Tweetable Takeaway: How will “Homeland” reinvent itself in its first post-Brody episode?
Airtime: Sundays at 9 PM on Showtime
By: Gregório Back, Contributor
The first season of HOMELAND was great television because it explored the dichotomy of espionage, with the need to maintain national security counterbalanced by the inherent paranoia necessary to do so. A U.S. Marine being “turned” after having been held captive as a prisoner-of-war by al-Qaeda was not only a potential threat that needed to be dealt with, it was also a terrifying, likely unforeseeable danger, lying in wait and ready to strike right underneath our noses. At the forefront of this balancing act the show did so well early on was (and still is) Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), the bipolar CIA operative whose own, personal blend of paranoia and due diligence (with some wine and anti-psychotics mixed in as well) was ultimately vindicated when Sgt. Brody’s (Damien Lewis) true intentions were ultimately revealed.
But all this positive momentum the show built up in its early episodes quickly started to derail as soon as the romance between Carrie and Brody was introduced. At the beginning, their intimate moments were always tinged with tension, with the audience never quite sure what was real emotion and what was the two playing each other for more information. But by the time the first season ended, it was clear that these two had, somehow, fallen in love, thus setting off the avalanche of irrationality and implausibility that would follow, with seasons two and three almost laughably adhering to this romance that nobody bought and, much less, wanted to see.
Even so, despite this terribly misguided story choice, “Homeland” had the chance to right the ship in the season one finale. Admittedly, it was a difficult choice; Damien Lewis was terrific as Brody, balancing his own inner turmoil, with a desire to maintain a sense of normalcy on the surface. But as soon as he got locked in to that bunker, with the Vice President by his side and a suicide vest on his chest, Brody had to push that button. There was no possible alternative. He had to do it. Anything else would have felt cheap and forced, just a ploy by the writers to keep the Carrie/Brody relationship alive well past its expiration date. And lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened. A magical phone call from Brody’s daughter, Dana (I won’t even go into all the bad that was to come for her in seasons two and three) kept the Marine turned jihadist from pushing that little red button. This single choice by the writers absolutely ruined seasons two and three. A show with so much potential had somehow managed to devolve into a sappy, uninteresting romance littered with irrational actions, implausible storylines, and countless moments that just made you want to throw the remote at the TV. No one suffered more from this misguided direction the show took than Carrie. She went from badass agent whose willfulness and conviction made her the smartest person in every room she was in, to a love-struck teenager whose affection for a man essentially led her to commit treason, on more than one occasion.
With all that in mind, we now come to the first episode (in actuality, two episodes aired back to back) of season four. The last we saw of “Homeland,” Brody was hanging by his neck in the middle of a public square in Tehran. Albeit two seasons too late, Brody was finally dead, no longer giving the writers a chance to push the Carrie/Brody relationship down the throats of an unwilling audience. So what did “Homeland” come up with in its renaissance? The good news is that the show has made an effort to return to its roots, once again dealing with the grey area in the U.S.’s counterterrorist efforts, this time focusing on the very relevant issue of drone strikes. The bad news though is that the stench of Carrie’s past two seasons has not quite washed off, and she continues to be a painful and frustrating character to watch.
Six months following Brody’s death, Carrie finds herself as the station chief in Kabul, authorizing drone strikes on a number of high level targets on the CIA kill list. On what seems like just another night at the office, Carrie learns from Islamabad station chief Sandy Bachman (Corey Stoll), and his mysterious “asset,” that they have locked on their next target, and its time to strike. After a bit of initial hesitance, she ultimately decides to go ahead with the attack, heading home afterwards for a Skype session with her sister. By this point, Carrie has given birth to Brody’s baby (another one of many bad storylines from the two previous seasons), and to no one’s surprise, she is a terrible mother. The next day, reports come out that, even though their target was eliminated, the strike actually hit a wedding party, killing approximately forty civilians. The only survivor is a young Pakistani medical student named Aayan Ibrahim (Suraj Sharma) who lost his entire family in the attack, but managed to escape with a video on his phone that captures the exact moment the bombs hit. Despite this terrible tragedy, the incredibly mature and rational Aayan just wants to move on with his life, not condoning the American’s actions, but also not seeking any kind of malevolent retribution. His efforts to keep a low profile come to a quick halt though, when his roommate posts the video of the attack on YouTube, setting off an international firestorm that puts Carrie on the hot seat.
