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.