I wrote last week that the central narrative conceit of Homeland was show runners Gordon and Gansa’s interest in exploring what happens to characters in stories after what would normally be the culmination of their plotlines.
This strategy is inherently risky in that it bars them from falling back on paths taken many times by other shows, books, and films: in order for this to work, they need to have a firm grasp on what form a trope’s afterlife might realistically take.
So far, it’s clear that they are much more comfortable working out how Carrie’s life has changed in the aftermath of her dismissal from the CIA than with Brody’s political career in the wake of his attempted suicide, and this episode drove home the contrast between how the characters have been handled in the opening episodes of the season.
In fairness, Carrie’s downward spiral, breakdown, and slow recovery are not in and of themselves revolutionary from a narrative point of view. Anyone with a familiarity with depression, through fiction or personal experience, can recognize the desperation of Carrie’s actions in these opening episodes. She is like a swimmer treading water, trying to stay afloat, but the longer she goes without a stable landing, the harder it is for her to keep going.
For Carrie, the stable landing is the CIA; as I have written previously, her stability is paradoxically couched in instability. She is alive in moments of high pressure that wed the personal and the professional – the bazaar in Beirut, for instance. Last season, we saw that her primary method of coping with the reality of life was to imbue even its most mundane aspects with the kind of high stakes that characterize her professional life. She says, accurately, that she is always working: she does not know how to not work. Her intrusion into the Brodys’ private life became addictive because it also meant the effective erasure of her own: instead of living, she spent every free moment watching them live.
This is certainly not healthy, and probably not sustainable; but it is, to Carrie, what it means to be alive. If there is a way for her to modulate her extreme engagement with her work, she hasn’t yet found it, and I think one of the underlying tragedies of Homeland may be that she never will. In tonight’s episode, she becomes so wrapped up in writing her excessively detailed mission report that her father has to browbeat her into getting even a few hours’ sleep. Later, when she realizes anew that she simply will never get her job back (though whether that will still be the case in the wake of Brody’s suicide tape remains to be seen), she veers from one form of self-destructive behavior – getting too dressed up and going out, despite being in no condition to do so – for a much more serious one – an attempted suicide, by way of her antidepressants. This is easily the strongest sequence in the episode, Carrie’s quieter version of Brody’s bunker scene in last season’s finale. He could at least cling to the promise of what he considers a righteous, meaningful ideology in the face of his impending self-annihilation: Carrie’s attempt is a smaller, sadder thing – and, unlike most of her life, entirely private. She doesn’t quite go through with it, of course, but her last minute, panicked trip to the toilet to vomit up the pills in her stomach strikes me as less a measured reconsideration of her life than an animal reaction to the imminent possibility of death.
It is an interesting thought experiment to consider what might become of Carrie Mathison if there were no tape of Nicholas Brody admitting to blowing up himself – along with the vice president and the joint chiefs of staff – in the name of a reviled terrorist. If Homeland were a novel, it might follow her down this path: her life would probably be somewhat lacking in dramatic incident, but her mind would be rife with possibilities and opportunities for the more interior-minded fiction writer.
But Homeland is a TV show, and so we will instead see Carrie thrown back into a world that has chewed her up and spat her out without a second thought. And I suspect she won’t ever be able to get out again. You can see it in her crumpling, ecstatic face as she watches Brody’s confession: her world has been righted; the earth revolves around the sun once more. The knowledge that she was right has become even more powerful now that it has been so long withheld from her. For better or for worse, she will likely never doubt her instincts again – not, at least, in the professional sphere. What she will feel, in her heart of hearts, upon talking to Brody again is another matter entirely.
We don’t get this moment until the end of the episode, but though Carrie’s scenes were low on incident, they served an important purpose, and were effective to boot: though some of the earlier scenes felt a little slow, they were more than redeemed by the strength of the material in the back half, and it’s useful for the audience to feel with Carrie the sluggish pace of life outside of the agency. Now that she knows what she knows, her end of things should pick up quite rapidly.
It is my hope that Brody’s plot also gets back into its groove with the dramatic impetus provided by the recovery of his confession, but his material this episode has me seriously concerned. The problem has nothing to do with the character or his psychological state; as ever, the writers maintain a strong sense of his internal life. It is his external life that currently poses the problem, and betrays hints of Gordon and Gansa’s history writing for and producing 24. I don’t want to overstate the comparisons between the two shows, because they actually are more different than they are alike, but that show had a tendency to throw Jack Bauer into random situations (particularly in the second half of a season) just to kill off an episode when they had run out of narrative steam. This kind of thing does not happen much if the story arc has been worked out well in advance, but it can be a tempting device otherwise.
