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'Homeland' Recap: On the Borderline

As Brody heads for enemy territory, is it time to abort 'Homeland''s mission?

Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson and F. Murray Abraham as Dar Adal in Homeland.
Kent Smth/SHOWTIME
December 1, 2013 10:05 PM ET

Is it time to say "good night" to Homeland? That's the title of tonight's episode, and the trigger phrase that alerts the snipers accompanying Brody on his high-stakes mission into Iraq to open fire on anyone who's impeding it. I'm not calling for that kind of extreme sanction on this thing, of course. But in an episode like this one, with a nearly one-to-one mix of terrific character work and terrible plot hiccups, beautiful filmmaking and ugly implausibilities, it's worth running the question up the chain of command.

Take Quinn's absurd episode-opening elevator conversation with Carrie on the way into the command center. As is usually the case when these two get together, their respective brands of no-bullshit repartee clash most entertainingly: "How's your arm?" "Great. Brand fuckin' new." And once again you're left thinking that a romance between these two would be the magic sniper bullet that with a single shot could solve a lot of the show's actual problems (tying Quinn directly to the central character, pushing the past-his-sell-by-date Brody further away, generally being kind of a hot idea) as well as the ones the network erroneously believes it has. (Apparently, we watch Homeland for the romance?)

Seven Ways to Save 'Homeland'

Then Quinn brings up Carrie's pregnancy, Carrie blows up and tells him to M his OB, and you just want to slam the emergency button and spend five minutes yelling at them both. "It's none of your damn business" if a CIA agent with a track record of insubordination and instability is secretly carrying their politically sensitive asset's child and not telling anyone? I don't care how long Carrie's been off her meds – saying that with a straight face is the craziest thing she's ever done. No crazier, of course, than Quinn apparently accepting this line of reasoning. Even if he's tired of the Agency's games, this still strikes me as worth bringing up to, oh I don't know, the acting CIA director, the incoming CIA director and head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the JSOC Commander, the White House Chief of Staff, the mission heads on the ground and in Langley, and all the other people involved in the operation whose asses would collectively be on the line if Carrie should decide to, like, hotwire Air Force One and fly to Tehran to extract Brody herself.

Or look at Brody's endearing camaraderie with the special-ops beardos tasked with smuggling over the Iran-Iraq border. As delightful as it is to hear the mission commander's cornpone Texas accent, or watch these guys shift from friendly banter to al-Qaeda cover stories to ruthlessly efficient killing at the drop of a hat or the mention of a code word, their total comfort with a dude who really did betray his country on behalf of the people they've apparently been fighting with on multiple tours of duty (even if not in the exact way the world believes he betrayed it) is such a strange lapse of storytelling logic. For a moment I thought the idea was going to be that they're just that highly trained, that they can swallow their skepticism about the guy in order to get the job done; judging from how easily Brody slips back into jarhead complaints about "rear-echelon motherfuckers," the team's acceptance has him feeling like a Marine again, which is exactly the thing on which the success of the mission depends. But when the banter keeps up and the self-sacrifices begin after everything goes to hell, that theory goes up in smoke. These black-ops badasses like him, they really like him! They and the show have the same problem: They're inexplicably addicted to Brody.

But they've got nothing on Brody Junkie Number One, Carrie Mathison. Jesus, at least try to conceal that you're still head-over-heels for this dude, Carrie! Any time Brody did anything remotely competent we got a shot of Carrie beaming like a parent at a school play; when she started screaming at the president's chief of staff over his failure to properly value Brody's life I found myself hoping Saul and Dar Adal had a nice lockable-from-the-outside conference room to strand her in. "Bite it, Carrie – bite it hard," Saul barks at her in response. With the possible exception of the moment in which Carrie tells Brody his happily-ever-after fantasy of her extracting him from Iran following his assassination plot's completion is just that, a fantasy, this was the line of the night in large part because it felt like the show acknowledging just how obnoxious this had gotten. 

Yet by episode's end, I still found myself feeling glad I'd spent an hour on this thing, because so much of that hour was just lovely to look at. It's rare – rarer than you'd think, given how the mechanics of surveillance dominated the way the first few episodes of the series were set up and shot – but sometimes Homeland blends spycraft and cinematography to create something truly beautiful and unique on the television landscape. Carrie watching Brody sitting around in the desert, glowing green in night vision; tracing the aftermath of the landmine explosion by watching ghostly white figures crawl out of the wreckage on drone-cam footage shot from thousands of feet in the air; enduring a firefight in which bullets zoom through the air like orange and green fireflies against the night sky; a military patrol suddenly (if a bit implausibly, given all the drones in the air) materializing like ghosts in the night, backlit by their disorienting array of bright lights; a harrowing horror-movie close-up on Brody's blood-spattered face as he tries in vain not to fall apart when a man is murdered inches from him; Brody praying in the religion he adopted from a terrorist mastermind, silhouetted against the golden desert sunset. Like that one memorable moment in "Tower of David" earlier in the season, where a disoriented Brody staggers to the railing and hears the call to prayer emerge from a mosque in the middle of a sprawling South American city, all these elements are things we can only see in the context of a spy thriller like this; the show took the time to make the presentation as unique to the genre as the plot is, and it paid off.

And there were character moments that were just as strong, honestly. Portraying cooperation and competence among adults who normally have incentives to squabble is one thing that quality cable dramas have done very well for a very long time – all that time spent detailing the conflicts between characters pays off when the characters finally get along. The ego-free handoff of control from Saul to the military when it looks like the mission has to be aborted, followed by Senator Lockhart's seemingly sincere offer of condolences to the man he's about to make obsolete, was an impressively moving moment. On the flipside, Carrie's manipulation of Fara into using her uncle in Tehran as Brody's escape route, essentially sacrificing a member of the younger agent's family to save an unwitting member of her own, demonstrated how Carrie's selfishness actually can make her a more effective operative.

Is all that enough to overcome how farkakte the whole storyline is? Does it overcome the silliness of Dar Adal telling the chief of staff that "All he has to do tonight is walk across the border and ask for asylum" like it's easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy, or the miraculous materialization of Majid Javadi at the remote border outpost to which Brody's been taken? I honestly have no idea at this point. But the show's still got enough going for it that I'm not ready to say "good night" just yet.

Last Week: In Too Deep

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