The Homeland is not secure. Three episodes into the series’ third season, it’s clear that it hasn’t gotten back on track following its Season Two swerve off course, with plot holes, implausible character moments, and over-the-top Hollywoodisms marring what was once one of the smartest and most provocative shows on TV. Can this show be saved? Let’s hope so. Its performances are too strong, and its core ideas too compelling, to write it off outright. So if a manic Carrie Mathison were to put together a bulletin board full of ways to rescue Homeland, here are seven action items you might find on it.
The first step’s a paradoxical one: If Homeland wants to be more exciting, it needs to lay off the action movie clichés. While its shootouts have always been surprising and suspenseful, they fall apart upon close scrutiny: How did Abu Nazir get entire teams of machine-gun-toting enforcers in America to shoot up the motel where American heiress-turned-terrorist supporter Aileen was staying back in Season One, or the tailor shop where the bomb-maker worked in Season Two? The recent attack on the mosque by El Niño’s gang, despite its unsparing brutality, felt like the show shooting its way out of the corner it had just painted itself into. To recapture the genuine tension of the bulk of Season One, the show needs to nix the theatrics and get put the “psychological” back in “psychological thriller.”
Step two’s a related one: No more “villains.” Despite a compelling and complex backstory involving the death of his son and his ability to create a genuine sense of empathy with Brody, Nazir wound up like way too much of both a comic-book mastermind, pulling strings around the world – a far cry from the decentralized manner in which post-9/11 terror networks operate – and a horror-movie slasher, lurking in his shadowy abandoned-factory lair and slashing SWAT troops with a knife. Similarly, Venezuelan ganglord El Niño comes across like a bad guy in a direct-to-video Scarface sequel. The story’s current emphasis on alleged Iranian terror genius Majid Javadi, who apparently co-plotted the Langley bombing with Nazir, makes it appear the show’s just swapped one slain supervillain for another. Given that the entire point of the first season was that Islamic extremism and American military-intelligence aggressiveness are mutually reinforcing, the show would be much better served by dropping the Lex Luthor wannabes and simply tracking the narratives of people swept up by both sides of the continuing conflict.
That, of course, would mean more effectively using the show’s current cast. A great start would be to let Saul be Saul. The Langley explosion and its existential threat to the future of the CIA has him shaken up? Fine, good, let him rattle cages and toughen up and act like a bastard a bit because everything he cares about is in jeopardy. But when the character’s entire raison d’etre was to offer a smarter, subtler, more effective approach to counterintelligence than his ends-justify-the-means get-the-bad-guys peers, having him spout anti-Muslim insults about women in headscarves feels like inconsistent writing more than a considered change of character. Ordering assassinations and hanging Carrie out to dry is more than enough to establish that Saul’s a different man than he was before the bomb blew up – we still need to see him fight for the values that made him a compelling character to begin with for those changes to have any impact.
Saul’s not the only Berenson who could bear a change or two. Now that she’s a full-time cast member, it’s time for Homeland to give Sarita Choudhury, a.k.a. Saul Berenson’s wife Mira, more to do. Choudhury matches Mandy Patinkin’s warmth and gravitas, and like Patinkin and Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, she’s striking to look at. (Don’t scoff, it’s not shallow to think about that kind of thing – smart television casting from Mad Men to Game of Thrones to Downton Abbey is built on assembling people interesting-looking enough, whether traditionally attractive or otherwise, to bear gazing at for hours and hours on end.) Moreover, as an Indian-American working abroad in a field far removed from the spy game, she could provide a unique look at the role of soft power and the interplay between the United States and the cultures abroad with which it interacts.
Other cast members we could stand to see less of, at least in their current state. To wit: If Homeland‘s going to continue to spend so much time with Brody’s family – an iffy proposition no matter what – they should keep the focus on the fact that they’re Brody’s family. Nothing we’ve seen about Dana’s depression, her acting out, and her conflict with her mom would feel out of place in a family where the dad died in a car crash or left due to irreconcilable differences. Surely there’d be more unique problems faced by a family whose father figure is the world’s most wanted fugitive, a congressman turned terrorist turncoat. We can see sulking and sex on pretty much any show with a teenager; we can only see a family torn apart by ideology turned violent on Homeland, so let’s take a closer look.
As for Carrie Mathison, the show’s lead . . . well, actually, she’s fine as-is. Committing her against her will again seemed like an unnecessary repetition, but it’s provided Danes with a new showcase for portraying Carrie’s mania, and she’s doing frightening work with it. My concern is what happens when she gets back out. Rather than continue to stretch out her increasingly implausible romance with Brody, a story the show’s creators and network erroneously believe is the center of the show, Homeland should hook Carrie up with Peter Quinn. This would duplicate the Carrie/Brody relationship’s sleeping-with-the-enemy appeal, but from the opposite direction: Quinn’s not a secret terrorist, he’s a resident of the CIA’s dark side. It’d provide Carrie with fresh ammo for her battle with her bosses, since Quinn knows where the bodies are buried (figuratively and literally, most likely). It’d give Quinn something more interesting to do than he’s done so far this season, i.e. dealing with having accidentally killed a crooked banker’s kid by, er, threatening to kill another crooked banker’s kid. If Showtime’s so determined to make Homeland a sexy romance, so be it – just let it be this romance instead.
Which leads us to the seventh and most important step toward saving Homeland: Kill Brody. His death’s long past due: the entire first season built to it, only for it to be kiboshed by network executives. Given Showtime’s willingness to insist on a strict don’t-kill-your-leading-man policy even in a series finale, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s why his life was extended past the end of Season Two as well. When Damian Lewis himself is talking about how the character ought to have died, you know there’s a problem. Killing him this season would not only right this wrong, it’d give his story a nice neat three-act structure: He tried and failed to go bad in Season One, he tried and failed to go good in Season Two, and he can balance the accounts in Season Three. And it would give the show the fully fleshed out exploration of the consequences of violent extremism it should have been from the start.