Whether or not Gordon and Gansa planned this season more rigorously than they did the preceding one, Brody’s material this episode feels worryingly tossed off and, frankly, nonsensical. While Abu Nazir and company certainly have the leverage on Brody to make him do whatever they want, it seems to me that there is simply no rational reason to send him out to collect the man who made his suicide vest to transport him to their safe house. Brody is an incredibly recognizable figure – presumably, by this point, a household face and name – and is liable to be identified and held up anywhere. Even if the plan had gone off without a hitch, they would still then run the risk that random civilians would remember seeing him around town on the date in question if questioned by the authorities. And it doesn’t behoove them to mess up their top guy’s standing in the political community by keeping him away from a significant event like Jess’ fundraising dinner.
Once the writers had gotten Brody out there, they further muddled matters by throwing in a flat tire, a runaway prisoner, and a conveniently bad fall. There are always a lot of coincidences in a show like this, but they should be dispensed sparingly and then elided whenever possible – as when the likelihood of Carrie stumbling upon Brody’s confession was simply not mentioned – and not piled on in such an obvious fashion. It becomes incredibly easy for the audience to see what the writers are doing in situations like this, when ideally the audience hardly thinks about the writers as conscious decision-makers at all. And once the writers have been evoked in this way, it’s easy – and natural – for the audience to wonder whether they have any idea what they’re doing with this character at all. I suspect the problem facing the writers is that they know exactly what is happening in Brody’s mind and have no idea how to dramatize it in a way that is interesting and cinematic. They are stalling with his character – like Carrie, just treading water until they can hook him onto a narrative arc that is propulsive as well as connected to both the rest of the show and his own psychological state. I hope they will manage this with the fallout of Carrie and Saul’s discovery.
It is worth mentioning that the more personal material in Brody’s half of the show was much more successful than his (and their) misguided attempt to deliver his armorer to the safe house. (Incidentally, we can pretty safely assume that that body will come back to haunt him later.) Jess’ confusion at the man he has become and her frustration with his erratic behavior were compelling and complex, and her speech at the fundraiser in her husband’s place was possibly Morena Baccarin’s finest acting on the show thus far. It is difficult to sympathize too much with Jess because we are so much more privileged when it comes to what’s going on inside Brody’s head: while his actions are not always justifiable (far from it), we understand them, and him; she is at a loss. Part of this comes from his endless lying and secret keeping, but another part of it derives from the simple fact that Jess isn’t intuitive or generous enough to really cope with the messy, traumatized reality of the man her husband has become. She isn’t an awful person – she just doesn’t happen to be a terribly deep one. She really should be married to Mike, who probably bears a closer resemblance to the man she married than the one with whom she is currently living. Given all of these factors, her anger at Brody makes sense, even if it doesn’t necessarily endear her to the audience. It’s also convenient, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: by convincing herself that Brody is still involved with Carrie, Jess is going to make her worst suspicions come true.
Odds and EndsI loved the fake-out with the chip at the beginning of the episode: it seemed a kind of wink at the audience from the writers, an acknowledgment that they know that we know they’re walking on thin ice.
Brody’s prepared speech, which he never got to deliver, was heartbreaking – he’s desperate to get the truth out any way he can – and further proof that the writers really do know what’s going on in his head. (The way he lasers in on the dying man’s reference to his daughter is also telling – when he tells him, “She’ll give you the strength you need,” he’s really just talking to himself.) They just need to figure out how to convert that knowledge into something tangible. This doesn’t necessarily mean big action, either – the material can be quiet as long as it’s also effective, engaging, and realistic. I assume Estes’ debrief had to do with the information about the bomb-maker – but we don’t know this for sure. Brody’s excursion is ridiculous no way you spin it, but the only way it becomes in any way interesting is if it was all the result of a combined paranoid delusion on behalf of both him and the organization. The truck he’s convinced is following them, for instance, certainly doesn’t do a very good job. “No text from boyfriend?” one of Carrie’s students teasingly asks her. She has no idea just how right – and wrong – she is. The acting on this show is superb across the board, but that final scene deserves a special mention. Even if this season’s material has been shaky so far, the show remains absolutely must-see television just for what happens on Claire Danes’ face each week. She is extraordinary.