Where do you even begin?
Alphabetically by character, I suppose. Because yeah, for every one thing that worked in "The Choice," Homeland's woeful second season finale, there were three things that didn't. Yeah, my jaw dropped from the twisted brilliance of Al Qaeda releasing Brody's suicide tape, but it dropped again, in the bad way, over the cheesy suspense-movie score when Quinn creeps up on Brody at the lake, and over Carrie tearing into Saul's personal life during their argument for no apparent reason, and over Nazir hitting the little memorial attended by CIA functionaries instead of the eventual big one attended by the majority of the federal government from the president on down. But that's almost irrelevant, because in fiction, plot holes and missteps don't matter if you still get where you need to go. Homeland didn't, not even close. It blew it on a character-by-character basis.
So, Brody: A character who passed his sell-by date all the way back when his bomb and his storyline failed to detonate at the end of Season One lives through yet another season, ready to return for the world's most unlikely and now least credible romance. His continued existence makes a series staffed nearly top to bottom by seasoned showrunners look as in love with its own characters – too in love to do what the story requires – as any first-time novelist or sophomore screenwriting student. For a show all about the consequences of terrorism and counterterrorism, it sure is intent on sparing its leads from them. And the constant George W. Bush won't-get-fooled-again routine is now so old and so exhausted of potential that it's ruining a previously pretty perfect performance by Damian Lewis; his talking-down of a gun-toting and enraged Carrie in Estes's vacant office following the explosion was dire. We put up with Brody's implausible survival after the end of Season One in hopes that the show knew what it was doing, that the character in combination with Carrie was such dynamite that it was worth postponing the explosion. Instead: another clumsy attempt to have their cake and eat it too. I'm not biting this time.
Then there's Carrie, a character who spends half the episode so blithely confident that she'll be asked to rejoin the CIA despite hiding the existence of her mental illness and the extent of her relationship with a double agent and oh yeah, her collusion in the assassination of the vice president of the United States that it reads like the manic ideation she takes pills to prevent. I mean, it'd be totally crazy for them to ask her back, right? Right! But then the show does it anyway, and offers her a goddamn promotion! That's Homeland throwing its future away just as surely as Saul says Carrie would have done had she stayed by Brody's side. You can't trust a series that sets up a crazy, pie-in-the-sky daydream and then makes it come true.
Sometimes, when a storyline comes full circle, it just makes it easier to see how long it's been spinning its wheels. With everyone who could have blown up her spot regarding the hit-and-run up in smoke, Dana's entire season comes back to the final episode of last season, and whether or not she believes her dad is a terrorist in his heart of hearts. The conversation they had, her defense of him to the investigators, her devastation when she sees the confession tape, her perfunctory drawing of the curtains when she sees the press show up—all of that could have happened in exactly the same way the day after Brody's failed attack instead of after some mystery mole's successful one. Everything in between might as well have been Bobby daydreaming in the shower on Dallas. I kind of wish it was – then "Q&A" would have been an all-time great episode of television period, instead of an all-time great episode of television with a dopey car accident at the end.
Next up: Peter Quinn, the Wolverine of Homeland. Don't get me wrong – that lingering shot of Peter sitting in the corner of Estes's bedroom, the way it just. wouldn't. let. you. turn. away. was deeply creepy and unnerving. It didn't hurt that he suddenly sounded like Richard Harrow, either. But what good is a black-ops buttonman to do your dirty work if the buttonman is willing and able to un-press himself? So he's Jason Bourne now? Or the Punisher, insistent that he kill only bad guys? It's comic-book morality, and I very much doubt that you get to be the kind of person Quinn must be to have the job he has and preserve that superhero ideology. The guy they trust to carry out super-duper-illegal assassinations of American citizens on American soil is also a mensch who defends Carrie's romantic entanglements and turns off the spycam when his target gets amorous?
It's tough to hold this against actor Rupert Friend, a strangely magnetic performer who normally gives Quinn the look and vibe of your middle-school friend's mysterious college-age brother, but man is that some phony-baloney Jean Reno in Leon: The Professional hitman-with-a-heart-of-gold bullshit. And it further muddies the waters of an already needlessly sloppy allegory for CIA malfeasance. Why invent Dar Adal's black-ops shop when we know, for a fact, on both the show and IRL, that the highest levels of government routinely order drone strikes that kill innocent civilians by the hundreds? Given that this was the set-up for the entire Brody/Nazir storyline, shouldn't that be plenty to work with right there?
And Saul – oh, alright, Saul's cool. Well, mostly. It's ironic, in the "No, Alanis, it's unfortunate" sense of the word, that Mandy Patinkin was given his best material in the show's worst stretch of episodes, but the one-two punch of his rat-in-a-cage rage while detained by Estes and his clipped, painfully blunt, verge-of-collapse phone call with his estranged wife Mira was a knockout combination. (For real, what a great idea to have her resurface as a character at that moment. Our sense of out-of-nowhere relief mirrored Saul's own.) And since performance trumps plot holes every time, you might, might, even be able to overlook his deep, deep involvement with a double-agent believed to be responsible for the murder of hundreds of people inside fucking Langley – let's face it, the Agency should have thrown anyone associated with this disaster of an operation off the aircraft carrier with the late Abu Nazir. But they had to go and ruin it with that goofy-ass final shot, in which he reacts to the discovery that Carrie's still alive by widening his eyes and breaking into a lopsided grin like the CIA's highest-ranking Muppet. That this is a callback to Carrie's season premiere-ending smile only makes it worse. That was awesome. This just made me want to shout "Stop looking like a Dr. Seuss character and start placing this woman under arrest."
Look, this episode got off to a strong start, and not just because it jettisoned TV's worst theme song. The opening shot of Brody and Carrie with their hilarious Whole Foods grocery bags? I was so ready to watch the agonizing flameout of the Odd Couple's bittersweet attempt to recreate the magic of their woodland weekend. Even their conversation in the cabin, which consisted almost solely of portentous dramatic irony ("There's no secrets right now," "My only real plan now is to be a good person again," "Maybe this will all end in tears," the amazingly clunky "The thing is, Brody, I also love –" "Careful . . ." ". . . being with you" exchange), couldn't dissuade me from the belief that hey, maybe Homeland's turning it around, maybe they're going to go where they need to with these characters at last.
Instead they concocted a terrorist attack that, were it to happen in real life, would fundamentally rewrite America's source code, and used it just to uncross their star-crossed lovers so that they could live to fight and fuck and flee another day. In every way it's a grievous misreading of what made this show matter: pushing the examination of the War on Terror, and the audience's ability to continue to like its fundamentally good-hearted protagonists in the face of their morally and emotionally disastrous actions, as far as they can go. They chickened out. They pulled back. How can you watch a show about matters of life and death that so fundamentally lacks the courage of its convictions? In "The Choice," Homeland chose not to choose. They chose poorly.
Last episode: Tunnel Vision