Tuned In

Homeland Watch: The Expendables

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, get yourself a glass of white wine—just a glass of white wine!—and watch last night’s Homeland.

“A flat tire. When he was in Iraq, I bet he never thought he’d deal with something as mundane as car trouble again.”

You could see “State of Independence” as Homeland taking a break after a breakneck two episodes. (This despite the fact this hour did literally involve the breaking of a neck.) Viewed strictly on a plot level, the episode doesn’t go very far. Whatever mischief Abu Nazir has planned, we don’t know a lot more about it. Ditto Brody’s nascent career in national politics.

Much of the hour is spent giving Brody something to do, juggling competing pressures of duty to Jessica and duty to Nazir, who sends him on an errand—ferrying the tailor to a safehouse—that goes about as well as you might have guessed. And we end the episode, as we did last week, watching Brody’s martyrdom video, this time with Carrie seeing, as Saul did, that she was right. This episode may figure more integrally into the larger season 2 arc once it’s all said and done, but it seems like an episode that—simply from a plot standpoint—you could skip without losing anything essential.

(MORE: Homeland Watch: The Inside Man)

All that said: what made the first season of Homeland great—what distinguished it from predecessors like 24—is that it’s not a show to watch simply from a plot standpoint. It runs in both higher and lower gears. It’s only half about the cat-and-mouse game between Carrie and Brody; it’s also about what the grinding demands of each character’s respective cause have done to them.

The fascinating thing that Homeland has done with Brody so far this season is to take a character who ended last season in seeming triumph and present him as a figure of crushing, accumulated damage. This begins here before his ill-fated road trip from Gettysburg. His prepared speech that Jessica reads—about preparing to die without seeing the family who would be better off without him—could as well be written by a man who prepared to blow himself up as by a man expecting to die a POW. And his brief encounter with Jess in the kitchen reminds us of the post-captivity sexual dysfunction season one showed us in him, and their meeting at the end of the episode reminds us that the wounds from his fling with Carrie, and her relationship with Mike, have not healed.

But let’s move on to the actual wounds. At first, I didn’t love the safehouse subplot; it felt like the episode was simply giving Brody something to do, another of a series of cases in which he’d be torn between being a congressman and being Nazir’s bagman. Here at least, though, the mission turned into a demonstration of just what the jihad has done to those who have given themselves to it.

Brody’s bombmaking friend, after all, is also someone who has been very useful in service to Nazir. And yet he also—in what might, or should, be a preview of Brody’s possible future—knows that he’s very much expendable. He hears “I’m taking you to the safehouse” like someone saying, “Let’s go for a drive to the country” to a dog who needs to be put down. He thinks he knows where that drive is going to end, acts accordingly—and thus, unwittingly, brings about the very fate that he feared.

(MORE: Homeland Watch: They Pull Them Back In)

What’s almost touchingly innocent, though, is that it seems to never occur to Brody why the tailor is running, or why he might even believe that. And he ends up proving the man right, even as he tries to save him, in a gesture chilling in its casualness—snapping his neck without missing a beat as he tries to explain his “car trouble” to Jess on the phone. It’s a story almost Twilight Zone-like in its dark irony: this path, the one that Brody is on too, ends only one place, no matter how you run or fight to avoid it.

At the same time, Carrie is finding herself disposable—if in a different way—to the government she served, as she’s thanked effusively for her service in Beirut and told to hit the road. Ironically, Estes’ thank you is one of the few times he seems genuinely grateful and without animosity toward Carrie, and yet—whether he realizes it or not—it’s a horrible thing he’s done to her. Just as she’d adjusted to life as a different kind of person, the mission reminded her of what she truly is and wants to be—and then she’s told she can’t be that anymore.

Which means she’s nothing. And she chooses nothingness—almost. “State of Independence” makes Brody’s struggle external and wrenchingly physical (to the point that we see him hosing the gore off himself off in a car wash). Carrie’s struggle is internal, and Claire Danes does an unsurprisingly brilliant job making us see it—from her preparation to kill herself (dressing up as if for a night out) to her eyes flaring open as the self-preservation instinct kicks in.

That’s not a surprise; I wasn’t seriously expecting Homeland to kill off its star in the third episode of the second season. But it lent special power to Saul’s showing her Brody’s video—you can practically see the waves of guilt and self doubt evaporating off her as she says, “I was right.”

On a lesser show—a terrorism drama that was all about the threat and the chase—I’d have ended the episode wondering: will this be enough to stop Brody? Instead I ended up wondering: will this be enough to save Carrie?

Now for a hail of bullets:

* Ladies and gentlemen, Claire Danes, Best Cryer on Television! Just look at her face when she watches that video, the way the tremor travel up her face, from her chin to her mouth. She’s had this talent since My So-Called Life, where Angela’s face would turn red and simply melt. A lot of actors can give you tears and sadness; I have rarely seen one, like Danes, demonstrate how real crying is something that involves your whole body.

* Congratulations, Homeland, you faked me out. I totally thought the show was going to conveniently disappear Saul’s flash drive, leaving him and Carrie both knowing Brody’s guilt and unable to prove it. That said, he’s shown it to no one else so far (I have not watched the previews or any other advance screeners). Should we assume he backed up his files?

* Things quality cable dramas have taught us: ladies, if you think your husband is concealing an affair, relax. He’s probably just a meth dealer or a terrorist.