I’m starting to worry about the prospect of a “big twist” in this season of Homeland, a story element that will turn everything on its ear and pull the rug out from under the audience. (Insert your cliché of choice here.) There’s a certain point in a season of serialized television when you can sense that a series is building up to a big reveal that it’s being cagey about keeping hidden, and it’s usually as much in what’s being kept from viewers as what’s being expressed. You can sense that here in the moments when the characters question how on Earth Abu Nazir could possibly be on U.S. soil, a question many viewers had at the end of last week’s episode as well. Granted, in the Homeland universe, Abu Nazir has a much deeper and farther-reaching network in the United States than al Qaeda has ever had (remember how bizarre and Rube Goldberg-ian the terrorist plot was last season, with how many moving parts?). And granted, he looks pretty different when clean-shaven. But it’s still the number one most wanted terrorist in the world, wandering around in a country he’s vowed to destroy. How is this possible?
The general response of characters who are confronted with this question in “Two Hats” is, “I know! That’s pretty crazy, right? But we don’t have an answer just yet.” That, to me, makes me think that there is an answer, but the show isn’t ready to reveal it yet. If it was something prosaic like a sympathetic citizen who snuck him in on a private plane, we would know already. Instead, it sure seems like we’re building to a revelation that somebody—Estes or Quinn or the Vice President or Brody or maybe everybody who’s not Carrie—is working with Abu Nazir and helping him cover his tracks both on U.S. soil and within the country’s intelligence apparatus. This season has felt disparate, with plot threads flying all over the place, but increasingly, it does feel like there’s a center, like there’s one answer that will unite every story point, and I predict that when it arrives, I’m going to be one unhappy camper. (Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
Here’s my problem with this: Homeland is a show that’s built less on earth-shattering reveals and more on character development. You may quibble with the show making Carrie too crazy or highlighting the Carrie and Brody relationship too much this season, but you have to admit that all of these elements have always been present from the show’s earliest going. When the show does a twist, it’s grounded in what we already know about these people, and it builds from that in ways that feel organic. What’s more, the show doesn’t go in for a lot of twists. It mostly builds to exciting cliffhangers that are then resolved in the next episode. The storytelling is mostly straightforward.
The problem with big reveals—that a character we didn’t think was a double agent turns out to be one, say—is that they’re even more damaging to the veracity of a character-based show than a plot-based show. On 24, the series could get away with making every other character a mole, because the idea that the characters were more or less raw fodder for the plot machine was built into that show’s DNA. Thus, it could run for five seasons or so before its big reveals and character-ruining moments could really start to grate. If the show is, at some level, the writers playing with action figures, then it’s a lot of fun when one of those action figures turns out to be working for the bad guys.
The foundation Homeland is built on is much shakier. It’s a show that demands a certain level of consistency for its stakes to make any sense. And that foundation is much easier to unravel by saying that everything we’ve known to be true isn’t actually true. Just think of how hard it would be for the show to say that, just kidding, Brody’s been with Abu Nazir this whole time (particularly after the end of this episode) without it feeling like a giant jerk-off. This season has been so much about Brody’s journey from one side of the law to another, all while realizing that he’s a pawn no matter where he turns, that to reverse all of that could wreck everything the show has built to this point. I’ve learned to trust the writers on this show to surprise and satisfy me, but I’ll be honest. When I see how much this episode talks around certain things, I get nervous. It’s rarely a good idea to keep too much information from an audience.
But let’s talk about Roya Hamad!
For a season that I’ve liked a lot, Roya’s been the weakest element for me by far. So much of the season is reliant on her and her relationship with Brody, but she’s little more than a cipher, someone who has only a few salient points of character development—respected journalist! longtime friend of Abu Nazir!—and those salient points don’t really add up to anything other than someone who’s just there to keep the plot moving forward, a middleman between Brody and his terrorist handlers. Now, granted, in a serialized thriller, you need certain characters like this, but compare Roya to a similar character on another serialized thriller, Breaking Bad. On that show, Walter’s had several acquaintances for a season or so, all of whom have been there mostly to move the main plot forward but also have suggestions of their own inner lives. (My favorite in this regard is probably the poor, doomed Gale Boetticher, though let’s not suggest Breaking Bad isn’t capable of this as well. See this latest season’s Todd.) And Homeland itself is capable of these sorts of characters, developed on the fly in the margins, as we’ve seen the few times Aileen has dropped by.
Yet Roya’s never really taken hold beyond the few things we knew about her in the first episode, and now that she’s apparently in custody with just three episodes left, I’d be surprised if we get more understanding of who she is. (Then again, Aileen didn’t really pop until she was in custody, so you never know.) Considering how vital she is to the season, I consider that the biggest black mark against the show this year. Keeping Abu Nazir mostly off screen until the endgame was a smart choice. Giving Brody a go-between was a smart choice. But did she have to be such a nothing character, such a void at the middle of this storyline? When she’s taken into custody, we should feel something, even if it’s vindication that one of the bad guys has been captured, simplistic as that would be. Instead, it’s mostly just a thing that happens.
I realize that this all makes it sound like I’m as down on the episode as some of you have been on the last two, and while I think it’s a weaker hour, I’m not sure that’s really true. It’s not fair to hold my own nerves about what could happen against the show. (If you’ll check the record, I was very upset last season that Brody was revealed to be a terrorist, and that turned out to be a good story decision for the show, in the long run.) And outside of my general indifference to Roya, there were some nice moments in this episode. As I stated above, it’s rarely a good idea to keep the audience in the dark, so it might have been nice to have a prior indication that Saul and Carrie had asked Virgil and Max to look into Quinn’s background, but I also really enjoyed the way we were just dumped into this story with no context, only to have it fill itself in later. Doing story backfill can work in limited doses, and while this wasn’t my favorite thing ever, enough of it worked that I could overlook the clumsy way Saul filled us in a few scenes later. (“Now, you remember this thing we told you to do the audience never saw or heard about? Of course you do!”)
