Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen Season 2, Episode 5 of Showtime's "Homeland," titled "Q&A."
"It's the lies that undo us."
-- Carrie Mathison
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question ...
--T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
I've seen a lot of people call Episode 4 of "Homeland's" second season a game-changer.
Though I understand where that impulse comes from, I can't quite agree. What "Homeland" (which my colleague Mike Hogan has been reviewing weekly) has done in Episodes 4 and 5 is double down on its gaming strategy. These hours served as game confirmers, if you'll forgive the awkward phrase.
With these episodes, especially Sunday's bravura hour, which contained a 15-minute conversation that proved that two people talking can be the most fascinating thing on Earth, "Homeland" confirmed not only that it's willing to take huge chances, but that chance-taking is the name of the game. That embrace of risk is at the core of its DNA; the formula is avoiding formulas. The show is willing to put all its cards on the table and not save up big reveals and confrontations for the end of the season.
I'd argue, just briefly, that game-changers aren't necessarily always the best thing, not for every show. Of course, it's absolutely true that too many shows spend far too long in a kind of slow-motion stasis. Until now, the hourlong drama model (even in cable TV) has usually embraced gradual change, or repetitive formulas that bring things back to normal after the occasional whacking, beheading, divorce or double-cross. But formulas aren't necessarily a bad thing; it's all in the execution. I still watch "Burn Notice," "Justified" and "The Good Wife" (despite the occasional wobble) because I like those casts and the formats that they play around with, and those shows do raise or change the stakes for their characters from time to time. Familiarity can breed contempt, but just because some shows go too far in that direction doesn't mean its powers can't be used for good.
As many television commenters have pointed out, however, many shows that could be more rigorous and bold are lazy and/or tame, and too many networks treat their programs as Showtime treated "Dexter" for years: The idea is to figure out what people liked about a premise and keep doing that until everybody wins a lot of awards and (more importantly) makes a lot of money. Nobody's allowed to take huge steps forward and think about the endgame until the premise has long since been wrung dry. Only then can the creative team move the story forward and eventually think about closing up shop. When most successful shows reach that stage, the juice that made them special -- the rocket fuel that propelled the hosannas and prompted the affection -- is long gone.
"Homeland" isn't doing that -- it's tossing out big developments left and right. But it's not necessarily what it's doing but why it's doing those things that is impressive. Throwing unexpected reveals at the audience is exciting, but it's ultimately a parlor trick if that's all that is done. And in the end, if you always zag when they expect you to zig, even the zag can get old.
But "Homeland" isn't throwing out the rulebook simply to make people freak out on Twitter. The creative team is going to the deepest, most valuable part of any story -- they're digging deep into the characters' souls and using that valuable substance as their storytelling fuel -- for a host of thematically and emotionally compelling reasons. And that's what makes "Homeland" more than a show about terrorism, bombs, moles and traitors. It's about those things too, but putting the characters' complex personalities and desires front and center also makes it a show about loneliness and the desperate need to be understood and valued. It's the how and the why of this game plan that make it work; it's the combination of spy story and anguished relationships -- and how those things collide -- that makes it both addictive and affecting.
It's a risky thing for everyone involved: Carrie and Brody are volatile and unstable entities. We don't know how long this combustible fuel will last. But holy shit, it's incandescent right now.
This week it was Brody's turn to be "like a patient etherized upon a table." I am quoting from Eliot's poem in this post not just because I love it, but because it evokes a specific mood of yearning intimacy and a painful desire to be understood. It reminds me of this show, in part because one theme of "Prufrock" is the almost hopelessly deep need not just to be known and recognized but understood. Accepted. Loved.
With unbelievable skill -- the skill of a lover and a friend -- Carrie dissected Brody's heart, soul and mind. Since he came back, Brody has been using a series of facades to get by and get over.
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions ...
Carries sees beyond all Brody's revisions and indecisions. In the middle section of "Q & A" writer Henry Bromell's tour de force, Carrie slowly peeled back the layers Brody's been hiding behind.
By baring her own soul and sharing her pain, she got Brody to slowly drop his defenses. She found the hunted, frightened, scarred man behind all the lies. But Brody didn't know how to deal with this. Everyone else has been able to accept his false selves and his fake self-assurance. Even Jessica is willing to put up with a certain amount of Brody's evasion as long as he gives her a stable home and a respectable public identity.
When Brody realized that Carrie knew everything, when he accepted that her love for him may serve a purpose but was also real, his evasions fell away. It's sad that Brody finds it hard to love anyone, but it's much sadder that it's even more difficult for him to be loved.
