There’s been a general tone of disbelief from some of you in comments these last two weeks at the thought that I could like this show enough to still give it B’s. While some of that stems from me being a pretty easy grader on a week-to-week basis (and the vagaries of The A.V. Club’s grading system, where the line between “recommend” and “do not recommend” is between B- and C+), most of it comes from me wanting to take a wait and see approach to this season. (Okay, and my generally higher level of tolerance for Dana Brody storylines than seemingly anyone else alive.)
See, I was reading some reviews of “Beirut Is Back” a few days ago. You might remember that episode. It was the transformative early season two hour that tossed Carrie into the middle of a crazy action sequence in Lebanon, then delivered that tape of Brody into Saul’s hands. Never mind the fact that Saul getting that tape relied on coincidences piling on top of coincidences (one of the very things that would wreck the show for many later in the season). The fact that he did was exciting. It was a sign that the show wasn’t going to play it safe in season two, that it was going to plunge forward heedlessly. Which it did, and the very thing that made it exciting was also the very thing that eventually made it ludicrous. The line between taking big chances on story developments and having them pay off and taking those chances only to see them fall completely apart is ridiculously easy to cross, and it’s not always easy to tell when it’s been crossed.
So I’ve appreciated that this season—for all its faults so far—has made the bold choice of shoving everything back down, of regressing a bit to the slower, more mournful tone the series had in its earliest episodes, before Carrie and Brody hooked up and the world went nuts. This, in and of itself, is an ambitious choice, of the sort a lot of shows wouldn’t have made, and I like that everybody involved seemed to just subconsciously know now was the time to slow down. I talked a little bit about this in my review of Parenthood this week, but it’s interesting to me to watch good shows deal with bad storylines, and I think that’s some of what’s going on here as well, as the series tries very carefully to get the car back on the road without doing any more damage to its structure. This takes time, but if it pays off, it’s usually worth it. (For another example of this, see the night-and-day first and last halves of the third season of Lost.) Plus, even though Henry Bromell passed away before the season was written, he was instrumental in its plotting, and if there’s one writer who knows how to take a story that seems to be going nowhere and have it suddenly and abruptly erupt in fury and excitement, it’s Bromell, who did just that on Brotherhood and Rubicon. So I see signs of positive momentum everywhere—even if they seem like tiny shoots of growth—and that’s enough for me for now. Will it still be enough in a few weeks? That remains an open question.
Yet the main thing I wanted to see what how the series would handle the return of Nicholas Brody. By far my biggest misgivings with season two were the way the series seemed to buy into the grand romance between its two leads and the fact that it left Brody alive when there was seemingly so little story to tell with the character. The first two episodes have very succinctly given the lie to the first point, with most of the characters being affected in one way or another by Carrie and Brody’s selfishness. The third episode, now, turns to the second point. Why is Nick Brody still alive? And I don’t mean that in the sense of “Well, he’s one lucky son of a bitch.” I mean that in the sense of, “What story is there left to tell about this guy?”
“The Tower Of David” doesn’t immediately suggest an answer to that question, but I liked a lot of things about it. Namely, I liked the way it boiled itself down to a story that was only about the two lead characters—though I wonder if this couldn’t have been handled even better, about which more in a bit—and I liked the way it hung a lantern on the idea of Brody still being alive being fundamentally preposterous. Homeland, as always, is a show about cost, about what it means to be alive in the midst of a machinery that chews people up and spits them back out, and here is perhaps the ultimate example of that. Brody, balding, sitting alone in what amounts to a prison cell in Caracas, Venezuela, is told by his “doctor” (a man who keeps trying to get him addicted to heroin, in order to keep him compliant) that he continues to survive while people around him die, including, most recently, a couple of police officers, an imam, and the imam’s wife, all killed by the criminals who operate the rundown building where Brody is holed up. Brody is a man who’s seen so many killed both in his name and around him, yet he’s also the man who was fundamentally unable to kill himself and carry out his mission when the time arrived in the season one finale. He’s seen a surrogate son die, and now he’s endangered a surrogate daughter. At a certain point, a guy has to wonder if he wouldn’t just be better off dead.
I respect this episode more than I really like it. There are some really lovely cuts between some really lovely shots from director Clark Johnson, like the shot of Brody, finally having injected himself with drugs, lying on a bed amid a solitary pool of light, which cuts to Carrie sitting in the corner of her room in a Washington, D.C., psych ward, bathed in seemingly the same pool of light. It’s a nice expression of the continuity between the two characters, of the connection they feel, regardless of how ridiculous that might seem to us and others around them. And I think the script, credited to Bromell and his son, William Bromell, is full of the kinds of things I’ve come to appreciate from Homeland, like intriguing side characters and moments of sharp dialogue, as when El Nino and the doctor discuss Brody’s identity while he’s resting after the surgery to remove two bullets from his gut. I like, for instance, the way that the flickering lights in the parking garage where the doctor conducts his surgery turn into a minor plot point, instead of pointless mood-setting. These are the kinds of clever touches I expect from the show.
Yet, if I’m being honest, there are elements within the template I’m growing wearier and wearier of. For roughly half its running time, “The Tower Of David” is just about Brody, slowly realizing just how fucked he is because of where he’s ended up, how he got out of that hole in Iraq only to find himself in just another hole in another country, where he will almost certainly die. (I know this will never happen, but this episode would shoot up incredibly in my estimation if this were the last time we ever saw Brody, finally accepting his fate and attempting to dull it. It’d be dark, but it would be in keeping with this season’s increasingly downbeat tone.) The Brody material meanders a bit—his attempts to escape feel a little too hazy until he comes up with the plan to get out to the mosque—but it’s got those intriguing guest characters and the growing sense of the character’s weariness at all the death that spreads around him. These are good things, and I think an episode that was just about Brody would have been a much stronger piece of television.
