There’s a marvelous scene in “Tower of David,” tonight’s episode of Homeland, in which it all works. Awake from a drug-induced post-op haze, Nicholas Brody – wounded and on the run following his framing for the Langley bombing in last year’s season finale – staggers to his feet with the help of a stranger who speaks no English. He hobbles to the side of his room that has a view of the city below it – not through a window, but over a partially completed partition that exists in place of a wall, one of countless thousands of rooms in an abandoned, partially completed skyscraper filled with squatters. He’s been drawn by the call of a muezzin, emanating from a golden-domed mosque situated as incongruously in the sprawling South American cityscape before him as the Arabic prayer call sounds among the Spanish-language chatter he’s overheard through the pain and the drugs. The bright gray light of the overcast sky illuminates his stricken, ashen face, his shaved head, his wide incredulous eyes. “Where am I?” he asks the young woman who’s helping him – a question that summarizes not just the momentarily incomprehensible set of sensations facing him at that moment, but pretty much his entire journey as a character. Plot, performance, dialogue, setting, sound, cinematography – Homeland‘s stars have aligned.
Then it all falls apart. “Tower of David” is a victim of simultaneous overreach and undercooking, introducing an ambitious new storyline in a unique and fascinating setting, then filling it with stock characters and sloppy storytelling.
The trouble for Brody’s Caracas sojourn begins, ironically, back in Washington, the moment the episode first cuts away to Carrie in the mental hospital. The parallel the show’s drawing between the two characters is perfectly appropriate, if a bit obvious: Both are prisoners of people who are ostensibly there to help them, both are counting on friends who can’t or won’t reach out to them to get them out, and both are struggling with the double-edged sword of chemical intervention. But we spend so much time with Brody up front, for the first time this season no less, that dropping our focus on him shatters the claustrophobic, stranger-in-a-strange-land atmosphere of his show-within-a-show. Alternating between Brody and Carrie from the start of the episode would have shored up the story’s structural integrity.
And much of what seemed promising in those opening minutes fails to bear fruit later in the hour, or indeed withers on the vine. Brody’s gun-toting, tower-running benefactor, El Niño, at first fascinates with his willingness to risk life and limb to save the world’s most wanted man rather than trade his corpse for cash, a loyalty borne out of mysterious contact with Carrie. But by episode’s end, he’s a typical generic Latino ganglord, tossing thieves off rooftops, crowing about how powerless Brody is while his posse of interchangeable glowering heavies looks on approvingly, and, most nonsensically of all, keeping Brody in solitary confinement after his escape attempt. I get why he can’t allow Brody to leave, or even why he can’t turn him in and collect the reward – authorities investigating his movements following the Langley blast would wind up digging around in whatever criminal activities El Niño’s got going on. What I don’t get is keeping him alive at all. “Carrie won’t save you,” he tells Brody. If he now cares so little about Carrie, and has so much confidence that she won’t ever get in touch to see how Brody’s doing, that he’s willing to put the guy in the hole for the rest of his life, why not just shoot him and have done with it?
Even more confounding is the supporting cast. El Niño’s daughter Esme seems like a potential mutual learning experience for Brody not unlike another child of a criminal kingpin he once knew, Abu Nazir’s son Issa. Indeed, Brody instantly reverts to the English-teacher mode in which he first got to know Issa, hashing out basic vocabulary as the young woman gives him a tour of the makeshift village in the sky that’s his new home. But before long she devolves into a doe-eyed damsel in distress, complete with “Take me with you” and “Stay away from my daughter” clichés. She’s not a character, she’s a cipher, something for the men to have feelings about.
Most disappointing of all is the underground doctor, played with deadpan relish by Erik Todd Dellums. At first the character comes across as a refreshingly laconic presence, wringing black humor out of Brody’s plight (“Are you a doctor?” “Interesting question.”) and even giving the show a shot at self-satire by complaining about flickering lights – atmospheric, yes, but hardly conducive to operating on a trauma patient. (It’s a far cry from the straight face with which the show stuck Abu Nazir in an abandoned factory straight out of horror-movie/action-movie villain’s real-estate listing.) But what seemed sardonic is soon revealed to be sinister – the doctor’s a pedophile, and his stereotypical simpering plays uncomfortably close to anti-gay bigotry. The less said about his bizarre fixation on getting Brody to use heroin, hamfisted even for a very special episode of an ’80s sitcom, the better.
Like the drugs and the imprisonment, the escape attempt at the mosque makes little sense when viewed up close. I actually said “Yesssssss!” out loud when the cops burst in on Brody in the shower. At last, Homeland‘s showing us an imam who’s happy to turn in a terrorist to the authorities, correctly pointing out that there’s nothing Muslim about murder! Even so, I didn’t have a problem with El Niño’s goons showing up to put the kibosh on the arrest, shattering Brody’s already fragile spirit by costing the lives of still more innocents in his name. The tableau of a naked Brody cowering while surrounded by dead bodies was one of the show’s strongest-ever images. No, what irked me here was the idea that the police would respond to an imam calling in the presence of the world’s most wanted terrorist at his mosque a grand total of two police officers. Like the explosive-packed SUV that persons unknown drove right up to the front of the CIA headquarters and abandoned without detection, this rescue party sure got lucky!
So did Carrie, insofar as so much of her storyline depended on a mental hospital employee willing to routinely risk her job to help someone who keeps shrieking about the CIA and attempted to run away from her own commitment hearing. Her material in the episode had its high points – the is-he-or-isn’t-he recruiter/lawyer, Danes’s usual hair-trigger performance – but they weren’t enough to set the show to rights. I’m not saying heroin or lithium will be required to make it through the rest of the season, but like Carrie and Brody sitting in their shadowy cells, viewers have reason to be pessimistic about their future.
Last Week: Commitment Issues