Because the truth is, if we have to have some sort of big reveal or twist this season, then Quinn’s probably the right choice. We know basically nothing about him beyond his brash arrogance and his way of pushing Carrie’s buttons. Rupert Friend’s been a fun presence to have on the show, but I can’t say that if it’s revealed that Quinn’s playing some sort of long con that runs counter to Carrie and Saul’s goals, I’ll be too upset to see him written off the show. As a recurring guest character, that’s basically his role within the show’s universe. Plus, one of the things I like best on this show is when it gets into the boring nitty-gritty of spycraft, like following a city bus and making sure you’ve still got your target when he departs said bus. It would be easy to make this show all explosions and crazy terrorist plots, and it very nearly has been that sometimes this season, but when it delves into the mundane reality of just tailing a guy, it becomes weirdly even more thrilling.
I also like the way this story point highlights one of the show’s best modes: paranoia. There’s a great scene early in the episode when Saul, Carrie, Quinn, and Estes talk in a confined space about whether they believe Brody’s story about his time with Abu Nazir, a story we in the audience know has had certain details omitted (though, admittedly, those details—mostly about Nazir and Brody praying together—are minor). It’s a great scene because it gets right back to the central question this show has always been asking: How much can you know about someone just by observing them? Carrie’s bullheaded about her certainty, but she’s been so good this season that it seems almost inevitable she’ll be wrong about something, and it could be something big, like this. The others don’t know, not exactly, and that nervy sense that none of us can know what Brody or Quinn or Estes is up to reaches out to the audience, too. I spent lots of time last season talking about how Carrie’s observation of Brody was similar to how the audience for one of these complicated dramas watches the characters and tries to figure out what they’ll do next. And as much as I’ve loved the Carrie and Brody character arcs this season, it’s nice to have this element back. As Saul says of Roya’s camera crew at one point, until these characters know any better, everybody’s a terrorist, and the show seems to be extending that notion to essentially everyone that’s not Carrie or Saul. It’s a dangerous trick to play, but if it pays off, it could be fantastic.
As much as this episode ends with one of the biggest moments of the season, when a major terrorist operation is foiled using Brody’s intelligence and Brody’s life is unexpectedly spared because Nazir has yet to be apprehended, it’s a smaller, quieter hour for most of the rest of its running time. It’s an episode that’s mostly about watching these people, about observing how Jessica reacts to being in close proximity to Mike again, say, or watching Virgil watch Quinn. Homeland is almost always at its best when it asks us to just watch the characters interacting with each other and then consider just what they might be thinking or what they might be about to do. When it falls apart is when it tries to do too much, when it tries to provide shocking reveal after shocking reveal. And, sadly, since we’re only on episode nine of 12 and we’re ending with a pretty big triumph for our characters, I can only assume the bottom is about to fall out. I just hope it does so in a way that doesn’t violate what the show has built so far, in a way that keeps its eyes on the characters as they’ve been developed and not on coming up with twists and reveals that will shock the audience but also slowly erode the trust the writers have built up with the viewers. That trust is a delicate thing, and I hope Homeland has a plan to protect it.
- Let’s just get this out of the way upfront: I find it very, very, very hard to believe that the CIA or somebody couldn’t track that helicopter that took Brody to the Baltimore area. Now, granted, I don’t know much about this sort of thing, and it’s exactly when I start saying that something could never happen that someone points out it actually could. But c’mon!
- That said, I know the implausibility factor is taking some of you out of this season, and that’s too bad. I’m certainly there on some of the plot points being a touch ridiculous, but the character study element has been strong enough for me to not care all that much. (I generally think if a plot hole or implausibility is jerking me out of the story, then there are far deeper problems with the story to begin with.) I have yet to be truly rattled by something as much as I was by the reveal of Brody’s motivation last season, which, theoretically, the whole show hinges on. I hope y’all find your way back in, like I did after that episode, but if you don’t, well, there’s always next season.
- Anybody care to take a crack at the spelling of the old CIA guy Quinn met with on the bus? (Or recognize the actor?) My screener doesn’t have captions, and I’m not touching that one with a 10-foot pole in terms of guesswork.
- Todd’s crazy theory corner: If I had to guess at what’s going on here, I’d guess that Estes and Quinn are involved in some sort of shadow plot within the government to have Abu Nazir unleash a terrorist plot on U.S. soil—thereby allowing him access to the country so he can—to further the Vice President’s goal of war against Iran. To that end, they need Nazir captured on U.S. soil to inflame public opinion, so they’re willing to look the other way when he enters the country. It’s basically like a Sept. 11 conspiracy theory or season two of 24, only with a scene where Damian Lewis sits at the bottom of a pool.
- Does anybody else still wonder if, perhaps, those camera batteries in the back of Roya’s van are just camera batteries? I know they’re probably bombs, from seeing those switches flipped, but I’m paranoid, man!
- Nice cut between Brody eating cereal alone in his house and his wife crawling into bed with another man. He’s probably going to lose everything, even though he’s doing the “right thing.”
- I like that Brody’s still so bad at being a spy. His “Roya Hamad is working with Abu Nazir!” in that scene with Walden and Estes was amusingly terrible.