Tuned In

Homeland Watch: Playing It Close to the Vest

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Kent Smith/SHOWTIME

SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, stop watching that breaking-news alert about your dad and watch last night’s season finale of Homeland.

“I swore an oath to defend the United States of America against enemies both foreign and domestic.” With these words, Sgt. Nick Brody readies himself to strap on an explosive vest and take out much of the executive branch of the United States in “Marine One,” the excruciatingly tense first-season finale of Homeland.

These words are important, not just to Brody’s rationalization of his actions and to see how a Marine could turn terrorist–he sees himself as defending a country betrayed by dishonesty, not as attacking it–but to making plain the structure of Homeland’s season. The season roughly formed a butterfly shape: at the beginning, Carrie suspected Brody, at the end, she suspected him again and in the center, they slept together. That central event might be puzzling, until you see that the lovers/adversaries are very similar people: both have dealt with mental anguish, both had their lives changed by the war on terror, both feel isolated even among their own comrades–and both, in their ways, feel they are protecting the country they love.

“Marine One,” a tautly constricted and brilliantly acted episode, brought the first season to a thrilling end and used its talented two leads, Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, to show how each character dealt with the pressures of their lonely war and overcame them, or were overcome by them. (It also set up a scenario, and some potential worries, for season two, but I’ll get to that in a few minutes.)

The finale, as the title suggests, in many ways belonged to Brody, and Lewis was simply fan-damn-tastic in the climactic near-terror-attack sequence; he made the decision to end his life in a suicide attack–but for a faulty trigger switch–seem like equal parts military discipline and spiritual ecstasy. To bring himself to the point where he could flip the switch, Brody needed to bring himself to a place where he could let go of his life and see himself as a vessel of a larger purpose. But he also, as he has for some time, had to compartmentalize–to separate the avenging soldier from the loving dad, returned from the war and finally able to raise his kids.

And when Dana—prompted, if indirectly, by Carrie—calls her sequestered father, the compartment walls dramatically broke down. Lewis’ performance was obviously great here; he makes palpable how Brody is quavering under the strain of his contradictions, as if that tension himself will make him explode. But the Brody kids are remarkably well-cast too, and I like how the script and Morgan Saylor’s performance left it open to interpretation js how much she really did or didn’t believe Carrie. She tells Carrie she’s a liar, and yet—as Brody said and Carrie repeats here—she knows her father better than anyone, and she knows something is off. Yet she doesn’t simply accuse him; she can’t quite let herself go there. She needs to believe in him, and so instead she pushes her dad, demanding that he promise to come home. At which point you can almost see something switch off in Brody. The bomb has been defused.

But not dismantled. Leaving Brody in a position to become a congressman, and a close confidante of the next President, is a step forward that makes sense in terms of continuing the story and the chase into another season, or seasons. I’m not sure it made sense to have this plan B be Brody’s suggestion rather than Abu Nazir’s, though. We know that Nazir plays the long game, and that he’s a man who thinks through his possible moves well in advance; it would have made more sense to me that he would have seen that Brody was still useful alive—maybe more so—rather than need Brody to explain it to him. But the way Brody proves his loyalty, killing Walker after his “death” had haunted Brody through the early part of the season, shows that he is a changed, and seriously hardened, soldier.

For Carrie, meanwhile, the season ended with a defeat and a kind of triumph: triumph in that she was exactly right about Brody’s threat and Abu Nazir’s plot; defeat in that she could persuade no one to believe her–Brody’s attack was only stopped by a malfunction and the bank shot of Dana’s call–and could not even count on support from Saul, who with the best intentions foiled her from stopping Brody. It seems there was no “mole” in the government, after all, just old-fashioned bureaucracy and politics—CIA CYA.

This is the other parallel between Carrie and Brody: ultimately her and Brody’s stories are about betrayal, how people deal with it and the blowback that it creates. And they’re also–however Brody’s ideals have been twisted by Abu Nazir–about a sense of duty, which persists even when it’s unreciprocated. When Virgil tells Carrie that stopping an attack is not her job any more, her reply is maybe her most essential line of the series: “It will always be my job!”

