I sometimes joke that thrillers always end when things are getting really interesting: the psychotic ex or corrupt cop or serial killer has just been killed, probably in a struggle in a dark house during a thunderstorm, and now the surviving heroes are sitting on the front stoop hugging each other tearfully as the police cars roll up. But what happens after that? Sometimes I wonder. How, exactly, do you explain the corpse in the bathtub or on the basement floor to law enforcement’s satisfaction? Do you tell the whole story, or leave certain parts out? Do all the participants in the big climax get their stories straight and keep them straight, or does one of them break ranks and throw another one under the proverbial bus?
In a roundabout way, I’ve just described the first couple of episodes of Homeland’s third season. At the end of season two, CIA headquarters was destroyed in a blast that killed more than 200 people. Congressman Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) was off communing with his secret squeeze, CIA analyst Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), when the bomb went off. Brody had nothing to do with the bomb, but it was in his car, so he got blamed and went on the run. The new season picks up about two months later. It’s not hugely thrilling, but I have to give showrunners Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa points for going in a non-obvious direction by slowing everything down bit, putting the characterizations rather than the plot front and center, and building the first two hours around consequences. The main characters in this espionage soap previously ran an off-the-books terrorist-hunting operation that broke all kinds of rules, and while they got their main target, the Bin Laden–like terrorist Abu Nazir, in a sense they lost anyway; the bomb went off, people died, the national security state is a shambles. The fallout is immense, and Homeland doesn’t shirk from exploring it.
Brody hasn’t been heard from since he said good-bye to Carrie at the end of the season two finale (and he doesn’t appear in the first two episodes sent out for review). There’s a Senate committee investigating the bombing, and they’re looking for scapegoats. Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), who became the head of the CIA after the bomb killed his boss David Estes (David Harewood), is under tremendous pressure from intelligence operative Dar Adul (F. Murray Abraham) to sacrifice Carrie to get the committee off their collective backs. Brody’s family is a mess, too. His wife, Jessica (Moneca Baccarin), is being hounded by the media because she’s the wife of the bombing’s prime suspect. Troubled teenager Dana (Morgan Saylor) is in a treatment facility following a suicide attempt. “She’s famous in a bad way,” says Jessica, in therapy with her daughter. “The word is ‘infamous,’” Dana corrects her.
However noble in intent, there’s always a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” quality to this sort of TV narrative — one that takes consequences into account and dwells on them at some length. If they didn’t do this, some viewers would accuse the show of being unrealistic or taking storytelling shortcuts to get back to the Good Stuff. But when they do it, they sometimes draw complaints that the show is boring or a downer, and they should have just waved a magic wand and gotten back to the Good Stuff.
In the very particular case of Homeland, there’s no getting around the fact that the Carrie-Brody romance was the Good Stuff — or at the very least, the motor that powered the show’s narrative engine and made Homeland both uniquely different from and more problematic than other espionage series. Even if you thought the romance was too soapy or too unbelievable or that the leads didn’t have chemistry (I’ve heard the latter complaint a lot, and find it baffling; I totally believed they were crazy for each other, whether or not it was “real love”), it was the beating heart of Homeland. Take Brody out of the equation and you’re left with a much more serious, or certainly less goofy show, but one that looks and feels a bit too much like other TV series that deal with spies, law enforcement, crime, terrorism, and the like, and that are mainly about the tension between brilliant but uncontainable lone wolves like Carrie and the institutions that employ them.
My Salon recap of the season one finale was headlined, “Should Homeland Have Quit While It Was Ahead?” As much as I adored the show, my implied answer was, yeah, probably. Over the next season, I managed to talk myself out of that point of view, though it was never far from my mind, even during brilliant episodes like “Q&A” (directed by the great Lesli Linka Glatter, who also helmed Sunday’s season three premiere).
There’s a lot to like in these first two episodes: Dana and Jessica’s scenes have greater psychological weight than before, thanks to Brody’s absent presence, though they do raise the uncomfortable question of how interested we need to be now that the family isn’t directly connected to the show’s central institution anymore (the Betty Draper problem on Mad Men). The episodes also give us a clear, at times unnerving sense of how hard it must be for somebody as gifted but volatile as Carrie to work in such a button-down environment, and how easy it must be to write her off as merely unstable or merely crazy. By putting what’s left of her career on the line to protest Brody’s innocence, confronting “betrayers” in their homes and threatening to expose state secrets, she’s making things a lot easier for superiors who would rather sacrifice her than themselves. But is any of this enough to sustain a series over a very long haul? And is even the best material as compelling as Brody’s inevitable return will be?
I confess I get a sick kick out of the notion of Nick Brody as bad boyfriend, not just to Carrie, but to Homeland and its viewers. As intriguing as he is, his presence is in many ways bad for the series. It’s definitely locking the show into a particular mode and preventing it from evolving into a more measured, mature, wise drama. But damned if there isn’t something special about the guy. You’re glad he’s gone because all he did was cause drama, but on the other hand, this is drama, and we like drama, and maybe he’ll be back in episode three, and maybe he’ll have a beard.