The bomb that exploded at the memorial service* of Vice-President Bill Walden 40 minutes into “The Choice” rebooted the series through creative destruction. David Estes and the vice-president’s widow Cynthia are dead, along with 200 other people. The killers framed Brody, hiding the explosives in his car, detonating them during the service, and releasing Brody’s suicide tape (which he recorded last season) after the fact, as “proof” that he did it. All in all, this episode felt like an inversion of last season’s finale, in which Brody was plotting a bomb attack against Walden but aborted it at the last second, and Carrie believed he was a terrorist and did all she could to expose/thwart/catch him.
Brody’s narrative trajectory is now reversed. Rather than being constantly up to no good and trying to convince the world otherwise, he’s poised to become a Wronged Man figure, prowling the earth à la The Fugitive’s Richard Kimble in hopes of one day clearing his name, and helping out Carrie, Quinn, and Saul, who has taken over for the late David Estes.
(The morning after I posted this recap, the show's executive producers, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, said in a conference call with reporters that the season two finale was indeed meant to invert season one's. "The strategy for season two, overall, was to get to that point where Carrie busted Brody and turned him against Abu Nazir, Gansa said, noting that while Season 1 had ended with Carrie being the only one who believed in Brody’s guilt, season two ended with her being the only one who believes in his innocence (at least so far as the attack on the CIA).")
The Brody bad guy/good guy flip was foreshadowed in Saul’s line ironically comparing Estes to Inspector Javert, the obsessed cop who pursued Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. In that formulation, Saul was Valjean; now, in this drastically altered landscape, it’s Brody. The scene of Carrie turning her beloved loose at the border had a mournful-grandiose Victor Hugo feel; it was so haunting — especially the long close-up of Carrie’s face after he disappeared into the woods — that for a second I wanted to forgive the expedient plotting that got us there. (The impulse passed, so don’t worry.)
The explosion was the endpoint of a long con run by the late Abu Nazir. His death last episode created a sense of complacency and set the stage for his posthumous checkmate of Walden and Estes, whose drone program killed his boy Issa years earlier. The “thwarted” plot to kill Walden in “Two Hats” was, as I suspected, “a false climax … a chaotic distraction from some other, nastier plot that [was] still gestating offscreen.” “It was Nazir who did this, it had to be,” Brody told Carrie as she held a gun on him in the explosion’s aftermath. “He played us all from the beginning …” “How, by letting himself get killed?” said Carrie. “Why not?” Brody said. “What better way to get us to drop our guard? … It was always Walden with him. It was always the CIA. Nazir would have died a thousand deaths to make this day happen.”
As I’ve repeatedly said in these recaps, I always believed that (1) Brody truly loved Carrie, whose feelings for him were never in doubt, and (2) that their relationship was True North for viewers trying to figure out who and what to trust on Homeland. Brody was never a particularly likable or trustworthy guy, but he never conned Carrie about his feelings for her. He used her, misled her, or omitted bits of information from his various narratives. But I never got the sense that he was lying when he said how he felt about her — only about everything else surrounding their affair. “This was love,” Brody told her at the border. “You and me.” Then, later: “You gave yourself up to me.” “Completely,” she replied, finishing his sentence as lovers often do.
In a lot of ways, Brody’s love for Carrie was the only thing besides his love for his family that tethered him to goodness. I just can’t buy arguments that his love for Carrie is somehow part of an even longer con, because if the show went that route, it would violate the integrity of Claire Danes’s and Damian Lewis’s performances, and the integrity of all the material related to Carrie's and Brody’s feelings. (The show will do just about anything else, though. The last four episodes were so outrageous that they reminded me of ABC’s Scandal, which was unhinged from the get-go but owned its madness.)
I have to give “The Choice” credit for chutzpah and tactical smarts. It flipped the show upside down and may have given it a new lease on life. Nazir’s death, the subsequent terrorist attack, and the framing of Brody all negated Brody’s previous mission. He’s now free to be a true and honest person once again, and attempt to (partly) redeem himself for the awful things he’s done. Now that Saul is running the show back at the CIA, he’ll presumably have the authority to employ and protect Carrie, a woman he described as “the smartest and the dumbest fucking person I’ve ever known,” and turn her loose on other threats against the U.S.
None of which should be construed as endorsement of how we got here. I prefer Homeland’s first season to this one because, compared to 24, the Bourne trilogy, and other military-espionage tales, it was intimate and grounded. There were hard-to-swallow plot twists, but they weren’t as flamboyant as a lot of the action in season two, parts of which depended on Saturday morning serial-style “because we said so” plotting. Why didn’t the Secret Service and the Pentagon instantly suspect that Brody had something to do with the vice-president’s death and start investigating him immediately? Why was an Osama bin Laden–level terrorist able to slip into the country undetected? Because we said so, that’s why.
