If Homeland is going to go completely wackadoo on us, then the least it can do is be entertainingly wackadoo, instead of solemnly so. There are traces of both in “One Last Time”—which might as well be called “Nicholas Brody, We Are Going To Kill You But Only If Showtime Lets Us”—but the overriding sense one has by the end of the episode is of the show merrily flying off the rails again, waving farewell to the few things that was keeping it grounded. For God’s sake, the centerpiece of the episode was a training montage straight out of Rocky, in which Brody went from heroin addict to guy who was ready for the field over about three weeks. (Figure a few days for the detox, then the 16 days between the cut from his first run to his remarkably improved run.) One of the segments of this involved him reading a skin mag as an eye test (I think), so somebody somewhere in this show realizes on some level how ridiculous this is and is having fun with us. At least I hope they are.
And, honestly, for all of the faults Homeland has had in the post-“Q&A” era, one can’t really fault it for the simple fact of shitty timing. The fact that this episode is airing the same weekend as the one where Iran has made historic concessions in its quest to build a nuclear weapon is a corner the show boxed itself into, sure, but there’s no way it could have read the future like that. In the universe of Homeland, Iran is an aggressor state backed up against the edge of war with Israel, and Saul is having to destabilize the regime to put people in place who might be willing to have talks with the United States. In our world, those talks have already happened, and there are tentative signs of hope in the relationship between our two nations. Maybe since this episode technically takes place in April or May, the writers can claim this is the secret story of how Saul Berenson saved the world.
All of this, in many ways, is the simple offshoot of the thing that most separates Homeland from the show people most frequently compare it to: 24. On 24, the show’s writers were never afraid of being ruthless with character economy. They would write people out and kill people off and jump forward a couple of years in time between seasons if it made sense for the story. On Homeland, the series has deliberately paced itself, moving forward only a handful of months at a time between seasons and rigidly sticking to much the same story it was telling in the pilot (though there have been hints of the show leaving that behind this season). And that means not just that the show can’t leave behind Brody or his family, regardless of how many problems that causes the storytelling, but also that it can’t adjust itself to changing global geopolitics in our reality. Which often leaves it the victim of shitty timing.
But I’m willing to bet even the show’s harshest critics are willing to concede it that. To enjoy a show like this, you usually have to be willing to play by the rules of its own reality and suspend your disbelief a little bit. What’s harder to take is the way that everything on the series keeps coming back to Carrie and Brody. On the one hand, I completely understand it. No matter how strange or silly or stupid the story is between these two, the chemistry between Claire Danes and Damian Lewis is magnetic. It’s impossible to take your eyes off of them when they’re on screen together, even if they’re shoveling you complete horseshit. This is the kind of chemistry it’s easy to get addicted to when making a TV show, because it’s something that can’t be replicated: a happy accident that arises in the process of seeing dailies and realizing what spark exists between two of your actors. (Reportedly, Homeland didn’t even cast to this and only discovered it while shooting season one.) In that first scene, when Carrie walks into the room where Brody is being held and just looks at him for a good long while, all of my other concerns and qualms about the storyline—which at that point was mired in a heroin detox that seemed like it would bog down the entire episode in pointless misery (this was before the Rocky montage, of course)—wandered away for the space of time in which those two actors shared the screen. It wasn’t great TV, but it was magnetic TV, and that’s something that the show will struggle to replicate if it eventually kills off one or both characters.
And I think it pretty much has to kill off Brody if it’s ever going to be about anything again. Say what you will about the first two-thirds of the season. They were slow-moving and gummy, the plotting was all over the place, and Leo and Dana went on an international art heist spree, but at least they were trying to build some sort of thematic criticism of the operations of the Central Intelligence Agency and/or the way that espionage tends to turn people into hollow shells of themselves. With Brody in the picture, though, the show veers back toward being a series about a doomed romance that the series simply can’t escape. I used to think the writers either were more convinced of Carrie and Brody’s true love than anyone watching or simply found it more interesting than we did, but this episode makes it seem like a shambling zombie storyline they simply can’t put down once and for all. The only way Carrie comes to her senses about Brody is if he’s firmly and completely revealed to have been a traitor all along. I don’t expect the show to do that, and even if it did, I no longer trust the character of Carrie to realize the insanity that would be continuing to pursue a relationship with that man.
