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Homeland Recap: The Ball Game Is Over

“Q&A," which unfolds mostly in and around an interrogation room, is my second favorite episode of Homeland to date, after “The Weekend.” It might be the most significant in terms of story, because it brings Marine-turned-Congressman Nicholas Brody’s character arc to a screeching halt and makes him really look at himself for the first time since his return to the United States. It’s about undoing damage and healing grievous wounds. It’s harrowing, moving, and ultimately inspiring, because it’s about a man realizing he’s tired of running and hiding — that telling the truth is not just healthier than living a lie, it’s a hell of a lot less exhausting. As Brody arrives at this realization, the agent of change, Carrie Mathison, is going through some of the same emotional processes herself while questioning him, and making some extraordinary and undoubtedly true admissions along the way — that “You broke my heart, you know,” and that she still loves him so much that she wants him to leave his wife and kids to be with her.

Brody’s deprogramming starts soon after the climax of “New Car Smell,” in which she peppered him with questions so stingingly honest that he couldn’t slip into professional liar mode and refute them. Every word out of his mouth seemed panicky and halfhearted. There were moments when he seemed paralyzed by the moral and emotional force of her words. When he told her — smirking a bit — that maybe he wanted to be friends, she replied, “Do I want to be friends with a demented ex-soldier who hates America, who decided that strapping on a bomb was the answer to what ailed him? Despite his daughter his son, people who love him in real life, not in the mindfuck world of Abu Nazir?” Brody’s slack face and panicked eyes told us that he wasn’t going to wriggle out of a reckoning this time — and that on some level maybe he didn’t want to.

I thought about those lines as Carrie drilled into Brody’s mind in the interrogation room; they were ruthlessly honest, and that’s why they hurt him so much. She hurt Brody again and again throughout “Q&A,” but it was a good, constructive kind of hurt, the kind inflicted by someone who sees another person for who he really is, or could be, and truly loves him, and ultimately has his best interests at heart. It was the calculated pain that might be inflicted by a mate, a relative, or a therapist: confrontational honesty that comes from a pure place. I guess one could argue that Brody wouldn’t have been as susceptible to Carrie’s line of questioning if Peter hadn’t jammed a knife through his hand — a moment I didn’t particularly care for because it seemed too calculated to shock, in that pay cable way, and because it made Peter seem like a sociopathic, rage-aholic idiot, which admittedly maybe he is. (Watching it, I yelled at the screen, “You’re going to stab a Congressman through the hand, really?” then pictured the press asking Brody what happened and him saying, “I was juicing lemons and my hand slipped.”)  But I tend to think Brody would have broken — maybe “broken open” is a better phrase? — anyway. It’s been clear for several episodes now that Abu Nazir’s people have been running Brody ragged, perhaps misusing him, and destroying what was left of his domestic life in the process.

“What do you say, when people ask you what it was like over there?” Carrie asks Brody.

“As little as possible,” he replies.

“And if they insist?”

“I lie. Tell them stories they want to hear.”

“It’s the lies that undo us. Lies we think we need to survive. When was the last time you told the truth?”

“About five minutes ago when I said I didn’t wear a bomb,” Brody says, lying.

In time, though, he tells the truth about the bomb and — more profoundly — admits the truth about his own life of deception.

The ostensible purpose of Carrie’s questions was to uncover an impending terrorist attack on the U.S. But if I had to pick one word to describe her scenes with Brody in “Q&A,” it wouldn’t be “interrogation,” but “deprogramming.”

Which brings me to The Manchurian Candidate. After watching the pilot episode, I worried — like a lot of viewers — that Homeland might just be The Manchurian Candidate: The TV Series, and that it would have trouble sustaining that concept over the long haul. Homeland has tested my faith many times in that regard; but in the end it has always quelled those concerns, because it probes the psyche of Brody — this show’s version of Raymond Shaw, the sleeper agent/assassin programmed by Communists in Richard Condon’s novel and the two film versions — with a depth and delicacy that only series TV can manage. The Brody/Carrie deprogramming scene reminded me of that pivotal moment in the original film version of The Manchurian Candidate where Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) — that story’s Carrie Mathison, weird as that now sounds — showed Raymond Shaw a deck of cards comprised of nothing but queens of diamonds, then said:

Take a good look at 'em, Raymond. Look at 'em, and while you're looking, listen. This is me, Marco, talking. Fifty-two red queens and me are telling you ... you know what we're telling you? It's over! The links, the beautifully conditioned links, are smashed. They're smashed as of now because we say so, because we say they are to be smashed! We're busting up the joint, we're tearing out all the wires, we're busting it up so good all the queen's horses and all the queen's men will never put old Raymond together again. You don't work any more! That's an order. Anybody invites you to a game of solitaire, you tell 'em, "Sorry, buster, the ball game is over."