As the CIA scrambles to deal with the backlash from the attack, Carrie is summoned to Islamabad, where she meets with Quinn (Rupert Friend) for the first time in months. As soon as he debriefs her on the current situation, Carrie and Quinn quickly discover that Bachman has been outed as a CIA operative, putting him in mortal danger. With Bachman looking to meet with his asset, Quinn and Carrie rush to pick him up, but they are ultimately unsuccessful, with the Pakistani mob beating him to death on the street. At this point, the second episode/hour begins, with Carrie forced to return to Washington in order to deal with the current situation, as well as take care of her baby.
So first things first, I’ll start with the good about this fresh start. Brody’s death forced the show to go back to its roots, and, in this case, the issue of drone strikes is not only relevant, it’s also tremendous fodder for drama. Combine that with the mysterious outing of Bachman, and we now have the main plotline for the rest of the season all set up and ready to go. The introduction of Bachman and Aayan into the fray works quite well, with Aayan in particular bringing something new to the “Homeland” universe, an unwilling bystander who embodies the consequences of the U.S. campaign in the Middle East, and all the while maintains a level head, something that nobody else in the show (perhaps other than Saul) seems able to do. At the same time, the mob attack on Carrie, Quinn, and Bachman was a tremendously thrilling sequence, not only for its execution, but also for what it says about the American presence in the Middle East. For as much as the U.S. wants to eliminate terrorists, every time a new target is killed, anger and rage seems to grow in the region, with civilians left behind as collateral damage. It’s for this reason that Aayan is such a potentially interesting addition to the show. His peaceful nature stands in stark contrast to the mob that attacks Bachman (and even to the mob that runs the CIA), but at the same time, he is now unwillingly caught in the middle of a never-ending war.
And now we come to the bad. In pressing the reset button on the show, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon had a lot of work to do, and while they did a pretty good job, plot-wise, of establishing an exciting, relevant direction going forward, Carrie is still an incredibly frustrating character to follow. For much of the show’s first three seasons, Carrie was always guided by her emotions, both good and bad. It was her conviction and trust in her instincts that led her to uncover Brody’s malicious intent, but it was also her “love” for him that led her to do so many of the stupid (and potentially treasonous) things she did in seasons two and three. Ironically, at the beginning of season four though, Carrie is doing something quite different; she is losing her emotional attachment to things, and subsequently losing much of her humanity. It’s as if the writers decided to a 180 on her after Brody’s death. For a character that audiences had grown so frustrated with over the last couple years, the decision by the writers to go this route is, once again, incredibly misguided. We, as an audience, need to find some way to reconnect with Carrie, and she herself needs to reconnect with her own humanity. In these first two episodes, neither of these things happen, and nowhere is that more evident than in one of the show’s most controversial scenes, where Carrie almost purposefully drowns her own baby daughter. Watching that scene made me cringe. Not just because a baby is the ultimate symbol of innocence and fragility, but because it showed just how completely disconnected the writers are from the very character they created. While logically her actions could potentially make sense, to have that scene (and then have her abandon her child once again at the end) just highlights Carrie’s inherently awful nature. She is clearly a narcissist, completely overwhelmed by her inability to care for anything or anyone other than herself. While this emotional detachment might work for certain characters that have exhibited a bit more humanity, after we’ve spent two seasons bemoaning her irrational actions, this is definitely not the way to go.
Going forward, “Homeland” still has a lot of potentially exciting plot to unravel, but it is still a long ways away from overcoming the stench of its two previous seasons. After two episodes, it still seems like the writers don’t have a grasp on Carrie, and if they can’t figure out a way to connect her with audiences once again, no amount of excitement or thrills will bring “Homeland” back to its glory days.
Gregório is a writer/director currently living in Los Angeles. He has written and directed four short films, and is currently working on his first feature film.
Twitter: @gregorioback / www.gregoriobackfilm.com