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Homeland Recap: The War at Home

Rupert Friend as Peter Quinn in Homeland (Season 2, Episode 9). - Photo:  Kent Smith/SHOWTIME - Photo ID:  Homeland_ 209_0079

Homeland has always been half military thriller, half domestic soap, with a bit of super-dry comedy mixed in. The title cuts in both directions: The word “Homeland” makes you think of the Department of Homeland Security and the geographic integrity of a nation, but it also evokes the domestic sphere in which adults try to be lovers or mates, with or without kids underfoot.

Directed by Dan Attias and written by Alexander Cary, “Two Hats” is a great illustration of the title’s multivalent meanings. Its umbrella story is about Saul, Carrie, David, Peter and company using Brody to thwart Abu Nazir’s attack on the U.S. But beneath that Tom Clancy–style umbrella are intertwined tales about other homelands: romance, marriage, and the relationships between parents and kids.

One of these subplots — Mike taking care of Jessica and her children in a CIA-protected condo while Brody helps the CIA — could be summed up as “two grownups playing house.” It’s Jessica's and Mike’s version of Brody's and Carrie’s woodland interlude in “The Weekend,” a wish-fulfillment fantasy nestled inside the show’s otherwise painful reality. Meanwhile, Brody and Carrie share some tender interludes, all justified as part of their shared mission. We also learn that Peter has two big secrets: that he fathered a child by a policewoman (that’s his homeland, I guess), and that he’s secretly reporting to the boss of a black ops squad. (David tells Saul, “He’s here to kill terrorists, same as us”; sure enough, in the last scene Peter almost kills Brody, then is ordered to stand down by David.) The latter revelation positions Peter as a dark mirror of Brody: a man who appears to be loyal to one authority figure, but who's secretly taking orders from another.

The episode begins with Brody returning from twelve hours in the company of Abu Nazir, his brainwasher and twisted surrogate daddy. Brody tells his CIA handlers what happened to him. Through a combination of interrogation room scenes and flashbacks, we learn that Nazir wants to attack the vice-president during a homecoming for newly returned sailors and Marines, and that he’s going to use Roya Hammad’s TV news credentials as a cover. (The plot evokes the assassination of Gen. Ahmad Shah Massoud, two days before 9/11, at the hands of men who posed as TV journalists conducting an interview, then detonated explosives, some of which were hidden inside a video camera.)

We don’t actually see any of Brody's and Nazir’s conversations in the present tense. We only see bits and pieces as Brody recounts his experience to his CIA contacts. This is notable. Whenever important Homeland action occurs offscreen, we have to be suspicious, because it means that whoever is telling the story is misrepresenting what happened, leaving out incriminating bits, or misremembering. All Brody’s memories of wartime captivity were presented this way: as a gradually expanding flashback that disclosed new information that changed the meaning of the story over time. So we can’t really trust anything Brody says to his CIA handlers; he’s even more untrustworthy here than he normally is. When Nazir tells Brody in an early scene, “Allah knows more than anyone can how strong you are,” and Brody replies, “Pray for me,” the audience’s deception antennae should have perked up. Nazir might as well be a director meeting a star backstage before the curtain rises on a new play, and telling him, “Break a leg, kiddo.” And there’s an incriminating-seeming closeup of Brody about nineteen minutes into the episode, when everyone leaves the room: the expression of an actor who feels sure that he nailed the audition but doesn’t want to come across as overconfident.

“We have become unsure of your commitment to our mission,” Nazir says in one piece of flashback. “Our mission?” Brody replies. “I don’t know anything about our mission. I did exactly what was asked of me, nothing more, nothing less.” Nazir continues, “You saved my life in Beirut. No one asked you to do this,” then follows up with, “What is it, Nicholas? What is troubling you?” Brody replies, “I wanted to avenge Issa’s death, not kill innocent civilians.” “What if it is the will of Allah?” Nazir counters. “Neither of us knows the will of Allah,” Brody says. “You taught me that yourself. Each of us must decide what we can or cannot do.”

