Tuned In

Oh, No, They Didn’t! The Problem With Homeland’s Addiction to Twists

Pulling the rug out under your audience can be effective sometimes. But do it too often, and we stop believing there's a floor underneath.

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Kent Smith / Showtime

Sunday night on Homeland, everything re-re-re-changed. (Spoiler alert: As I said, I’m talking about Sunday night’s Homeland. Stop reading if that’s going to be a problem for you.) As it turns out, pretty much everything we’ve seen in Carrie’s season to date–Saul’s betrayal of her, her breakdown and loss of control, her temptation to sell out to the Iranians–was all part of an elaborate ruse concocted by her and Saul to catch the perpetrators of the Langley bombing. This in turn, spurred a debate among fans: was it the coolest fake-out ever, or the most implausible thing the show has ever done?

My answer: I don’t care.

I mean, I care in the sense that I notice if a big twist on Homeland doesn’t track logically with what we’ve already seen in the show–not just Carrie’s interactions with others but even her private reactions–and yeah, this one has a lot of problems there. I can think of an umbrella excuse for all that: for the plan to work, it had to fool someone (say Dar Adal) who had Carrie under total surveillance, and we were watching the show from that POV. Does it make real life sense? No! Does it make crazytown, Homeland, text-a-terrorist-from-a-secure-CIA-room sense? Sure, why not, what doesn’t? (Hell, if Dick Cheney himself believed someone could hack his wireless pacemaker, there’s probably no point in nitpicking Homeland’s verisimilitude again ever.)

I also care that, whether the twist makes crazytown-TV sense or not, it’s based primarily on screwing with the viewer’s investment in the season to date. That is, to accept the twist, you more or less have to be happy with the first part of the season being all but a dream. The producers essentially said, “Did you like the storytelling direction of the first third of this season? Too bad, sucker! That’s gone!”

But my biggest problem is that I don’t want Homeland to start indulging its worst tendencies again. By the second half of its second season, it became clear that Homeland was a show addicted to twists–in order to top the thrills and shocks that the first season delivered, it resorted, over and over, to increasingly far-fetched big reveals and “game changers,” swooping in at the end of episode after episode like so many helicopters landing in the dark.

The reason I was (guardedly) happy with the first two episodes of Homeland when I first saw them was that, even if Carrie’s situation was a downer and there was too much Dana, it seemed like the show had realized it couldn’t go on at its current pace and was dialing itself back. (Ditto the Brody-centric third episode, which was an effective set piece even if I’m not yet sure how it relates to the larger story.)

Now it turns out that Homeland was just setting up “its biggest twist yet”–until its next biggest twist yet. And it did it in a way that subordinated what we know of the central characters to the needs of pulling off a shocker. That’s the route to the wackier excesses of 24 (whose third season, you might remember, also began with a long-con twist involving a deep-cover operation).

Surprise twists are like a cheap drug for thriller dramas. They’re a rush, they give you a quick fix–but over time, you develop a tolerance. If you occasionally pull the rug out from under your audience, in a way that’s clever and serves the story, that can be effective.

But pull the rug out too often, and the audience loses its investment, because you’re not telling a story anymore, just playing a game. A “successful” twist is not just defined by whether we didn’t see it coming; you can always fake your audience out if you’re willing to sacrifice enough character and story continuity to do it. Even in the twistiest story, there has to be some root narrative grounding the audience believes in. There needs to be a floor somewhere, not just rugs all the way down.

11 comments
Matrices
Matrices

I understand that a show can pull out the rug from the viewer too much, but I don't see how Homeland is in danger of this.  The only similar rug-pulling twist I recall is when it was revealed Walker was alive in Season 1.

Lucelucy
Lucelucy

I liked this episode - I was relieved to discover that "it worked." I have a big problem with shows where characters suddenly turn into people they aren't - Bill Compton as a megalomaniac in True Blood, for one. Carrie being forced to work for the opposition might have been carried out believably if the "creepy lawyer guy" hadn't sprung "we need to know who fingered our six guys and how they did it" on her from the get go. As it is, I immediately distrusted her eventual turn-around - and I'm thinking that clg probably does too. 

