The image that’ll stick from “State of Independence,” potentially Homeland season two’s breakthrough episode, is itself an image of a breakthrough. After knocking back fistfuls of pills with cups of white wine, Carrie Mathison, the despondent and decidedly ex-CIA agent, lies down in the bed, preparing to go gentle into that good night . . . until she bolts off the bed, runs to the bathroom, and forces herself to vomit her suicidal cocktail back up.
The build-up had been excruciating. Her meeting with David Estes in the hallway at Langley was brutal to watch, her mental distress radiating from her in waves as she mishandled all sorts of incoming emotional and behavioral clues. She responds to all of Estes’s (sincere!) compliments with sarcastic dismissals, clearly expecting more from him and the Agency than just kind words. But when David senses this and reminds her there’s no way she’s going to be reinstated, she makes a big, transparently bogus show of acting like she has no idea what he’s talking about. Claire Danes’ high-tension-wire of a face has the best look of feigned incredulity on television – like, “Who, me, expect to be reinstated? C’mon, David, that’d be crazy!” Indeed. Her suicide attempt says more about the gulf between what she’d hoped for and what she got than words ever could.
But then she slammed on the brakes. As someone who’s never been suicidally depressed myself, I’m hesitant to suggest what went through her head in that moment. But the suddenness with which she reacted, and the sheer physical velocity of that reaction, suggest that Carrie reacted with characteristically Carrie-esque intensity to the realization that in killing herself, she was effectively joining forces with everyone and everything that had denied this special agent her agency. Her old boss and old flame David, for hanging her out to dry. Her old quarry and other old flame Brody, for ratting her out and proving her wrong. Her own brain, for its manic flights and depressive crashes, and its reality-warping ability to fixate on a single idea – an idea she believed, erroneously, to be wrong. In that moment, some part of her said she still had something to offer that none of these things had taken away. This is an odd thing to say of a toilet filled with pills and pinot grigio, but as another agent of Uncle Sam once said, it smells like . . . victory.
Brody’s storyline, to put it mildly, doesn’t. It plays out like a remix of one of the most famous and acclaimed hours of television of all time: “College,” the fifth episode of The Sopranos‘ first season and the one in which many critics believe the show found its voice. (Personally, I give that honor to the show’s own remix of that episode, Season Three’s caustically bleak “University,” but it takes diff’rent strokes to move the world, yes it does.) In “College,” Tony takes his teenage daughter Meadow to visit potential colleges in pastoral New England, but spends half the trip surreptitiously stalking a snitch he spots by accident after years in witness protection.
Tony’s trip, by and large, is successful. He does what he set out to do: kill the rat and keep it a secret from his daughter. He even manages to concoct a half-confession about his involvement in the Mafia (“illegal gambling”) to satisfy her suspicions, rather than trying to block them outright.
Brody’s day on the road should be much easier than Tony’s. He doesn’t have to kill anyone – he just has to get a guy from point A to point B. He doesn’t have to dodge a suspicious family member in person – he just needs to check in by phone now and then. He’s not faced with direct questions about his potential criminality – he just needs to make it on time to an event where he’ll be celebrated for being the exact opposite of what he really is.
What happens? Everything that goes right for Tony goes wrong for Brody. He’s forced to sloppily execute the guy he was sent to protect. He does this audibly, while on the phone with his wife, who finds his “Noise? What noise?” routine as ridiculous as we do. (His grunt-laden tussle with the bomber while he yeah-yeah-yeahs Jessica was as midnight-black as black comedy gets, worthy of one of the darker Coen Brothers movies.) He repeatedly whiffs on conversational tee-balls placed in front of him during his front-yard talk with Mike, and when he’s one-on-one with Jessica he couldn’t credibly lie his way through a wet paper bag. He fails his mission, blows his deadline, ruins his clothes, hurts his political career and damn near wrecks his marriage. It’s a squalid, muddy, sweaty, rainy disaster of a day, one that leaves Brody barely able to string two sentences together, he’s so exhausted and disgusted. Damian Lewis plays Brody’s return home in particular as though he has nothing left in the tank at all.
And if the end of the episode means what I hope it means, he did it all for nothing.
This is what makes Carrie and Brody’s terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day such a perfect parallel. They both put themselves through hell with no inkling that their worlds are about to be turned upside down. What a waste it would have been for Carrie to kill herself on the night of her vindication (and deny us one of the few glimpses of genuine happiness we’ve seen on her magnetically expressive face this season). And what a waste it was for Brody to lie and murder his way through one final awful day before his secret comes out for good.
Am I still nervous that the show could wimp out at the last minute? Absolutely. They made a point of having Saul tell Carrie no one else has seen Brody’s video but her, and they could come up with any number of reasons to keep it that way. (I for one spent the opening sequence angrily convinced that Lebanese airport security really did confiscate his only copy.) Even more frustrating would be for the show to go all Harry Potter on us, with Walden and Estes doing their best Dolores Umbridge and covering up Saul and Carrie’s evidence for political reasons. Having them try to do that is one thing – an expected thing, even, given what we know of Walden’s moral character in particular – but pulling it off would be too melodrama by half.
This is where the squandered trust I talked about after the premiere comes into play. Normally I don’t waste any time wondering “OK, what lame thing might happen next week?” while watching a show I like. After all, it’s unfair to judge a show by some bad thing it might do rather than by the good thing it is currently doing. But Homeland opened the door by sidestepping the most logical, thematically resonant outcomes of its first-season storyline in favor of keeping its antagonist in play for the second season, however improbably. Now I find myself looking every promising plot development in the mouth.
But if the show has the guts to go for the game-changer, then man, what exciting television that would be! I’m hoping that by this time next week I’m able to say “Sorry I doubted you, guys – please, carry on.” Maybe that’s the best compliment I can pay Homeland: It makes me look forward to the possibility of apologizing. I’ll be as thrilled to say “I was wrong” as Carrie was to say “I was right.”
Last episode: Tick, Tick, BOOM!