Don't read on unless the you have seen "The Choice," the Season 2 finale of "Homeland."
Note: Before I get into my review, I must acknowledge that it was impossible to watch the "Homeland" finale without thinking of the real-life tragedy that occurred in Connecticut on Friday. A mass death, grieving survivors, prayers, panic and horror -- those were all part of the fictional story of the finale, but what occurred in Newtown wasn't fiction. All those events were heartbreakingly, terrifyingly real, and no doubt they were at or near the forefront of our minds during the last few days. I don't pretend to possess the eloquence or insight that would allow me to write about those connections in any depth. I just wanted to acknowledge the inescapable thoughts the finale no doubt brought to mind, as well as the great sadness we all feel about the events in Newtown. I will leave it to those more eloquent than me to discuss the parallels between real life and "Homeland's" fiction; I will confess I don't think I'm up to the task.
It was always about drones.
Almost everyone in "Homeland" has been piloted by something or someone else, at one time or another. Some other force guides them, and what's scary is how often they want to give in. The lack of will can be an attractive option in a world of hard choices and painful conundrums.
Carrie has spent much of the past two seasons cycling between drone-like states, in which something else took full or partial control of her rational mind. At times, her illness or her passion for Nicholas Brody drove her. Both offered a kind of relief in surrender.
Brody himself was filled with the propaganda of Abu Nazir, who set the former Marine free to cause harm. Brody struggled with his operating instructions, however, and he didn't always follow his programming. It's not hard to picture "Homeland" as a science-fiction story; one classic of the genre is the machine that starts making trouble when it gains sentience and starts thinking for itself. Inevitably, the machine asks, "Why did you make me and what are you using me for?"
Brody and Carrie aren't the only ones who sometimes give up their wills to something bigger or more consuming or easier. Estes' ambition and ego led him by the nose, and he thought they would eventually pilot him up the CIA food chain. Abu Nazir gave himself over to hatred and murderous ideology, and Walden, the man responsible for Issa's death, was driven by a need to exact revenge, no matter what the cost of his methods. All three men were laser-locked on their targets and tried to turn the people around them into their puppets, their tools.
Estes launched the drone known as Quinn, but he malfunctioned too. His change of heart could have used more set-up, then again, humans are unpredictable animals and not dependable like bombs and remote-piloted devices. In any event, Quinn ignored Estes' orders (no Christmas bonus from Dar Adul for him). Ultimately, Quinn decided that killing Brody just wasn't worth the blowback.
Walden and Nazir both thought they could pilot the Brody drone, but that machine was broken past the point of repair. Obviously, Walden found out just how much Brody hated him in the end. Brody didn't end up hating Nazir -- his tears in last week's episode, when he learned of Nazir's death, were not tears of relief, that much is certain. But Nazir knew he couldn't trust Brody. And so from the moment Nazir picked up Brody in that helicopter -- and probably well before that -- Nazir knew he'd have to make Brody an unwitting drone, a dumb vehicle for his ultimate revenge. When in doubt, trust the machine, not the man.
But drones strikes have a way of inflicting unexpected damage, and even cementing shaky alliances. The point of drones is that they're supposed to inflict precise damage from a clean, remote location, but as "Homeland" likes to point out, things never really work out that way. There are always unexpected casualties and consequences. Whether a conflict is personal or ideological, war is always messy and gut-wrenching.
Various characters in "Homeland" hate being used as patsies -- Carrie's initial belief that Brody knew about the car bomb could easily have led her to shoot him -- but what they have a harder time acknowledged that sometimes they are all too willing to be manipulated by their own perceptions and delusions. Carrie and Brody had to know that there was no scenario in which they could settle down to a life of her teaching ESL and him running a construction company (though the finale was generally somber, I laughed at her assertion, near the end, that she and Brody could be together someday). But delusions, ideologies and agendas are attractive because they allow people to take their hands off the wheel. The characters may not like being manipulated (and Brody's horror at being used by Nazir after truly renouncing violence is understandable). But the truth is, at times they do enjoy constructing or believing scenarios that allow them to turn their vigilance down a few notches.
The one person who only deals in facts, who only sees what's really there, who always tells the truth and takes it stoicly when that gets him into trouble is Saul. If you think about this episode, Brody and Carrie were of course the big story, but "The Choice" really revolves around him. There were many confrontations and hard truths spoken, but those are just occasional occurrences for many characters. For Saul, the cold, hard truth has always been his choice, and it has actually made him a warmer, realer and more wonderful human being.
