Tuned In

Homeland Watch: E-Mail My Heart

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, have your friend point a Blackberry at the TV and Skype you last night’s episode of Homeland.

“Did you think it would be easy? That you could betray me and just walk away?”

Homeland, as exemplified by “Broken Hearts,” is walking a fine line right now. Or actually, no: it’s run-staggering down that fine line, bleeding from a cut on its forehead after being held prisoner for about 20 minutes, trying to flag down a passing car and yelling “Asshole!” at it when it doesn’t stop. That fine line is the line between crazytown plotting and the strikingly good one-on-one encounters that those plot twists set up, between the standard-terror-thriller escape scenarios and the little grace notes—like the “Asshole!” moment on the road—that remind you Homeland is still something different, and stranger.

So, yeah: this week Carrie spent a brief sojourn as the prisoner of the most wanted terror suspect on the planet, who was able to spirit himself into a lair somewhere outside the U.S. capital because, look, a bird! So yeah, one of our characters was able to slip into the unmonitored office of the Vice President and secure the secret pacemaker access code he had lying around—as one does—so that terrorists could kill him by hacking his heart.

I’ve busted Homeland’s chops earlier about plausibility, particularly Nazir’s coming-to-America development. But it’s just that: chop-busting, not a major point of concern. Homeland, after all, is a series about a brainwashed prisoner of war who comes back to America to get elected to Congress and serve as a sleeper agent. Which real-life brainwashed-POW-turned-VP-frontrunner scenarios am I comparing it with, exactly?

What bugged me about “Broken Hearts” is not so much the outlandishness of the twists as the rate at which they’re happening now. What separates Homeland from other “adrenaline-pounding” espionage thrillers is that, once it sets up its basic popcorn-movie level of reality, it allows its story to play out patiently, at the pace the characters dictate it should, while paying as much attention to what’s going on inside the characters as outside them.

To use the now-popular 24 comparison, the problem there wasn’t the cougar so much as the show’s need to throw a cougar at you every hour to sustain your interest. That’s what “Broken Hearts” most worrisomely felt like. There’s plenty in Homeland to keep our attention already; I don’t want it to become a conveyor belt of frying-pans-and-fires with a different character abducted, then thrown back into play, every week. (Put another way, maybe: people can accept a few huge implausibilities if a show builds a compelling world on them. The problem is when it creates a blizzard of small implausibilities to continually shake up that world.)

Within its heightened hour (actually, closer to 42 minutes), though, the episode managed to throw in a number of fine scenes that set up, then played against, our expectations of the genre. There was Carrie, plastic-cuffed to a pipe by her wrists, a visual that almost on a muscle-memory level now leads us to expect the heroine to cut her shackles and escape; instead, she ended up cuffed by her ankles as well. There was the interrogation between her and Nazir, almost worth the cuckoo price of admission, not so much for their debate on “Who’s the real terrorist?” as for their talk about a mutually familiar subject—how pain can be bound up with love. There was, maybe my favorite bit in the whole episode, the subtle verbal fencing between old hands Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) and Saul. (“I miss the rules. The Soviets didn’t shoot us, we didn’t shoot them. Not this bunch.”)

And there was Brody watching the light go out of Walden’s eyes, his tension yielding to satisfaction at helping to kill the man who killed Isa. That scene, regardless of the heart-hacking that led up to it, got to an overarching theme of the second season: the puzzle of who Brody is now—what’s innate in his heart and what’s conditioned, what does he want to do and what is he compelled to do? He did not want to be forced into this position and by now seems to fully despise Nazir who put him into it, and yet he finally has to recognize that he still deeply wants this to happen, and to see it with his own eyes.

All this, crazy twists aside, is ultimately about forcing some issues regarding Brody’s character. (For instance, does he really love Carrie enough to be driven to do anything to save her? Apparently, though that raises the corollary question—is it real love or a replacement for Nazir, a result of Carrie’s having glued some Humpty Dumpty shards back in a certain pattern?)

What I don’t want to see, though, is a Homeland that decides it has to go through this kind of twist-double-twist routine regularly to keep the story alive and keep us paying attention. The business with Nazir coming to the country and escaping the foiled attack, for instance, heightens the terror-hunt aspect of the second season, but did we really need it? What if, for instance, the attack was foiled and that was it—and suddenly, a season you thought was building toward yet another climactic manhunt instead became about Quinn and Dar Adal’s plan to eliminate Brody, and the ethical/political questions that raised? Do we need a mole hunt and a clean-shaven terror mastermind running around on top of it?

I don’t know—we can’t at this point; analyzing plot developments midseason before they play out is entertaining but ultimately fruitless. What’s more important to me is that Homeland doesn’t become the kind of show that feels it needs to throw ice water at us every half-hour to keep us awake and to keep the story moving forward. The plot can be “unrealistic”—whatever that means—as long as it keeps serving the characters and not the other way around. As long as Homeland still has its voice, as long as it’s still staggering down a country road yelling “Asshole!” at passing motorists, I’m betting it can find its way home.