The word “soap opera” is nearly always a pejorative: It means, “it’s a melodrama, but one that for whatever reason I don’t like.” It’s been applied to Homeland ever since the midpoint of season one, when Carrie and Brody impulsively got busy in a bar parking lot and commenced a twisty-turny affair that both enhanced and impeded the U.S. government’s plot to catch a Bin Laden-style terrorist mastermind, Abu Nazir. The phrase is popping up again, with great regularity, in reference to season three, which has fused spycraft and personal animosity in such a cheerfully heedless way that Homeland might as well change its title to As the Intelligence World Turns.
Carrie’s pregnant, maybe by Brody, but maybe by that red-haired regular hookup (is he genetic cover for the child’s true father?). She’s got a drawer full of pregnancy tests, a bizarre touch. Does she test herself over and over hoping to get a different result? Or does she get pregnant regularly and keep the kits as souvenirs? And is it really plausible that Carrie, a known mental health risk tarred as a threat to U.S. security, would have been admitted to a psych ward without being pregnancy-tested as a matter of course?
Brody hasn’t been much of a presence this season, spending much of it recovering from a gunshot and becoming addicted to all sorts of stuff in a Caracas high-rise apartment building. But his absence has been keenly felt because so much of season three’s plot is driven by the aftermath of his activities in seasons one and two. Brody’s separation from Carrie has an epic romance novel vibe: star-crossed lovers with a hemisphere between them, the woman fighting to redeem the reputation of a man accused of a terrorist attack on CIA headquarters that killed 219 people.
Acting CIA director Saul Berenson, meanwhile, is dealing with his own domestic distress: He’s trying to win back the wife, Mira, that he neglected, and who eventually took up with a lover who was recently revealed as some sort of secret-pilfering spy. Brody’s troubled daughter, Dana, and his wife Jessica have been struggling with the pain of Brody’s infamy; their stories have been largely irrelevant to the rest of Homeland, though, so it’s a relief to see what looks like their narrative ends on the horizon. And at long last, Brody’s back in the states now, improbably recovered (almost instantly) from his addiction, and serving as the final piece in Saul’s “Iranian project,” an elaborate scheme to have a reconstituted Brody kill the sitting boss of that country’s intelligence service so that he can be replaced by the bombing’s apparent real mastermind, Majid Javadi, a former Iranian intelligence bigwig who has a tangled, resentful history with Saul dating back to the revolution of 1979.
I’ll refer readers once again to a 2011 piece about Homeland’s season one finale titled “Should Homeland have quit while it was ahead?” On the basis of seasons two and three (thus far), my answer would still be a reluctant yes — reluctant because part of the thrill of scripted TV, especially one as plot twist–dependent as Homeland, is watching the writers, producers, and directors try to extricate themselves from the holes they dig themselves into as they tell a long-form story. The key to giving oneself over to Homeland, warts and all, lies in accepting that it is and maybe always has been a soap at heart. This wasn’t immediately apparent from the show’s first few episodes. At the beginning, Homeland had a more subdued, semi-realistic feeling, at times evoking AMC’s terrific one-season-and-done espionage series Rubicon. It seemed to be more about the details of spycraft, with Brody serving as a subject of spying and a freestanding psychological case study: the good soldier warped in battle and turned against his mother country, then returned home to struggle with his demons. Once Brody and Carrie hooked up, though, Homeland quit being about any of that stuff and became the Carrie and Brody show, and it has never quite recovered.
This is, I think, the definition of the phrase “mixed blessing”: Carrie and Brody’s first tryst was shocking, marvelously so, because the show hadn’t previously given us any obvious clues that it was going to be this kind of series. The cues were all there in retrospect, but viewers still felt pleasantly blindsided. Thus, part of the thrill of Homeland was extra-dramatic: Would the show be able to justify this twist, and make it so satisfying that we didn’t miss the more rational, sober, intense series we thought we were going to see during those first few episodes? If anything, Homeland post–parking lot was a sustained act of deception, a series cleverly pretending to be something it really wasn’t, much like Brody himself.
And now Homeland is in quite a storytelling pickle, because every twist and turn since then has taken its cues from Brody himself, a morass of contradictions and shadow selves warring for supremacy. The question “What will Brody do next?” became synonymous with the question, “What will Homeland do next?” We weren’t sure what we were looking at when we looked at Brody, so it’s no huge surprise that the series would bend itself around his infuriating and mysterious personality, a mix of sincerity and cunning, self-reflection and childlike obliviousness, cool deliberation and random insanity. What made Homeland so fascinating throughout season one — and during parts of season two, particularly the classic interrogation room episode “Q&A” — was the sense that you were never entirely sure if Brody was playing Carrie, or himself, and us. How fitting, then, that in season three, Homeland would double down on this storytelling strategy, effectively becoming Brody: a creature we like and root for but can’t trust, and that keeps pulling the rug out from under us.