He's who we wish we could be, if our selfishness, laziness and self-deceptions didn't get in the way. He exudes the warmth, compassion and intelligence of a man who has always kept his hand on the wheel and has never become a drone. He tells everyone, from the guard on the door to Carrie to Brody to Estes, to think for themselves. He always does, and he hasn't become hard and calloused as a result. That seems like the most difficult and miraculous thing of all.
So three different Saul scenes were the high points of "The Choice" for me: Saul calling Carrie, knowing she was dead. The way Mandy Patinkin said "I'm looking for you," in that strained voice -- those line readings were masterpieces of agonized understatement. Same thing in the scene in which he acknowledged that he needed his wife, Mira, by his side. Again, no half-truths or evasions, just "Yes." Yes, he needed her, yes, he could not live through that horror alone.
And finally, that last scene, with the body bags. The Kaddish, as said by Saul, was the most respectful and mournful thing to hear in that moment. And then for a few seconds, he fought the thing that defines him -- his ability to take in, process and accept the truth. He didn't want to think, he didn't allow himself to think, that he heard Carrie's voice, because hearing that would be too hard if she were still dead, which (in his mind) she must be. When the going gets tough, even the toughest want to ignore the evidence in front of them. But eventually Saul turned and saw Carrie. And that smile that he gave her -- "Homeland's" brain trust must have been waiting two full seasons to unleash that on us.
It was worth the wait.
Now, as to how the rest of the finale shook out, there's a lot to get to. But I'll put my one objection up front, but please know that it is a provisional objection, and all in all, I'm satisfied with the finale. This felt more like the show I'd come to know over the first 20 hours of its existence, though I have reservations about Brody's continued presence. I'm sure I'll be chewing on those reservations for some time to come, trying to figure out how I feel about them. But aside from that issue, I think the finale generally worked.
Here's my problem: I can see how it made logical sense to keep Brody alive; from certain storytelling standpoints, it's a viable option. But I'm not sure it makes sense in some important ways that matter to this particular show.
Again, I'm not 100 percent sure leaving Brody alive is a mistake. I'm a little squishy on that point. But the fact remains that "Homeland" has made other mistakes in the home stretch of its second season. In episodes 10 and 11, the drama awkwardly compressed the storytelling in ways that didn't always work and it asked viewers to accept too many hard-to-buy things (I could go on about the various searches for Nazir in that factory in Episode 11, but suffice to say I found a lot about that particular scenario implausible and/or ridiculous).
Perhaps it was appropriate for the show itself -- not to mention our relationship to it -- to be bipolar, but the problem with the last few episodes was that it morphed into a kind of accelerated, manic, almost over-the-top thriller for a while there, and then this week, the show practically shouted, "Look, we're back to being a character drama again!" The trouble is, "Homeland" itself trained us to expect a better modulated mixture of those two things every week. Part of the reason we're hard on it is because it has combined searching character studies with pulse-pounding suspense adeptly in the past. As its canvas becomes broader and bigger, will it still be able to do that? We'll have to see. Having said that, the show did a masterful job of getting us to lower our guards so that it could unleash one more big surprise on us.
We can spend the next year debating whether the finale reveal of Nazir's plot to bomb the CIA undoes a lot of the stuff that felt janky in other Season 2 episodes, but the outcome of those debates doesn't change the fact that the show felt off its game in some of those hours. It was a bit too frantic and eager to prove that it was going to keep the twists coming (the outcome of the shooting in Gettysburg, for example? Nothing, really; both Galvez and Quinn were back at work shortly).
The thing is, when twists and turns (however plausible or implausible) aren't connected to character depth and complexity, and making us more invested in their stories, they just feel melodramatic. I will accept a boatload of allegedly implausible things, if doing so makes me care about the characters and their dilemmas more deeply. Some of the Season 2 developments just occurred for their own sakes or in order to ram through plot turns. I fully realize that, as I wrote here, "Homeland" is attempting to do something with a pretty insane level of difficulty, but that doesn't stop me from wanting what it does when it's at its best.
Back to Brody: If he's alive, in Season 3, we get a Carrie who is not wrecked by his death, a Carrie who can dive right in to the search for the CIA bombers without spinning out into hysterical grief and manic rage. A living Brody also gives Carrie a very serious secret, something she must hide from Saul and the rest of her colleagues even as she works to clear the former Marine's name. That kind of thing is catnip to the show's writers, and I can see why that was a hard development to resist.
But does a living Brody feel consistent with the world "Homeland" has built? Is his non-death a convenience that feels mechanical and not true to what the show has usually depicted? "Homeland" has taken great pains to show us how consequences work out for people in this world (badly, more often than not), and it's jumped the gun on reveals that we didn't quite expect, so I guess I expected the show to once again do something that ignored dramatic convention.