“Q&A” was directed by Lesli Linka Glatter — a veteran filmmaker who helmed two of the scariest episodes of Twin Peaks — and written by series co-executive producer Henry Bromell. Bromell’s active participation here is significant: Almost twenty years ago he worked on NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street, in which whole entire acts — and it least one case, an episode, “Three Men and Adena” — were set inside a police interrogation room colloquially known as “The Box.” More than half of Homeland’s “Q&A” is set in The Box. Glatter shoots these scenes as plainly as possible, eschewing fancy camerawork for plain wide shots, medium shots and close-ups. As Carrie bears down on the truth of Brody’s existential predicament — as she pushes his buttons and gets him to open up — the direction becomes primordially simple: an exchange of tight close-ups; lines answering lines, faces answering faces.

During the most intense section of this exchange — building toward that cathartic moment when Brody puts his head down on the tabletop — Homeland geeks may realize we’re seeing a long-delayed bookend to that magnificent scene in “The Weekend” where Carrie and Brody sit across from each other on the porch of their woodland cabin. In my recap of that episode for Salon, I wrote, “One of the many wonderful ironies of the porch scene is that its raw disclosures could not have occurred if Carrie and Brody hadn’t behaved recklessly and self-destructively — and if the show hadn’t been willing to follow the moment to an honest place. Only two characters that got trapped in an emotional doom spiral and knew they would never pull out of it could have attained that degree of intimacy and trust.”

And now that recklessness — reckless honesty, actually — has borne fruit. To paraphrase a psychologist friend of mine, “Desire is not just a hormone-driven biological imperative, it is a carrier of symbolic meaning.” Which in plain language means that you don’t just desire people because your chemicals spark with theirs; you’re attracted to them because they represent something you want to escape from or get back to, or something you aspire to be, or are terrified of becoming. I wouldn’t dare suggest precisely what Carrie represents to Brody, or the reverse, partly because I’m no psychologist, but mostly because Homeland is a great show because it resists the urge to footnote and label its characters.

But I think we can agree that Carrie and Brody are united by their desire to be truthful while living lives dependent on constant deception; by their understanding of each other’s wartime trauma; by their belief that, for all their accomplishments, they are in some sense failures; and by their fundamental loneliness.

Another famous line from The Manchurian Candidate seems apropos here: “Why don’t you pass the time while playing a little solitaire?” That’s what Carrie and Brody have been doing since we first got to know them: playing solitaire. They have relatives but refuse them access to their deepest selves; they have “friends” who seem more like acquaintances. Only Carrie’s relationship with Saul feels like a true friendship, fraught though it is with past professional drama; poor Brody doesn’t even have that. Carrie listens to her jazz, pores over documents and arranges them in patterns on walls, in large part because she believes she could have done something to prevent the attacks of 9/11. Brody goes in the garage and prays to Allah and carries out secret terrorist missions because his entire adult life is (or seems to be, to Brody) a string of failures: He failed as a Marine and got captured; he failed to resist his captors and killed (or believed he’d killed, the first time) his colleague, Tom Walker; he failed to prevent the death of Abu Nazir’s son, a boy he loved as much as his own children; and now he’s failed (or thinks he’s failed) as a husband and father. They’re the two loneliest people on TV, misfit toys looking for an island. Of course they’d cleave together physically and psychically. They get each other on an atomic level, and although they can talk for hours — and have fun doing it — nothing really needs to be explained.

When Carrie walks around the interrogation room turning off the cameras, then tells Brody seductively, “Alone at last,” she’s metaphorically re-creating their idyll in the cabin in “The Weekend.” That little house was their Eden, a private space where they could forget their missions and connect intellectually and emotionally (as human beings) and sexually (as mammals). There was a self-serving, even cynical aspect to their union: Each was hoping to gain information that could not be gained legitimately. But there was humor and heat there, too, and the more time they spent together, the more their cold rationalizations seemed like a pretext to do what their hearts wanted to do anyway. When Carrie gets down to emotional basics — talking about her own wartime trauma to spark Brody’s, then reminding him of the depth of her desire and insisting he admit that he shares it — she forces him to return to the cabin, a place where they could be honest with each other, and themselves.

