Friday, December 30, 2011

Shell Games and a Hangman's Noose: Thoughts on Homeland

I have no doubt that Homeland is one of the most riveting new shows of 2011 - and while I don't watch enough TV to know for sure, maybe the "new" modifier isn't even necessary. The Showtime drama's strengths are many: Claire Danes' wide-eyed intensity and frail figure have proved perfect for the paranoid, reckless and ultimately self-destructive Carrie Mathison, the bipolar CIA agent trying to prevent a terrorist strike to preserve (and maybe prove) what remains of her sanity in the process; Mandy Patinkin is flawless as the mercurial Saul Berensen, Carrie's mentor, father figure and conscience; and Damian Lewis is a one-man-band of versatility as Sgt. Nicholas Brody, the central figure in the sometimes mysterious, sometimes suspenseful and often intense narrative, who is alternately charismatic, nurturing, pained, jaded, dark, warm, twitchy and/or violent, whatever the situation requires. The problem with Homeland, though, and the reason I can't see it as anything more than B-movie escapism with A-movie production values (and C-movie dialogue), is that it's too much like its main character, which is to say that, like Brody, Homeland is disingenuous and uncommitted, frequently doing things in the moment that are counter to its supposed ultimate aims.

(Major spoilers ahead, written under the assumption you've seen Homeland.)

The premise of Homeland is like that of a shell game. Brody's various personality profiles are laid out in front of us (the shells) with the implied promise that one of them conceals the truth (the pea), while the others are there to provide tantalizing misdirection. Our job is to watch intently and feel dazzled by the narrative sleight of hand. This is the essence of any good mystery - several plausible interpretations but only one reality - but Homeland doesn't play by its implied rules. Too fickle to commit to a single retroactively irrevocable truth, Homeland instead operates like a shell game with multiple peas (multiple truths), passing off its indecision as if it's complexity. This approach keeps us constantly guessing, and that's inherently stimulating, but artistically and architecturally it's fraudulent. While Homeland is asking us to decide if Brody is (a) a traumatized prisoner of war, incapable of dealing with the real world; (b) a confused but unthreatening guy looking to be a father to the two kids he's never known, a husband to the wife who hardly knows him or maybe a lover to the one person who understands him; or (c) a devout agent of terror, eager to sacrifice himself to avenge the slaughter of his surrogate family, the truth is that he's all of those things interchangeably and/or simultaneously, even though, one way or another, those personality profiles (and their inherent motivations) are mutually exclusive.

Here's what I mean: At the start of the season, Brody is depicted as a traumatized prisoner of war. This makes perfect sense. Based on what the show initially reveals through flashbacks, Brody has just returned from eight years of brutal imprisonment, time in which he was beaten, pissed on and made to kill his best friend with his bare hands (as far as he knew). Thus, Brody returns to the United States a broken man, which is why it's so appropriate that he spends his initial days alone in his bedroom staring at the wall, having awkward selfish sexual encounters with his wife and then shooting a deer with a handgun in front of a party of friends and family. All of this behavior aligns perfectly with that first (traumatized) personality type and, to some degree, even with the second, the confused unthreatening guy (although Brody's ability to become a swell dad to the kids he doesn't know almost over night does make his initial trauma seem hollow), but it's in absolute contrast to the third personality type, the devout agent of terror, a profile created by the revelation that Brody didn't spend eight years in a hole, as all of his initial actions and flashbacks indicated, but in fact was taken in by terror alpha dog Abu Nazir (Navid Marciano) and given religion, family, comfort and a sense of purpose.

If you arrange all of this information linearly, the show asks us to believe that Brody was tortured, became BFFs with his torturer, hatched a plan to return to the U.S. where he would appear like a victim of torture, then suddenly re-experienced the trauma of his torture like some delayed PTSD while still remaining loyal to his torturer (huh?) and then started to worry about who his wife had been fucking in his absence and how to be a better family man, even though he planned to sacrifice himself for his cause and didn't have any reason to worry about the future. Could these conflicting motivations live inside the same person? Of course, if Brody has some kind of multiple personality disorder or is otherwise "crazier" than bipolar Carrie, but that would prove the point: Brody isn't "complex," his hard-to-pin-down depiction is simply contradictory and uncommitted. (I think we can also rule out a Manchurian Candidate reading, as Brody's shifts in personality seem too frequent and random to be ascribed to some kind of triggered impulse.)

Thus, Homeland isn't a mystery to be solved. It's just a waiting game. Its truth is whatever the show needs it to be at that moment, to serve the scene, the mood and the ratings. It isn't unreasonable to think that Brody's character can evolve; that's fair. But what can't change, no matter how things are revealed to us, are his experiences in his eight years outside of the U.S. and, and a result of those, his initial intentions upon returning. Put another way, Brody didn't come to the U.S. ambiguous to himself. He came with a clear self-identity. If the show wants to imply that while pretending to be a family man he actually became one and then felt conflicted about his mission, I'm all for it. But to go that route, to really become a character study, Homeland would need to give up its shell game and start dealing in truths, and before it could do that it would need to pick one.