Perhaps keeping Brody alive is one way to keep us off balance, but there's a big part of me that thinks he's baggage the show doesn't really need any more. He's of no use from an intelligence standpoint -- everything he knows, Carrie already knows -- and Alan Sepinwall makes a convincing case for why Brody is simply less interesting at this stage, given where Brody (and Brody and Carrie) have ended up, mentally and emotionally. It was love, but I think there's not a ton more of compelling material that can be wrung from that particular relationship.
But here's my biggest problem: How would he not be picked up within hours of leaving the CIA compound? Obviously, everyone thinking Carrie and Brody were dead gave them some time to get out of Dodge, but it stretches credibility that Carrie and Brody could get to the border and that he could get out of the country undetected. And the slender reed of credibility is stretched further about when I think of Brody's existence once he steps out of that forest.
He's the world's most wanted criminal, and his image is all over every news channel. Even assuming Carrie's contact would still help hide him, he's going to be spotted unless June deposits Brody on a rock in international waters that is only inhabited by migrating birds.
But all right, let's assume Season 3 starts with Brody in a safe house somewhere. Even if that's the case, I truly believe the show can't be about the twisted relationship between Carrie and Brody anymore. A judicious, occasional use of Brody might work, but going deeply into that well again could cause "Homeland" to lapse into self-parody. Executive producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa are smart men and I'm sure that thought has occurred to them, so we'll just have to see if the show follows a new path. I think it has to, if it's to stay true to its path up until now, which has been all about not resting on its laurels (and arguably in Season 2, "Homeland" has been too fixated on non-laurel-resting, if anything).
As Nazir's death allowed the espionage community to lapse into complacency, Michael Cuesta's lyrical direction in the first half of the hour, not to mention the return to the rustic escape of "The Weekend," certainly lulled me into a false sense of security for quite some time there. Finale writers Gansa and Meredith Stiehm even had a bit of fun with us by showing us not only Chekhov's gun but Chekhov's high-powered rifle.
It's a fairly constant rule of drama that a character who expresses happiness and exults over a fresh start and new beginnings will probably be dead at the end of the hour, and they kept putting Brody in Quinn's rifle sights only to have him keep on living. Quinn may be a hardened operative but he couldn't kill a man who was enjoying a brief idyll of peace or praying. Still, I kept wondering when Brody's death would come, but time and again, it became obvious that the show was just toying with me.
Once it emerged that the CIA bomb didn't kill Brody (fooled again), I was seriously worried that Carrie really would run away with this guy -- the guy whom she instantly assumed had killed 200 of her colleagues. Even though she accepted that Brody didn't do it, running away with him still seemed nuts, and Saul was righter than he knew: She would have been throwing her life away to follow Brody into hiding. It would have been the height of melodramatic excess for Carrie to hide with him or for Brody to have known about Nazir's plot; I prayed neither thing was true. As they sped north, my husband drolly remarked that "the only way this show works now is if it turns into 'Prison Break.'" Dear God, I did not want that.
Still, the CIA bomb was one of those moments that "make you sit up in your chair," as Gordon said in this recent interview, and it was an effective one at that. It was a horrifying event that will change the lives for all those that remain for a long time to come.
The question of the finale, and of the show, is whether you can change your soul. Brody did change his -- maybe? He killed Walden, after all, and I thought it was smart of the show to acknowledge that Carrie rightly fears this man.
Can Carrie change her soul? That's more doubtful, actually. She's an intelligence officer, first, foremost and only. Just as Quinn is made to kill bad guys, Carrie and Saul are built to catch them.
Can she catch the CIA bombers before the rest of the world catches Brody? That is the question.
Now for a long list of other questions, observations and other ephemera:
- Not that I'm keeping score here (well, maybe keeping score a little), but as I wrote in this post-Episode 10 piece, I was one of the theorizers who thought that Abu Nazir's abduction of Carrie and his other moves were probably part of some other, bigger plot. I never had a problem with him not publicizing his role in killing Walden (avenging Issa seems like it would have been enough for a grieving father), but I did think that he was too smart not to use the Brody connection for some bigger purpose. Of course, the finale didn't play out as I predicted at all, but it made sense to me that he would have come up with a way to use Brody, even after Nazir began suspecting the former Marine was working with the CIA.
Note: Please check out the Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast for several recent discussions of the show. UPDATE: Ryan McGee and I discussed the "Homeland" finale in the Dec. 17 podcast below; you can also find it here and on iTunes.