What's the matter with Homeland? It's not just the wonky plotting of the past few episodes, tonight's being no exception. I mean, tearing at the logical inconsistencies of hugely successful and acclaimed action-adventure films is a critical cottage industry at this point – as long as Christopher Nolan is one of the biggest directors in Hollywood, it pretty much has to be – but just about everyone is willing to put up with plot holes through which 13 dwarves could walk abreast as long as the show or film in question offers items of compensatory value in return. Strong performances, clever writing, arresting imagery, a sense that the work is wrestling with issues you care about – give us enough of these and we're willing to look the other way. To do less is almost churlish.
What's happened with Homeland is that the number of items of compensatory value dropped to an all-time low at precisely the time that the ludicrousness of the plot soared to an all-time high. It's not just that the "Abu Nazir kidnaps Carrie to blackmail Brody into assassinating Walden" plot strained every ounce of credulity we had – it did, plus there was Damian Lewis's unusually weak performance last week, plus Nazir's supervillain speechifying and Carrie's Captain America responses, plus the bad horror-movie cinematography in Nazir's lair, plus the whole idea of "Nazir's lair," plus Nazir Skyping his demands to Brody's Blackberry, plus Nazir planning a stealth assassination even though the entire first season hinged on his insistence on spectacular mass-casualty attacks, plus Roya ranting in Arabic like a one-woman-show version of that repulsive "Muslim Rage" Newsweek cover, plus the show saddling poor Morgan Saylor's Dana with continuing to be a stereotypical cynical ingrate teenage dirtbag despite the threat to her family being very real, plus the CIA's top shot-callers and most fearsome black-ops gunmen allowing a mentally ill ex-agent and a terrorist-turned-congressman double agent to come and go as they please, and on and on and on.
That's why neither writing the plot off as irrelevant to the show's quality nor going to conspiratorial lengths to explain its implausibility truly speaks to the weakness of the show at this point in time. The plot's a problem, and it's probably the biggest problem, but it's far from the only problem. Indeed, it may well be that the cockamamie plot and all the other problems are inseparable, since it seems as though Homeland's decision to become the kind of show where a terrorist mastermind videotapes himself with a gun to the main character's head caused it to lose focus on what used to work for it.
For example, Homeland's treatment of terrorism was vastly more effective when it used Brody – an American, a Marine, a husband and father – to show that many violent radicals have motives far more relatable and uncomfortably closer to home than Nazir and Roya's unhinged ranting about centuries of warfare. Not coincidentally, this made its condemnation of terrorist tactics more effective as well: You're gonna kill kids to protest the killing of kids? But when you need to set things up so that Nazir can run around in the shadows slitting people's throats, this gets lost in the arterial spray.
Likewise, its examination of American surveillance/security-state abuses was sharper and more challenging when it was a matter of illegal wiretapping and ends-justify-the-means drone strikes than as a Bourne-style off-the-books assassination squad waiting for the right moment to plug a congressman in the D.C. suburbs. I mean, honestly. Is no one concerned that Saul and Virgil and Max will leak this information, no matter what Estes threatens Saul with? Does no one realize that Estes's order to Quinn to make Brody's death look like terrorist blowback will make their whole anti-Nazir operation look like a failure, since this would be the fourth time in a row that terrorists successfully killed government officials on American soil?
Meanwhile, the sheer logistics of keeping the plot juggernaut moving burns up the most valuable resource of all: screen time. Yes, yanking Carrie into and out of and back into Nazir's abandoned mill last week, then yanking her back out of it and back into it and back out of it again this week, forced the show to come up with increasingly goofy ways to justify her freedom of movement and action. (LOL at her just breezing into Roya's interrogation room with her visitor pass, or becoming a partner in an FBI tac team pair.) But on the most fundamental level of all, these maneuvers all took a certain amount of time to set up. That's time that could have been spent doing what this show does best: Putting two damaged people in a room together, making them talk, and seeing what happens. Remember "Q&A," the amazing Carrie-interrogates-Brody episode that went off the rails at the end with the Dana/Finn hit-and-run mishegas? Imagine the Nazir business as the hit-and-run writ large. I'd much rather have sat in that car with Jess and Brody and listened to them hash out the revelations and refusals and mea culpas of their marriage's final dissolution for a full episode than spent another second watching the show do its Call of Duty impression in those goddamn tunnels.
Finally, and most devastatingly for the show's core dynamic, the amour fou between Carrie and Brody was a lot more powerful, and believable, when it was a matter of two broken people drawn to one another's wounds rather than a criminal conspiracy. Carrie falling in love with a man she believes to be a terrorist, and staying in love with him even after he uses that love to betray her and destroy her life and career and even sanity – that's magnetic, that's tragic. Carrie helping that guy get away with assassinating the vice president? That's just kind of gross and weird and hard to swallow, even for her.
I know, I know, we put up with gross and weird behavior from pretty much every major dude on television these days. But Carrie's not a Walter White or a Don Draper, or even a Hannah Hovarth – she lacks the narcissistic swagger that gives these characters the belief that they deserve get away with their rule-breaking and the ability to actually do so (for a while, anyway). Carrie's a mensch, and this behavior is most unmensch-like. Having her spend an entire episode running around like a chicken with her head cut off hunting down a creep whose most successful terrorist attack she's actively covering up, on behalf of a second creep who presents the murder of a third creep to her as a grand romantic gesture, makes her look like a doofus, and makes it next to impossible to empathize with or even understand her decision-making anymore. She's a fundamentally good person who's now complicit in a crime major enough to be written about in elementary-school history textbooks were it to become public knowledge. This demands a major recalibration of how we look at her, and how we look at the show built around her. I don't like what I see.
Last episode: Heart of Darkness