For the uninitiated, the series is created by Alex Gansa based on the Israeli series Prisoners of War created by Gideon Raff. Gansa is the co-showrunner alongside Howard Gordon, and Chip (wassat?) Johannessen (co-executive producer, eventually executive producer) is part of the writing staff; all three of these guys were behind 24 for the majority of its run. What set Homeland apart was that it didn't rely on action the way 24 eventually did; it didn't share 24's whimsical techno-thriller mentality. Homeland wasn't necessarily realistic, but it was more character based, intimate, grounded and prone to showing Morena Baccarin naked. The series never shied away from showing Islamic fundamentalism and a certain amount of ethnic profiling that agencies often use (Saul: "Is he Muslim? No? Then he's not a suspect"). In that way, the series was refreshingly honest, its depiction of law enforcement and al-Qaeda methodology felt plausible, clever, if somewhat convenient, and at times scary (post-9/11 paranoia hasn't gone anywhere, it's just taken on new and more intricate forms). The brilliant season two trailer emphasized this with its creepy children's choir rendition of "Every Breathe You Take," to the surveillance footage, characters in hiding with long concerned glances (see: all pictures in this review) fearful of movement on the periphery of their vision (or just symptomatic of good old fashioned paranoia), the enemy you can never full see but instinctively know is there and probably always will. Watch below.
Arguably, writing the second season to a series is harder than the first. If your show didn't do so great the first time out, you have to reconfigure the show somewhat, use a scalpel or in some cases a butcher's knife to excise what didn't work from what did, and in that second season you need to essentially reintroduce the show. However, in the case of Homeland, which had a wildly successful first season, the notion becomes--how do we top what we did last year? The scope generally gets larger, more risks are taken, and the old adage of "Bigger is better" comes into play. 24 was in many ways a victim of its own success, with the writers trying to outdo themselves every year and consistently writing themselves into a corner every few episodes, and this season of Homeland drew from the worst elements of 24--when we can't come up with anything, throw in a shootout; when we don't have the budget for a shootout, a twist is more interesting than plotting; if the plot doesn't make sense, just edit the scenes to make them shorter and fragment them over the episode--keep the plot moving and keep the actual details from processing in the mind of the viewer. Let's detail the main flaws of the season cited the most by critics and fans: Dana's story, the infiltration story, and the pacemaker. (Note: Homeland was the show that overtook Mad Men and Breaking Bad's six year uninterrupted reign over the Emmys and the Golden Globes.)
Since 24 was a definite ancestor to this season, we'll start with Dana, our younger, less attractive but more shrill Kim Bauer understudy. When the protagonist on TV is a parent, the child is, these days, expected to have a storyline as well. Audiences have come to expect this because we're supposed to be shown that the kids are real people as much as their parents and they deserve development as well, which is a nice enough of an idea on paper. However, most audiences have also come to realize that these stories are never that interesting and often drag down the main plot. How many times this season did we get a tense Brody/Carrie scene only for that excitement to disappear and a half drained bottle of Dewar's chucked at the screen because the focus shifted to Dana feeling guilty because she was in the passenger seat while the Vice President's punchable son Finn ditched their Secret Service detail (!) and committed a hit and run? Let that sink in for a moment. In fact, I'll repeat it: Dana feels guilty because she was in the passenger seat while the Vice President's punchable son Finn ditched their Secret Service detail (!) and committed a hit and run. (*Winner--Critic's Choice Award for Best Drama Series). Not only was the story ludicrous, but the reaction of Finn's parents was, well, enviable. His mother shrugged it off and said that she would handle it, his father--the Vice President--said: "What are we going to do with this kid?" with the shame, horror and disappointment usually reserved for Beaver Cleaver.
Moving on, we have my personal favorite flaw from this season: the theme of infiltration. This includes the all-knowing, all-seeing heretofore unknown mole (a favorite plot device of 24), the random plot device enemy SWAT team (see previous parenthesis), and Abu Nazir's vacation to the United States.The mole is the biggest plot device in thrillers, and was really brought to mainstream awareness in the majority of 24's run. The fact is that in the history of the FBI and CIA, there haven't been that many moles. Homeland in its way learned from 24's mistake in not making the mole-story an onscreen subplot, put used the device itself to pad out scripts and come up with logical reasons why certain events took place; it's a short cut that has its own name, and it's a way of flaunting lazy writing. The fact that Gansa has said that he has no idea who the mole is, and says we probably haven't met the character yet (especially considering the way the finale ended) shows this to a be knowing and willful decision to allow for any kind of extreme development to prolong the story by giving us a flippant "It must have been the mole" reminder from time to time rather than take a step back and really consider the flaws in the story that would need to use such an old plot device as often as they had this season.
