At its best, Homeland mesmerized us by playing around with our expectations, the show’s writers always seeming to remain one step ahead of us, ready to unveil some new tidbit about Brody that would keep us guessing from week to week. The show knew how to mine narrative gold out of uncertainty and imply layers of character depth behind the twitch of a finger or the utterance of an Islamic prayer. Unfortunately, the latter half of season 2 has taken a much different approach, culminating in a competent but thoroughly underwhelming season finale.
It would have required a miracle for Homeland to get itself back on track after the narrative mess that has been the past few episodes. About halfway through season 2, Homeland showed its hand. The central conceit of the series, namely a manic-depressive C.I.A. agent voyeuristically pursuing and eventual falling for a man who may or may not be a terrorist, was cast aside in a suitably dramatic fashion. Carrie’s tense confrontation with and subsequent interrogation of Brody was the high point of the season, and seemed to open a limitless number of intriguing narrative doors.
Instead, the writers revealed that what had seemed like such a masterful, deliberately constructed piece of visual storytelling was never much more than a well-executed gimmick. Without the tantalizing question of Brody’s true affiliation and Carrie’s sense of edgy unpredictability, we are left with a generic, 24-esque plotline involving master terrorists landing helicopters on U.S. soil and ducking the world’s most sophisticated intelligence apparatus in the confines of abandoned factories.
Abu Nazir, executed in last week’s whimsically titled “The Motherfucker in a Turban,” was another casualty of Homeland’s sudden transformation from brainy psychological thriller to predictable spy fiction. Nazir’s sense of mystery, of implied menace, made him an intriguing antagonist. His hold over Brody seemed almost supernatural, his silent charisma all the more horrifying because, from the little we knew, we were tempted, if only briefly, to sympathize with a man who mirrors the real-world fanatics who murdered our countrymen.
But when we found out in last week’s episode that Nazir was in fact little more than a petty, bitter and homicidal maniac with motives that could come from a half-baked Oliver Stone documentary, he went from fascinating to cardboard in the span of one verbal sparring match with our heroine.
Be that as it may, Homeland, at its core, has never been chiefly concerned with the process of nabbing the big bad terrorist arch-fiend (those looking for such an affair should catch Zero Dark Thirty when it hits selected theaters on December 19th), or even the conditions that lead to terrorism. Thus, various implausible turns could have been forgiven had Carrie’s and Brody’s storylines resolved in a satisfying manner.
Alas, amidst all the narrative throat clearing and asinine plot twists, the tension inherent in this relationship has been allowed to deflate. Instead of peeling back the layers and delivering an already-overdue conclusion to a doomed romance, Homeland’s writers decide to string us along further. As TV viewers, we want to see Brody and Carrie’s relationship last, yet the show’s writers have repeatedly focused on the practical and thematic elements that make this impossible.
Yet, as the season finale begins, we’re shown exactly what we want: a warm buttery, domestic and cloyingly romantic scene between two characters who behave precisely how we expect them to. Paradoxically, in getting what we want but knew better than to expect, we are left disappointed, because Homeland has always been about authenticity, if not always in its portrayal of counter-terrorism, then at least in its characterization.
But leave it to the show’s writers to pull the rug out from under us one last time, with a last-minute terrorist attack (executed as implausibly as we have come to expect from this show recently) forcing Brody and Carrie to go on the lam before parting ways at the Canadian border. What should be an affecting scene instead comes across as a sop to the Carrie-Brody shippers who cannot stand to see a doomed relationship reach its end. The Carrie of last season would never have allowed her personal feelings to trump her duty; that’s part of what made her such a refreshing and unique TV heroine.
Yet, here she comes across as little more than a love-struck teenager straight out of the pages of a Twilight novel, and with no real explanation as to why. If this were a male character, surely such a reversal would not go unnoticed. But one cannot help but suspect that viewers are all too willing to forgive such uncharacteristic emotionalism when it comes to a female character. After all, maybe she has her period or something. One wouldn’t be too far off the mark to call the writers’ treatment of Carrie sexist, although I suspect this portrayal has more to do with a lack of creativity than any malicious intent.
And how does the C.I.A. respond to Carrie’s poor judgment? With sympathy and understanding, of course. Peter Quinn, the hard-edged assassin, refuses to execute Brody because he only offs “bad guys.” And Saul welcomes back his daughter-figure with open arms. It seems that David Estes has become the only character on this show with a shred of common sense; perhaps assassinating a U.S. citizen is a bit much (oh, wait…), but he is certainly correct in not wanting a would-be terrorist going about his business after murdering the vice president and, as it turns out, unwittingly bringing a bomb to said vice president’s memorial service.
What, other than our own sympathy for the character, makes Nicholas Brody anything other than a bad guy? A sympathetic one, yes, just as Breaking Bad’s Walter White and so many other TV antiheroes are, thanks to good writing and an ability to deal in shades of gray. But Homeland’s writers seem to have lost their taste for moral ambiguity, whitewashing the crimes of a terrorist to court the sympathies of viewers who cannot envision the show without him. Or then again, perhaps it is the writers who cannot go on without Brody; their efforts at storytelling without him at the forefront, as we have seen over the past few weeks, have left much to be desired.
This is not the kind of brave, complex storytelling that viewers have come to expect from the best TV dramas, a category that this show claims to aspire to. In their bid for popularity (or perhaps in the mere absence of creativity), the writers of Homeland have turned a once-promising and original show into a routine spy thriller that woos critics by being slightly higher-brow than CSI, Law and Order and the countless other creatively anemic procedurals that it has, in the span of half a season, come to resemble.
Perhaps this is the new pattern for TV success: commence with an ambitious and artistically-viable premise to win over the critics, before descending into soap opera mediocrity to attract viewers who do not have the patience or desire to follow that premise through to its conclusion. It’s disheartening that the show known for outdoing such sublime works of art as Breaking Bad and Mad Men has fallen so far in such a short time, and with almost no acknowledgment from fans or critics.