was a disconnect between the writing, the performances, and the directing, which were all working at odds in the depiction of this relationship, but it particularly felt as it did because the ultimate consequence of the two’s canoodling was that they were separated forever (again) by Brody’s apparent framing for the Langley bombing and Carrie sending him off to Canada to go on the run.
Season three almost immediately begins putting the lie to this fiction the two (or maybe just Carrie) built up around themselves, and this is particularly true in the Brody family storyline. Dana doesn’t just suffer because her father’s now the most wanted fugitive in the world; she tries to kill herself in a moment of absolute despair. Homeland gets into trouble when it forgets that it’s not a show about Nicholas Brody, but in the Brody family storyline, it remembers that it’s at its most powerful when it’s a show about how the people in Brody’s orbit perceive him. The ghost of Nick Brody is literally the only thing tying all of the series’ disparate storylines at this point, and that’s an interesting choice, one that takes its time to make itself fully known but one that carries a punch when we see, say, Dana struggling to readjust to a world that’s spinning off its axis or Jess trying to move forward while being subject to journalists hounding her when she picks up her daughter from a mental health facility that she had to beg her mother to pay for.
Now for the thing that really threw me about this, at least the first time through: I just didn’t give a shit about Carrie Mathison anymore. (The second episode—which is better—dragged me back around to caring, but it was a long process.) Claire Danes’ performance remains terrific, but it also sort of feels like an aging rock band dutifully rolling through the hits. Carrie’s bipolar disorder is an important part of the show, to be sure, but it’s also the sort of thing the show can never really escape, for obvious reasons. Mental illness isn’t something that just goes away. It’s a constant in the lives of those who struggle with it, and at best, it can be managed. The nice thing about all of this is that the show is at least not trying to suggest that Carrie is anything but delusional when she says that she’s more of a genius when she’s not on her meds. (James Rebhorn has always been a voice of reason on this show.) But when the episode ends with Saul betraying Carrie, it’s moving to me, but only in the abstract, because Carrie’s finally pushed everyone so far that I’m not yet sure I care about what happens to her.
Similarly, I can understand why the show’s writers arrived at the conclusion that the bombing of Langley would result in Congress coming down harshly on the CIA, but I’m not sure I really buy it actually happening. Maybe it would in the Homeland reality, where everything that’s important runs directly through Langley, but I have trouble imagining a version of my own reality where Langley would be bombed and any investigations into the organization’s own role in the Nicholas Brody venture would be anything other than perfunctory and/or occur years later. The immediate after-effect, to me, would be so much about trying to catch the perpetrators, rather than finger-pointing by various governmental bodies. (Here’s a place where the show’s policy of not naming political parties might at least help, since then we could determine if the new senator played by Tracy Letts—in some truly fine work—would be embarking on his crusade because of party differences or something.)
Yet the show makes the choice to continue to play things with the smoldering remains of Langley in the background, constantly choosing to steer closer and closer to the events of last season, rather than attempting to brush them off to the side or far into the background. It would have been so easy to pick this story up a few years later, or to pick it up with Carrie having finally absolved herself for what happened or with Saul presiding over a healthy CIA. Instead, the series has chosen to steer into the skid, to directly confront all of the craziness of last season and try to make sense of it via character drama. This necessitates that the show return to a tone it hasn’t really indulged in since early season one: intimate domestic drama. Is that the right call after roughly 18 episodes of increasingly strained plot twists? It might not feel that way initially, but shows like these teach us how to watch them, and ramping things down is the sort of thing it will take time to retrain us to appreciate.
