Tuned In

Homeland Watch: Into the Woods

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, find a good parking space and watch last night’s season 2 finale of Homeland.
“It’s like you just don’t know anyone.”
“Hey. You know me.”

Do we?

In the first season of Homeland, what we didn’t know about Nicholas Brody was essential to the story: whether he was a terrorist or falsely accused, what his true motives were, whether there were lines he would not cross. The second season focused closely on Brody’s mindset as he dealt with irreconcilable pressures from Abu Nazir, the CIA and his family–yet we still spent much of it guessing. Had he really turned? Was he running some secret scheme? Did he truly love Carrie?

Last night’s finale, “The Choice,” settled the question–for now, anyway!–by showing us that Brody was on the level: he was done with Abu Nazir, he was in love with Carrie, he was ready to make a new start. (I’m sure there are theories as to why this is all a misdirection. I’ll get to that in a bit.) He got a much different kind of new start than expected, and it was Homeland—after an emotionally satisfying but overly twisty season—that faced a choice: whether it wants to be a show grounded in the psychology of characters who we know, or whether it’s going to throw as many switcheroos as possible to keep the Brody-and-Carrie story alive for as many seasons as possible.

Before the bomb went off and our couple hit the road, “The Choice” teased us with a couple other possible outcomes. Brody spent most of the episode’s first third speaking like a man who was about to die. He went on a nostalgic visit to the cabin with Carrie, talking about the future and saying things like “I have a second chance,” the kind of line a story like this generally throws to a guy who doesn’t have one. In the middle third, after Quinn developed a conscience and told Estes there was to be no assassination, it was possible to read Brody’s lines as those of a man who was going to be revealed as a loyal terrorist after all. (During his sitdown with Mike, I had to wonder if his inviting Mike to “take care” of the family was less an admission of his broken marriage than the act of a soldier about to go back into the field.) Instead, Brody’s freedom turned out to be a setup, and he realized, too late, that his car was being used as a mass-murder weapon.

Now to anticipate: it’s possible that there’s more to it than that, that there’s another twist awaiting us in season three that shows us that Brody was really behind the bomb. But I’d argue that that fact that we’re asking those questions is a problem for Homeland. Brody worked as a question mark for the first season: that we were constantly wondering about his mindset and loyalties underscored the show’s themes of uncertainty and murky paranoia. But at some point, if he is being moved to the center of the show with Carrie, we have to be as sure that we know his mind. Otherwise, his very character becomes simply a plot device, and one that’s going to wear out. (“Season 1: He’s a hero—or is he?” “Season 2: He’s a terrorist—or is he?” Season 3: He’s a falsely accused fugitive—or…”) That’s the general danger of paranoid thrillers like this: you can play games with twists and moles, but if everyone is a potential twist or mole, they’re not really characters.

So I’m going to operate on the assumption that from here on out, what we see of Brody is what we get. But that still doesn’t tell us what kind of show Homeland is going to be in its third season. I’m assuming the producers still plan to keep Brody central, because many of the convolutions the show has been through have frankly seemed to be devoted to keeping Damian Lewis in the cast. If they had meant to eliminate his character, they probably would have killed him off. They didn’t, so maybe much of season three will follow Brody in his new life setting lobster traps in Newfoundland or something.

We’ll see. In the meantime, the ending seemed to be a way of trying to reconcile the demands of drama with the desire to keep Lewis. Whatever issues season 2 had, it gave Brody a powerful arc as a man, broken down to almost nothing, who managed to do the right thing (sort of), become free of both of his masters, and come to some kind of peace in his marriage.

Brody had an excellent arc this season, and Lewis has been great, but it feels like the character has run his course. Dramatically, it would have been a fitting, poignant moment for Brody to die, so the finale tried to give him that moment without killing him; an episode titled “The Choice” was constructed to try to sidestep making one. It seemed a little like writing Romeo and Juliet, then keeping the characters alive for a sequel because they had such great chemistry.

So there was a lot in this finale that worked for me emotionally, like Brody’s pained last talk with Dana, a relationship that has often seemed more compelling to me than his with Carrie. (“I don’t want to lie to you”: over the two seasons, having to lie to Dana, or tell her to hide the truth, has seemed more painful to him than torture.) Likewise, Carrie’s argument with Saul reaped the benefits of two years of building their intense, almost father-daughter relationship.

