One of the chief achievements of the first season of Homeland was its showrunners’ willingness to careen through what seemed like seasons’ worth of plot developments in mere episodes. It was almost impossible to predict where the plot was going from week to week because of their flagrant disregard for the familiar pattern we’ve come to expect from the season arc. The best example of this recklessness last season was undeniably the decision to push Carrie and Brody together so quickly – instead of drawing out the will-they-won’t-they dynamic, Gordon and Gansa simply showed us straight up that they would. Their storytelling is not designed to build up audience anticipation for the fulfillment of a trope but rather to investigate the complicated ramifications of the trope after it has already come to pass. Even their decision to keep Brody alive – while still letting him flip the switch to detonate his explosive belt – is consistent with this strategy. Instead of having him chicken out or blow up, they force the audience to consider what might happen if the story just kept going.
“Beirut Is Back,” on the whole a weaker episode than last week’s premiere, is nevertheless a return to form for Homeland in this respect. As the episode came to a close I was close to screaming – something my sleeping housemates would hardly have appreciated – and had to settle, instead, for flailing in my seat, grabbing my face, and gleefully slapping the surface of my desk. At the end of last season, Brody recorded a tape of him explaining his decision to take himself out along with the vice president and nearly every other important figure in the Department of Defense. I assumed that this tape, which wound up in the possession of Abu Nazir’s cohort, would be held over Brody’s head throughout the season, and only be discovered by the C.I.A. in the run-up to the finale. Gordon and Gansa didn’t bother waiting that long: they plopped it in Saul’s lap at the end of this, the second episode of the season.
I’m not going to bother trying to speculate about how exactly this is going to play out. From a purely realistic standpoint – and Homeland, of course, is not completely realistic – I just don’t know what the C.I.A. or the Justice Department would or could do in such a situation. Brody has obviously committed crimes – he’s passed information to the enemy, and it won’t be hard for them to put two and two together and put him down for the murder of Tom Walker – but he didn’t actually wind up doing what he cops to on the video, and he undeniably represents a greater asset to them alive. Broadly speaking, the season will probably show the C.I.A. trying to get at Nazir through Brody, and not Brody subverting the C.I.A. without their knowledge, as I had expected. But how long they’ll push this before he figures out what’s going on (or they tell him) is impossible to say. (At the very least, this development gives the show a fairly persuasive reason to get Carrie back into the inner circle at Langley. Whether or not her being vindicated on this particular issue is realistically enough to overcome her various breaches of protocol in the past and her unstable mental condition, I can’t say, but it’s well within the bounds of plausibility on a show like this.)
Plausibility is going to be a problem for the show in other ways, though. As I mentioned last week, one of the central narrative tensions of Homeland is the way it balances psychological realism with a considerably more fantastic depiction of the vagaries of the American counter-intelligence system. Any kind of espionage fiction has to deal with the problem of plausibility, because it lends itself so well to sensationalism. The spectrum of spy fiction is broad: on the one end, we have the likes of John LeCarré, whose books and their cinematic adaptations are known for their cold, unemotional accuracy; on the other, there’s James Bond. Homeland is certainly closer to the LeCarré end of things, but it doesn’t remotely aspire to the drab mundane nature of his Cold War Circus: it’s far more obviously thrilling. In and of itself, this is not a problem: where something like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is primarily about the specific intricacies of MI-6, Homeland is really about psychology.
The show walks the knife’s edge between the excitingly suspenseful and the broadly preposterous, and it took several steps closer to preposterous in this episode, before the Brody bombshell was dropped in the final moments. In order to get to that point, two extremely questionable things had to happen: Brody had to text Abu Nazir from inside a security briefing on his capture, and then – once his text had alerted Nazir to the imminent danger, thereby saving his life – Carrie had to dash into the home of the Hezbollah bigwig whose wife leaked her the information about Nazir’s whereabouts (unhindered by several American agents), gather information from his study, and escape copious enemy fire unscathed. Both these actions are psychologically plausible – it makes sense that Brody would feel compelled to protect his surrogate father even at great personal risk, and Carrie has a history of recklessly endangering herself in the name of national security. But in these cases that psychological plausibility is not really enough.
Is there any possible way that Brody, sitting in a room with the joint chiefs of staff and watching footage of an in-progress sting to capture one of America’s most wanted terrorists, could just whip out his BlackBerry and send a text message to that terrorist? Is there any possible way that Nicholas Brody, American congressman, could be walking around with a BlackBerry with Abu Nazir’s phone number on it? And we’re meant to believe that Saul and the other agents not only can’t restrain Carrie from running into the building (she’s a small woman and they’re big men), but also that they wouldn’t then follow her in. They’re clearly avoiding endangering themselves, but for Saul in particular this just doesn’t ring true. Carrie is the closest thing he has to a daughter, and while he’s not so blinded by his affection for her that he’d totally disregard protocol, his passivity in the scene seems absurd.
