Watching Peter Quinn struggle to stay alive, shot in the gut and bleeding to death on the floor of a Gettysburg tailor-shop-cum-bomb-factory that had just seen CIA/FBI taskforce gunned down in cold blood by al Qaeda stormtroopers, a thought occurred to me: "I bet he's almost as shocked and pissed off that this happened as I am." Written by Chip Johanessen and directed by Guy Ferland, "A Gettysburg Address" was a terrific episode of Homeland – until that attack turned into one of the worst. And unlike Peter, I'm not convinced the show will ever get up off the floor.
For starters, there's something politically noxious about a show that normally takes a hard look at the underlying psychology and unintended blowback of the war on terror, on both sides, yet still portrays joint al Qaeda/Hezbollah SWAT teams capable of methodically assassinating an entire squad of federal intelligence and law-enforcement agents on Main Street USA. First of all, "joint al Qaeda/Hezbollah" anything is Bush-Cheney axis-of-evil bullshit at its most pernicious; these are very different groups with very different sectarian backgrounds and very different specific grievances and goals, to put it mildly. The idea that they've not only united, but through that union have developed the operational capacity to have Expendables-style teams of black-clad badasses running around America stopping investigations into their activities by murdering half a dozen feds and spooks, is a ludicrous buy-in into the paranoid mindset that enables and justifies the WoT's worst excesses in the first place. These are the very excesses that Homeland has been so good at exposing and critiquing elsewhere (and mining for drama, which is the important thing for a TV show). There have been 160,000 homicides in America since 9/11, a grand total of 14 of which were committed by al Qaeda sympathizers, let alone squads of fully trained operatives in full tactical assault gear. I know Homeland is only make-believe, but some make-believe is more pernicious than others.
More importantly, in ultimately judging Homeland's effectiveness as fiction, this kind of over-the-top shock tactic is death to drama. At this point, would anything Abu Nazir's network did surprise you? Maybe they used those stolen drone codes to hotwire one, and in the next episode, David Estes will be vaporized from the sky. Maybe they control an entire Marine unit to hijack an entire airport, like in Die Hard 2. Maybe the CIA headquarters in Langley is a giant Nazir-affiliated Deceptacon. Homeland's cloak-and-dagger material worked up until this point because it operated within recognizable limitations: Carrie and the CIA have a limited ability to crack Nazir's network and find his operatives without either being made or getting beat to the punch with an attack, while Brody and the Nazir team have a limited ability to plan and execute those attacks without getting caught by the CIA, or by Brody's family, or doing something that drives a wedge between Brody and Nazir. The tension arose from watching the two sides dance right up to, and occasionally stumble right over, the fine lines between success and failure. That's precisely what made this very episode's opening sequence of Virgil and company trailing Roya to her meeting with the head Hezbollah goon so suspenseful, for instance. But those fine lines are completely wiped away if Nazir's people can do anything, anywhere, to anyone.
Maybe the weirdest and most implausible thing about the whole scenario is that, at least to an extent, Carrie saw it coming. Inferring from Brody's conversation with Roya that Nazir had cooked up a nasty surprise for the agents investigating the tailor shop where his bombmaker worked, her first instinct is to have Quinn call for state troopers and federal agents as back-up. How about a bomb squad? Wouldn't that be the logical response to the Brody-Roya "Will they find anything in the bombmaker's place?"/ "Oh, they'll find something, alright [dun dun DUNNNNN]" exchange? Suddenly the characters are making exactly the same logical leaps the show is itself, even if they're a couple of paces behind.
Don't get me wrong: Taken on its own terms, the attack was stunning. Literally so, almost – I sat there shaking my head in borderline incomprehension, like I'd accidentally sat on the remote and changed the channel in the middle of the show. That's how big a disruption to the status-quo flow it was. The appearance of the attackers had me thinking Roya had somehow used the government against itself, calling in a local SWAT team who thought they were killing terrorists, not terrorist hunters.
The stunt casting of The Wire's Seth Gilliam as Chapman, a new agent who seemed like he'd be a big deal but ends up, as best I can tell, as redshirt cannon fodder was a shrewd and effective misdirect. Aside from an initial cut from Peter hearing an odd noise to a bunch of agents with guns drawn, the shootout was staged and shot with clarity and impact – you knew where people were in relation to one another, what they were trying to do with their weapons, and what would happen if they failed, which is more than you can say for many action sequences in the post-Christopher Nolan era. Of course, none of this would matter if we didn't want Quinn and Galvez to live! These are intriguing and engaging characters, and the show uses our interest in them against us, as all shows should from time to time. It's frightfully skillful filmmaking.
But this is in service of short-circuiting everything else that made the episode, and the show, work. To wit:
• That opening shot of an agent silhouetted against a panopticon of security-camera monitors—the eye in the sky
• Carrie's knockout punch against Peter when he criticizes her for having told Brody she wishes he'd leave his wife: "And you put a knife through his hand, the difference being that what I did worked."
• Brody's inability to stop lying, just as Peter points out: he's withholding information about the stuff he stole from David's safe, and he's lying to Jessica about Carrie's involvement in his CIA activities.
• Mike and Lauder pulling a two-man Scooby gang routine as they investigate Tom Walker's death (Mike is Fred and Lauder is Shaggy, obviously).
• Dana's hallway freakout after she learns Finn's hit-and-run victim is dying from the chilling phrase "The nurse, she said, call our priest" – a sequence that almost redeemed the goofy decision to make that vehicular homicide happen in the first place.
• That beautiful blue-backlit shot of Carrie looking at the big board at the end of the day.
• Saul and Carrie's conversation about whether or not she has it together. Just how much has her total vindication about Brody changed the way the other agents think about her, really?
• The richness of Brody getting indignant when Carrie tries to comfort him into talking to Roya for them. He's both dead-on about her manipulation and hilariously hypocritical for getting upset about it, given how much he put her through.
• Mike turning a corner and discovering David Estes is waiting for him – no one wants to find David Estes waiting for them.
• Saul's smackdown of Mike when he chafes at having his investigation shut down. "Nod your head if you understand" is what I'm going to say to annoying people who just aren't getting it from this day forward.
• Finn's potential borderline personality disorder: the woman he ran over is dead, but he's the one who needs help from Dana, and he'll kill himself if she doesn't give it to him.
• Maybe the single greatest Claire Danes cry face of all time as she confronts Brody in his congressional office.
Look at that list. In an episode with all of those strengths, did we really need supervillain guns-blazing bullshit? Can we trust a show that thinks we did?
Last Episode: Collision Course