What didn’t work as well for me was the central pairing of Carrie and Brody, which clearly was meant to invest the episode’s final minutes with poignancy. That is: Carrie and Brody make sense together, as two damaged people with an unsuppressable attraction, based in their common suffering, that they don’t entirely understand. But Carrie and Brody ready to chuck it all and commit to each other, without complication, doesn’t make as much sense: there’s too much pain in each of them, and they’re too well-trained to distrust. Not long ago, after all, Carrie had Brody prone on a hotel-room floor telling him he was a despicable traitor. I believe that she’s grown to change her view of him; I can’t buy quite as much that she’s changed that fast and completely, so it felt forced to lead to this season-ending moment.

I spent a lot of this season loving how Homeland used its characters, while being confused or frustrated by its plot. The finale, especially at the end, was mainly the opposite. The plot worked–worked, in the sense that even if Abu Nazir’s double-cross was as implausible as many things on this show, it did explain a lot. The character moment, Carrie and Brody saying goodbye in the woods, didn’t as work as well for me.

For all that, though, I loved that “The Choice” ended not with that parting, but with a reunion, and with an aspect of the show that has always, consistently worked: Carrie and Saul. This odd but complementary pair—old and young, reserved and emotive, The Smiler and The Cryer—feels like the real heart of the show now. They too are a pair of broken soldiers—their work has made them in some ways unfit for a normal, happy life, and yet they each have a kind of unhappiness that makes them great at what they do.

Saul and Carrie’s platonic relationship is far more potentially rich and interesting, and I suspect that, if Homeland has a long future ahead of it as a show worth watching, that’s the relationship that will sustain it. I don’t know what Homeland will do with Brody—whether it will come up with an amazing way to use him in season 3 or whether it’s just kept him past his expiration date. In a finale called “The Choice,” the show kicked that can down the road. But it gave Carrie a choice too, between her heart and her calling.

I think she chose well.

Now for a quick hail of bullets:

* Showtime began the episode with a statement that some scenes may be disturbing in the light of the recent massacre in Newtown. That was true—many things in life right now, including many that have nothing to do with violence, are now disturbing in the light of that tragedy. (For me the far more heartbreaking parallel was hearing Saul say Kaddish over the dead bodies, the same night of the wrenching memorial service in Newtown.) It’s an unfortunate fact that it plays differently now to ave a finale episode with a scene of slaughter. I doubt that a tragedy like this is going to change the way shows like Homeland are written in the future. But it does remind me of one thing I appreciate about Homeland: that unlike 24, it didn’t feel the need to one-up the reality of 9/11 with greater terror scenarios of mass destruction. It can be far more effective to set smaller stakes and then emotionally commit to them. And even at that, there’s no matching the power of actual tragedy.

* In the same way, I decided not to change my usual “hail of bullets” heading above, because it would seem pathetically insufficient a gesture to simply decide that a certain figure of speech is inappropriate for an arbitrary amount of time, until it suddenly becomes acceptable again. (See also the period after the Giffords shooting, when “target” metaphors became unacceptable in politics and journalism, and then we forgot that again.) Either certain expressions, or depictions of violence, are always inappropriate, forever—not just for a few weeks until we can forget them—or they’re not. In any case, I don’t want the phrase to hurt anyone, but I didn’t use it without thinking. It does bring up bad memories for me. And so will a lot of things, for a long time, whether I use a certain catchphrase here or not.

* Two great smiles for Saul in this episode: that last one, of course, when he sees Carrie alive and back on duty, but also, maybe even better, during their argument. When Carrie says she doesn’t want to end up alone like him, he beams broadly and says, “You don’t know a goddamn thing.”

* Once again, as Quinn spies on Brody and Carrie, we see a target being surveilled in an intimate or sexual moment, which has been a theme of Homeland ever since Carrie’s illegal wiring of Brody’s home in season 1. I’ve seen a lot of spy shows use sex, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one that has used sex as well in this metaphorical way, to underline the intimacy of this kind of intrusion.

* RIP, by the way, to David Estes and the remainder of the Walden family. I’m assuming the reason that, say, the President was not present at the bombing was that this was a CIA event—but I will be curious how much of the country’s intelligence establishment was suddenly wiped out, and how that will factor in going forward.

* Finally, I have sidestepped many basic plot questions here because I have no good answers. Why did Abu Nazir need to set up such an elaborate scheme to pull off this bombing? Who moved Brody’s car? Who released the jihad video and why? Was Brody’s implication the whole point of the setup or just a side effect? Who helped this operation come off, inside or outside the government? And for season 3—with Abu Nazir and Walden dead and Brody on the run—just who is the Big Bad now? I’ll leave you to argue that. You’ve got plenty of time.