“Tin Man Is Down” offers a fair amount of action anyway. It’s just far, far off to the side of everything else, though the episode’s title suggests it will be incredibly important to the season going forward. Quinn is off in Caracas, tracking one of the men who helped plan the Langley bombing, as part of an attempt to take out six similar targets all at once. Saul and Dar Adal (the promoted-to-regular F. Murray Abraham) come to view this as a way to bolster the agency’s image in the public eye—though this proves impossible—and the sequence where Quinn breaks into a heavily-guarded house is ruthlessly economic, Lesli Linka Glatter’s camera keeping things very tight and controlled, that we don’t always know what’s going on. Quinn shooting a little kid feels like something that could spin out of control very, very quickly, but it’s at least an acknowledgement of what can go wrong in these sorts of missions.
Indeed, throughout “Tin Man Is Down,” there’s a sense of the increasing impersonality of U.S. warfare. Most of the other targets Saul orders taken down are killed via drones, raining death from far above, and when he struggles with what to do in a conversation with Mira, he bemoans the way that the agency has become less about actual spycraft and more about carrying out clandestine killings. There was a time when the CIA pulled strings so far behind the scenes, some people didn’t even realize they were being pulled. It’s a rose-colored glasses sort of thing, but it makes sense for Saul, who’s rather disgusted by what he’s become, even as he’s going to be pushed into a place where he must betray his surrogate daughter and the operative he’s most likely proudest of. He’s a man without friends, which is why he’s clinging so tightly to Dar, though anyone who’s seen last season would probably suggest that’s not the best idea.
If there’s one thing “Tin Man Is Down”—and Homeland as a whole—is trying to say, it’s encapsulated in a shot of Carrie, staring down a long street at the Capitol building, where she will be dragged before the Senate subcommittee, again and again, to lie and lie and lie, over and over. The pilot of this show—in case you’ve forgotten—closed with a shot of Nicholas Brody out jogging, stopping near the Capitol, to stare at it blankly, that we might project upon him all the menace we wanted to. He, of course, wanted to kill the vice president and get revenge upon his country, but his mission was clear. It was right in front of him. It was not something hidden and obscured.
Carrie and Saul, however, head into this season with the mission at the end of a long road, to the degree where it doesn’t even seem particularly clear. Yeah, they’re going to eventually need to take down the Magician (whom Saul has some experience with), but they’re focusing on easier targets in the short term, because finding the Magician will simply prove to be too much work. The world that Saul longs for is long gone, just as the place Carrie hopes for, where she was the genius analyst who caught the most unlikely terrorist in U.S. history before he turned terrorist, is missing in action. This world is murky and uncertain, and no one quite knows where they stand anymore. That’s Homeland’s relationship to power in a nutshell, but it’s also increasingly its relationship to its characters. Only this season will prove out whether this is a smart call, or if the show will go the way of so many dramas before it, talking a big game but unable to make things stick when it counts.
- Welcome back to the Homeland reviews! Season one was a pip, while season two had its problems (and I continue to believe that was, on the whole, a worthwhile season of television with many, many outstanding episodes and moments). Season three may end up being the proving ground for this show, and I’m encouraged by the series’ willingness to take it slow in the early going.
- Even when the storytelling is muddled, this show has some great hard-boiled dialogue. I particularly liked Dar suggesting Saul didn’t need to throw Carrie under the bus, just jump up and down on her a few times.
- Nicholas Brody watch: No Brody through episode one (though showrunner Alex Gansa has already stated he won’t be in the first two episodes for sure). My dream was that Brody would sit this season out entirely, but this was probably the only workable compromise with a Showtime obviously eager to capitalize on its association with Damian Lewis.
- My screeners did not have credits, suggesting, perhaps, that the credits sequence has been completely revamped. Please let me know if this is the case, readers!
- If I were director of the CIA, the operation to take out the Langley bombing planners would have included several dozen more targets, so I could have worked through all of my favorite Oz characters. “Polychrome is down!” “The Gump is down!” “Queen Nixi of Ix is (non-canonically) down!”
- Sad to say, I rolled my eyes at the notepad Carrie had scrawled all over. It was just too much in terms of showing that her mania was in full swing.
- Saul tries to deal with a hostile Carrie: “Sit down! Have some tiramisu!”