Carrie saw this. She offered him the kind of relief that Abu Nazir did, once the torture stopped. As was the case with Nazir, there was another agenda lurking behind her concern. But in that dank, grimy room, Brody saw that her love for him was truer and more grounded than Nazir's, and he knew she'd go on loving him no matter what he did. Whether or not Brody admitted the truth to Carrie about his connection to Nazir, that weekend in the cabin would always remain a touchstone for her. He looked into her eyes and knew that she was telling the truth about that.
That's why he could admit all his truths to her. Ultimately, he just wanted to unburden himself to someone who understood.
Carrie used that. That doesn't make her any less in love with the man who destroyed her life.
Throughout this interrogation sequence, Damian Lewis' nearly silent performance was nothing short of jaw-dropping. Brody had the eyes of a man who was equal parts terrified and relieved. For a long time, he stuck to his story about not wearing the vest. On some level, admitting the truth would be an emotional disaster for him, and he knew that. How could he begin telling the truth now? How could he willingly undo the new foundation Nazir gave him? Could he do that to himself? Carrie's asked him to undergo another annihilation -- but this one would be self-administered.
... When I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"
Brody came back from the dead, but the trouble is, nobody wants to know who he became after his old self died. Jessica and Dana know he's different, his friends know he's troubled, but they don't want him to tell them why it's so easy for him to fall asleep in the fetal position on a concrete floor. Even if he could find the words to explain his captivity and conversion, they would not comprehend it. Only Carrie understood how Abu Nazir broke him down in order to build something else -- someone useful to Nazir's cause. Only Carrie understood how overwhelming the questions of loyalty and identity were.
As Carrie destroyed Nazir and exposed his aims and methods, Brody's face was a mask of pain. You realized a part of him very much wanted to believe in Nazir. Brody didn't want to question the entire existence and career of the man who had rebuilt him piece by piece. His eyes begged Carrie, "Let me have this lie."
For Brody, hiding behind the lie is preferable to trying to describe the hell he lived through -- or lives through every day. How can he describe the nightmare of being a prisoner and the balm he found in Issa? How can he explain how foreign and unknown his own family is to him? How can a man cut off from the world explain his lack of connection to it?
Carrie knows. Carrie shares that blasted emotional landscape with him. And Carrie was able to guess what finally reeled Brody back in during that awful moment in the bunker. It was the sound of his child's voice. Carrie understood that, as far away as he was, he wasn't too far gone.
"That's the Brody I fell in love with," she murmured.
And with one barely audible "yes," a few seconds later, Brody admitted everything.
That interrogation sequence is the best thing I've seen on television all year. Two moments in particular stand out: When Brody exhaled and finally laid his head on the table, you could see his relief made physical. It was over. The truth was out. Whatever came next, he at least got that enormous boulder off his back. Carrie told Brody last week that he saved her, and this week, she returned the favor.
And then, as he laid there, Carrie stroked his hair; it was an act of heartbreaking tenderness. The narrator of "Prufrock" isn't understood, he isn't recognized, he's rebuffed. But Brody isn't. He is fully known by Carrie, and for a moment, he can relax into the balm of someone else's love and acceptance.
And that's what makes "Homeland" a great show. It's not about a mole and a bomb and a vest and a plot. It asks the question "Who are you, really?" and it's genuinely interested in the answer.
The tragedy that hangs over these two people, and what makes this story both a personal and a grand tragedy, is that this intimacy does not belong to them alone. They have cover stories, and they also share a very real bond, and even for them, there is confusion at times about which is which. (Watch the episode again to see Carrie flinch when Brody, during his phone call with Jessica, tells his wife, "We're going to be fine.") The capacity these two have to understand and accept each other is counterbalanced by their ability to wound and destroy each other. But that's what unstable substances often do when they collide; they destroy things.
The thing is, everyone else gets to see this love and examine these wounds; much of what they do to each other takes place on a public stage. Imagine your most intimate secrets being captured by CIA cameras. Everything they feel has big implications, not just for them, but for governments and families. It's a reality show starring them, and they'll never be able to break their contracts. Estes will make sure of that, if nothing else.
We're all tied to things beyond our friends and families; we're all at the mercy of external forces that can break us. We all know what it's like to be in tough situations beyond our control. We know what it's like when someone shuts us down emotionally and manipulates us, and I hope we all know what it's like to be accepted and loved despite our flaws. So it's not hard to relate to Brody and Carrie's emotional states and reactions.
But we don't know what it's like to contend with the kinds of powerful forces that regularly use these two as political footballs. The CIA and Abu Nazir and even Jess and Dana -- they all have their own agendas and demands. Carrie and Brody's hearts and minds, not to mention all these other interested parties, can create all kinds of disasters for them. They already have.
Actually, we do know what it's like to be at the mercy of powerful forces capable of bringing great joy and pain. After all, we're watching "Homeland."
