Nicholas Brody is dead, and in some sense Homeland probably died with him.
I don’t mean the show itself, which will keep going as long as Showtime thinks there’s money to be made in continuing it; executive producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa will start again in season four with a relatively clean slate, and figure out whether or not to bring back outgoing CIA director Saul Berenson, and whether to check in with Brody’s wife and kids or simply write them off as extraneous (they’ve been non-presences in the last few episodes, and Showtime has announced that they won’t be returning as series regulars). I mean Homeland as a story about Brody and CIA analyst Carrie Mathison, two outsize, messy, grievously wounded, emotionally tortured characters, who for a variety of reasons fell in love but could never make it work because of that pesky security-clearance thing and because they probably shouldn’t have gotten together in the first place. The question, “Were Carrie and Brody ever really in love?” is a dumb question if you’ve ever been in that kind of love. Does it feel cold outside right now? Depends on who you ask, and what your definition of “cold” is. It feels cold to me. I’m not wrong.
As I’ve written elsewhere — from season one onward, as a matter of fact — the potency of this central love story was the show’s biggest blessing and most debilitating curse. Carrie and Brody’s first tryst in the back of a car midway through season one was Homeland’s first great surprise, a curveball that the writers strove to repeat, over and over, in various guises, to diminishing returns. That Homeland probably should have been a mini-series is received wisdom at this point. I said so two years ago, and though I wavered a bit in that belief, it never entirely went away, and it intensified with each new round of hothouse silliness: Brody strangling the tailor in the woods, Brody stealing documents from government offices like a fourth-rate burglar, Brody giving the vice-president a heart attack in his own office, Brody recovering from a painkiller addiction in record time and reconstituting himself as a commando and killing the head of Iran’s domestic security (again in the man’s own office!). And those lies! Brody is the least convincing fibber since Chevy Chase’s Fletch. If Homeland had more of a sense of humor about its ridiculousness, we might have accepted such events as examples of nightmare logic rather than trying to poke holes in their plausibility. (Scandal is twice as ridiculous as Homeland, but you never question it, because it prizes emotional logic over real-world credibility; it’s no more “real” than 24, or Gilligan’s Island.)
If Homeland’s mood were less somber, we’d buy the unbuyable, but the series has always carried itself as if it were All the President’s Men, even when the onscreen action from season two onward would’ve been better suited to a mid-nineties Jim Carrey comedy: Ace Ventura, Terrorist Triple-Agent.
Dammit, though: We still cared about Brody, mainly because Carrie cared about Brody. In terms of storytelling emphasis, she probably cared too much, to the point where the character’s well-established volatile brilliance became subordinate to her obsession with her poor, impulsive, screwed-up patsy/assassin/deceiver boyfriend. The last few episodes of season three contrived to put Carrie on the ground with Brody, helping him execute Saul’s wild mission of regime change — a mission she and Brody both saw as a chance to redeem Brody’s reputation, and by extension, Carrie’s love for and belief in Brody. The mission was a series of mini-disasters, and Brody’s panic during that first firefight made him seem pathetic to boot; but he rallied and did what he’d been recruited to do.
Does his success in this one mission merit a star on the CIA’s Wall of Fame, even one scribbled with a Sharpie? Probably not. Would Carrie have been able to draw that star on the wall without getting yelled at by security? Probably not. Would the incoming head of the CIA give a known flaky bipolar troublemaker who habitually disobeys direct orders a plum job as a Turkey station chief, and would the Iranians really be so stupid as not to figure out that Brody and Javadi were connected, and is it really possible that nobody in Iran would recognize Carrie, who at that point was probably internationally notorious for being the terrorist Brody’s crazy CIA girlfriend, even when she climbed atop a fence during his hanging to scream his name? Would any woman of Carrie’s age really be surprised by the existence of a Baby Bjorn? No, no, no. And no, and no. If Homeland had managed its tone more adroitly, would we care about such things? No. Was Homeland ever a great show?
Well, that last question is trickier. I’d say yes, during that first season, with awareness that one cannot make such a declaration without acknowledging that Carrie and Brody were at the heart of whatever fascination Homeland stirred. They were every foolish love ever, a passionate had-to-be mismatch for the ages. He was every bad-for-you boyfriend, and she was every bad-for-you girlfriend. At least at the end they seemed to know themselves, where before they’d deluded themselves, and one another. Carrie knew she could never been a good mother, that it just wasn’t in her, that she wasn’t wired for it, and she’d probably only carried the child to term because it was Brody’s. Brody seemed to accept the horrible destructive impact of his actions, without mitigating them with biographical excuses. Brody’s guilty regret in this final run of episodes echoed the most intriguing subtext of season three, articulated through several characters, mainly Quinn: the bitter conviction that, à la The Battle of Algiers and Munich, at a certain point all of these brutal strategic countermeasures become unmoored from any notion of foreign policy, and become glorified gamesmanship, a chance to one-up the other guy, whether he’s the incoming boss of the CIA or an Iranian security fixer who betrayed you decades earlier. “Honestly, I don’t know what the fuck we’re doing here anymore,” Saul admits. Neither does Brody. “At least he’s not around anymore,” he said of his father. “I know this would’ve broke his heart.” By “this,” he meant everything from the minute he got back from captivity: the deceptions, the bombs, the bodies.
If there’s redemption here, even a shred, we can find it in the love story, or the remnants of the love story: in Carrie’s quest to clear, or partly clear, Brody’s name, or at least let him end his life closer to good than evil. I don’t think he gets there, and I don’t think Homeland thinks he gets there either. A sense of futility suffused the Homeland finale, and it had to do with the show’s failures as well as the fictional CIA’s. Saul won, but what did he win? What did anyone win? Can Homeland build on that glimmer of bitter wisdom, or does it arrive, like Brody’s partial redemption, too late to mean anything?