I’m thinking about this because Andy Greenwald over at Grantland, where I occasionally moonlight, wrote a really perceptive thing on Friday about how the show has completely lost track of the Carrie that once made this show more than the sum of its parts. Claire Danes’ performance is still dead-on, and she largely sells everything the show asks her to do, but the Carrie of the show now is so far from the Carrie of the show then. Increasingly, I think that’s because of Brody. She’s so willing to sacrifice everything to exonerate him that the show has lost sight of the brilliant but troubled woman she was back in the show’s earliest days (and even on into much of season two). And while I can understand how it’s difficult for the show to pull away from that chemistry, having Brody around makes it that much harder to see the forest for the trees.
And yet you can still sort of see the bare bones of the show that might still be, the one that could return to the series at its best. In every scene where Saul and Carrie share the screen, glaring away at each other, their relationship struggling to stay seaworthy under all of the weight they’ve placed on it, there’s a hint of a series not about an unexpected romantic connection but about a surrogate father and surrogate daughter whose connection is tattered and maybe even frayed by the things he asks her to do for the safety of their family (in this case, the family being their country). Sooner or later, every agent in the show becomes just another tool to achieve some end, and that apparently extends to a heroin addict the characters fished out of a Venezuelan hellhole and recruited to kill Iran’s defense minister.
The Brody silliness, however, makes it hard to see whatever better show lurks within this season. My colleague Myles McNutt wrote something smart a few weeks ago about how he wasn’t bothered by the plausibility of the season’s big twist because he increasingly turned to Homeland for things other than the tightly plotted character drama with big twists the show had been for a season and change. Instead, he was looking for a story that more or less kept chugging along, which the twist definitely provided. But the utter speed and insanity with which Brody is yanked in and out of the United States in this episode gives the lie to that approach. It’s definitely entertaining—not entirely in a good way, but, again, I think the show knows that this is all very silly and intends us to laugh at at least some of the ridiculousness—but it has absolutely no dramatic weight. Leaving Brody in that Venezuelan cell, regardless of how miserable it was, had tons of dramatic weight. Whatever happens here feels cheapened by the speed and implausibility of how it happens. Brody being the CIA’s only chance to kill their Iranian target is something I’ll go with. Brody detoxing from heroin in a few days because of a miracle drug is something I’ll go with. Hell, I’ll go with Brody being convicted of the righteousness of this new mission and turning his life around in 16 days. But all of them together? In the same episode? It becomes much too much.
There’s at least an attempt to engage with the character Brody actually is, rather than the person he’s become in Carrie’s head. There’s mention of the suicide vest, of all of the people who’ve died because he was around. He goes to see Dana at the end of the episode, and she wants nothing to do with him. The whole encounter does less to soothe him and far more to rub in just how shitty her life has become since he returned from his time in captivity. When the series began, Brody and Carrie were fascinating figures because they were both frayed nerves operating in situations where being a frayed nerve was at best inconvenient and at worst dangerous. But because of their presence around others in their lives, everybody they know has become a frayed nerve. That’s unbalanced the show, but it makes for some pretty good sequences whenever one or the other realizes the consequences of what they’ve done.
To be sure, the scenes where someone confronts Brody about all of the pain he’s left in his wake are good stuff. But they’re also the sorts of things that the show has been offering variations on since the first few episodes of its run. Brody’s absence was a problem, but his presence was even worse. Good. We got it. “One Last Time” is like a hyperspeed version of every other story arc Brody has had throughout the history of the show, mostly notable for bringing in Chris Chalk and Navid Negahban to offer up a sort of This Is Your Life tour of Brody’s existence. And maybe that was the right call. Maybe the payoff in the final three episodes will be so seismic that it was worth it to speed through the reintegration of Brody into the cast. Maybe not doing so would have been even clumsier, even more like a rehash of stuff the show has already done. Maybe the writers just didn’t want to do yet another story about Brody’s allegiances. I get all of that. But it doesn’t make everything that happens in this episode any less bizarre.
