SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, stop staring out that window and watch last night’s Homeland.
“Is this for real? Are you just handling me, keeping me close?”
What makes Homeland a good TV show, an entertaining, thrilling TV show, are its stories about terrorism, spycraft, politics and lies. What makes it a great TV show is that it is above all about the people involved in those stories — and in particular how being entangled in a world of lies and conflicting demands stresses them, damages them and in particular breaks them.
“The Clearing” advances the thriller subplot slowly, and takes our characters down some blind alleys, but it’s very revealing of Homeland’s human story. Each subplot is about a relationship whose members have genuine connections but also private motivations. Each wants something from one another, each knows something is wanted from them — even if they don’t know what it is — and each wants to figure out what in their world is real or, failing that, how to escape.
(MORE: Homeland Watch: Trust No One)
If I were to quibble about the season so far, it would be that Saul Berenson, a fascinating character in Season 1, has not had many spotlights of his own. In the first season he was integral to the terrorist hunt and an important counterpart to Carrie: just as her work cost her mental stability, his work cost him his marriage. And one of the most revealing episodes for him last season took him on a cross-country ride with terrorist suspect Aileen, the privileged, radicalized American terrorist. You might think they had little in common, but their shared sense of hurt and humanity let Saul forge a key connection with her.
Now Saul needs Aileen again, but we find that there are limits to his understanding of her. He pleads with her; he confronts the warden who resents Saul’s attempt to bigfoot him; he brings her wine and cheese. He feels that he knows her, he genuinely sympathizes and he again works a key revelation out of her.
Or so he believes. In fact, the tip she gives him turns out to be fraudulent, a deception that puzzles him — what does she have to gain? — until he realizes she’s not out to gain anything at all but to lose it. After he finds her bleeding out, he’s shaken and upset, purportedly for professional reasons; he was “sloppy.” But it’s clear that the real hit is personal.
The events of last season have left Saul in his own form of solitary confinement, alone without his wife; has he been kidding himself to believe he could survive that? The episode shows off Mandy Patinkin’s brilliant, understated character work; he manages to show what effort it takes for Saul to maintain his constant front of unflappability, which makes it all the more effective when it fails him.
The episode mainly flashes back and forth from Saul and Aileen’s wine-and-cheese party to a different kind of soiree, the fundraiser at which Brody is commanded to keep Walden “very happy” and Dana is determined to spill the discomfiting news of the hit and run.
The tragedy of the way the two events come together is that Brody — who aborted his suicide mission because of Dana — is unable to support her in her honesty because he’s compelled to be dishonest, because of his obligations to Abu Nazir, to Walden and to the U.S. government. Dana, who sees integrity with the fiery unforgiving eye of a teenager, declares that her father is “bullshit,” a liar — true, of course, but on levels beyond what even she expects. In a complicated bank shot of betrayal, in order to protect the country from an attack (and himself from exposure), Finn must be protected, the hit-and-run victim must become collateral damage — and his own daughter must be thrown, so to speak, under the bus.
Brody is under enough pressure to squeeze him into a diamond, and in the midst of all this he meets up again with Carrie, whom he lashes out at and clings to with equal passion. I’m impressed with the adult way Homeland deals with Carrie’s and Brody’s attraction; it’s not just a spy-who-loved me weakness for either of them but simple attraction, complicated by the fact that they are the only two people in the world either can be honest with.
And yet — with good reason — they distrust each other all the same. And, to an extent, themselves: as Carrie says, she can’t entirely say how much of her behavior is genuine attraction to Brody and how much is the need to control him. It’s not, to say the least, a recipe for a healthy relationship, any more than any of the others depicted in this episode.
In the closing moments, Brody explodes at Carrie: “This is not O.K.! None of this is fucking O.K.!” It’s the most honest thing anyone has said all hour.
Now a hail of bullets:
- Some of Saul’s best lines are the smallest asides: “A big shot from the big city with his fine credentials and Heaven-may-care grooming …” “Excuse me?” “… doesn’t have the kind of power he’s accustomed to.” Love that “Excuse me?”
- I understand that in a thrilleresque narrative there’s often a need for a character whose role is disseminating information from point A to point B; take the gossipy Marie in Breaking Bad. But is Jess not capable of keeping a secret about anything?
- Another key relationship in the series, and maybe the most heartbreaking, is between Brody and Dana. More than anything he wants to do right by her, and yet, from the moment he went over to Abu Nazir, it became impossible. Brody’s a good liar, but you also get a sense of how excruciating it is for him to lie to his daughter, and her finding him with Carrie is not likely to help matters at home.
- “I do feel used … But I also feel good. Two minutes with you and I feel good. How do you pull that off?” I love the way Brody says this, then suddenly pulls away — wary, confused, even angry.
- “There’s a terrorist event on the horizon and Brody is essential to our plan. So if we weren’t clear enough … cease and fucking desist.” Is there any way this whole business does not end badly for Mike?