Before we get into “The Clearing,” a real-world intrusion: In last week’s Vulture recap, I jokingly wrote, “Thanks to Homeland, how many cheating Washington mates are going to use, ‘I’m working for the CIA’ as an all-purpose alibi? It sounds so much better than ‘I’m working late at the office.’ And you can’t press too hard because of ‘national security.’” Lo and behold, a few days after that remark, and a couple of days after the reelection of President Barack Obama, CIA director David Petraeus, who is married, resigned after word leaked that he was having an affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell, who is also married. Soon after, it was revealed that the FBI began investigating Broadwell for sending “harassing” e-mails to Jill Kelley, “a 37-year old State Department military liaison and ‘friend’ of the general who ‘saw him often,” according to the AP.
All of which put this week’s episode — maybe the most overtly soapy single episode of Homeland yet — in a different light. I was thinking this episode felt a bit like 90210 with security clearance, but guess what? Apparently the real CIA is that way, too, sometimes.
Directed by John Dahl (The Last Seduction) and written by Meredith Stiehm, “The Clearing” was set partly at a horse farm where the show’s main characters fretted and plotted. The centralized location, with its old-money atmosphere and gathering of power brokers, reminded me of ancient episodes of Dallas or Dynasty, and of ABC’s current Revenge and Scandal and the Dallas reboot: shows that carry that old prime-time soap tradition into a new century. The event’s host, Rex, a Vietnam vet and D.C. prime mover, buddied up to Brody and told him he’d support him as Vice-President Walden’s running mate in the next presidential election. Brody politely balked — insisting, for all sorts of reasons, that he wasn’t the “hero” type — then caved and accepted Rex and the group’s approbation anyway, pushing the show’s Manchurian Candidate Redux plot line forward. Dana pressured her boyfriend Finn, the vice-president’s son, to come clean about the hit-and-run accident they’d been keeping secret — and in the end, they did, with Dana’s parents’ support, and to Dana’s immense relief. But this collective burst of ethical behavior got snuffed out by Washington reflex, with the veep and his wife pushing the Brodys to accept that the accident should be kept a secret for the good of the country – i.e. for the good of Vice-President Walden’s presidential bid. Carrie was complicit. It was she who personally intercepted Brody and Dana as they were about to report the accident to the Washington, D.C. cops, and jump-start a scandal that would have been even bigger than Petraeus-Broadwell had it happened in real life.
And oh, yeah: Brody and Carrie finally kissed again, in the woods. It was a moment a lot of Homeland fans (and Vulture writers) had been waiting for, even though rationally they knew it was probably bad for the lovers and the CIA’s counter-terror operation. There was nothing in either of the actors’ performances to suggest that the kiss was wholly or even partly tactical; as has always been the case with these two, whenever they get in the same room, romantic authenticity and strategic ruthlessness dance tango-close. Though neither will win a prize for professional behavior, Carrie seems to have a (slightly) better handle on why she’s nearly helpless in Brody’s presence than the reverse. The kiss was a great character moment: an ecstatic release with undercurrents of shame and panic. It reestablished that Brody and Carrie just flat-out “get” each other better than anyone else in their respective lives, although Brody seems more confused and terrified by that knowledge than Carrie. He’s buried it deep beneath all those layers of cover story, all those constructed or false identities. The meeting in the woods was supposed to be strategic — Carrie handling her asset Brody — but it had a classic “forbidden love” feeling; from the instant they stood together on the outskirts of the horse farm, I thought, “This seems like the kind of place where a bit of fan service might go down.” It wasn’t fan service, not entirely, but you know what I mean. Sometimes circumstances tell people what needs to happen. The long shot of Brody walking toward the clearing to meet Carrie, the trees soaring over him, his tiny figure squashed into the bottom of the frame had a fairy-tale eeriness.
But Brody’s post-kiss recoil brought the moment back to reality. “Hey, is this for real?” he said, breaking from her. “You just handling me? You know, keeping me close?” “Brody, I don’t know, and I don’t want you to feel used,” she said. Her face told us she really meant it. They kissed again. “You know what,” Brody told her, “I do feel used, and played, and lied to. I also feel good. Two minutes with you, and I feel good. How do you pull that off?” Then he pulled away, they shared a look of mutual distrust (and self-distrust), and Brody walked off.
