After Sunday night's season finale, the reliably excellent New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum wrote about Homeland on Twitter, “I have some problems w/ S2 – primarily, the (to me) maddening Goodness of almost ALL the characters – but the finale had a twisty satisfaction.” She later added, “A ‘cleansed,’ heroic Brody serves the need of a hit show, not a nuanced story.”
I’m not sure about this. It’s true that there’s no longer any doubt – as per the creators of the show themselves – that Brody is anything other than a truly reformed man. He’s not about to strap on a suicide vest any time soon, no matter what the American public may now think of him. And I do believe we are supposed to sympathize with him – which I do – but I’m not as sure that we’re supposed to like him.
What constitutes goodness? What makes someone a hero? These are two of the many questions that the second season of Homeland has been asking its viewers to ponder, again and again. Although I agree with most critics that the show’s first season was a more impressive achievement, there is something to be said for the aggressive messiness of the characters this season. If we look at the ethics of the show from a black-and-white, good-versus-evil perspective, Nussbaum’s qualms certainly hold water. Evil manifests as Abu Nazir and Vice President Walden, good manifests in Carrie, in Saul, and in Brody.
But the moral reality of the show is considerably more complex. Last season, Carrie was something of a Cassandra figure: she was convinced she was right about Brody, his motives, and his plans, and though she occasionally had reason to doubt herself, she was never, ever wrong. Brody, for his part, had difficulty readjusting to normal family life, but though he messed up in spectacular fashion a few times, his genuine affection for his children was apparent, and it was clear that he was trying his best to be a good father – that, in some twisted way, his suicide plot seemed in his head to be for their benefit.
Carrie did not entirely lose her predictive capacity this season: she played Brody – and her superiors – pretty expertly, and had another moment of prophecy when she correctly guessed Abu Nazir’s location last week. She got her man: the big, bad wolf is dead. But she was also spectacularly wrong on a number of occasions, and let her personal attachment to Brody cloud her judgment countless times. Brody, on the other hand, spent much of this season behaving like a petulant child, and his handling of his children was astonishingly selfish. He hasn’t stopped loving them, but he put his own problems before them time and again. Dana’s explosion last week may have been unnecessarily cruel, but she was not wrong when she told him that Mike had been a better father to her than he ever had. Whatever he was like before his deployment, Brody is simply not good father or husband material now.
So how good are these people, exactly? In what will surely be the episode’s most-quoted line, Saul told Carrie, “You’re the smartest and the dumbest fuckin’ person I’ve ever known.” If that’s not an accurate summation of her character, I don’t know what is. She is no longer the white knight defending America that she played at being last season. Her quest is no longer to get Abu Nazir, who is dead – it will presumably be to clear Brody’s name. Getting Nazir was undoubtedly personal for Carrie, but her motivation was grounded in protecting the American public as a whole. Clearing Brody’s name benefits Brody, Brody’s family, and Carrie. Though we can see from the end of this episode that he has been misrepresented in the press, her efforts to clear his name are going to be an essentially personal vendetta.
It’s certainly true that it’s emotionally and morally easier to watch the show knowing that you’re supposed to sympathize with Brody, and that he won’t betray that sympathy by blowing himself up. But I’m not sure that it’s any less ambiguous now than it was a season ago. He’s still a slippery bastard, and Carrie’s still a loon who has trouble keeping her priorities straight. These people are not noble American heroes: they’re fuck-ups. Smart fuck-ups, sure. But fuck-ups nevertheless.
It’s also worth considering the fact that the political implications of the show have also grown increasingly complex. Carrie’s surveillance of the Brody family last season was clearly meant to be seen as unethical, in spite of the fact that she was right in her suspicions about him, and though Brody’s suicide plan was undoubtedly an act of terrorism, the drone strike that motivated it was presented as indefensible.
Nothing was quite as clear-cut this season. The political morass the Brody family found themselves in was pretty horrifying, but the show made no attempt to suggest an alternative way of doing things: Finn Walden’s resignation about his parents’ moral failings seemed to be a stand-in for the writers’ feelings about politics. The CIA went by the book this time – except perhaps Quinn stabbing Brody in the hand – but that didn’t mean that it wasn’t sometimes nauseating to watch. Privacy is an obsolete notion to these people, as is due process: Estes was going to have Brody – an American citizen and sitting congressman – taken out off-the-books, and he only backed off once he was threatened with murder. And then there was Aileen Morgan, so miserable in her underground cell that she leapt at the first opportunity she had to kill herself.
Homeland may not be the outright condemnation of the war on terror and the American intelligence system that Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Zero Dark Thirty is – it’s equal parts soap opera, 24, and political critique, and does not share that film’s fidelity to veracity. It has given us the moral satisfaction of a terrorist villain whose attacks on the country are indeed horrible, and must be stopped. But it has also staunchly refused to depict the CIA in a positive light. The CIA is a machine. It chews you up, destroys any chance you might have at a personal life, and then it doesn’t even have the decency to spit you out.
It keeps you, instead, and makes you the pawn of a bunch of self-interested politicians who seem to care infinitely more about their own careers than the safety of the country or the lives of all the men and women at risk both at home and abroad, Americans and foreigners. Carrie couldn’t have run away with Brody after the CIA was bombed; it would go against everything we know about her character. But before that, when she stood up to Saul about leaving by arguing that she wanted something more than his lonely existence, I was rooting for her to go. I was rooting for her to get out. But as Carrie and Brody were painfully reminded, you can’t always get what you want.
Odds and Ends
— Some people have been griping about Quinn turning against Estes, but it actually felt believable to me. He clearly likes Carrie, and his whole underground family situation makes me think that he’s possibly got a mind of his own, despite what Estes clearly thought. It’ll be interesting to see whether he pops up again. I do have to say, though, that his insistence that Carrie is “the best intelligence officer I’ve ever known” is downright ludicrous. Does she exert some kind of pheromone that makes everybody around her think this? She’s occasionally brilliant, sure, but she’s also TOTALLY FUCKING NUTS.
— Poor, poor Dana Brody.
— “Fortress America.” Jesus Christ.
— Well, that’s all, folks. It’s been a pleasure covering this show this season. Thanks to everybody who read regularly – I hope you enjoyed reading these posts as much as I enjoyed writing them. Here’s to Season 3.