I think I’ve figured out who Homeland‘s mole is: It’s someone in the writers’ room.
How else can you explain the decision to take one of the show’s most intense and exhilarating episodes – arguably the episode the whole series has been building toward – and send it careening into an infuriating soap-opera car-wreck cliché just minutes from the closing credits? If only Carrie and Virgil had ears inside that room, they’d ferret out Abu Nazir’s agent right away – just listen for someone to say something along the lines of “Yeah, this whole ‘culmination of the entire show to date for our two main characters’ thing is nice and all, but this episode needs a little something extra. How about the daughter’s boyfriend runs a lady over?” It’s an unbelievable shame, because up until that point “Q&A” had delivered, and delivered, and delivered.
Sure, you could quibble with the initial decision to have newbie character Peter occupy so much screentime in relation to Brody, particularly with Carrie just waiting in the wings. But the show made that decision pay off. First, it revealed that for all his cock-of-the-walk bluster, Peter’s a brilliant agent: He sussed out the truth about Brody’s terrorist “origin story” with Abu Nazir’s slain son Issa on his own, seemingly without recourse to Carrie’s pillow-talk insider info or electroshock-erased Eureka moment. He’s also a wholly convincing, if just a wee bit totally unconstitutional, bad cop: Surely a veteran of incarceration, isolation and interrogation like Brody could withstand hour after hour of growly threats, but nothing can prepare you for a sudden knife in the hand.
And you could kvetch about the truncated time frame for Carrie and Brody’s tete-a-tete – how Carrie was allowed to interrogate Brody one-on-one despite having blown cover hours before and, you know, not being part of the C.I.A. anymore; how she broke his resolve in a matter of minutes; how he re-flipped against Nazir in a matter of hours; how he was sent directly from lying in the fetal position on the interrogation room floor to resuming his life as a husband, congressman and al-Qaeda operative without further ado.
But why would you whine about any of that, when all of it was done in the service of providing the two leads with a space of intense, compulsory emotional intimacy? Isn’t that why we come here – to watch these two broken people try to hold the pieces together while strategically pulling each other apart, each pursuing their very different paths toward ensuring no one else gets broken like they did? Whatever its other faults, Homeland recognizes this, at least. It knows its dynamite first-season episode “The Weekend” derived its power from that relationship. So here, it recreates the dynamic, the constant push and pull of honesty and deception, love and hate, but under terrifying circumstances rather than idyllic ones.
The result is catch-in-your-throat stuff, with Carrie probing the farthest recesses, the starkest contrasts and contradictions, of their relationship. Absolutely convinced that Brody nearly murdered dozens of people, she’s nevertheless absolutely honest in telling him that she wishes he’d leave his wife and kids for her. Diametrically opposed to his agenda and methods, she shares with 100 percent honesty the same kind of trauma that drove him to where he is – the trauma of a seemingly endless war that “no one survives intact.” She confronts him with the idea that he may be a monster, that the man he takes orders from and loves for his kindness is absolutely a monster – but that he himself is, or was, a good man, and could be good again. In the end, she gets him where she wants him, during a process that by its very nature is full of lies, by impressing upon him the soul-restoring power of not telling lies anymore. As character work, as thematic development, as raw dialogue, it’s a high-wire act.
It’s also performed without a net. The interrogation setting itself immobilizes the actors, so anything they want to convey, they have to convey from the chest up. Claire Danes’ face doesn’t require me to sing its praises – approximately eight percent of the entire Internet is devoted exclusively to doing just that at this point, I believe – but it turns out Damian Lewis has one of the great TV faces as well. Perhaps it’s because he’s spent virtually the entire series dissembling, but watching the mask slip was absolutely thrilling. I loved how waxen he looked, how the creases where his smile would go came to resemble the folds of a skin mask from a horror movie. I loved his look of amazement after Carrie told him that despite everything, she wished they could be together – the look of “Lady, you are by far the weirdest Good Cop I’ve ever seen.” I loved his utter deflation after his confession, laying his head on the table, totally spent.
The consummate skill with which this entire sequence was crafted is precisely why I suspect the sinister hand of Abu Nazir in the decision to immediately follow this finely calibrated work of television with an out-of-nowhere plot twist yanked straight from the soaps. Seriously: “Alienated teen daughter hits someone with her car” was the big twist on The Young and the Restless just two weeks ago. And it sucked there, too!
I have nothing against soaps per se. If I did, I wouldn’t have been watching Y&R to begin with. And I’ve defended, for example, Downton Abbey Season Two against “accusations” of soapiness (despite it sharing something like half a dozen then-recent Y&R plotlines, from “pregnant after a single night’s indiscretion” to “the doctors say he’ll never walk again”). Downton, after all, had always been a soap opera: a story of romance, family and divided loyalties among a sprawling cast in a fixed geographic location. Almost uniquely among prestige dramas, also, it was always about the world throwing crap at the Crawley household so that the show could trace their reaction. Nothing it did was out of bounds, because it all arose from the themes already present in the show, and traits already present in the characters.
But when we use “soapy” as an insult, we mean soaps at their worst: overheated melodrama and sudden, out-of-a-blue-sky shocks and surprises, inserted independently of whatever else is already going on, just to juice up the drama or shake up a stalled storyline. That’s what happened on my beloved Y&R: A new writing staff decided it had to break up a rock-solid couple, and used a hapless teenage character’s car to do it. It felt like cheating.
What’s Homeland‘s excuse, I wonder? Dana Brody already has an enormously rich set of emotions and issues to deal with: Her unique position as her father’s most trusted confidant in the family, her cutting skepticism whenever she feels her mom or dad is bullshitting her, her really rather admirable insistence that she break up with her old boyfriend before hooking up with her new one, her navigation of the Brodys’ new world of influence and power, her powder-keg potential when placed in proximity to Carrie, and on and on and on. Meanwhile, though she may not have been an instant revelation along the lines of Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner, her counterparts in troubled TV teendom over on Game of Thrones, Morgan Saylor is growing from “not bad at all for a child actor” to “yep, she could hold half this show down if she had to” very quickly.
With all of that going for Dana, why on earth would they go for the cheap thrill? And for God’s sake, why do it in an otherwise stunning episode, one that gains so much from its otherwise relentless, claustrophobic focus on two people in a single room? Will Homeland ever learn to get out of its own way? I don’t know how many more hits like this it can take.
Last week: Home of the Brave