Thoughts on ‘Homeland’s’ Stellar Sunday Episode and Terrific Debut Season
If you’re not watching ‘Homeland,’ you really need to catch up on this gripping drama (which I reviewed here). I already thought ‘Homeland’ was the best new show of the year, but Sunday’s hour was in a different league from what came before it.
As I said in last week’s Talking TV podcast, I was a little alarmed by a development in last week’s episode — I thought what happened between CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) and former prisoner of war Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) might have been the kind of mistake that would force this promising show down cliched or unsatisfying paths.
I couldn’t have been more wrong, and Sunday’s episode proved that ‘Homeland’ knows exactly what it’s doing. Within the context of a complex tale about the challenges of combating terrorism, ‘Homeland’ has proven it knows how to tell a rich, emotionally nuanced tale about the dangers of connection and the price of loneliness.
‘Homeland’ isn’t trying to convince us that some people out there want to commit acts of mass violence; the show assumes everyone knows that. And it’s not really interested exploring the whys of terrorism in historical or geo-political senses. The show has wisely focused on a few intelligent, driven people who work in this murky arena, and it has told gripping stories about how their isolation has led them into unlikely and even unwilling alliances, some of which have national-security implications. [From here on out, I'll be referring to details of Sunday's episode of the show. Spoilers ahoy.]
One of the things I most enjoyed about Meredith Stiehm’s script for ‘The Weekend,’ Sunday’s stellar episode, was the way that it drew parallels between Saul’s attempt to get information from Aileen, the terrorist operative, and Brody and Carrie’s weekend in the woods, where they became close in every sense of the word, until the lies that surround them on a daily basis crept back in to ruin their idyll.
In both story lines, conscious attempts were made to establish intimacy and trust, and not all of it was fake. Saul did really confide in Aileen about his marital problems, and there’s no reason to believe anything he said during their visit to his childhood house of worship was false. Carrie, as we’ve seen, has a compulsive need to charge into tricky situations at full speed, and her weekend at the cabin allowed her to literally and emotionally bare all to Brody (while still remaining level-headed enough to load and hide a gun in a handy spot). As someone with many secrets and scars, she feels a deep connection to Brody, the one person who finds her ferocity enticing rather than scary, and even if she had other agendas, the desire to feel close to him was like a drug for her.
And that’s why Saul was the one person who came out ahead; he knew what he was after the entire time and he didn’t let a need for personal intimacy cloud his other agenda. He masterfully played Aileen, but not in a way that was disrespectful or manipulative. Everything he said and did was true (or seemed true), but he figured out what he wanted, he calculated what to say in order to get it and — most importantly — he didn’t truly put himself on the line.
Brody and Carrie did, hence their devastation at the end of the episode. The only thing worse than feeling completely disconnected from the world is having the possibility of connection brutally ripped away from you.
Both of them wanted to badly to find comfort in each other, but Carrie’s slip-up about the tea revealed that at least part of what she had said and done that weekend was fiction designed to draw him further into her orbit. Carrie wanted more than information, but her desire for that information never went away. The truth about her suspicions and theories left Brody feeling even more alone than he had been before, and despite her clarity in the confrontation scene, the loss of that personal connection left her bereft as well.
Their final confrontation was about as gripping as television gets, and Stiehm’s script gave both actors a terrific range of emotions to play, but so much of what made ‘The Weekend’ enjoyable were visual and verbal ambiguities that the viewer could almost revel in. You never knew whether Brody and Carrie were being truthful or were engaging in a performance for the other person’s benefit, and the actors were able to play all of those levels with uncanny skill.
Similar things went on at the cabin and in the car that carried Saul and Aileen: Were there bits of truth lodged in the lies they told (or vice versa)? Did Brody truly find peace with Carrie, or did he figure out that that was the exact thing to tell her to get her to fall for him? Did Carrie actually see her translator strung up in front of her, or was she trying to establish the idea that, like Brody, she’d lost someone she felt responsible for under horrendous conditions? How much of what these people said and did was real and how much of it was false? And how much of what transpired came from a character’s desire to believe in the version of the other person they’d constructed in their head?
‘Homeland’ has explored these kinds of ideas with admirable dexterity since it began, and I’d thought that Brody and Carrie having sex last week could lead to a lot of romantic melodrama and predictable contrivances. But, as we found this week, that act actually allowed ‘Homeland’ to go to even more evocative and compelling places. Sunday’s episode masterfully pulled together all the strands of the narrative, which asks knotty questions about trust, truth and intimacy via stories that thrum with suspense and surprising developments.
