Here’s your need-to-know. Just when she thought she was out, they’ve pulled Carrie Mathison back in, flying the disgraced, bipolar ex-CIA analyst to Beirut to make contact with an asset who’ll talk only to her. Her nemesis Nicholas Brody has rejected his terrorist mentor Abu Nazir‘s methods, if not his motives, trying to influence policy as an increasingly powerful and popular politician – and, perhaps, the next Vice President of the United States. Nazir has sent yet another high-profile sleeper agent, journalist Roya Hammad, to put Brody back in play. Brody’s daughter Dana stops doing her Sansa-Stark-circa-Game-of-Thrones-Season-One impression long enough to accidentally out him as a secret Muslim, which no one believes. Brody then for-real outs himself to his wife Jessica, who flips.
So that’s the plot. Then there are the performances, which are more of the grade-A same. Claire Danes continues the without-a-net work that earned her an Emmy. Her Carrie is humiliated not just because she was fired, but because, she believes, she was fired for good reason. She thinks she was wrong about Brody, which makes her breakdown and dismissal a failure not (just) of the system, but of herself. Danes’ acting here isn’t merely excellent but important, in that unlike the I’M IN CONTROL male antiheroes of the other Great Dramas, Cassie puts her emotions on display, crying when things go badly wrong – you know, like normal people do. She’s broadened the kind of character available to shows like these singlehandedly. And she has the opportunity to make two faces – her look of incredulous disgust when her old boss/lover David Estes condescendingly tells her she doesn’t have her old job back, and her giddy giggling smile when she knees a Lebanese agent in the balls – that will go on her career highlight reel.
Elsewhere above the credits: I personally believe Damian Lewis should be called in for questioning regarding the theft of Bryan Cranston and Jon Hamm’s Emmys, but he’s pulling off truly demanding work here, portraying a man who’s lying with every breath, which has to be clear to us while remaining convincingly opaque to the other characters. Mandy Patinkin radiates quiet, avuncular authority as Saul Berenson, who’s dangerously smart but would never dare make a show of it. And Morena Baccarin gets to play Jessica’s first genuinely sour notes when she reacts to her husband’s religious conversion out of anger that it’ll ruin his political fortunes.
The problem, however, runs deeper than the premiere.
Like the spies and sleeper agents whose lives it chronicles, Homeland‘s most precious resource is trust. And while the Emmy voter pool apparently disagrees with me here, that’s a resource its Season One finale squandered. The entire season built up to a bomb that didn’t go off, wielded by a criminal who neither got caught nor committed the crime in the first place. It’s one thing to defy audience expectations, a wholly admirable move that great shows make all the time. It’s another thing to take a mulligan on the central narrative questions of the series. You can only put off the final, lethal activation of your primary antagonist so many times before it starts to feel like you’re stalling.
As it stands, I couldn’t help feeling that the show would have been better off, more coherent and cohesive, and ultimately compelling, as a miniseries. Over a 10-episode limited run focused on the same underlying issues of privacy and deception and war’s countless unheralded casualties, Brody’s ultimate fate and Carrie’s ability to affect or prevent it could be resolved one way or the other, before the demands of ongoing serialization required the creators to cut his story off at the climax and give everyone a case of narrative blueballs.
Stalling creates more problems than mere delayed gratification. The more time we spend with Brody, and the more of Abu Nazir’s network we meet – particularly when we learn it includes, basically, Young Christiane Amanpour – the more I wonder why Nazir needs Brody in the first place.