The shift into 24-style sleight-of-hand plotting might have been inevitable — executive producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa did 24, which was crazy-wild from the start, and a lot of shows have grown less “realistic” as they went along — but I don’t think there’s any denying that something special got lost along the way. Homeland aired a few excellent episodes during its second season — including “Q&A,” which made my list of 2012’s best drama episodes — and there were many excellent scenes and sequences within episodes that didn’t quite work or were too silly for their own good. But all in all, the changes brought Homeland’s tone in line with more flamboyant, cartoony shows set in this sort of world (Alias, for one), rather than extending and elaborating on the mostly hushed, brooding mood of season one, which was about 80 percent brilliant. And of course, Brody will have to go a long, long way to redeem himself after all the bloody shenanigans he’s pulled.
I’ll keep watching, of course, because it’s still a compelling series, and because I enjoy watching writers paint themselves into corners and then draw new doors on the walls to get out. But oh, what might have been. Maybe I’ll re-watch the only season of Rubicon as a palate cleanser.
ODDS AND ENDS
• One of Saul’s first moves after assuming command is to order explosive tests to determine if the C-4 used in Brody’s car matches the explosives found at the tailor’s place in Gettysburg. I expect he’ll get on Carrie’s side early with regard to Brody’s innocence.
• I liked the scene between Dana and her father, and subsequent scene where Dana tells the CIA agents “he didn’t do it … It is obvious what they think and they’re wrong … He was fine. He was totally fine … It wasn’t like he said good-bye for good, if that’s what you mean.” She wasn’t sticking up for her dad because she thought he was a wonderful father and a great guy. She was just calling it as she saw it. I’ve always appreciated Dana’s honesty no matter how much of a pill she was. I suspect she’ll continue to be an advocate for her father’s innocence (in this bombing, anyway) in the future.
• Director Michael Cuesta and writers Alex Gansa and Meredith Stiehm (who wrote season one’s “The Week End”) brought old-school horror movie chops to this episode’s structure and pace. The first half of the episode was boring on purpose, to lull viewers into a complacent or distracted state, the better to shock and traumatize them later. I also liked the episode’s overall muted quality and its willingness to hold on long shots (such as Saul in the triage tent, Carrie at the border, and Quinn sitting the corner of Estes’s bedroom) for a fairly long time without cutting. Wide shots that don’t immediately cut to a close-up are eerie because so much contemporary filmmaking is close-up driven. When we see characters at a distance we aren’t quite sure how to respond or where to look. This generates an unsettled feeling that’s perfect for this episode, which might as well have been directed by Abu Nazir.
• Speaking of Quinn, he’s developed into a fascinating character. I like that he made the decision to disobey Estes’s order to kill Brody, then broke into Estes's* house and explained his reasoning. The moment when Quinn told Estes that if he ever tried to go after Brody again he’d kill him (“I’m the guy that kills bad guys”) was terrific. Of course, when Estes died, this scene lost a lot of the weight it might have otherwise had, but at least it added dimensions to Quinn, a major character.
• Interesting that, in Homeland's fictional universe, Walden is essentially George H.W. Bush (a former CIA director who became vice-president, then president) and Dick Cheney (who oversaw the growth of the modern day drone fleet while serving as vice-president post-9/11). Homeland mixes and matches a lot of real world influences and sometimes lets the inspiration coexist alongside its fictional counterpart; the best example of this occurred in tonight's episode, in which Estes's memorial oration gave Walden credit for neutralizing both Osama bin Laden and Abu Nazir.
• How friggin' sick is it that Carrie and Brody ducked out of the vice-president's memorial service? As if it's high school and they didn't want to sit through the rest of Grease.
• Saul's and David's conversation in the holding cell was also rendered irrelevant by the bomb, though I liked Estes pretending that it was his idea to let Saul go ("I decided you were right"). A petty bureaucrat right to the end, that one.
• The return to the cabin from "Week End" also seemed to set up possible future plotlines. We learned that Carrie's mom went to CVS and never came back.* She'll probably show up as a character in some future season. If she does, who should play her?
* A few corrections have been made since this recap was originally posted: It was the VP's memorial service, not his funeral; Quinn threatened Estes at his own house, not at Brody's; and we already knew Carrie's father was bipolar.