Then we come out of flashback, and Brody says, “I tell him my will is close to breaking.” Saul asks Brody, “Did he ask about your recent specific wavering with Roya Hammad?” Brody says, “I told him I’d underestimated the love I had for my family, and the fear for what was going to become of my wife and kids after I was gone. That blindsided me.” None of this can be taken as gospel. It’s all just Brody telling (and selling) a story. “By his own admission, Brody is in a confused state,” Saul says afterward, by way of warning. “He spent twelve hours in the company of a man who still has considerable power over him.” He should have added, “Plus, dude’s the Michael Jordan of lying.”

The spectacular end of “Two Hats” felt like a false climax to me — a chaotic distraction from some other, nastier plot that’s still gestating offscreen.  I was surprised and disappointed when Carrie urged her colleagues to believe Brody’s account of what Nazir intended to do — kill the vice-president during a top-secret military homecoming. Carrie said this was “an idea worthy of [Nazir]” because of its symbolic power. But based on what we saw last season, one-and-done attacks aren’t Nazir’s style. He seems to prefer a fake-out followed by a sucker punch, and I’m surprised the CIA didn’t make more of this.

Remember, just a few episodes back, Brody confessed to Carrie that he was wearing an explosive-laden vest when he went into the bunker with the vice-president and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Carrie and her colleagues know that Nazir’s last big terrorist plot involved an elaborate, bloody deception: The supposed sniper plot involving Brody’s not-dead colleague Tom Walker was the prelude to a suicide bomb that Brody was supposed to set off in the panic room. I hoped Carrie and the gang would have borne this in mind while planning to intercept Roya and the fake camera crew. But when the fleeing vehicle flipped over, everyone in the control room cheered as if their team had scored the winning touchdown. Game ain’t over yet, folks. Abu Nazir wasn’t anywhere near that operation because (1) real leaders delegate, and (2) he’s not an idiot. (If the top boss had been found at the scene, Peter would have whacked Brody. I read that ending as telling us that Brody is only alive because he’s useful to Operation Capture Nazir.)

After Brody’s debriefing, Peter allows that Brody might be misdirecting the CIA team to lead them into a trap. The climax of the episode suggests he was right, but at that moment, he’s drowned out by Carrie’s endorsement of the attack on returning troops as an “idea worthy of him.” This strikes me as one of the relatively few instances where Carrie goes with her gut and it fails her — but we’ve still got several episodes left in the season, so who knows?

This is the part of the recap where I’d normally try to peel apart the onion skin of Brody-as-roleplaying-deceiver and try to figure out which parts of his “performance” were authentic and which were clearly fake, but I won’t even try, because at this point in season two, I don’t feel as though I can trust anything Brody is saying or doing. He lies on purpose and by accident, and tells the truth on purpose and by accident, and because he comes off as such a deeply damaged creature throughout — a Frankenstein’s monster, in thrall to multiple doctors — we don’t have any fixed position from which to judge his words or actions. A big part of the brilliance of Damian Lewis’s lead performance comes from his aura of discomfort and inauthenticity. Brody is a thoroughly awkward human being, as much a warm-blooded cipher as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.

He only makes sense as a person when he’s with Carrie, and not all the time — just in stray moments. The “forbidden love” part of this show was played for drama last year, but this year it’s increasingly being played for very dry comedy. Carrie and Brody are using a high-stakes counterterrorist operation as a pretext to spend more time together. Despite Brody’s nonstop, multilayered, often deeply confused deceptions, he nearly always expresses feelings for Carrie in a spontaneous, real-seeming way; Carrie returns the favor, because only Brody makes her feel like a functioning human being who’s appreciated for who she is, not for what she can do, and who lacks nothing. It’s ridiculous, funny, sad, and touching, the sight of these two characters using the full force of the United States of America’s military-espionage apparatus as a dating service. “I thought I was dead, Carrie,” Brody tells her in the car, in their first face-to-face meeting after his abduction the previous night. “It’s really good to see you,” she replies, and they hold hands. Their affection for each other feels genuine: truth-wrapped mistrust and lies.

