October 20th, 2013
Last year, The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum had a theory about Homeland. She argued that Sgt. Nicholas Brody’s panicked communications with Abu Nazir as Carrie Mathison was held hostage were all an act, and that he was in on the plan from the beginning.
It was an interesting theory, one she gave me credit for partially debunking by noting that Abu Nazir and Brody continue speaking in the same manner once Carrie is no longer listening to their conversation. For me, that was the sign that the theory couldn’t work: while an interesting idea, I did not believe Homeland was a series that would so actively mislead the viewer with information that—in hindsight—would contradict the intended truth of the situation.
If you saw last night’s episode of Homeland, and have been following some of the subsequent conversation, the above may sound familiar. Indeed, this season’s central storyline almost feels inspired by Nussbaum’s theory, as though the writers took it as a challenge as to whether the series could sustain a twist that in retrospect contradicts many of the storylines and character actions displayed in earlier episodes and maintain its reputation.
The response to “Game On” suggests that they can’t, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m no longer on board.
I read Todd VanDerWerff’s review at The A.V. Club before reading Alex Gansa’s post-episode interview at The Hollywood Reporter, and it made for an interesting juxtaposition.
And yet there’s this little thing at the back of my head that insists the show is trying to sell that this was the plan all along, which is just insane. If the show is going to tell me that Saul and Carrie hatched this plan sometime between her first meeting with the lawyer and the last scene of this episode, fine. I can get on board with that. But if it’s suggesting that all of this was done with the idea of simultaneously getting heat off of the CIA proper and drawing out someone who might try to flip Carrie, I think that’s a little too much like 11-dimensional chess on Saul’s part, and I call shenanigans.
As intelligence officers, the first thing that they would try to do is to turn this tragedy into something positive. That’s what they went to work on the day after the bombing. How were they going to catch the guys responsible for this? A plan was hatched quite quickly in the aftermath of the attack on the CIA.
Gansa’s answer didn’t necessarily surprise me. Like Todd, I was confused on how long the plan had supposedly been in action, and I also had that nagging sense the series would argue this was some sort of long con. However, Gansa’s answer still surprised me in the fact that this was apparently the plan since the end of last season. I was honestly fine with the idea of the twist if they were arguing that it was hatched when Saul visited the hospital following her institutionalization, but the idea that the entire season has to this point been an elaborate charade to convince the Syrians to target her as a potential double agent is a bridge too far.
Or is it? There’s no question that not every bit of logic in the season to date holds up at this point, but I’d make the argument that what we saw was a plan that went wrong. Carrie’s anxiety and “madness” experienced before and during her institutionalization may have been part of a larger plan, but they uncovered her legitimate issues with mental illness, and put her in risk mentally. The fact that this was all a plan was a comfort, but it was also one more piece of the puzzle to have to reconcile, and that clearly had a negative impact on her grasp on things. Similarly, Saul’s coldness toward Carrie may have been an act, but his ambivalence toward the actions he had to take in the midst of their plan play both as a former mentor reflecting on a lost relationship and a current handler realizing the consequences of the plan’s evolution. Carrie was always committed to working to get into a room with the Iranian who planned the Langley bombing, but she didn’t sign up to be institutionalized, and the final scene with Saul is careful to remind us that this has been a sacrifice for Carrie.
Still, going back to my response to Nussbaum’s theory, it undercuts the drama for four episodes to have been built around a lie. And yet, although I believed at the time that Nussbaum’s theory would have been a betrayal of the show I was watching (an argument Mo Ryan made regarding “Game On”), I didn’t feel the same about this twist. I agree it creates some logic gaps in performances, and I definitely didn’t embrace the twist in full, but I don’t think my regard for the series is such that this is a betrayal. Expectations have been lowered, and adjusted, and have come in at the point where the idea of Carrie back as ostensibly a field agent with Saul as her handler makes me more interested in the show than I’ve been all season. The speed at which I was willing to throw away the first four episodes otherwise and focus on the path moving forward says something about the quality of those episodes, but I also think that Homeland is now a show where things like this happen, and I don’t mind watching that show.
Is it that I’m so desperate for a sign of forward momentum that I’m willing to forgive the twist’s incredulous nature? Probably. Is it that I’m so much more invested in Carrie and Saul’s relationship that any return to it is welcomed regardless of the context? It’s very possible. But it may also be that I’ve fully accepted—and on some level even welcomed—Homeland settling into its identity as a post-prestige exercise in narrative and character development. I would agree with complaints about Leo as a non-character, for example, but I remain engaged by the focus on the Brody family post-Brody, and think it’s telling an important story to this series—even if it’s not telling it as well as it should—that I’m glad to see committing to Dana’s place in this story.
Whereas some have expressed disappointment in the show Homeland has become, my issues have primarily been with execution. I don’t think the twist was successfully built into the previous episodes, and I would never argue everything the show has done this season has worked, but my mostly ambivalent reaction to this season thus far seems to indicate not that I remain a believer in Homeland’s greatness but rather that I’ve detached myself from that notion. I accept the twist because it foregrounds characters and dynamics I find interesting, and because the show around it is good enough—emphasis on enough—to sustain some concentrated shenanigans, something that I think is fine to indulge in from time-to-time.