There is a particular pleasure in watching an episode of television that not only exceeds the typical quality of its show, but which also manages to do so by embodying the values, ideas, and relationships that make up its core. These episodes are exceedingly rare; a show is lucky to have one at all, let alone one a season. With “Q & A,” Homeland brings its total to two.
The first was last season’s “The Weekend,” a minor masterpiece. I would argue that “Q & A” surpasses it. It also serves as a justification of all of the implausibilities of the season’s earlier episodes.
Though “Q & A” is not strictly a bottle episode — an episode that takes place exclusively in one location in order to save money — it operates much like one. The majority of the episode unfolds in the underground holding complex the CIA is using to interrogate Brody, who was taken into custody in last week's episode after Carrie broke her cover and confronted him about his suicide tape and its implications. Estes and his underling Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend, who is very good in this role, although his American accent doesn’t quite live up to the mind-boggling standard set by fellow Brit Damian Lewis) decide, for obvious reasons, that Carrie should not be the one to interrogate Brody, since she’s so emotionally involved in the situation. Peter goes in her stead, but they know just as well as we do that Carrie’s the one who’s going to end up in the room with him.
Peter winds up being very good at interrogations, systematically laying out every one of Brody’s major lies and forcing him to lie more to back them up. The sheer volume of the fiction Brody has woven around himself by this point is astonishing, and he knows it. For the first time, his facility for lying fails him completely. It’s slipped before, briefly, with Jessica, but this is a full-scale collapse on an unprecedented level. Though he insists that he knows nothing about Abu Nazir, his son Issa, or any plot to assassinate Vice President Walden, even somebody without the deep background we have on him wouldn’t believe a word of what he says.
Peter, clearly enjoying himself, proceeds to show him the suicide tape. Even this doesn’t manage to break Brody entirely, since he still insists he wasn’t actually wearing the vest, and that the tape was just a result of his broken mind. This is, of course, partially an act of self-preservation, but it is also the instinctual reaction of a man who is desperate to hang onto the idea of himself as a good person, a person who did not blow up the vice president and the joint chiefs of staff. He’s become addicted to his lies because he thinks he needs them to survive — like all addictions, they actually are killing him slowly.
Carrie knows this. It is when she enters the room with him, after Peter goes berserk and stabs Brody through the hand (a calculated move, we later learn, to make him more amenable to what he correctly predicted as Carrie’s good cop approach) that the episode transcends the merely good and becomes extraordinary.
When Carrie showed up in Brody's hotel room last week, she was spitting mad. She lashed out at the man who had very nearly destroyed her life, telling him that he was a “traitor” and a “disgrace” to his country. After a team of backup hauled him away, the camera lingered on her standing alone in the room, looking broken and lost. She had spent so long chasing this man, had become so obsessed with proving his guilt, that she found herself suddenly adrift once she had gotten what she wanted.
The Carrie we see talking to Brody in the interrogation room in this episode is not angry anymore. She actually seems much more personable than usual, lacking the jarring, unhinged quality that typically underpins her character. She is a woman who was (and, clearly, continues to be) in love with a man, a man who is in grave danger and needs her help. She is not exactly — or not only —interrogating him. She is trying to save him.
Other people could have gotten a confession out of Brody. Though he may be mentally unstable, and deeply traumatized, he is not stupid. He would surely have realized eventually that confessing and agreeing to act as a double agent for the CIA was the only way to save his skin and maintain his family’s dignity. But only Carrie could have done so in a way that offered him a path out of the labyrinth of lies that he’d constructed around himself, and in which he had gotten hopelessly lost.
Who, after all, is Nicholas Brody? Is he the smarmy politician who acts as a pawn for the vice president? Is he a loving family man? Is he a terrorist? I think he genuinely doesn’t know anymore, or at least he didn’t before this episode. He seems to almost believe his repeated insistence that he wasn’t actually wearing a suicide vest on the day that he almost killed the vice president, because the alternative (which happens, in this instance, to be reality) is too much of a burden for him to bear while simultaneously keeping up his other persona. He wants very badly to believe that he is a good person — “I killed no one,” he insists — but he can’t, he can’t, without somebody else reassuring him that this is so.
Without exaggeration, Carrie is, the only person who can serve this function in his life, because she actually knows who he is and what he’s (nearly) done. He might take comfort in Jess and Dana’s support, but some part of him knows that they don’t know the truth about him. He knows that version of Nicholas Brody that they love and value is not the Nicholas Brody who actually exists.
Carrie knows him in a way that nobody else does. When he pushed her away at the end of last season, gaslighting her into believing that she was insane, the resulting tragedy was not limited to Carrie’s obliterated self-confidence. His actions, though necessary to keep himself safe, also meant that he was destroying the one meaningful connection in his life. It takes the CIA dragging him into an underground interrogation room to get him and Carrie back together in a real way, to mend that connection. Once that’s happened, he’s powerless to resist the seductive power of what she’s offering him: a self.