The season finale suggests the show might be willing to go that direction or that it might continue to sell out to unpredictability. A microcosm of Homeland's strengths and weaknesses over its first episodes, the finale beautifully weaves Carrie's heartbreaking ruination with intense ticking-time-bomb suspense while also unforgivably ignoring the character impulses it so clearly establishes. Over the course of the final episode, Brody repeatedly proves his allegiance to Nazir's mission: recording a "Dear John" type video for his family; attempting heartfelt if awkward goodbyes with his wife and son; avoiding his daughter's nosiness to strap on a bomb vest and then avoiding his daughter's hug so she doesn't detect the vest underneath his shirt; getting past metal detectors and into the bunker with the vice president and other assorted targets; flipping the detonation switch(!!!); stripping off his clothes and repairing the malfunctioning vest(!!!); and then moving into position again, his thumb hovered over the switch, ready to kill, as if there was any doubt. But then, just like that, all of that momentum is discarded when Brody gets a tap on the shoulder from a secret service agent and (1) amazingly doesn't interpret this action as someone trying to thwart his mission and (2) even more amazingly thwarts his own mission voluntarily ... to take a phone call. It's the equivalent of the 9/11 hijackers making a flyby of the World Trade Center because, just before impact, one of the passengers rings their flight attendant call button.

Understand, the problem with this scenario isn't a matter of actual, external realism (although, yeah, we could go there, from Nazir's curiously convoluted multi-assassination plot to the fact that the secret service agent was taking calls in the bunker in the first place and thought that Brody's daughter might have an emergency remotely worth considering only a few minutes after the vice president was shot at and splattered by blood), the problem is that the show violates its own internal depiction of "reality," by acting as if Brody was only kinda-sorta committed to his mission despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (Even worse, in the aftermath of the aborted mission, the show has the balls to reassert Brody's allegiance to Nazir through the murder of Tom Walker.) In short, Homeland shows us that nothing means anything, because at a moment's notice it can be discarded in favor of something new.

In the comments section of Alan Sepinwall's recap, reactions to the finale are a mixture of disgust and praise. The disgust seems tied to a feeling of being cheated, not quite for the reasons described above, so much as a sense that the show spent all season running toward a cliff promising to jump off before turning back at the last moment. The praise is for the series' strengths, which are many (the bunker scene is undeniably intense, until it's laughable, and Carrie's suffering, punctuated by her too late epiphany, is tragic), aided by acceptance that it was "unlikely" and "unrealistic" that a big-time drama like Homeland would kill off one of its main characters. Both reactions are fair, but the trouble with so easily forgiving the messiness of Homeland's conclusion is that it suggests the series' creators and writers were backed into a corner by Brody and not the other way around. If Homeland put itself in a place where the only way out was a wild deus ex machina, the creators/writers have only themselves to blame. With the finale, Homeland became akin to an executioner who after 12 weeks of crafting the perfect noose demonstrates its perfection by hanging himself.

Never mind that Homeland could have sidestepped its foolish fate by blaming Brody's malfunctioning bomb vest, which would have maintained the purity of Brody's intentions, proven the stupidity of Nazir's overcomplicated plot and perhaps created an interesting level of distrust between Nazir and Brody heading into the second season. The crime isn't how Homeland sacrifices its own character development in the name of wild plot twists - the hallmark of shallow entertainment - but that it does. By the end of the first season it's clear, Homeland isn't what it pretends to be.


JC said...

"If you arrange all of this information linearly, the show asks us to believe that Brody was tortured, became BFFs with his torturer, hatched a plan to return to the U.S. where he would appear like a victim of torture, then suddenly re-experienced the trauma of his torture like some delayed PTSD while still remaining loyal to his torturer (huh?)"

I thought this was an interesting point. However, I disagree that he would've had no reason to "care about the future" with regard to his family. He cares about his kids and his wife because his love for them gets the better of him. This is established in several episodes -- including when he thanks Mike in the latter half of the season, when he asks Dana to look out for her mom, and, of course, in the finale.

Jason Bellamy said...

Well, he thanks Mike as a means to an end. He's playing him. There might be some sincerity to it, there might not. That's when the show is really compelling. But he never thanks Mike if Mike can't get help him get what he wants, so the underlying motive is selfish.

As for his relationships with his kids, the show convinces me that his love for them "gets the better of him." That's very well put. Early in the season, I thought the way he slipped into the Super Dad mode was extremely unconvincing, because while he was the biological father to these kids, he'd never been a dad. But when we learn that he had a father-son relationship with Nazir's son, suddenly Brody's comfort in the father role makes sense. That's the one time in the series where learning the bigger picture resolved what seemed to be a problem with character behavior and motivation.

But the stuff with Brody's wife isn't so tidy. I agree with you that the show spends several episodes showing Brody bonding with his wife, and that's fine: he at least used to be in love with her, maybe still is, and it's in his best interest to have a functional relationship in the present, and he might indeed wish her well in the future. However, there are moments in the series when he acts as if he's trying to build a solid marriage for the long haul, and that doesn't make sense at all, because he knows that a long haul isn't possible.

In fact, if we view the marriage for what it is -- a temporary arrangement -- if Brody really cares for his wife and genuinely thinks that Mike was a positive influence on the family in his absence, he should be doing his best to keep that relationship strong in the hopes that after he's dead and gone Mike will re-assume his role as husband and father figure. (And the show could have made that work: Brody could have been constantly insisting that Mike spend time with the family, causing Mike and Jessica to feel uncomfortable by their proximity, and causing us to wonder how much Brody suspects about their past and why he's so intent on keeping Mike around.)

Anyway, back to the point: In the moments when Brody really seems to be thinking about the future -- whether it's with his wife, or his political candidacy (which, until the final episode, he thinks is going to be a VERY short-term thing) -- the show is cheating, because Brody knows he has no future.