Tuned In

Homeland Watch: Tunnel Vision

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Kent Smith / Showtime

SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, pour yourself a big glass of milk and watch last night’s Homeland.
“How did you get away?” “I escaped.” “How?” “I was lucky.”

What if the twist is that there is no twist?

The extreme (which is a nice way to say hard to believe, which is a nice way to say ridiculous) events of the last couple of episodes of Homeland left a lot of watchers waiting for another shoe to drop. There would be a mole in the agency—but Galvez, who all but had flashing neon “Mole” arrows pointing at him, proved not to be it. It would turn out—as New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum among others theorized—that Brody was working with Abu Nazir all along, but he wasn’t. Abu Nazir himself had some spectacular plot up his sleeve, but instead, he’s dead, dead, dead, coming to a strangely anticlimactic end.

People felt set up for a curveball largely because Homeland has been throwing nothing but for a while now, but also because there was so much to explain. How Abu Nazir managed to stroll into the United States as if he simply booked the Jihadi Package Getaway special. Why he trusted Brody enough to release him, yet not enough to send him on a mission against Walden without taking Carrie hostage. Why Walden’s office was unobserved, and for that matter, how a terrorist organization would be able to claim responsibility for his heart attack (thus accomplishing the “terror” part of the description). Why the CIA would trust Carrie’s instincts so little, when she’d been constistently right about Abu Nazir; and why they would give her such free rein, given that she’s made impulsive, dangerous moves about a dozen times this season…

No twist would explain any of that this hour. But there was a point, about halfway into the episode, where I began forming a twist theory of my own: that Carrie’s entire investigation of Abu Nazir’s hidey-hole was actually some sort of hallucination or psychotic episode. There was a disoriented, dreamlike quality to the whole thing: her walk through the tunnels at the opening of the episode (in which they seemed much smaller than they did later); her ability to walk into a highly secure interrogation room we’d just been told was off-limits to her; the hunt in the tunnels, where she suddenly found herself alone and facing Abu Nazir as if he were some kind of horror-movie monster.

But no, it really happened: what we were introduced to as a complex international terror manhunt ended up more like tracking and capturing a serial killer—alone, no personal security contingent, sweeping out of the shadows to slash throats, unceremoniously gunned down as he reached inside his jacket.

Which means, just like that, it was over for Carrie and Brody (over, except for the threat from Quinn, of course). Here—with Carrie triumphant but traumatized and Brody finding he can’t go home again—the episode got really good.

I snark about implausibilities on Homeland, but I don’t really care about them—not until they affect the believability of the characters. From the get-go, Homeland has never been Zero Dark Thirty, aiming for a hyperrealistic depiction of federal antiterrorism operations: it took a Manchurian Candidate premise, then made it more complicated. What it is, is a story of characters in highly unlikely situations who react to those situations with psychological realism and consquences. In Homeland, no one washes off in a sink and goes on with life. It leaves scars.

The scene in the car between Brody and Jess, in particular, compressed a lot in a little space. They’re finished, they recognize—because of Brody’s post-war ordeal but not entirely. They’ve been stressed past the breaking point by events, but those events stressed cracks that were already there. And having got to that recognition—past anger, past blame—their exhaustion is sadder than any weeping.

We even come to the point where Brody all but confesses to Jess that he’d turned terrorist when she stops him. It’s not that she doesn’t want to believe this of him. She just doesn’t want one more burden on her. ” I don’t have to know anymore,” she says. “I just don’t want to. Carrie knows, right? She knows everything about you. She accepts it. You must love her a lot.” In more ways than one, Jess knows, she did not sign up for Brody and what’s become of him—whereas Carrie literally did sign up for that.

So we have Brody showing up on Carrie’s doorstep in a return that felt a little too easy. (It’s not that I don’t believe he feels for her, like she does for him—but I don’t see him making that transition from guilty, fraught, illicit relationship to some kind of normalcy with her so quickly.) All of which raises the question: what next?

I mean, obviously there’s a big plot question to be resolved in the finale: Brody will die, or he won’t, or someone else will. But however it falls out, there’s the question, if he and Carrie survive, of what the show becomes and what place they can have in it. Brody’s usefulness with Abu Nazir is over. Carrie could stay with the agency, but with Brody not involved, this becomes a very different show. And to keep him involved would seem to require another, even bigger twist. Can the show take another?

All this may seem a lot clearer a week from now. Right now, Homeland is a show that I feel deeply and have a hard time taking seriously. It’s a show that has a fantastic sense of who its characters are, but all that gets undermined by the outlandish things it needs its characters to do. Its impulses to tell a great human story are feeling more and more at war with the need to keep those humans on TV for many seasons, if possible.

When I think about this season so far, in fact, I’m driven to think of a conspiracy theory of my own, not about Saul or Brody or Quinn but the producers and writers making the show. It feels like they went into the season with a sense of where they needed things to end up, and worked back, laboriously, from there. You needed Brody, freed from both his masters, Walden and Abu Nazir, but not really free. You needed Carrie to defeat Abu Nazir, and she needed to be there to watch him taken down—for reasons of personal, dramatic closure and whatnot—which meant spiriting him into the outskirts of Washington, D.C. You needed Carrie and Brody together and united against a common threat.

And the journey to get there often meant a midnight helicopter ride to Crazytown.

Despite some missteps lately, Carrie and Brody’s journey to this point has, overall, been one of the best things on TV these past two years. But my big question going into the finale is not who gets assassinated by whom, but whether Homeland produces a show with a compelling reason to go into a third year.

I had the same doubts at this point last year, and Homeland pulled it off for the first half of this season. So we’ll see. After the episode aired last night I tweeted that season 2 will end with Carrie waking from the electroshock she went into at the end of season 1. (A joke—unless it happens, in which case I totally called it.) Beyond that, though, I have no theory as to how Homeland twists its way out of the tunnel this time.

Now for a quick hail of bullets:

* This episode was originally called “The Motherfucker with the Turban” and seems somehow to have been retitled “In Memoriam.” If so, that’s the most insane decision Homeland has made all year.

* “Are you sometimes called The Bear?” “Fuckin’ hope not.”

* So is there a mole? Should there be? The existence of one might clear up a lot of seemingly convenient developments—that’s kind of the function moles serve in thrillers—but I sort of like the idea that there isn’t one and never was; there was simply the endless, paranoid search for one.

* If there’s one theme that’s hung over this season, from the car accident to Walden, it’s the idea of accepting or avoiding moral consequences for one’s actions. Brody and Carrie now have something else in common: they both know how and why the Vice President died. It will be interesting to see if they each deal with knowing the same way.

* There are, I assume, still a lot of theories out there as to whether Brody survives and whether he turns out to have some sort of secret plan. I’m not interested in that so much as I’m interested in a question the show seems to have sidestepped lately: what does Brody really believe now? Is payback really as simple as killing Walden and moving on? We have a week left with nothing to do but speculate, so I’ll turn it over to you. How good is Brody, really? And how sane is Carrie?