Look, I'm not saying that plot devices are inherently a bad thing--every story no matter the genre is going to use them at some point: boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back; an unlikeable character has a sudden change of luck and learns a lesson about empathy; everyone roots for the underdog; the character is an asshole but he has one redeeming quality that makes him an anti-hero; tragic past means the person is a good guy or a bad guy; introduce a gun in Act One, it goes off in Act Three. Every writer uses a plot device, good writers know how and when to use them. To return to a single one repeatedly and essentially rely on it as a get out of jail free card, then it's shallow, lazy, and talks down to the audience. The showrunner or someone on staff needs to take a step back and the story needs to either be retooled or entirely discarded for a fresh start.
The second issue is what we'll call the infiltration story. We touched upon this earlier in mentioning the mole but it goes on further than that. This season we saw Abu Nazir's American implanted soldiers don full SWAT gear--armor, helmets, machine guns, and despite nobody questioning how the hell they managed to get all these wonderful toys (they've come a long way from two guys with box cutters apparently), nobody ever thought try and trace back how it was that they managed to get said wonderful toys. If the armor and the helmets were purchased legally through army surplus, you can check the cameras and records of shops in a two hundred mile radius and look for "probable suspects." Since America does have strict gun laws despite what the media would have you believe, the machine guns were probably purchased illegally. So how about you ask the FBI for a list of suspected or convicted arms dealers, contact informants (Carrie has one that could magic you out of existence--more on that later) and get the ball moving that way. It's unlikely that they could get the real names and addresses of Nazir's soldiers, but you can maybe get an alias, a description, a blurry screen-cap from a surveillance video. We could do that or we could get another scene of Dana being frumpy. Let's go with frumpy.
It's Abu Nazir himself that rounds out the the ridiculousness of the infiltration story. Now, for almost two full seasons the writers built Nazir up to be someone very much akin to Osama bin Laden--this almost mythic ghost who is behind all of these terror attacks, but is so mysterious and enigmatic, you can't be certain of anything he does or anywhere he is. He's quiet and commanding in his presence, and as Carrie put it, "needs to do something big" when planning an attack. In one of the biggest reveals this season, Brody is captured by Nazir's men and taken to an abandoned shit hole where from out of an Escalade (or maybe an F-150; either way the man knows how to travel) comes Abu Nazir. The man who is the fictional analogue to bin Laden, who in the world of Homeland is as infamous as bin Laden, who was behind the first terror attack on American soil since 9/11 last season is in Virgina and nobody noticed. Because he's in disguise. He shaved and took off his glasses.
Of the major flaws this season, I'm most inclined to give this one a pass because in its own way, the writers have sold us already on the fact that Nazir lives for these big, public, shocking moments, and he even says that he plans on dying, but not like bin Laden did. He wanted something that would make his fellow whackos really whack out. Blaze of glory like Butch Cassidy and Sundance (just with terrorism), but it is the logistics of it that keep the moment from being taken seriously and once the reveal is processed it's jarring to see Nazir on American soil because it all just seems so unlikely. Yes, in some way, he would want to go out guns blazing, but this just seemed too improbable. If bin Laden had arrived in America, just without his beard and turbin, anyone would say--"Hey, that's Osama without the beard and turbin." They're just too recognizable, too ingrained in our psyches to get past. Crossing the border illegally from Mexico or Canada seems possible, boating over here in a shipping container seems impossibly dangerous and stupid (The Wire season 2), and it's the unanswered question of how that rankles, though admittedly, an answer to that question could have been as equally ridiculous as seeming him in America in the first place.
In the scope of the story, Nazir's appearance is just another element that takes us out of the reality of the series; we're reminded that we're just watching a TV show. Things like that happen in every television series, don't get me wrong, but when this season has already stretched plausible to a thin white line that the writers may just inhale, seeing the shaven Nazir detach from the shadows isn't the oh shit moment of the season but just another reason to change the channel. Alex Gansa freely admitted what a risk it was to have Nazir in America (from a writing standpoint) and when he managed to kidnap (!) Carrie it seemed as though the risk was done simply for the epic confrontation--Carrie vs. Nazir live and in technicolor. This is the man that Carrie has obsessed about for eight years, and was considered to be the expert on the man--having filled in his life almost completely in a color coordinated mural of that wasn't so much an acknowledgement of the difficult nature in fighting a war on terror than it was a memorial to the years she's lost trying to put the paperwork in the correct order. If taken from that perspective, that of a more Dickensian narrative, then it's fitting that Carrie and Nazir's relationship ends less like gangbusters and more like Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. Despite being at Nazir's mercy, Carrie finally meets Nazir face to face; Nazir is acutely aware of her and her obsession with it. The scenes should write themselves. Apparently they didn't. At no point did either one of them try to work a mind game on the other--these, the two more manipulative characters in the series--and what little bits of dialogue they do share amounts to the usual tripe you'd expect: "You'll never get away with this," "You're crazy," etc.