What if the only way Carrie could get to the truth about Brody was to establish that level of psychological and physical intimacy with the Marine? The episode indicated that really was the only course of action she could have followed; he never would have opened up to her had they not gotten under each other’s skins so deeply. But unlike Saul, Carrie was mixed up about what she wanted. She did want to know what Brody was up to, but part of the reason she fell into bed with him is because he is as alone and alienated as she is. She did want information, but she struggled to admit to herself that she wanted much more from him.
We know from her sister’s phone call that she’s out of meds, too. Given Claire Danes’ ability to convey a character’s pain, we don’t have to imagine what Carrie went through after Brody left. Psychologically and professionally, it can’t get any worse for her.
Speaking of the narrative as a whole, it’s tremendously impressive that ‘Homeland’ got right into the heart of these matters in episode 7 of its first season. After having seen so many suspense-oriented shows find reasons to delay important reveals (and having seen so much lazy, repetitive writing on other Showtime programs), I was prepared for ‘Homeland’ to dance around the important stuff until very late in the season.
I wasn’t especially perturbed about that possibility, given how strong the show’s cast is and how good it has been at telling stories about its expanding roster of characters. As was the case with AMC’s ‘Rubicon,’ ‘Homeland’ is so good at creating a sense of atmosphere and interesting supporting characters that I’d be fine with following a day in the life of James Urbaniak’s polygraph-administering character.
But it’s a great relief to discover that a show is way ahead of me and has not only mapped out a taut story but also found smart ways to subvert my expectations. Not only did the Saul-Aileen story echo the main story line and give Mandy Patinkin a chance to shine, it provided the crucial intelligence that let Brody off the hook (or appeared to).
Carrie’s phone call from Saul was, of course, only the capper to one of the most riveting scenes of the year, in which Carrie confronted Brody with all the questions she’s wanted to ask since she began spying on him. Even before she sat at the table with that gun in front of her, you could see Carrie’s manner ever-so-subtly switch from placating and plausible to defiant and bold. The genius of Danes’ work is that her Carrie contains multitudes — she seamlessly transitions from the bewitching party girl to the steely operative to the achingly vulnerable survivor without missing a beat.
And nothing about that confrontation would have worked if Lewis wasn’t every bit as skilled and subtle as Danes; these two actors make seamless transitions and charged ambiguity look easy. They were jaw-droppingly good. I wanted to believe everything Brody said. But is that really wise?
Still, Lewis made the Marine’s desire to unburden himself palpable. Brody couldn’t talk to anyone about his experiences, but he desperately wanted to share himself with someone, to the extent that he’d have sex with a CIA agent in the parking lot of a bar. What he really wanted, of course, was not just a sexual connection but an emotional one as well, and he got those moments of comfort from Carrie. Later, though he was furious, you could see that he was partly relieved at being able to tell the truth about his shame and his agonizing guilt, but it was clearly a nightmare to be honest about killing his friend at the command of the terrorist whom Brody came to love.
Can you love someone without being honest with them? Can you survive in a world in which honest connections bring with them enormous danger? But how many of us are truthful all the time? Don’t we, like Brody, Saul, Carrie and even Aileen, present the face to the world that we want people to see? Don’t we calibrate who we are based on the agendas we have?
I loved ‘Homeland’ for supplying that twist about Walker, the man Brody allegedly killed (did Brody just think he killed Walker? Or is he in cahoots with a terrorists? Right now, I tend to take Brody at his word and I think he’s one of the good guys). But what makes the show fantastic is not just its strong sense of both pace and place, it’s the way it connects these characters’ personal dilemmas with their professional concerns.
Even though I’m not a CIA agent, I can see myself in these people. Professionally, Carrie, Saul and Brody are charged with protecting their country, and the sacrifices they make to do so are heartbreaking and honestly depicted. But the show’s real accomplishment is the way it depicts how the quest for national security can collide with the desire for personal connection.
Despite the fact that forming real connections is dangerous, doesn’t having the desire to connect that mean that Carrie and Brody are still human? But for them, is the need to connect always going to be a liability?
The practical part of my brain realizes that there are many ways that ‘Homeland’ could still go wrong. But the majority of me just wants to savor the fact that ‘Homeland’ has found such dramatically compelling ways to ask these questions. They may be unanswerable, but then, the best questions always are.
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