But I like that she's working with Saul and has been for some time - I too flashed on her solo moment of horror watching Saul out her at the hearings - but I remember thinking at the time, "Saul wouldn't do that. Not unless he's turning into Bill Compton, he didn't." So - wonder if they/she knew all along that her place was bugged. Bur I'm relieved that it was a plan. And I'm still watching.

The Dana/Brody family drama - for my money, they've got three choices. (a) Drop it. (b) Weave their story into the story as a whole somehow.in an interesting believable way. Or (c) Spin it off as a drama about the survivors in families with a family member who has turned terrorist or mass murderer. Which I probably wouldn't watch for fear of improbably heart-warming moments.

fijidan
fijidan

Having gone back and watched the episodes again, this reviewer is mistaken, I believe. The plan with Saul was not planned from the beginning. Rather, I think that this plan was agreed upon AFTER Carrie sent the message back to Saul that she's "given up" and "will do anything" to get sprung from the hospital. I think that Dal Adar was, in fact, trying to get Carrie discredited (leak of DOJ document to Senate committee, leak to newspaper about her affair with Brody). Saul has been trying to save the CIA's future, but conflicted about Adar's intent to "throw her under the bus". Ultimately, the parallel lines of events( Carriegate and the hunt for the head Iranian guy, Javani) converged in Saul's mind and the plan was hatched to use the "deranged" Agency pariah as bait for Javani's network----ultimately attracting the creepy lawyer guy and his firm representing Javani.


The surprise, agitation, and despair that Carrie went through after Saul's testimony (including her reaction when watching it on TV in private---that wasn't faked for a "plan"--she was truly blown away) was real. Also, all of her extreme acting out in the hospital didn't seem faked for any plan.

AshwaniSarda
AshwaniSarda

The "elaborate ruse" would seem like a tribute-adaptation of the sequence in that benchmark for the genre, "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold", in which the lead protagonist in that book/script, Alec Leamas, was "sacked" and seemed to hit Skid Row. It's a great plot device and has been nicely executed in the series.

Ally18
Ally18

I love the show, just finished episode four and I don't see what the problem is? It's homeland there are huge plot-twists to keep people interested and watching! 


Sahib_G
Sahib_G

this is not the "biggest twist" as stated vby the James. the last episode of season three was the biggest twist! If you are whining so much about the inferior quality of this show then stop watching! I for one am still gonna watch every episode

DJK99
DJK99

Apparently James Poniewozik doesn't like quality television and being outsmarted by those in the writer's room. 

buffalo.barnes102
buffalo.barnes102

All television is written so the "dumbest guy in the room" can figure it out.

bojimbo26
bojimbo26

I'm in the UK , watched season 1 and I'm afraid I found it totally boring . Won't be watching anymore .

BrandCustodian
BrandCustodian

After season 3 dismal writing, I've decided to drop the show entirely. 

HJK
HJK

I do not find the first movement of Homeland's third season to be "all like a dream" because I think the emotional beats they hit on--namely, that Carrie actually does feel hugely responsible for this attack and that her meds made her "off her game" and that there is a rift between her and Saul (of course, not to the degree we thought, but she tells him he shouldn't have left her in the hospital and he kind of just hugs her and doesn't seem to listen)--to be still enormously true. Only time will tell if everything is negated, but I don't think it will be.

This feels like only the second "twist" the show has done (the other being the reveal that Brody was in fact turned after we thought only Tom Walker had been), and this one was very effective for me and greatly satisfying. I don't think a "game changer" is the same thing as a twist, although the differentiation is tricky. It's a game changer when Carrie arrests Brody in his hotel room, but is it a plot twist? Not really, we all assumed it would happen, just not so quickly. In fact that can be said a lot about Homeland's second season. There weren't very many plot twists but the storytelling was just going at turbo speed, which was sometimes a good thing and sometimes a not so good thing.