Instead, around the halfway mark, we begin cutting away to Carrie, and then the episode falls into a very odd rhythm of alternating scenes about the two characters, with little rhyme or reason to them. I’ll confess that when the episode first cut to Carrie, I felt a little thrill, because the way it was handled—Brody’s face holding in hopelessness as he realizes the extent of what’s happened to him, then a slow tilt up Carrie’s body as she sits, equally trapped, in that psych ward with a doctor who doesn’t seem at all willing to listen to her (and why should he)—was so elegant. But as the rest of the episode played out, the cuts to Carrie felt increasingly pointless, like the show was really intent on underlining just how trapped both of these characters are, until that final moment with the two bathed in pools of solitary light (which, as mentioned, I quite liked). After the events of last week, I found myself hoping the show would give Carrie a bit of a breather, would show just what a Carrie-less version of this series might look like. And when, initially, she seemed to be doing much better on her lithium, I thought sitting out half an episode would be enough to attain that feeling. But then she began banging her head against a mirror and crying and getting other people to make impossible sacrifices for her, and my general disconnect from her storyline—regardless of Claire Danes’ still tremendous performance—returned.
I’m hoping to write a little bit more about this in an essay not tied exclusively to this show, but mental illness increasingly strikes me as something that probably doesn’t work as a primary story motivator on television. It can be medicated, and it can be dealt with via therapy, but it’s never going to go away entirely. Plot a random resurgence, and you have some of the oddities that erupted on Girls this past season. Yet always have that condition rattling away in the background as Homeland does, and it eventually starts to feel repetitive. This is tough for me to say, because mental illness has marked so much of my own life and the lives of many people I deeply love. It’s a big part of the reason I came to love this show so much back in its first season. But TV drama thrives on change, on the story constantly moving forward, and mental illness thrives on keeping things the same. Put another way, the circumstances around Carrie Mathison can change, but her bipolar disorder is never going to become meaningfully different, and that’s very dangerous territory for a cable drama—particularly one with as much story momentum as this one usually has—to operate in.
That said, there was one scene with Carrie I found incredibly fascinating. While in the psych ward, she keeps getting visits from someone she believes to be Saul. (She is not yet allowed to have visitors, and the nurses don’t inquire as to the gentleman’s name or reason for being there.) She finally convinces a friendly nurse named Abby to let her see the guy, only to discover he’s someone else entirely, a lawyer whose partner wants to meet with her. Carrie, paranoid as ever but also constantly capable of seeing through ulterior motivations, realizes almost immediately that this guy must be here to recruit her as a double agent, to get her to flip on the United States and start informing for somebody else. It’s a good scene for reaffirming Carrie’s continued commitment to the people who’ve so betrayed her (though the thought of Carrie as a double agent is an intriguing story idea), but it’s also a good scene because it reminds us of the wider world of the show. Is this connected to what Saul and Fara uncovered last week? Or is Carrie’s leap one that’s completely inaccurate?
These are the kinds of questions the show should want us to be asking if the story is going to get back in gear, which I hope it does very soon. As it is, though, “The Tower Of David” is an effective character piece that I have to hold at arm’s length because so much of it continues to be about holding up season two’s highs and lows and seeing the photo negative versions of those events. I appreciate that the show is trying to deal with consequences, and I like the way that it’s digging more deeply into the emotional devastation Carrie and Brody have wrought in their own lives. But at the same time, these sorts of shows need to keep moving forward, and Homeland has been sitting still for three episodes now. It hasn’t been an entirely wasted sitting still, and I suspect if this season ends well, we’ll look back on these episodes as necessary table setting and throat clearing. But I’m increasingly ready for whatever’s next and to stop looking back upon the wispy phantoms of the past.
- Consider the grade provisional. I have no idea how to grade this show anymore. I’m still enjoying it (well, not “enjoying,” but you know what I mean), and I’d still recommend it, but I absolutely understand it’s become a tough sit for a lot of folks.
- Homeland finally has its first prospective spinoff: Venezuelan Parking Garage Doctor. Thrill every week as the doctor and his helpful “friend” Paco deal with all of the international fugitives who end up in their care!
- For as much as I found the doctor character interesting and didn’t even mind Esme in the end (she was just there to vacillate between someone Brody might sleep with and a surrogate Dana, and she functioned well enough in that role), El Nino ended up being kind of a bore for me. That said, I’m intrigued by the idea that he knows Carrie and that’s why he hasn’t turned in Brody and collected the huge reward the U.S. government is offering for him.
- One other nice moment for underlining just how screwed Brody is: Because of who he is, people are going to die with increasing frequency now, just because they might leak word of his location out to the world at large. It costs the life of the wallet thief, then has even harsher repercussions at the mosque.
- Speaking of the mosque, I liked the character of the kindly imam who turns out to have no patience for Muslim terrorists, turning Brody in as soon as he’s got a moment to call in the police.
- Other possible spinoff: Nicholas Brody, touring the world, teaching English to people everywhere he goes. You could call it Damian Lewis IS English As A Second Language Tutor.
- Carrie’s popsicle stick house had a very nice balcony on it, didn’t it? (Claire Danes in this scene is terrific. You can tell just how irritated she is by the praise for her popsicle stick house, even as she seems sort of proud of her level of craftsmanship.)
- The return of Todd’s crazy theory corner: So Caracas has to have something to do with something, right? It has to be purposeful that Quinn started out the season there and now Brody is ensconced there. And for a moment, I thought the banker that was funding the Tower of David was the one Quinn killed, but the timeline makes no sense then. So that cannot be right.
- So who wants to recruit Carrie? I will predict a shocker here: Canada.