Midseason Check-In: HOMELAND

We need to talk about Homeland, you guys. It’s just not very good.

Mathison? I heard rumors she’s on her own planet. Not like lovable eccentric, hardcore chemical.

–Dennis

Once, there was a dream that was Homeland. In this dream there was a strong female lead; she was intelligent, fierce, dedicated, passionate. She was the best at her job, and she was also a hot mess. She could see things that others could not, things that could save the country from a terrorist attack; she could also not see things that were right in front of her, which would ultimately wreck many lives and (temporarily) destroy her career.

The first season and a half of Homeland was taut, smart storytelling. It posited difficult questions about patriotism, national security, and our surveillance state. It attempted to humanize the quagmire that is Middle Eastern relations. Most importantly, it was, at its heart, a love story — about two really, really screwed up people who became each others’ ports in a growing storm. Not everything about the Carrie Mathison/Nicholas Brody relationship worked in that first season and a half, but you could see what it was aiming at and it hit the target most of the time.

And then, as has been well-documented, it all fell apart. The second season churned through plot at a ridiculous rate, which was fun for a while, until it became clear that there was no one driving the car. The final episodes of 2012 stretched credulity beyond the breaking point, and while there were occasional flashes of brilliance, far more (see: Nazir, Abu; Brody, Dana) were just ridiculous. It insulted the audience’s intelligence. The more star-crossed Carrie and Brody became, the more obvious it was that they were actually just awful, for each other and for the show.

The third season was somehow worse, as the Brody clan had long outlived their usefulness, and Carrie had no business working for the American government, or even a dry cleaner. Yet producers Alex Gansa & Howard Gordon soldiered on, and I don’t even remember most of what happened now, but I remember it being very annoying, and then Brody was hung from a crane, and we were supposed to feel bad about it. Season 4 has been pitched as almost a “reboot,” finally re-centering the show on spycraft and global politics instead of the romantic travails of an increasingly unhinged Carrie. And for the first couple of episodes, it seemed like it might — might — be working. (But what a waste of Corey Stoll. His naturalism was sorely needed, and then thrown away.)

Never mind that Carrie, having been directly or indirectly responsible for some of the largest intelligence failures in the western world, is now the station chief in Islamabad. Never mind that she is now known as “The Drone Queen,” gleefully ordering missile strikes on anyone who falls within spitting distance of the AUMF. (That would actually be an great discussion that the show is not interesting in having.) And never mind the Brody lovechild (WHYYY) that she callously left behind in the states, and considered, however briefly, drowning in the bathtub. It’s hard to find a character in modern TV history that has suffered outright character assassination like Carrie Mathison. She is impulsive, incompetent, and petulant. Whether intentionally or not, she is now the show’s villain. Even more than the terrorist leader that just shot his nephew in the head.

I say “intentionally or not” because there’s a fair chance that it is on purpose. Literally every major character has been repulsed by Carrie’s actions, from seducing the young student with ties to his aforementioned murderous uncle, to how she’s choosing to disregard certain threats, to how she browbeats the only underlings who have showed her any loyalty at all (poor Fara. She should have just taken a swing after that “Hefty bag” line.) What is Quinn to do, especially when Dar Adal and others keep telling he’s in lurve with Carrie, a concept he and I both found patently ridiculous? And why does the show think he should start to change his mind about that? Carrie’s not just damaged goods — she’s totaled. Quinn was right to criticize her for sleeping with Aayan because it was repugnant, not because he was “jealous.” Have some self-respect.

And if I can be real, just for a minute, I’m not sure how much of this doesn’t lay at the feet of the multi-Emmy-recipient Claire Danes. Her performance this season is so tonally out of touch with the rest of the show, it’s impossible to say whether it’s an intentional choice — make Carrie as repulsive as possible to heel-turn later — or if she actually thinks Carrie is still worth rooting for. But her body language and facial expressions are those of a twelve-year-old girl; her decisions are entirely emotion-based; there is literally nothing heroic or admirable about her. Not anymore.

Weirdly, it seems the show does want us to feel this way, judging from the final moments of “A to B and Back Again.” Aayan has been brutally executed by Haqqani, and Carrie orders the drone strike on her target even with her mentor Saul in the car, and it’s painted as lunacy. Quinn belays the order. She stomps off to her office and does that thing where a TV character shoves the items off her desk. Quinn correctly infers that Carrie wants Haqqani dead just because he killed Aayan, not because he’s a terrorist leader. BUT EVEN MORE WEIRDLY, if you actually give it a little thought, Carrie’s decision was actually the right one — just for the totally wrong reasons. If Saul had the power, he wouldn’t waste a second before firing that missile. If you have an opportunity to take out the next Bin Laden, you do it, even if it means losing a former head of the CIA who was foolish enough to get himself captured. But we’re meant to side with Quinn, even though he’s actually wrong.

If you’d expect that Homeland would see this dilemma and wring some thoughtful nuance out of it, you’ve clearly never seen Homeland before. Sure, the last ten minutes of this week’s episode were the most interesting and surprising all season (the less said about whatever Boris & Natasha spy-jinks Mark Moses’s character is running, the better), but there’s nothing about Homeland that is subtle. It’s as trashy as House of Cards, but manages to be even worse, because at least House of Cards tries to have fun with its absurdity. Homeland is a more noxious brand of fake prestige TV, that thinks it has Something To Say About The World, but is instead stuck in a cycle of self-immolation — especially compared to programs that have beaten it at its own game, like British import The Honorable Womanwhich handles these themes more thoughtfully than Homeland ever dreamed and in only eight episodes. (Seek it out. It’s fantastic.)

Then why are you even still watching this garbage??” I can hear you asking. That’s fair. The truth is, I’m not entirely sure. It’s had plenty of chances to steer out of the skid, and has made the wrong choices almost every time. But it’s not boring, at least; the budget has noticeably decreased, but the South Africa locations look good. The supporting cast is doing a great job with the crummy hands they’ve been dealt. And there’s always reason to hope; now that we know what will drive the story for the rest of the season (“Go save Saul,” I guess), it has the potential to be truly interesting. But the central problem is not going away: Carrie is an irredeemable character, and as long as she’s at the show’s center, Homeland will be too.

Also, if I wasn’t still watching, I wouldn’t have been able to write this, and this was fun to write. So there.

Grade: C

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