“You’re an amazing person, Carrie Mathison. Amazing,” Saul tells Carrie in the final scene of “Game On,” revealing that everything we’ve seen this season has been a ploy, and that the two of them have been working together to flush out an Iranian terrorist financier. “You’ve been very, very brave.” But has Homeland been brave? “Game On” was an episode that left me torn between pleasure at the show’s nervy plotting, and rage-y frustration at its turn away from the strong, bold themes that made it so unique when it debuted and toward something more mundane.
I could pick through the plausibility problems with Homeland’s big reveal. Carrie was disgraced and marginalized by the time Saul pulled the trigger on the six-part operation to take down the network that facilitated the bombing of Langley — would she really have anything to offer up about the way the attacks went down? Could Saul and Carrie really have counted on all the moving pieces, from reporters, to Carrie’s relatives, to mental hospital administrators and the Sixth Circuit Court cooperating in precisely the ways they were required to in order to pull the caper off? Who else did they have to involve to take care of things like seizing Carrie’s car, and can they be counted on to keep quiet?
Homeland isn’t a show like Scandal, where the gleeful crazy provides such an intense rush of pleasure that considering reality seems almost impolite, ruder even than schtupping the president without regard for the First Lady’s feelings. Instead, Homeland first established its relationship with its audience on the idea that it had a certain factual and emotional credibility. It was supposed to be a gritty, operational look at the War on Terror. And even more valuable, the show wasn’t afraid to speak tough truths about the blowback from America’s actions, and the way that passionate pursuit of our own safety had driven us collectively insane in a way that manifested in Carrie Mathison’s quivering chin.
And that’s what makes the reveal that Carrie and Saul were in it together all along frustrating in a way that extends far beyond fact-checking. The rupture in their relationship during the first three episodes of the season was painful, but grounded in a real career’s worth of problems, of sacrifices by Saul to protect Carrie, and blithe carelessnesses by Carrie in response. With hundreds of their colleagues dead, and full knowledge of Carrie’s vacillating foolishness in the matter of Nicholas Brody, I could understand why Saul dished Carrie up to Senator Andrew Lockhart.
Beyond their personal tsuris, too, the schism between Carrie and Saul opened up a new category of truths for Homeland to speak. How interesting would it have been for Homeland to turn its critical eye from the vice-president’s office to the institution of the CIA itself?
It would have been fascinating to spend a season watching the agency exercise its full range of capabilities to destroy one of its own employees. If the season had proceeded the way it was meant to, Carrie would have been a fascinating analog for Edward Snowden, our two years of personal investment in her complicated by the recklessness and self-serving nature of her rush to the press. The agency’s decision to “controversialize” Carrie, as lobbyist Leland Bennett (new addition Martin Donovan) put it, by shifting attention to “sex between a bipolar CIA officer and her brainwashed boyfriend,” would have been a terrifying illustration of the intelligence agencies’ sense that they deserve to control the world’s information. The sequence in this episode where Carrie discovers how her resources have been stripped away from her, which ends with her stealing money from her former hookup’s wallet, could have been spaced out into an escalating, terrifying couple of hours of television. But instead of mounting an actual interrogation, Homeland’s chosen a path that renders it as protective of the CIA as Dar Adal. An adventure, even if it involves mental hospital cots and injections instead of tuxedos and martinis, seems to be more interesting than a larger truth, and Homeland feels like a smaller show for it.
This is the reason that I feel so loyal to Jessica and Dana, even as I know some viewers tire of them. While Carrie and Saul are off on their excellently depressing adventures, Dana’s story is the last sober consideration of the human costs of the war Brody left to fight, and the conflict he helped expand to a new front when he came home.
I wish Homeland didn’t have to put Dana in danger again, by having her run off with Possibly Homicidal Leo. But I appreciated that their misadventure highlighted the way Brody and Dana’s reputations have become intertwined, the accusations of terrorism against him at one end of a spectrum, and Dana’s understandable acting-out at the other. “He’s under a bad influence,” Mr. Carras told Jessica sourly at the hospital Leo’d done a runner from, with his wife adding a tart, “We know who you are, Mrs. Brody,” as if Brody’s bad acts are genetic.
And Dana’s choice of place to visit with Leo widened the aperture of Homeland’s thinking about the war on terror, even as the Carrie plot shoved it shut. “Right there. Where those buses are. There was a long line of them,” Dana reminisced about her father’s departure for the war in a monologue that was Morgan Saylor at her raw, teenage greatest. “I was over there. Other side of the parking lot with Chris, and my Mom, and all the other families. Chris was so freaked out, he wouldn’t let go of my hand. You know everyone was hugging and crying all around us. There was a Marine band playing. And when my Dad walked out, with all the other guys in his battalion, you could tell he was excited. He wanted to go.”
Brody’s problem, and Dana’s, and everyone else’s, isn’t just the fact that he fell into Abu Nazir’s hands, or that he came to love Issa and lost him. It’s that there was a war for him to go to in the first place. Dana can’t forget that, even if Homeland seems less interested in the whole meaning of the War on Terror than it has in years past.