Brody rarely displays this sort of warm, freely offered affection with his wife. Brody’s phone conversation with Jessica earlier was all about moving their family to a safe place, but would it have compromised the integrity of his mission to say “I love you”? Brody’s responses to Jessica nearly always feel as forced and guilt-ridden as his responses to Carrie seem sunny and smitten. I’m starting to think that there were always very deep problems in Brody's and Jessica’s marriage. Maybe Brody’s eight-year disappearance, brainwashing, and traumatic return weren't what sparked their marriage problems, but were an interruption that prevented them from facing the reality that they weren’t well-matched.  There’s a wonderful cut late in the episode, from Brody sitting alone in the family home eating a bowl of cereal and watching TV by himself to Jessica and Mike in the safe house. All three seem rather content under the circumstances, as if they’re where they need to be. I wonder if Brody loves Jessica but isn’t in love with her, as he clearly is with Carrie, and that while he’s a decent man underneath all that perverted conditioning, he’s not a great husband or father, and certainly not as instinctively good at filling those roles as Mike?

Maybe Jessica wonders this, too. Maybe that’s why she offers him the guest bedroom, in an exchange that feels as loaded with secret meanings as a CIA-monitored Carrie-Brody conversation. She crawls into bed with Mike so comfortably that you’d think that Mike, not Brody, was her warrior husband just returned from battle. Their sex scene has heat but also a sense of relief, of normalcy being restored.

The morning-after shot of Mike and Jessica feels more comfortable than any such shot involving Jessica and Brody, and when they have breakfast with the kids, the four of them seem like an intact nuclear family. The moment when Brody tries to speak on the phone to his wife and kids, only to be rebuffed by Dana, is funny and sad, and emotionally it rings true. I don’t think Dana is just reacting to the fact that her dad took her to the police station to report a hit-and-run, then got cold feet and sold her out. I think she’s also reacting to Mike’s presence. Mike talks to her the way a father should talk to teenage daughter: with empathy, but also a willingness to lay down the law when necessary. In the earlier scene where Mike escorts the Brody family out of their home, Dana reacts to an impending threat against their lives with a typical teenage girl’s aloof disgust. The world is coming to an end, but she still rolls her eyes and mutters curses on her way out of a room. Mike shocks her back to common sense by talking to her like a father who has her best interests at heart: “Get your shit together because it’s happening, and it’s happening now, even if I have to carry you out of here kicking and screaming.” Mike knows what to do. He was born for this.

I think that’s why Brody doesn’t seem hugely upset when he finds out that Carrie assigned Mike to keep his family company at the safe house. His reaction is mostly one of weary resignation, with traces of discomfort at the thought of some other man sleeping with his mate and taking care of his kids.  Maybe he’s thinking (1) if I die during these shenanigans, I’d rather have my family looked after by a guy I used to like and still respect, and (2) my marriage is falling apart anyway, I’d rather be with Carrie, and if this “safe house” thing hastens that, so much the better.

“I thought it would be easier with them if they were with someone they knew,” Carrie tells him.

“Let me guess, Mike Faber,” Brody says. “Your call?”

“My call.”

“Smart,” Brody says.

“I thought so,” Carrie replies, too cheerfully for comfort.

Over the past month, I’ve talked to quite a few Homeland fans that complain that the show has degenerated into a domestic soap interspersed with thriller moments. I don’t disagree with that description, but I like the show in that mode, because it has integrity. In its faintly perverse way, it is continuing to deliver on the promise of its title.

“The capital city of the most powerful country in the world,” Jessica tells Mike, looking at the Washington skyline through the safe house’s picture windows. “The shit that goes on out there.”

Photo: Kent Smith/Copyright: Showtime 2012