These are particular plot concerns, but the issue of believability is deeper and farther-reaching. Two broader elements seem likely to become increasingly problematic the longer they go unaddressed. The first is the cartoonish villainy of Vice President Walden, and Brody’s resulting moral justification. Brody may not identify as a terrorist, but he’s in bed with them, and very nearly became one himself at the end of last season. Whether or not the bomb went off, he flipped that switch: that, in my book, makes him a terrorist. I find him to be an enormously sympathetic character, but I am more inclined to sympathize with him if he is realistically complicated and not always admirable. Walden is the only character on the show who is given no human texture – even Abu Nazir had a son – and by making him so outrageously evil, Gansa and Gordon seem to be working too hard to excuse Brody for what are inherently inexcusable actions. The use of Nazir’s son as the catalyst for Brody’s crusade last season served a similar function: it was gratuitously emotional. The show generally accepts that its audience is sophisticated, both intellectually and psychologically, but the writers seem squeamish about committing to a Brody who is fully ambiguous and doesn’t always have a morally righteous justification for his immoral actions. This is a pity, because I’m confident that they are perfectly capable of writing that character, and that he would be even more compelling than the already-compelling version they’ve got.
The second problem is essentially the corresponding manifestation of this broad issue in Carrie’s character. Put simply, Carrie is always right. There might have been small instances last season when she got things wrong (though I recently rewatched it in its entirety and can’t remember much off the top of my head), but when it comes to the big things she is always, always right. I think Gordon and Gansa feel that they need to justify her obsessive certainty with a Sherlock Holmes-ian genius for the truth: it’s okay, they seem to suggest, that she refuses to consider alternate possibilities or solutions because her first instinct is always right. This is, quite simply, unrealistic – and it’s also less interesting. I like the idea of a Carrie Mathison who is very good at her job, and sometimes does have a genuinely brilliant and truthful insight – her obsession with Brody last season, for instance – but who could also very easily be wrong. If we don’t know whether we can trust her unconditionally, she becomes a more volatile and more morally ambiguous character, which would in turn bring the show’s concerns with privacy, morality, and transparency in government closer to the fore. I wish that the writers were willing to be as bold with their characters as they clearly are with their plot.
Which isn’t to say that the characters aren’t finely written, and daring compared to most of what’s on television right now. They are fascinating, and complex, and moving. This episode has some superb character moments underpinning the plot developments. We get to see first Carrie and then Brody come close to their breaking points, and the way both actors manage to simultaneously combine implosion and explosion is astonishing. They can’t unleash all their fears and self-doubts on the outside world, so they internalize them, but we know what to look for: we see the fissures and the fractures in their personas. Carrie is allowed a little more leeway in front of Saul, who may doubt her, but still loves her deeply, and will regain much of her confidence when she learns that she was right about Brody’s true allegiance. While her bipolar disorder has undoubtedly wreaked havoc on her mental state, it was really Brody’s gaslighting that did her in: she tells Saul she can’t trust herself because she was so wrong about him, but as we know – and as she soon will – she was actually the only one who got him right.
Brody himself is still in a tougher spot. His interests are increasingly at odds with Abu Nazir’s, but his emotional loyalty to him takes precedence: he is still thoroughly brainwashed. But the split personality we saw deepen last week is only getting more fractured. His vicious little speech to his old fellow Marines eviscerating Tom Walker for turning against America is very revealing indeed, and also very sad: he thinks he isn’t ever going to be able to tell anybody that this is really how he feels about himself, that he doesn’t deserve all the praise he’s been getting ever since returning home. He possibly doesn’t even realize this himself. When he gets home he makes a beeline for Dana, the only person whose presence seems to comfort him at all. There is something childish and sad about this, as well: it is as though she, and not he, is the parent. This, too, can only last so long before blowing up in his face: Dana is still only 16, and very vulnerable herself. She can’t take care of him in the way he clearly needs to be taken care of.
But who knows how much he, and we, will have to worry about that? Saul knows what Brody is now, and soon Carrie will as well. And once Carrie’s got her teeth back into him, there’s no way she’s ever letting go again. I’m thrilled to see where the show will go next, even if it worries me: the fact that it is always flirting with the absurd is part of what makes it so riveting. We really don’t know what’s going to happen and whether it will be brilliant or catastrophic. I’ll be on the edge of my seat waiting to find out.
Odds and Ends
- I love the touch of the jazz playing over Brody at the party – jazz is Carrie’s motif. He can’t escape her, even when she’s long gone.
- “You really want to help veterans? You take out everybody in this room here.” Brody, a word of advice: this is not how you should talk if you want to keep a low profile on the terrorist front.
- Jessica’s total naïveté about how politics works is kind of stunning and will almost certainly prove problematic as the season progresses. Brody sees only the corruption in Washington; Jessica is blindly seduced by it. Reality is somewhere in the middle.
- On the plausibility front, I’m encouraged by the fact that the show isn’t simply dispensing with Tom Walker: it makes sense that their fellow Marines would want to know what really happened to him, and would be skeptical about him missing his supposed target so many times. And Brody’s mulish, lady-doth-protest-too-much refusal to engage with questions about it is not going to serve him well in the long run.
- Best moment of the week – before that last 30 seconds, anyway – was absolutely Carrie walloping that guy over the head with a brick. Clive Owen in Children of Men, anyone?