We started the season thinking that Carrie was on the outs, sold down the river by her ambitious boss Saul. But as it turned out, it was all part of a long con played on Saul’s ultimate target, Javadi, whom he hoped to turn and transform into the ultimate fifth columnist: a vehicle by which to manipulate Iranian intelligence from the inside. Like most of the plotting on Homeland, none of the details were terribly plausible, and the harrowing sequence in which Javadi murdered his ex-wife and daughter-in-law was especially ill-advised. No matter how I look at it, I just can’t see how it was necessary or even defensible; it just played like yet another example of a pay cable series that had lost most of its mojo trying to get our attention again by doing something shocking (or “shocking”).
There was a fascinating byproduct of the murder, though, and I’ll be curious to see if Homeland does anything useful with it: It connected the agency’s shadowy activities to the civilian world in the form of a D.C. homicide detective (Clark Johnson, formerly of The Wire) who investigated the official suspect in the killings, black ops stud Peter Quinn. Although Saul has dominated this season of Homeland — delightfully so, given how much fun it is to see Mandy Patinkin play a master manipulator who finally has real power — Peter has become its second most compelling character, because he seems to have grown existentially tired of all the killing he’s been a party to. (His arc this year parallels Richard Harrow’s on the recently concluded fourth season of Boardwalk Empire.)
“I’m just trying to understand the shit that you people do,” the detective tells Peter, who’s basically untouchable because he works for the agency, and who might as well be the murderer for all that the cop knows. “This shit that we’re a party to because we pay taxes. This shit.” In this scene and others, Peter becomes a metaphorical whipping boy for the sins of the national security state, and for a moment, Homeland becomes the series we mistakenly thought it would be during the early episodes of season one, when it felt more like a military-espionage procedural. Peter confesses to something he didn’t do, but something that in a cosmic sense he did do, because of the type of work he’s immersed in. “Wrong crime, right guy I guess,” Peter tells Carrie later. “I'm not sure I believe anymore ... That anything justifies the damage we do.”
If Homeland were better organized and less, well, nutty, you could make a case for it as an elaborate working-through of post-9/11 foreign policy. The bombing of the CIA stands in for 9/11, and Saul’s Iranian project is the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq. Saul describes his plan to his colleague Dar (whose sympathies and loyalties are tough to get a handle on) as “a once-in-a-lifetime operation. We can transform everything. The entire Middle East.” Saul sounds like George W. Bush, especially when you consider his poisonous personal history with Javadi. Saul is using the bombing of 12/12 to settle a personal score with an old adversary (Saddam Hussein tried and failed to have George W. Bush’s father assassinated) and institute regime change in the process: In every crisis, an opportunity, the saying goes. The incoming CIA director blasts Saul as a Cold Warrior who’s running an irrelevant old playbook, and derides the CIA as incompetent. “Now I see where this place is been a fucking clown act for decades,” he says. It all reminds me a bit of the second season of 24, which aired in 2002-2003 and eerily paralleled the United States’ march into Iraq based on ginned-up accusations that the enemy was creating weapons of mass destruction. Iraq was (and remains) an epic disaster, so there's no reason to think that Saul’s Iranian plan won’t turn out to be a train wreck, too. Homeland’s a lot of things, but one thing it’s not is naïve.
Again, though, it’s a bad idea to get too wrapped up in the notion of Homeland as a politically astute show that’s cleverly disguised in the camouflage of a prime-time melodrama. Nothing in the show’s history suggests that it’s really going to excavate the history and associations it alludes to; it’s more interested in Brody’s bid for personal redemption, and in Carrie’s assurance that he’s really a good man at heart, and that their baby (if indeed it is their baby) won’t be Rosemary’s baby. Will Saul’s regime-change plan succeed, even in the short term? Will Brody redeem himself, even partly, in the eyes of a daughter who wrote him off before he got on the plane to Iran? Will anybody care?
Somehow I doubt it, because we’ve been misled quite a few times already, and the payoff was rarely worth the irritation of knowing that Homeland wasn’t playing fair with us, much less thinking through the implications of what it was doing. It is, to paraphrase one of Saul’s great lines, the smartest and the dumbest cable drama I’ve ever seen.