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The Morning After: Yes, No, Maybe So

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Saul (Mandy Patinkin, with interrogator James Urbaniak) gets ready to face some hard truths.

“You can’t deny the facts just because you find them inconvenient.”—Saul Berenson

As I started watching last night’s Homeland, “The Good Soldier,” I noticed that the episode was written by producer Henry Brommell, the executive producer of the late, and at-least-by-me lamented Rubicon. And as the episode played out I was reminded of a episode of that episode that distinguished the show for me because of the use it made of, yep, lie detectors. As I wrote then:

In many stories, the dramatic function of lie detectors—like the ostensible actual function of lie detectors—is to eliminate ambiguity: to cut through the murk and differing possibilities and find black and white answers. Black or white, pass or fail.

In some stories, however, they show how the truth can be elided, finessed, or—think of the Xerox-lie-detector scam in The Wire and Homicide before it—gamed.

Last night’s Homeland (some spoilers ahead) again made me think of the series as a chance to improve on Rubicon—specifically it’s themes of doubt and the unknowable—with the dramatic wind-assist of a first-hand investigation of a terror plot. (Homeland places us somewhere between the a-twist-every-15-minutes overdrive of 24 and the deskbound cerebralness of Rubicon, which gives the series enough pop appeal that it’s been guaranteed a second season.)

And as in Rubicon, the polygraph here did less to clear up the murkiness around the terror story—if anything, it introduced suspicion around Saul—than it did to raise and illuminate the pressures on the investigators. As Saul’s home life continued to unravel, the lie detector served as a kind of sad visual confirmation of his interior state; the guy is so tightly wound it’s a wonder he didn’t short-circuit the machine.

And Carrie—showing a recklessness more enthralling than any high-speed chase—has her proof, having hooked up with Brody and seen him pass his adultery question, that he’s capable of lying and getting away with it. (The hookup, by the way, seemed not titallating but almost inevitable, making the eerie connection Carrie had with her quarry as a voyeur into something literal.) But she’s done so in a way that opens up an even greater gap between her and Saul.

With every episode of Homeland I watch, I wonder how long the show can maintain what it’s doing without going over the top. (When the show strays from its central characters, there are distracting 24-like notes, as in the safehouse plot and attack on Aileen and Faisal.) Yet every week so far, it pulls it off, and this episode was perhaps the show’s strongest yet; Brody’s tense showdown with Mike and his bitter, disabled comrade would have been excellent drama even without a terror-plot story attached.

A good thriller asks: who are the bad guys? Can they be stopped? A great story asks how we handle living in a world of uncertainty. Homeland, so far, is deeply satisfying on both levels. Are you still on board? Just relax and tell us the truth.

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