In the process of trying to do that job, she finishes the work of convincing everyone that she is insane. (“The world is about to end, and we’re standing around talking!”) Including, ultimately, herself, as she submits to electroshock to try to still the disturbance in her head. One aspect of Homeland that sometimes gets lost in all the politics, post-9/11 significance and thriller plots is that it’s a story about genius and its tradeoffs.

Carrie’s story is one that usually gets told through mathematicians, scientists, artists or chess masters (A Beautiful Mind, Shine, Nabokov’s The Defense): the brilliant person whose ability to see patterns that no one else can is inseparable from their mania or mental illness. Carrie’s genius and her illness are part of her, and she acknowledges Saul’s worry that shocking the latter out of her just might destroy the former as well. But she has finally come to see her gift as a burden, and a thankless one at that–and given her experience this season, who can blame her?

So on the one hand, we go into Homeland’s season two wondering what Brody will become—and therefore, what the show will. His rise in politics could be a way of deepening the show’s intrigue and raising its stakes, or it could be a way of keeping him alive and a menace for as many seasons as it takes for the ratings to drop. Showtime is the series that gave us Dexter, after all, so you’d be right to worry whether the show now becomes “How will Carrie almost catch Brody this year? She’ll get him someday!” But this first season has been so well executed that I’m at least looking forward to seeing how season 2 handles the question, not dreading it.

And we also go into next year wondering what our heroine will be: if she’ll be “cured,” and if she will thereby have lost what makes her so essential. In much the same way, what makes Brody dangerous, and brings him to the verge of a heinous act, is inseparable from his ideals and his honor. It’s a fine line, for both Homeland’s leads, between brilliance and madness, duty and mania.

It’s a tribute to Homeland’s psychological acuity that its last, thrilling twist is something that takes place entirely in Carrie’s head: the fleeting memory of Brody crying out in the night that connects him to the death of Nazir’s son. She falls asleep chasing that memory as desperately as she chased the physical Brody in his explosive vest. The last words we hear from her: “Don’t let me forget.” Damn sure I won’t.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* I’m not sure it could have been handled much differently, given the structure of this story, but it’s too bad Walker entered and left Homeland as much of an enigma as he was. I’d have loved to see his turning, like Brody’s, from his own perspective (presumably his beating by Brody had a lot to do with it) and heard his own motivations for doing what he did.

* I don’t want to spend too much of this season speculating on what season two (and beyond) of Homeland will be like and whether the show can sustain itself: it either will or it won’t, I don’t have a crystal ball, and it’s all in the execution. Still, with Carrie having twice voiced suspicions about Brody that have been “disproven,” there are only so many more times the show can go that route, right? (Even Dexter at least has different people nearly expose him before skating off for season after season.)

* One of my earliest recollections of watching My So-Called Life was: God damn, can Claire Danes cry. Angela Chase cried like a real teenager cries: her face would get red and moist and screwed up, her breath would get labored—I’d half expect snot to bubble out of her nose. Danes has not lost it: her wrenching, physical meltdowns as Carrie are only a reminder of how false and glossy so many on-screen tears really are.

* “I didn’t want to upset you.” “Well, it’s a good thing you didn’t shoot a deer or step out on Mom or beat the shit out of Mike.” Best father-daughter relationship on TV!

* This probably goes without saying, but having an explosive vest onstage is a damn fine way to concentrate your viewers’ attention. I’m not sure I breathed the entire time Dana and Brody were talking through the door while he wrestled the vest on and off.

* Finally, I said I’m not going to try to crystal-ball the future of Homeland, but that shouldn’t stop you. I’m assuming we don’t have a show without Carrie somehow involved in investigations again, but–since she’s only deepened the impression of her as unstable, dangerous and wrong–how? Is Brody moving from being a weapon to being a Manchurian Candidate, what do you expect his role in the show will be from here on?

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