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Homeland Watch: Casualty of War

The finale to an erratic season takes a big leap. But it could be too dark for some fans, and too late for others.

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Spoilers for last night’s Homeland Season 3 finale follow:

One of the first things you learn as a young TV viewer is that the screen has a magic power: the protagonist force field, which slows down fireballs and bends the arc of machine-gun bullets to ensure that major characters live until the day Nielsen kills them and everyone they know. The force field protected networks, who needed series to run until there was no more profit to be extracted from them, and fans, who could watch through their fingers knowing their favorites could never really die because their names were too high up in the credits.

The mark of many “serious” dramas these days has been their willingness to power down that force field. As the likes of Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire killed off major stars with relish, it announced their daring, their commitment to drama over fandom, their willingness to go there. Now some TV fans and critics have become a kind of capital jury, deciding which characters “need” to die and when. Go on, Sons of Anarchy, kill off [name redacted]–if you’ve got the cojones!

So did Nicholas Brody need to die? Well, he at least needed to go, lethally or not. He was a character in a CIA drama whose connection to any CIA operation had to be justified by more and more implausible twists over the last two seasons, as he went from war hero to terrorist suspect to congressman to assassin to wrongly framed terrorist to international fugitive to junkie to assassin again, but for the other team. (Homeland is a show that’s best enjoyed if you don’t stop to summarize its story turns in a sentence.)

With Abu Nazir gone and Brody’s intel value gone with him, there was nothing to keep Brody relevant to the espionage storylines short of a implanting a computer chip in his brain. And while you can certainly find drama in a man trying to redeem himself to his estranged motel-housecleaner daughter, Homeland was not the show to do it (though it tried). It wasn’t so much that Brody needed to die as that, as a plausible character, he died at least a year ago, and probably two.

Homeland wanted to be two things: a romance between two damaged soldiers and a fast-moving political-minded thriller that was honest about the implications of that damage. Its first season could have brought those two things together devastatingly; instead, it fell in love with its love story and, like Brody, couldn’t pull the trigger on its explosive vest. Season two began strong, and the searing showdown between Carrie and Brody in “Q&A” suggested the contrivances might all have been worth it. But as the show’s plot spiraled like a top losing its balance, it became clear that Brody’s survival was Homeland’s Monkey’s Paw, a case of wishing the dead back with, horrible results.

Season three was a lower-stakes, more focused season, but more than that, in retrospect it was an attempt to call backsies on that early decision. It was not exactly more believable; Iran, for instance, is apparently a country that the CIA can infiltrate only dangerously under cover of darkness, or by booking a flight and checking into a nice hotel. But “The Star” gave Brody and Carrie closure, their run to the safehouse recalling their cabin getaway in the first season, and his redemption was fittingly dark, as he was hanged before a jeering crowd and denied a hero’s honor by his country. (Though the episode was fuzzy on just how Brody’s last act was received in the world: did the world “see him through [Carrie’s] eyes” now, or was his heroism ignored?) Like American Idol contestants investing an awful ballad with emotion, Claire Danes and Damian Lewis managed to find the heart in the most jury-rigged scenarios.

But even if there was–as Brody meta-acknowledged in the safehouse–nowhere left to go with the character, Homeland and Showtime deserve credit for doing what the story called for. Yeah, the writers had painted themselves into a corner, but Homeland had a big, loyal following of Brody-and-Carrie fans who would have been glad for it to keep painting that corner, even if it had to climb up the wall toward the ceiling.

Those fans sent the show’s ratings ever higher even as it became a critics’ target, and there’s no guarantee they’ll come back for a show about–who? what? Carrie as Istanbul station chief? Saul Berenson, private intelligence contractor? Quinn, your new replacement Brody? Carrie’s baby-visitation arrangements with her in-laws the Brodys? (All this, of course, assumes that Brody isn’t just going to turn up next year like the unkillable “cockroach” we were told he was, with a scar on his neck and a debt to Javadi for arranging his fake execution.)

The show could reboot itself now as the realpolitik espionage drama it occasionally was. It could have space now to explore some of the more interesting characters it ended up sidelining. (For instance Fara, the Muslim analyst whose loyalties were doubted both by her government and her family, had a promising storyline that just sort of evaporated this year.) But it will be a tough assignment. Those of us who long thought Brody was past his expiration date might decide the plot holes are just too big for fine performances and Saul’s majestic beard to cover up. And fans who bought in for the Brody-Carrie love story–the story that Homeland has spent three seasons tell us was the essential reason to watch–are likely looking for something else to do Sundays next fall.

The title “The Star,” after all, doesn’t just refer to the emblem Carrie Sharpied onto the CIA wall at the end of the episode. It’s what you call a central character–the kind you’re not supposed to kill, under the rules that, as Homeland reminded us, now belong to a different time.