I know that a bunch of you have been agitating many weeks that this show isn’t the same without Brody in it, that it was always meant to be, on some level, his story, and without him present, that unbalances a lot of the rest of the show. It’s something I’m more or less sympathetic to, particularly when it comes to the stories about his family. Damian Lewis is a fantastic actor, and, again, that chemistry between him and Danes is something else. And, hell, when last week’s episode ended with Saul going to get Brody for some reason, I was as excited as anyone to see what was next. But that “some reason” turns out to be yet another mission, and even if Saul’s aims are slightly larger this time around than they have been in the past, it’s still just another excuse to put Brody in a morally compromised position and keep wringing out a dry dishrag.
The thing is that this show isn’t Brody’s show, and it never has been. It’s feinted toward being one several times—most notably in the period between “Q&A” and season two’s over-the-top endgame—but this is ultimately a show about Carrie Mathison and maybe Saul Berenson. I’ve lamented a bunch of times this season that Carrie’s character isn’t really working, blaming everything from trying to tell a dramatic story (which has to change) based on mental illness (which must remain a constant on some level) to the show simply throwing things at the wall. But at some point, the show lost Carrie because she fell for Brody so hard that she couldn’t climb back out, and I’m afraid the series doesn’t even realize that. To regain its footing, Homeland must redesign and reinvent itself. I’m as hopeful as anyone that the show can do that—I’ve still even mostly liked this season on the whole—but more than anything, “One Last Time” terrifies me that no one involved knows what’s wrong with the show.
Grade: B- for BRODY TRAINING MONTAGE!
- In case you missed it, I think it is time we started giving this show some American Horror Story grades. At this point, I cannot say I will know what I think of this season until the finale.
- Speaking of that training montage, I know that Brody was doing the card thing to work on his concentration, but it would be so great if he got to Iran and was all, “Wanna see a really shitty card trick? Show me three cards, and I will remember them.”
- I’m glad to hear that Meredith Stiehm will be rejoining the show’s writing staff for seasons four and five (not yet ordered but virtually assured because Showtime). She always had a great bead on Carrie as a character, and the series needs that more than ever. And she’ll be helping out with the third season finale!
- I was so amused by that scene where Brody is talking to Dana and he never once mentions Chris or anything like that, almost as if he’s forgotten he has another kid. And then when he’s in the car with Carrie, he says that something other than his daughter will be what brings him back, and he exchanges a meaningful glance with her. I almost wanted her to say, “Chris?” and then have him reply, “I don’t care for Chris.”
- Question: Is Brody able to visit Dana because the CIA detail has been completely pulled from her? I assume that’s the case, but wouldn’t that just make somebody somewhere—probably Lockhart—suspicious that he’s back in the country?
- Speaking of Lockhart, he turns out to be the person behind Alain’s spying on Saul. This might have been okay if it led to something, but it, instead, simply meant the extension of an arbitrary deadline the show had set for itself and could have extended for literally any other reason it came up with. This particular bit of the story didn’t really teach us anything new about anyone. Ugh.
- Dana asks, “Do you want me to tell you you were a good father?” and the expression on Brody’s face is all, “Hey, I don’t wanna put words in your mouth, but…”
- Even in a mess of an episode, Virgil is always good for a couple of good lines. I get why he can’t be a regular (there’s no need to have him in every episode), but man, I love that character.
- Man, do I want somebody somewhere to be outsmarting Saul at this point. He seems like some sort of omniscient supreme being right now, and I dearly need that to not be the case. On the other hand, I thought it was appropriate that both he and Carrie knew just where Brody was all along.
- The plot to get Brody into and out of Iran is so convoluted that he pretty much has to die at this point, right? If he doesn’t, then I hope he takes a gunshot to the gut, and Showtime president David Nevins himself runs onscreen, shouting, “Goddammit, don’t you die!” then performs CPR for a good five minutes until someone pulls him away. “No, David! He’s gone!” Finally, David seems like he’s accepted the natural course of all things, even TV characters, until he tears himself away from those holding him back, racing forward, pounding on Brody’s chest, until he gasps for breath.
- Okay, but Brody trying to kill himself with a chair was pretty hardcore. No chewing your wrists open, but close enough.