The Carrie-Brody stuff was mirrored by Saul’s trip to the super-max prison. He was there to convince one of his former assets, Aileen, to help him ID the mysterious man who met with Roya at the beginning of the last episode and later led the Gettysburg massacre. After a long, awkward dance that included friendly talk by Saul, she agreed to help if he would get her a cell with a window. The parallels between Aileen’s deprivation in a high-tech solitary cell and Brody’s years-ago suffering in a desert spider-hole would have come through strongly even if the episode hadn’t underlined them. Every now and then, Homeland reminds us of how much Brody suffered physically and mentally in captivity; we got one such moment in “The Clearing” when Brody took his shirt off at the pool, then put it back on because his scars made him self-conscious. This led to a marvelous follow-up scene of Brody swimming in that same pool alone at night. The shots of him alone underwater were a classic Graduate-style lyrical moment: pool as womb, but also as tomb. The interlude played like both an escape from Brody’s present moment and a regression into his psychological state during captivity – an inward retreat. (Another Graduate echo – unintentional or purposeful, I wonder? – was Saul pounding on the iron door at the end, yelling, “Aileen! Aileen!”)
Aileen and Brody often felt like spiritual kin in this episode, and not just because they’re both brainwashed minions of Abu Nazir — good people whose sympathies have been twisted by trauma. Saul’s interaction with Aileen, with whom he took a long road trip in season one that sometimes felt as though it was going to veer into a truly sick version of a rom-com plot, had undercurrents of flirtation, with Saul pouring on the professorial charm and Aileen returning the overtures, because she wanted to feel the sunlight again, but also because Saul is a very likable man when he chooses to be. Their interaction in this episode mixed faintly romantic warmth and ice-cold political gamesmanship in a way that faintly echoed the Carrie-Brody plot. Aileen never had any useful information. It was all an elaborate ruse to get herself a bit of time in the sun, then kill herself rather than leave it. “I’m never going back to that cave,” she told him, bleeding to death from self-inflicted wounds.
When Aileen killed herself, it seemed like the sort of dramatic exit that Brody could still take if he decided he’d finally suffered enough. Unlike Aileen, he’s out walking around in the sun, a free man who could be president someday, but he’s as much a prisoner as Aileen was – besieged by competing handlers and competing agendas, and working so many cover stories to so many people simultaneously that it’s a wonder he can even form complete sentences, let alone keep all his stories straight. This episode was filled with figurative and literal prisoners: Dana, prevented from doing the right thing by her father and mother’s political ties; Finn, a little weasel so conditioned by D.C.’s “power-is-everything” ethos that his first instinct was to cover up the accident; Carrie and Saul, who seem to have no firm identity apart from their value to the CIA, and the sense of purpose that their jobs provide; Brody, who’s currently got at least three sets of puppet strings hanging from his body: Abu Nazir’s, the CIA’s, and the vice-president’s. As Bob Dylan sang, “It may be the devil, or it may be the lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
The sense of powerlessness became overwhelming at the end, when Brody walked right up to the edge of moral behavior at the police station, then turned away and walked back. The look on Dana’s face as her dad sold her out was wrenching. Everybody’s parents let them down, but the betrayals inflicted on Dana by her father are truly terrible because it was her love that pulled him back from the brink of self-immolation at the end of season one – and because it was Carrie who had prompted Dana to make that call. And now here was Carrie at the police station, acting as an agent of darkness rather than light, protecting Brody’s position within the political Establishment and his status as double-agent.
‘This was a private matter,” Brody said.
“It’s not, actually,” she said, “because if you report this, you’ll alienate Walden, and Roya and Nazir want you near him for whatever reason.”
“I don’t give a fuck,” Brody said. “This is my daughter!”
“Brody, you won’t have a deal anymore if you do this,” she said. “The whole thing will be off, do you understand?”
Just handling him. Keeping him close.
Odds and ends
- Quinn’s self-release from the hospital and recommitment to the mission strained my credulity. What is this, a James Bond movie? But the constant pill-popping helped sell it, as did Rupert Friend’s raw-nerve performance, and the fact that the show sorta fudged the details of how badly he was injured in the shoot-out.
- Speaking of the shoot-out, I know black-ops subplots get a bit of leeway in stories like Homeland, but if six federal agents were killed on American soil right outside Washington, D.C., wouldn’t you think it would be a huge news story, no matter how hard everyone involved tried to cover it up? Rex, a civilian, brings up the incident with Brody, so either he has the inside scoop because of his proximity to Washington inner circles or the Gettysburg attack is known to all. If it's the latter, a simple shot of a news report in passing or in the background would clear this up for viewers. (*As one commenter points out below, Brody says that the story is "all over the news" when he runs into Roya while jogging.)
- I liked the scene between Saul and the prison warden, who took his pitch for Aileen’s window and dressed him down for being an arrogant fed. Something about it rang true. I bet conversations like that happen all the time in life.