By my count, Nazir’s network in the U.S. has included:
- A fully trained Marine sniper
- A second fully trained Marine sniper, partner of the first one no less, presumed dead and smuggled back into the United States to live totally off the grid
- Enough crowbar-wielding goons to successfully kidnap the first fully trained Marine sniper out of a supermarket parking lot
- A college professor
- The college professor’s all-American daughter-of-an-oil-exec wife
- Enough bomb-making, machine-gun-wielding agents across the Midwest to booby-trap a safehouse and go full ending-of-Scarface on a motel room where the college professor and his wife were hiding
- A Saudi diplomat with full immunity and extensive goon access
- A Saudi prince who may not be on the payroll per se but doesn’t mind hugging the world’s most wanted man
- The Saudi prince’s right-hand man, who takes breaks from his main gig as the prince’s pimp to tap into an extensive network of jewelry fences, off-the-books money managers and limo-driving hitmen
- A Gettysburg-based suicide-vest tailor
- A reporter powerful enough to get high-ranking CIA officials to drop everything and run to meet her on demand
- And last but not least, a freaking mole inside the CIA capable of tipping off surveillance targets, triggering suicide bombings and stealing the combinations to hidden office safes
Whether or not this is all believable is neither here nor there, honestly. Sure, it strains credulity a bit to turn al Qaeda in Iraq into the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and make Nazir a Magneto-level menace to America’s upper echelons. But justifiable paranoia is Homeland‘s stock in trade, after all, from the Cassandra-like figure of Carrie on down. Moreover, at no point has the show used this fictionalized increase in al Qaeda’s capabilities to sanctify the drone strikes, occupations and torturous interrogations with which America responds. That’s a lesson showrunners Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon learned the hard way during their time on 24, Homeland‘s eye-for-an-eye ends-justify-the-means bizarro version. (This also gives me hope that the show won’t use its imaginary Israeli airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, which in the real world could well touch off a world war, to become an alternate-history science-fiction series.)
What’s important, rather, are the problems this poses to the show’s high concept itself. I count nearly half a dozen people who could get just as close to the vice president and other important government, military and intelligence officials as some poor shellshocked POW. Why go through all that trouble with Brody when he could have Zuleikha Robinson’s character blow up the president in a prime-time news special? The show has deflected this somewhat by having Nazir milk Brody’s political profile, but he had no way of knowing Brody’s local congressman would get in a dick-pic scandal and require a replacement when he set this all in motion.
The size and scope of Nazir’s operation has another unfortunate side effect: We’ve met vanishingly few Muslim characters who aren’t directly associated with violent extremists. Even “good guys” are shown to have a soft spot for these creeps: the imam from the mosque that the feds shot up in Season One helps a priest run a battered women’s shelter but also refuses to divulge what he knew about Tom Walker; the wife of a Hezbollah commander who’s coming in from the cold to speak to Carrie is still, y’know, the wife of a Hezbollah commander; even Galvez, the diligent Guatemalan-Lebanese CIA agent everyone at the Agency likes, is a leading suspect for Nazir’s inside man. The obvious rejoinder here is that, in turn, we’ve met very few Americans who aren’t directly associated with the military-intelligence apparatus raining death down across the Muslim world right now. But as Americans, we’re trained not to see them through that lens. We are, however, conditioned to see Muslims as defined by the bad apples, so for God’s sake throw us a few pristine ones now and then.
But that brings us to the show’s boldest, most genuinely subversive move: minimizing the importance of Islam as a motive for terrorism. Obviously Nazir was killing people professionally long before a drone murdered his son’s entire school, and there was likely a religious element to that, then and now. But in the present day, it’s personal vengeance that’s his main motivation. That’s true of Brody as well, who also simply wants to see America end its destructive and morally ruinous policies, for its own sake as well as the sake of those it kills. To the extent that Brody’s secret conversion to Islam is explored – as it was when he and Dana told Jessica the secret – it’s treated respectfully, shot beautifully, and presented as one of the precious few sources of genuine peace and contentment the guy has left. Hell, the way Jessica’s reaction to learning about Brody’s new religion rapidly transitioned from being hurt that he kept a secret to being kinda bigoted about Islam in general was our ugliest glimpse of her yet, despite our knowledge that in this particular case she was correct in linking Islam to terrorism.
No one’s adhering to the stereotype, screaming Allahu Akbar while dreaming of their 42 virgins. They’re motivated by a complex blend of empathy, ideology and anger. Ain’t that America?