We come at last to the moment where the audience's patience and suspension of disbelief was struck down like a peasant by some douche named Finn--the moment where Abu Nazir remotely manipulated Vice President Walden's pacemaker and forced him into a heart attack. In a lot of ways this could be considered the climax of Brody's time on the show; the end of his journey as a member of al-Qaeda because finally he was able to confront Bill Walden, the man he felt was responsible for Isa's death--a moment that was the critical turning point in Brody's life: he became a traitor because of Isa's death, and now he has the ability to confront Walden before killing him. Brody, naturally, doesn't really see fit to mention Isa and speaks only in vagaries about how much of a dick Walden is before mentioning the drone program in passing. (*Golden Globes Winner: Best Drama.)
The idea of using the pacemaker as a weapon comes from real life science. A laptop could be used to hack into a person's pacemaker and send a deadly 830-volt shock that would easily kill them. Of course, the range is limited to 30 to 50 feet, and considering Bill Walden is the VP, one would assume he would have the top-of-the-line pacemaker in his chest. Even if he didn't, he would be on the top of the list to have it replaced or have some sort of safe guard to protect him. That and Nazir was able to do this from miles and miles away. (The article on these device flaws can be found here.)
Watching simply as a fan or even out of context, the scene itself is farcical. It's not the acting, as Damian Lewis and Jamey Sheridan do an admirable job considering what they're dealing with but there is almost no way to view the scene as something other than funny. That being said, had the aforementioned article come out earlier in the year and received a large amount of coverage from the media would we have reacted the same way to seeing it in Homeland? It might have made a difference for some, and as scary and suddenly real life as the article makes the flaw seem, to see it carried out is surreal and schlocky--a development that belonged more in the flamboyant middle years of James Bond than the grounded drama that questions our own moral certainty in the war on terror.
One of the less touched upon flaws of the season was the treatment of David Estes. A trend that has caught on recently is that of the mean character. You'll see this in genres like horror, thrillers, whatever--it's where there is a character who is thinking logically, making a rational and cold decision and rather than be listened to is treated by both the writer and the other characters as a villain. Here David Estes decides that no matter what happens, after Brody helps the CIA, he'll have Brody killed (despite the promise of immunity and witness protection for him and his family). As the audience, we are prompted to view this negatively, especially as Carrie and Saul--the series' moral compass--fight this because it is the wrong thing to do. Estes' point is that what Brody has done in the past would not be cancelled out by the things he's doing now. Brody is a wildcard and it's hard to see where he stands--is he helping the CIA because he feels guilt over the wrong he's done or because they have him by the balls? It's simply not worth the risk of keeping him alive. What's funny is that Saul even admits this to Carrie when hearing that she plans on being with Brody. "He'll always be a terrorist." Despite all logic, including the fact that the CIA mole could still find out where Brody was hiding and have al-Qaeda make contact with him again to either re-convert or force him into working with them again, we are repeatedly forced into believing that Estes was in the wrong. Quinn, Estes' hired gun who has the people skills of sandpaper, managed to be turned around in his decision to kill Brody after spying on him and Carrie and finding them to be a cute couple. (*Emmy Award winner: Best Writing.) Digest that for a second.
The writers double down on this by making David Estes look worse. When Saul refuses to let this go, Estes threatens him, then arrests him, then threatens him with bodily harm and jail time. This is done to put Estes over as some kind of bad guy by bullying everyone's favorite character while also distracting us from the fact that Saul was defending the life of a terrorist and Estes didn't like loose ends.
Other head shaking moments include the odd timeline of the show and Carrie's James Bond impression. Rather than 24's idea of never saying the year so the series can always be in the perpetual now (which no matter what would have made Jack an old man by season 8), we're given clear indication in the series that 9/11 happened ten years ago (said in the opening credits by Carrie), and that season 2 takes place in the 2012-2013 area. Via the opening credits we still see that the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bush Classic, Bill Clinton, New Bush, and Barack Obama have all taken place. So where does Homeland's presidency come in?
Second is Carrie's super secret "out" strategy. Apparently, being a CIA case officer currently stationed in America is so dangerous that she needed a strategy in place in case she would ever need to go on the lam. Carrie felt that there was a decent enough of a chance that at some point she would need to flee the country; she thought at some point she would push things too far and the CIA or some other law enforcement entity would have to take her in, and she would have no choice but to disappear, so she has a super secret storage locker where she keeps guns, fake IDs, and thousands of dollars in cash (on a CIA analysts' salary). You could play the crazy card as you would with most of Carrie's life decisions but this plan was overseen over the course of several years, while she was on her meds. I know that the meds aren't a 100% cure, but it is still--one would assume--enough to enact rationality. Instead, her rational thought is "Yes, eventually I will go too far." This was a magnificent eleventh hour plot convenience to get rid of Brody and set up season 3.