Its writers could, by playing with several different kinds of fire, destroy what works about the show.
They haven't so far, I hasten to add. But "Homeland" is doing the television equivalent of building a nuclear bomb while riding a unicycle on a high wire. The degree of difficulty is astonishing, the possibility of disaster is ever-present, and all due respect to "Lost's" Damon Lindelof, but I can't recall any show in recent history that seemed to enjoy encouraging so many ulcers so openly. Writers like toying with audiences, just as Carrie and Brody enjoy flirting with each other.
That's the thing about a dangerous relationships -- the danger's half the point. When it comes to the kind of intimate, unstable bond that Carrie and Brody have -- which is mirrored in the relationship that the wily "Homeland" has with its audience -- wondering where things will end up is an inescapable part of the thrill. Living on the edge is an addiction for some, and one of "Homeland's" accomplishments is making us see just how thrilling, and how scary, that kind of connection can be.
Still, there's a delicate balance to this show, and I won't apologize for fervently hoping the character drama and the spy story don't collide in disastrous ways; any espionage drama can so easily slide into cheap melodrama or action-hero bravado. "Law & Order" could make a hundred missteps and come back from them; "The Sopranos" could wander to New Hampshire and recover from that weird interlude; but this show is different: Everything is so tightly knitted together that one false move could seriously damage the emotional, political and intellectual foundations of the thing. Even done well, even done thoughtfully, what's the third or fourth season of this show? Like Carrie, we can't help but peer into the future and speculate about the screw-ups and disasters it might hold.
If "Homeland" stops playing this particular game and goes into stasis mode or otherwise betrays its core principles, the results will be so much worse than a crappy season of "Dexter." It'd be saddening and disappointing on a much deeper level to see "Homeland" betray its willingness to go for the jugular -- thematically, dramatically and emotionally. So far, it's used some formulas very well and tweaked others intelligently, but for the most part, it's resisted the easy, expected paths. I'd rather see Saul shave his beard or even get blown up than see this show turn into a lesser, lamer version of itself.
(Sidebar: Scratch that -- stasis is fine for Saul. He must always be on this show, and he must always be Saul-like. Nothing can ever happen to Saul, or executive producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa will have me to answer to.)
The good news is, the first third of the show's second season has proven that "Homeland" does not want to rest on its laurels. If anything, it may be a little too willing to amp up some aspects of the story. The Dana plot, for instance, makes me a little concerned about potential overkill. Not only does the Dana-Finn situation serve as a possibly unnecessary parallel to the Carrie-Brody and Carrie-Jessica relationships (secrets that must be kept between unstable couples, etc.), I wonder if it's also merely laying tracks for another big twist. I can envision a scenario in which Walden finds out about Brody's secret but must cover up for him in order to keep his son out of trouble.
I also wonder if the show is so committed to ramping things up that Mike (a fairly bland character whose existence is more a matter of storytelling convenience than anything else) and Brody's Marine pal Lauder have arrived a little too quickly at their suspicions about the newly minted Congressman. On balance, though, I suppose I'd rather the show keep ratcheting things up rather than tread water, and going by the past season and a half, predicting where "Homeland" will go is a fool's errand.
The main thing is, they stuck the landing in this crucial episode. "Q&A" was flawlessly written, directed and acted. Was it this season's "The Weekend"? Given its combustible and gripping contents, I'm tempted to say yes.
I've been presumptuous enough to quote from poetry in this essay, so I'll go one step further and presume that I can guess your reaction to this episode.
Reaction 1: "Holy shit!"
Reaction 2: "How long can they keep this up?"
Exactly. How long can they do this? I know, we don't expect every episode to be "Q&A" or "The Weekend," but it's the show as a whole that's shown remarkable bravery -- the kind that, in the spy business, usually has a short shelf-life.
Delving into the broken souls of two complicated characters in order to fuel and elevate a political thriller is, as we now know, "Homeland's" stock in trade. But how much fuel is there inside Carrie and Brody? How many times can these two excavate each other's souls? When will there be nothing left? How many more seasons of tortured intimacy can be wrung out of "Homeland" before the whole thing veers toward self-parody?
I'd love to shut down that speculation with a Carrie-style glass of white wine (and I may in a minute), but let's face it: Implanting paranoia in our heads one of the things "Homeland" does best. Is that paranoia legitimate, or should we just trust that everything is under control? Exactly.
This subject might also be the best short description of the show: "It's a drama that's so good that you spend a lot of time hoping it stays that good."
In Season 2, the ride is absolutely gripping, and my knuckles are very white while I hang on for dear life. As "Homeland" keeps demonstrating, you never know what's next. One day, we may wonder if we stayed too long.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.