'Homeland' Recap: Tick, Tick, BOOM!

An uber-tense second episode leads to a make-or-break moment for characters - and the show

homeland carrie saul
Ronen Akerman/SHOWTIME
Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison and Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson in 'Homeland'
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Last season Homeland stopped just short of blowing up one of its main characters. After tonight's episode, will they have the guts to blow up the whole show?

For about 95 percent of the hour, Homeland simply did what it always does when it's at its very best: juxtapose a thoughtfully written, magnificently acted study of a character in extremis with an embolism-inducingly suspenseful cloak-and-dagger thriller. The character in the spotlight tonight – well, there were really two. Claire Danes, who like her fellow great-drama leads Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston and Peter Dinklage epitomizes the "born for this role" cliché, turned in maybe her best work on the series so far, embodying every aspect of Carrie's literally physically sickening mix of emotions. Over the course of her short-lived return to intelligence work in Beirut's pressure-cooker environment, she was excited, she was terrified, she was determined, she was hesitant, she was cocksure, she was insecure. Most heartbreakingly, she was wrongly convinced that her mental illness had effectively ruined her life and nearly those of many others.

"It fucked me up, Saul, being wrong about Brody," she tells her mentor. "It fucked me up. Because I have never been so sure, and so wrong." That's a mortal mental wound for someone in her line of work, and she knows it.

So does Saul, which makes his position in this episode enormously challenging – and gives Mandy Patinkin some really glorious stuff to work with. Saul cares overwhelmingly for Carrie and (justifiably) has a higher opinion of her abilities than even she does, but he's also fully aware of how little she can be relied on at this point. This gives him as potent an emotional cocktail to chug as the one confronting Carrie. Look at the "you've got to be fucking kidding me" look on his face when Carrie tells him Abu Nazir is on his way but no one else but her has this information, or listen to the fury in his voice when Carrie runs into her informant's house to loot it for paperwork as angry Hezbollah members menacingly surround their getaway car: that's the tension that comes from realizing the person you love and respect more than anyone else in your life is perfectly capable of destroying herself and bringing you down with her. (Loved the framing of him on the rooftop, the sun giving him a halo as he is put in the position of judging or absolving his protégé like a secular saint.)

'Homeland' Cheat Sheet: What You Need to Know for Season Two

All this is set against the backdrop of an intelligence coup that basically falls into the Agency's lap: Abu Nazir is meeting with a high-ranking Hezbollah commander. It's an irresistible two-birds-with-one-stone moment, not just for Carrie, who wants to believe her informant, or Saul, who wants to believe Carrie, but also guys like Estes and Vice President Walden, who crave the appearance of taking decisive action and nailing some scalps to the wall. The potential political fallout for the kill-or-capture operation is nearly as nailbiting as the actual life-or-death stakes for the agents on the ground or their high-value quarry. Watching the operation slowly unfold – time frames portentously announced, surveillance cameras going live, agents checking in, cars pulling up, militants getting out, messages getting exchanged, rifles getting aligned – delivers that delicious queasy feeling in your stomach, that enormously pleasurable unpleasantness, that's one of the main reasons we watch high-stakes dramas like these in the first place. Not even Nazir's escape through the show's biggest coinkydink yet could spoil that.

Then Saul discovers Brody's videotaped suicide note, and it's like the whole show just took a headshot.

Which is awesome! Much of Season One was an exercise in advancing the characters without shaking up the fundamental nature of the show. Carrie getting canned was a big change, granted, but certainly not as big as Brody either getting arrested or blowing up half the government would have been. The amazing thing about tonight's cliffhanger ending is that the show pretty much has no choice: It has to change from this moment forward. Either Saul passes the video to one or more of his colleagues (Carrie, Estes, Galvez, or better yet his entire Gmail contact list) and Brody's jig is up, at which point the show is transformed; or we discover Saul is indeed the mole and he covers up Brody's secret, at which point the show is transformed. "The show is transformed" is the baseline expectation here, and it'd be difficult to overpraise how ballsy and satisfying that would be.

Anything less would be such a frustrating dodge that it hardly bears thinking about: Saul keeps the information to himself out of fear of Brody's political connections, despite never having blanched at rocking the boat before; Saul somehow loses the data before it can be transmitted or shown to anyone else, the equivalent of Season One's malfunctioning detonator or garage surveillance-camera blindspot; Brody convinces everyone he was just rehearsing for his off-off-Broadway one-man show, Sunday in the Park with Abu Nazir. Having just danced up to the precipice of a massive show-altering event only to say "nevermind" with the Season One finale's failed suicide bombing, it'd be awfully tough to trust the show ever to have the courage of its storytelling convictions if it does it again three episodes later.

What's more, it'd only serve to reinforce the perception that the show leans too heavily on coincidence and luck (bad or good, depending on whose side you're on) to get itself out of storytelling jams. I can't be the only person who sighed "What, again?" when some careerist political dipshit invited Brody into yet another highly classified national-security setting in which he had no business being, or when yet another last-minute phone message saved yet another terrorist from yet another otherwise successful CIA attempt to take him down. When Brody angrily told Zuleikha Robinson's increasingly cartoonish reporterrorist that he can't be texting secret messages to Abu Nazir while surrounded by the fucking Joint Chiefs, he was pretty much echoing exactly what I'd say to the writers.

I've given a lot of thought to why I find Homeland's last-minute lucky-duck situations so much tougher to swallow than the ones in Breaking Bad, which I found myself defending quite a bit during the show's fifth season. Then it hit me: It was the show's fifth season! Breaking Bad took about three and a half seasons before it started regularly embroiling Walter White in "that's so crazy it just might work"-type schemes, during which time we got to know him and his world. We warmed to what the show was up to long before it required us to suspend disbelief in grand fashion. I don't know about you, but I'm happy to pay back hard-earned goodwill with the occasional plausibility pass. Homeland, by contrast, was a high-wire act from the jump.

At the same time, Homeland is closer to The Wire than Breaking Bad in terms of how it portrays its particular life-or-death demimonde. Like David Simon's great American novel in TV form, much of Homeland's heat derives from its relatively de-glamorized look at how living this kind of life affects the people who live it. I'm not saying it's realism, just that reality is one of its key ingredients. Breaking Bad, by contrast, never explicitly or implicitly presented itself as a warts-and-all look at the meth trade. It's a horror movie with blue meth instead of zombie bites. It can get away with moments that make sense in that kind of heightened reality, but nowhere else.

The question for Homeland now is this: Will it own the consequences of its own reality, or hit itself with the storytelling equivalent of Carrie's ECT and wipe it away?

Last episode: Why We Fight

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