Now all this sounds pretty harsh, and it sounds as if this season was possibly the worst of any television show in the last twenty years. That's not the case. The first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, every season of Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise, seasons six and eight of 24, the second season of Friday Night Lights, season eight of All in the Family are all certainly worse. What the second season of Homeland managed to do correctly does not cannot overtake what it got wrong, but there are several moments where the series reminds us that there was a reason why it won its awards, why after only a single season David Nevins referred to it as Showtime's flagship series.
|She isn't Wonder Woman; god fuck us all.|
One of the high points of the season--and of the series so far--actually involves Jessica (Morena Baccarin) wearing clothes. To have a scene involving her wearing clothes often leaves the audience hesitant that any good can come out of this, but both the writers and Baccarin hit a home run, where we see Jessica throughout the season acting as a rational character. Despite her eccentric circumstances she's just a woman trying to keep her family together and trying to keep her kids safe. While her sudden decision to fuck Mike again seemed...well, sudden--it was still easy to find sympathy for her not only in our knowledge of Brody's reignited affair with a mental patient, but also because Jessica, at that moment, finally realized that no matter how much she loves/loved Brody or how much she wanted her family living under one roof, her marriage was toxic.
Jessica's best moment was a series best moment in "State of Independence" where she gives a speech about the difficulties facing returning veterans and their families. It is sad and sobering, and rings of a truth that most of us couldn't imagine; most of all, the speech--without being preachy--lets us know that we need to reevaluate how we treat our veterans. Jessica is shaken yet relieved, finally being able to release feelings that she's worried about, that she's afraid of, and even somewhat ashamed of. Baccarin is an unsung actress who uses subtlety and nuance more than anything, and finally the writers gave her something to work with, and she fills the scene with so much visceral emotion that the speech feels more like a confession than a scene in a spy-thriller.
Other great moments involve the interrogation of Roya which saw a great dissection of her and Carrie, as well as a great twist on these CIA interrogation scenes. Saul doing just about anything. Despite whatever unlikelihoods went on this season, Mandy Patinkin always kept us grounded and added emotional resonance whether we were celebrating the death of a monster, dwelling on the sheet covered dead in a horrific and evocative act of terror, or feeling his slight sense of relief at seeing Carrie alive all tethered this season to the emotional core that made Homeland as popular as it is.
However, the season's best moment came in the form of the Carrie/Brody interrogation in "Q&A." The Carrie and Brody relationship is a controversial one among the fans, and their interaction that goes one throughout this episode was probably the best hour of television in 2012. Not only do we see the codependent, destructive, and ultimately impossible to maintain affection for each other finally out in the open free of any lies or shifting agendas, but we also see Carrie and Brody in their stripped down to their essentials. Carrie is the master manipulator, making Brody as dependent on her as he once was on Nazir; Brody meanwhile is seen as who is he--the manipulated, dependent, someone to be led. We'll probably never see what he was like before his capture by Nazir so we don't know if he was always so malleable or if his experiences in captivity have truly broken him as a person. We see them together as two people remarkable especially in their flaws desiring to make a connection with someone with matching scars and corresponding scars and finding each other through lies and truth.
Fixes for Season 3
1- No more Mike and Lauter: Boy Detectives.
2- Take a break from the Brody family (including from Nick Brody himself).
3- Less "high octane" stories; settle for something smaller--shock does not a story make.
5- Map the season out deliberately and in detail, with regards for what may happen in the fourth season. What we learned this year was that scripts were being finalized at the very last minute, even while filming. Sometimes the running clock can be an excellent motivator as it leads to outside the box thinking, and sometimes the Vice Presiden't son runs over a peasant.
6- The adherence to reality and character development made Homeland accessible and exciting in its first year. Go back to that.
7- In Mel Gibson's voicemails to his then-wife Oksana Grigorieva, Mel offered his advice. "You are a fucking whore...stop being that." Replace 'fucking whore' with 24, and you have my advice for Homeland; this opinion is further bolstered by Jim Norton (comedian, philanthropist, urine enthusiast) who recently said: "Homeland is the best sci-fi show on television. Ugh."
Being somewhat generous, Homeland season two is a 3 out of 5.
P.S. I know that I haven't posted much on here recently. Part of the reason is because typing with a broken wrist is excruciating, and partially because of a lack of material. Right now, however, I do have ideas for posts, so hopefully 2013 will be more productive. My wrist is still recovering, so for now postings will take a little longer to come out than before (I began this article before Christmas), but I will do my best to get quality work out on a more frequent basis.
Next time: Antiviral by Brandon Cronenberg.