“You’re drowning in lies,” Carries tells him, but also: “You’re a good person.” This is exactly what he needs to hear. He’s not, she says, like Abu Nazir. He doesn’t kill innocent civilians; he didn’t even manage to kill Vice President Walden, who is far from innocent or civilian. And she breaks down what precisely Abu Nazir did to him in his years of captivity, so that Brody can understand what she already does: he is a victim of intense trauma, but he no longer needs to live out that trauma. He can become a person again, a person who rejects the violent ideology of his torturer — a person who chooses, instead, to serve his country. Given what he has done to her in the past, Carrie’s decision to take his hand and lead him back into the light kindly is an enormously generous gesture. It is a manifestation of love.
The genius of the episode, though — the genius, really, of the show — is that Brody does not actually have a choice, and that Carrie’s generous act is also a profoundly selfish one.
The CIA has got both of them in a bind. Brody can no more say "no" to them than he could to Abu Nazir a couple episodes ago. Carrie is forced to operate on two levels. She is certainly a woman saving the man she loves from self-destruction, but she is also a CIA operative whose job is to extract a confession. I have written before that it is Carrie’s particular tragedy that she is most comfortable and honest, most herself, when she is engaging in deception. She is a consummate spy, most genuine when she’s lying.
Here, we see her as honest as she has ever been, buteven her honesty operates within the limited framework of her professional sphere. When she turns off the cameras in the interrogation room, this creates a mere illusion of privacy: Saul and Peter are still listening in on their conversation. The episode cuts to them at pivotal emotional moments in the long conversation between Carrie and Brody, as if to remind us that, in the world of the show, somebody is always, always watching, and that the connection they forge in that interrogation room exists in an impossible liminal space.
This connection is undeniably real — it is the most real thing, in a way, that either of them has ever experienced — but it also cannot ever have happened. Brody is going to have to go home to the wife he doesn’t really love and make nice to her, and Carrie is going to go home to her perpetually empty house. The intensity of their relationship is only exacerbated by this tragic inevitability. The best thing for both of them would probably be to quit their jobs and move in together, but that’s never going to happen, and they both know it. The most heartbreaking and beautiful thing about the episode is the palpable sense we have that Carrie understands this, understands that the time she has with Brody, compromised though it might be, is all that she’s going to get. But instead of seeming bitter, she really is, as she says, just happy to be talking to him again. Something is always better than nothing.
The episode of television that “Q & A” most closely resembles must be Mad Men’s crown jewel, “The Suitcase,” another episode that acts like a bottle episode without quite being one. As in “Q & A,” “The Suitcase” isolates the show’s two central characters ( Don Draper and Peggy Olsen) and forces them to be honest with each other in ways that they typically are not. (Don, like Brody, is living a life predicated on a host of lies.) Tellingly, for characters whose lives revolve around their work to the point of self-destruction and denial, this episode takes place largely at the office. In much the same way that Carrie and Brody have an intense emotional connection but can only be really frank with each other in an interrogation, Don and Peggy’s relationship is the deepest Mad Men has to offer but is absolutely grounded in their work.
But while “Q & A” is not necessarily a better episode than “The Suitcase” (let’s just say that they’re two of the best episodes of television ever made and leave it at that), it is arguably more vital to Homeland, for the reasons I stated above. The relationship between Don and Peggy is the emotional core of Mad Men, but that show is an ensemble that always has many balls in the air psychologically, emotionally, and politically.
As I argued last week, Homeland is an extremely political show, but it is also a resolutely amoral one: it does not criticize American politics and offer an alternative solution, but instead concerns itself primarily with the psychological states and complexities of its two protagonists. The relationship between Carrie and Brody is not the emotional core of Homeland; it is Homeland. And so “Q & A” is not simply the jewel in the show’s crown: it is the entire genius of the show distilled into one perfect hour.
Odds and Ends
1. Damian Lewis and Claire Danes are so impossibly good in this episode that I don’t really have adequate words to describe their performances, except to say that they are as good as it is possible to be.
2. Finn Walden’s hit and run just about stopped my heart, and actually made me put my hands over my mouth. It was a little obvious that something awful was going to happen as the result of that joyride, but I’m glad that the writers have given us – and Dana – solid proof that he isn’t as affably likable as he might seem. His self-interested reaction to what he did was not flattering. It’s important to remember who his parents are, and how they presumably raised him. Though the show doesn’t dedicate as much time to the psychologies of its teenagers as it does to those of its adults, they presumably still have things like this in mind, as evidenced by how well Dana is written. Basically, this whole thing can go nowhere good.
3. Maybe the chief benefit in terms of Brody’s day-to-day psychological stability that this episode yielded was the fact that he can now tell his wife that he’s “working for the CIA,” and not actually be lying. It’s a lie of omission, sure, but that’s a big step up from where he’s been ever since coming back to the States.