The strategy works. Brody confirms there is an impending attack on the U.S., although he doesn’t know the details. More significantly, in terms of our rooting interest, Brody admits that he was wearing a bomb vest in the bunker during the season one finale (after denying it twice to Carrie’s face). His honesty sets the stage for his reintegration into reality, and his possible employment as a double agent. It also sets the stage for his rehabilitation as a human being, and allows for the possibility that he won’t spend the rest of his life as a casualty, a man so broken (first by war, then by his brainwashing in captivity) that he doesn’t manifest a single personality trait that could truthfully be called his own.

The second time Brody tells Carrie he wasn’t wearing a vest, there are tears in his eyes.

“You decided not to kill those people,” she says, appealing to the better man she knows better than anyone is within him. “You decided to let Walden live. Dana called you didn’t she. While you were there in the panic room … What did she say?”

“She asked me to come home,” Brody says. “I said I would. And I did.”

“It was hearing Dana’s voice that changed your mind, wasn’t it? She asked you to come home, and you did. Why? Maybe because you suddenly understood that killing yourself and ruining Dana’s life wouldn’t bring Issa back. Maybe because you knew then how much you loved your own child. Maybe because you were just sick of death. That’s the Brody I’m talking to. That’s the Brody that knows the difference between warfare and terrorism. That’s the Brody I met up in that cabin.”

It’s an extraordinarily powerful moment, because of the performances (Claire Danes and Damian Lewis are at the peak of their powers), the direction, and most of all, the writing. Every sentence out of Carrie’s mouth is the truth. Every sentence tells Brody something he doesn’t want to hear but desperately needs to hear. She knows who he really is, and she won’t let him deny it.

Like Raymond Shaw — and Jason Bourne in the Bourne films — he’s a Frankenstein’s monster of the military-industrial complex, a killing machine that eventually turns on his handlers, all of them. When Brody lays his head down on the tabletop, his masklike expression and the way the fluorescent light hits his broad forehead and shadows his eyesockets reminded me a bit of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster. I would not have been surprised if Carrie had examined his neck and found bolt holes there.

Odds and ends

  • Dana’s romance with the vice-president’s son Finn Walden takes a horrific turn on their first official date when Finn tries to outrun his Secret Service detail, slams into a pedestrian, flees the scene, and convinces Dana to keep the crime a secret. I wasn’t crazy about this subplot because it detracted from the relentlessly intense action in the interrogation room, and because it smacked of cable TV parallelism: Hey, look, Brody’s kid is keeping a horrible secret, too! But this is Homeland, which means it’s going somewhere interesting eventually, so I won’t judge it too harshly. What intrigued me most was Finn’s rottenness. From the start, I’ve thought the veep was a snake — maybe a potentially 24-level wannabe-dictator — and now we know for sure that his son is a baby snake.
  • Saul asks Peter if he was faking rage when he stabbed Brody or if he really was out of control. “That was theater, wasn’t it?” Saul asks. “Every good cop needs a bad cop,” Peter replies, not really answering Saul’s question. Homeland is filled with people who use national security as a pretext to work through their personal demons. My gut says this guy is a psycho, and that he’s just going to continue to appall us.
  • Nice scene on the porch between Dana and her mother: Jessica smoothing her daughter’s hair, Dana treating her mom with unusual warmth while maintaining that teenage girl aloofness. (Even when this girl isn’t rolling her eyes, she’s rolling her eyes.)
  • Love the moment at the end where a wrung-out, bloodied Brody begs to come home and tells Jessica, “I’m working for the CIA.” Chronology-wise and otherwise, that’s a lie, but it’s what you’d call an aspirational lie — a lie that tells you what Brody wants to be, and where the story might go. But it’s coming from an honest place. It’s a start.
  • But of course, Brody's "catharsis" could be yet another fake-out — a means of letting him seem to work for the CIA while secretly continuing to work for Abu Nazir. The mind reels!
Photo: Showtime