deep dives

Why Did Homeland’s Twist Feel Like a Cheat?

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland (Season 3, Episode 4). - Photo: Kent Smith/SHOWTIME - Photo ID; homeland_304_0558.R
Nazanin Boniadi as Fara and Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson in Homeland (Season 3, Episode 4). - Photo: Kent Smith/SHOWTIME - Photo ID: homeland_304_2399.R Photo: Kent Smith/Copyright: 2013 Showtime

Homeland has never been afraid of jaw-dropping moments, whether it was Carrie’s honey-trapping Brody after a support group, grabbing his suicide video by accident when she pilfers a backpack in Beirut, or blowing up CIA headquarters in the middle of a memorial service for the vice-president. But for its first two seasons, the show’s creators, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, have seemed to take pleasure in the fact that the real world is just as bonkers as their spy melodrama. Just yesterday, for example, former Vice-President Dick Cheney told 60 Minutes that he’d actually had the wireless function in a heart implant disabled so it couldn’t be hacked à la the late lamented Vice-President Walden.

But this weekend’s episode did something different in its final moments when Homeland stopped playing with the idea that the world around us has gone mad in response to the September 11 attacks and started playing us instead. Carrie, who’d spent the first three episodes of this season being “controversialized,” getting shipped off to a mental hospital, and asked to turn traitor by a lobbyist for Iran, turned out to be putting on a pretense in cahoots with Saul. But instead of making the season — which had been shaping up to be a meditation on the venality of the CIA and the treatment of whistleblowers — come together, the twist made it feel like Homeland had run out of ideas, stuck a bag over our collective heads, and hustled us over to the set of Scandal.

This is not to say that shows can’t shift their tones and operating manuals in stride. Scandal, the reigning monarchy of plot crazy, started out as a rather prim political procedural before Shonda Rhimes jammed a double dose of Epinephrine into the show in the form of the Defiance election fraud scandal and Fitz and Olivia’s sexual chemistry. Parks and Recreation started out treating Leslie Knope like a dummy before becoming one of the strongest defenses of good government in the country. But Homeland’s a third of the way through this season and the consensus is that everything it was doing back in its first year worked. So why the change now? And can a show like Homeland that rooted its credibility with audiences in the idea that it was an honest and penetrating look at the War on Terror ask us to suspend plausibility now?

To start, it would help if Homeland didn’t seem like it had tried to hide its big twist in a way that made the reveal less credible. If Carrie and Saul were working together, why would she go into epic chin-tremble mode alone at home while watching on television as he sold her out to Senator Andrew Lockhart, rather than pouring herself one of her giant glasses of white wine and giving us a tremulous smile? If Carrie was meant to think that Saul was the instrument of her miseries, wouldn’t it undermine their cover for him to visit her in the mental hospital, or for her to be constantly asking for him? And if this is all a genius scheme, couldn’t they have calibrated Carrie’s crazy better so she wouldn’t be incredibly medicated all the time, something that seems like it might risk a slip? For a show about spies, Homeland’s tradecraft should be better than that. Or at least, like Scandal, it’ll need to mine drama out of all the holes its supposed masterminds left in their deception.

And if Homeland wants to shift from being a story about the factual reality of the CIA’s work to a purely emotional exploration of the War on Terror, it would help if its big plot twist was in service of one of those emotional truths. Maybe this is supposed to be a story about the lengths the CIA will ask people to go to catch terrorists, but I feel like we got that in the first season, when Carrie underwent electroshock treatment, and in the second, when Saul recruited his still-fragile protege back into an incredibly dangerous mission. Instead, this twist felt like just another reminder that Homeland has valued fan service more than anything else since the showrunners couldn’t bring themselves to kill off Brody at the end of season one. Getting Saul and Carrie back together isn’t really about anything other than the fact that people like to see Carrie beg for Saul’s affection and Saul alternate between patting Carrie and delivering deadly accurate assessments of her character.

About this week’s episode, Homeland creator Alex Gansa told Entertainment Weekly that: “In discussions with our consultants — CIA officers both retired and active that we talk to — all of these intelligence operations, the most successful ones are the ones that are the most true. And this is 95 percent true. She and Saul were culpable for what happened at the end of season two. Carrie was questioning her meds. And Saul, the mantle of leadership does not rest easily on his shoulders. Everything is true — except they’re playing a ruse.” Those all would have been excellent, interesting conflicts or Homeland to play out. But the twist means the show is cheating us of those ideas, and Saul and Carrie of accountability and character growth.

Most of all, if you want to pull off a twist like this, it should be fun. Fun is watching Olivia and Mellie cut each other up in a bunker on Scandal, or seeing what happens when Ron Swanson finds out that his girlfriend Diane is pregnant on a Greatest of All Time cold open on Parks and Recreation, or getting a thrill from countless shifts in alliance on the Upper East Side in Gossip Girl. Fun isn’t watching Carrie and Saul continue on in the same sad and soggy wagon track that should have stalled out their careers long ago. And fun isn’t feeling like a show is sneaking up behind you to bop you on the head because it doesn’t trust you to enjoy it for itself anymore.

Why Did Homeland’s Twist Feel Like a Cheat?