The first season of Homeland was a pristine ode to TV greatness. There was action and intrigue, plus a compelling romance. A crazy wall! A beard! America! Claire Danes and Damian Lewis won acting Emmys, the show won for Best Drama — there was no stopping it. Until "State of Independence," the second season's third episode, which found Brody enmeshed in a baffling scheme to kill the bomb-building tailor, which ended with him in the woods, talking to his wife on a cell phone while murdering an old man. It was a weird stumbling block for a show that had been so efficient and aggressive up to that point — but the following week's "New Car Smell" seemed to get everything back on track. All was forgiven; sometimes there's only one person who can go into the woods and kill an old man, maybe.
Until this week.
"Broken Hearts" doesn't seem to be anyone's favorite episode of Homeland. New York Magazine critic Matt Zoller Seitz found it unsatisfying but not deal-breakingly so ("I had misgivings about it, and about the episode as a whole — which isn’t the same thing as disapproving of it," he wrote). Others found it completely disastrous. But a lot of the outrage — or at least a lot of the bellyaching on Twitter — isn't just about Homeland.
It's about every show that ever disappointed us, particularly great ones. The shows we TV obsessives raved about, dissected — and then stuck with as they unraveled. "Give Homeland the benefit of the doubt," people say. But I can't, because I'm completely out of benefits of the doubt. I have distributed all of my get-out-of-plot-jail-free cards over the years, and I learned to regret it. I have seen Fire Walk With Me. I kept watching Prison Break after the first season. I stuck with 24 through way too many resurrections. I tried to invest in Agent Spender on The X-Files, and I really gave Nikki and Paulo a shot on Lost. I know better now, I think. Fool me once, television, shame on you. Fool me many times over the course of adolescence and adulthood, even though this is supposed to be an avenue for pleasure and entertainment? Shame on me for not having a more full life, I guess. But also, never again. (I mean, I'll still watch every episode with hope in my heart. But not as much hope and not as much heart.) When things seem like they're going south, they usually are.
"Broken Hearts" is only the show's 22nd episode; that's only one season's worth of network TV. It's way too soon for this show to start to suck. And to be fair, it doesn't suck suck. Carrie, Brody, and Saul are three of TV's more interesting characters, and Abu Nazir's slowly enunciated Nhee-koo-laaahs belongs in the TV-bad-guy hall of fame. But Homeland was supposed to aspire to more than not suck sucking. It was our Next Great Show, the one the Internet would devote itself to post–Breaking Bad, with the alluring action and violence Mad Men tends not to provide. It says something about America and the world! And then … this. It's season two of Twin Peaks all over again. The post-BOB part.
On top of "State of Independence" and Dana and Finn Walden's horrendously conceived hit-and-run story line, "Broken Hearts" is another surprising shortcoming in season two. But it's also a more important one, and a more damning one because it rejects the show's fundamental premise. Homeland is a show about surveillance more than it's a show about crime-fighting or terrorism or love, even. It's a show that explores what happens to us when we observe people, how surveilling Brody changed Carrie, say, or how Dana accidentally observing her father praying affected their relationship in ways neither would have predicted. It's a show that references constantly how much surveillance we're all under, on security cameras in stores, on the subway, at traffic lights, at hotels, and how there's an observer effect at play in modern American life. But "Broken Hearts" relied on a shocking lack of surveillance: Brody, a known former abettor of terrorists whom the CIA plans to kill, not only had his phone tap removed, but nobody followed him when he went to talk to the vice-president at his residence, which was shockingly unmonitored. The plot holes and leaps of logic drop the show's central conceit.
That's why this is not Tyra and Landry in the second season of Friday Night Lights, though that comparison has been floating around a bit. FNL was a show about manhood and maturity, about the social contracts under which we protect each other, about being a teenager and being a parent and being a family. As tonally off-base as the murder cover-up was, that didn't fundamentally violate the worldview of the show. (And I will say that the story line seems way, way less egregious upon repeated viewings of the series; a misstep, sure, but not a catastrophe.)
Plenty of great shows have off episodes, or episodes that seem pretty unrealistic. Take the train-heist episode on last season's Breaking Bad, "Dead Freight." Plausible? Jeez, not really. But BB has built up five seasons of impenetrable good will, and it's in its swan-song phase. "Freight" closed with Todd shooting a random child — shocking, yes, but totally in keeping with the show's through line that everyone you meet is both more evil and more complicated than you expect. Carrie running back into the warehouse at the end of "Broken Hearts" played into the through line that she's reckless to the point of stupidity. There's a certainty to where Breaking Bad is going, and there's far, far less certainty about where Homeland could be headed. Can you build a successfully suspenseful show that goes for years on end without either completely reinventing itself or completely dropping the ball at some point? Sure. But no one has yet.
It seemed for a minute there like Homeland was maybe going to be that show. And maybe it still will be, and this episode was just intentionally contrived and it's actually all part of the plan. I hope that's true! I hope there's something completely and shockingly redeeming on the horizon, and I hope Homeland gallops through its next few episodes on a golden beast of dramatic wonders. But what's that called when you do the same thing and expect different results? Oh right. Being a TV fan.