The opening scene of tonight's Homeland, marvelously titled "New Car Smell," had me as nervous as any high-stakes Great TV Drama ever has. Only here, I wasn't afraid for the lives of the characters – I was afraid for the life of the show.
For two weeks, Homeland held out the hope that its entire premise would be blown to ballsy bits: that the long cat-and-mouse game between Nicholas Brody and Carrie Mathison would end with Carrie strolling away licking blood off her whiskers, or – darker but no less daring – that the beloved Saul Berenson would be revealed as a rat. But it also prolonged the possibility that the supposed gamechanger would get replacement-ref'd by some kind of storytelling cheat: a faulty memory card, a political cover-up, an assassin's bullet. So when Saul walked into David Estes' lovely single-dad pad with big Iran-related news, there was as much riding on what happened next as there would have been if he'd burst in guns blazing.
There was no firefight, of course, but there were fireworks. This episode surprised, and surprised, and surprised again, and nearly every sudden turn was in the right direction.
First of all, how refreshing was it for David to land unequivocally on the side of the angels for once? He instinctively sought to protect his colleagues and shut Brody down immediately rather than playing out the thread or, god forbid, covering it up – assuming all the while that it would mean the end of his career, but doing the right thing anyway. Playing politics with the case was actually Saul's suggestion. Setting their meeting in David's home, with his cute Star Wars-quoting kid running around, was a clever way for the show to humanize one of its least likeable characters, and he stayed human for the rest of the ep.
Brody went in the opposite direction, continuing the rewarding journey into unlikable creepdom begun during last week's hilariously pathetic field trip to Gettysburg. Even before the bottom drops out at episode's end, Brody's getting petulant, reacting with an obnoxious air of entitlement to Jessica and Dana's understandable and wholly justified mistrust and hostility. It's exciting to watch Damian Lewis incorporate yet another layer into what was already one of the most demanding roles on television: At long last he's joined the ranks of Tony Soprano and Don Draper and Walter White in the roster of antiheroic TV leads who do horrendous shit but still get their feefees hurt when treated like anything less than the special snowflake they know themselves to be. In that light, Carrie's sarcastic "You're special" as Brody touts his sleeper-agent prowess was the most cutting put-down of the night, although Jessica going full Skyler White and demanding "something true" only to get nothing in return showed she has his number as well.
That brief flash of brash assholishness by Brody in the climax was prefigured by newcomer Peter Quinn's sustained display of weapons-grade douchebaggery. Introducing a new character by giving him A GREAT BIG PERSONALITY!!! is always a dangerous thing for a show to do, especially when it's a drama that depends on the finely calibrated dynamics of its existing character relationships; I'm the kind of guy who responds to, say, the sudden eruption of Borscht Belt shtick from Mad Men Season Five's Michael Ginsberg like it's an awesome party favor, but at least as many viewers hit mute every time the guy opens his mouth. The smart thing about making Quinn such a standout, though, is that along with the elaborate high-tech headquarters he inhabits, he makes us think we're settling in for a long stay in the new status quo. Why else introduce a major new character and give him command of the freaking Batcave, right? So when it all blows up, we're that much more shocked, that's why. It's canny filmmaking.
Of course, the episode's final big surprise is Carrie calling an audible and blowing up the spot – which is something the half-dozen or so CIA agents and freelancers in the hotel at the time should have been ordered to prevent the second Carrie turned toward the elevator instead of the lobby doors, but whatever. Not only was the moment itself hugely cathartic for character and viewer alike – move over, Walter White; Carrie Mathison is the one who knocks – it was also hugely revealing. For one thing, it turns out that Carrie really was seething with anger and resentment about how Brody played her – and once you've heard the phrase "Mondays and Thursdays for six weeks" you can understand why – despite how calm she'd seemed about it when accepting David's apology earlier in the episode. She'd just appropriately channeled it away from the co-workers who were duped and aimed it at the guy who did the duping, is all.
For another, it showed that even a shrewd and empathetic operator like Carrie isn't above internalizing a little War on Terror rhetoric, accusing Brody of "hating America." We in the audience might expect her to flatter our enlightenment by sharing our disdain for that kind of jingoistic interpretation of terrorists' motives, particularly since we know that Brody doesn't hate America at all, that his conversion to Team Nazir is itself a bizarre form of patriotism, to him at least. But of course a woman who's dedicated her life to stopping Muslim terrorists, at all costs, will ultimately see things in stark black-and-white, no matter how shades-of-grey her life (or her relationship with the terrorist in question might otherwise get). Homeland has the admirable guts to hamstring our catharsis a bit, both with the potentially destructive impulsiveness with which Carrie sets it off and her less-than-stirring rhetorical justification of it after the fact.
Finally, the build-up to Carrie's big moment gave Claire Danes to put her phenomenally expressive face to good use, over and over again. I want to watch a show that's just Carrie making faces after talking to people: her incredulous "what the fuck is this guy's deal?" reaction to meeting Quinn, her delighted grin when walking away from her successful first "random" meeting with Brody at the entrance to Langley, the contempt in her smiling eyes after he grills her about her ECT at the bar. Danes does so much of her work from the chin up, and it's awesome to behold.
It's not all "the moment you've been waiting for," though. Over in Dana Brody's So-Called Life, the decreasingly sullen, increasingly assertive teenager is succumbing to the dubious charms of Vice President Walden's son Finn, a kid whose idea of courtship is utilizing the Secret Service to turn America's Phallic Symbol into a make-out spot and addressing text messages to his would-be girlfriend with the name of Thomas Jefferson's secret slave lover. And they say romance is dead! At first glance Dana's storyline seems like a sideshow, but recall how the first season inserted her emotional woes into the main action at the very last moment, to extremely powerful effect. You gotta figure that kicking off an episode with the otherwise non sequitur Star Wars quote "I am your father – don't make me destroy you" is intended to keep the Nick/Dana connection sizzling away somewhere in our minds for later use.
A show capable of that kind of deft, long-game work, though, shouldn't be making the unforced errors Homeland too often does. For God's sake, another surveillance op on Brody has another blind spot in which another instantly incriminating event takes place? There were a million other ways the show could have worked around Brody's Islamic prayers without staging them in the garage and having Carrie's team go "gee whiz, too bad we didn't wire the garage." There were a million ways the show could have spared Abu Nazir from agency snipers without having Brody send secret text messages to the guy from the situation room. And there were a million ways Brody could've made off-the-radar contact with Roya without requiring one of the agents monitoring the guy to say, and Christ help me this is a direct quote, "Now if only we could hear what they're saying." Please, Homeland, please, do not draw attention to your own plot holes. Just fill them.