15
Oct
2012
Homeland: Season 2, Episode 3
State of Independence
Jordan
Homeland is a show that lives on the edge, to the point that it, much like its two primary characters, is in a position where it might go off the rails in any given week. This is a show that could, and very well may, take a turn at some point that it cannot come back from, and have to pay the price by watching the rest of its run become an exercise in diminishing returns. That isn't to say, of course, that this happened in "State of Independence," nor that it ever will. But watching Congressman Nicholas Brody digging a shallow grave with a license plate reminded me just how easily everything I love about this show could come tumbling down. This episode feels bifurcated in a way the best hours of the show never do, partially because of how far it stretches the Brody storyline, but mostly, I think, because of the way it externalizes his conflict while leaving Carrie's strictly internal. Homeland is at its best when its about two people wrestling with their internal demons, and while Carrie's half of the episode nails this, Brody's half uses outside forces in a way that makes it feel a little disconnected.

Brody gets a call from his new contact telling him the CIA has intel on the tailor who gave him his bomb vest last season, and that he needs to move the guy to a safe house before they arrest him. To begin with, this is problematic, and Brody seems like the worst possible guy for the job. The last person you want discretely moving a terrorist is a U.S. Congressman, and while there's a lame excuse about Brody being the only one the tailor knows, that literally cannot be true. The tailor has to have another contact within Nazir's organization, or who would have told him Brody was coming and he needed to get an explosive vest ready? Obviously, I will wait to see how this plays out, but unless the show is leading up to a reveal that Brody's contact does not work with Nazir at all, this all seems really haphazardly planned, especially for a plot involving America's most hated terrorist ninja. Nazir is smart enough to have fully operational terror cells running in America, to plan the assassination of the Vice President and the joint chiefs, and to have safe houses ready pretty much wherever his people need them, but he isn't smart enough to know that using Brody as a chauffeur is a dangerously stupid move that could lose him his in with the channels of American political power?

The complete lack of sense behind the mission notwithstanding, there are still several beats that don't really work in this plot line. I buy that the tailor would be paranoid when, with no notice, a U.S. Congressman who probably sees him as the only person who can tie him to a terror plot shows up and basically kidnaps him, but things still developed a bit too quickly into "the tailor is going to attack Brody" for it to feel natural. At its worst, Homeland tends to have its characters behave as needed to advance the story rather than how they might actually act, and this smelled a bit of that.

Additionally, the tension in the scene is destroyed by the over the top "something dramatic is about to happen" music that plays. Think, for a moment, of the differences between the opening scene with Saul at the airport and the scene where the tailor holds first a tire iron, and then a rock, with the plan to bludgeon Brody. The former scene had me temporarily convinced that the show was going to kill Saul and deprive me of my much needed Mandy Patinkin access. It would have been a stupid move by the show, and a cheap way to end the "Saul knows Brody is a terrorist" story, but the tension in that detention room was so high, I believed it for a second. Conversely, as the tailor plots to brain Brody, I wasn't worried about our anti-hero for even a second, due in large part to a failure by the show's composers at a crucial moment.

I recognize that this is all supposed to play as bleakly funny, what with Brody seeing the man fleeing into the woods from his car, and the horribly unfortunate spot at which Brody overtakes and tackles him, but it felt too writerly and convenient to ever truly engage me. On a broader level, the show seems to be taking Brody's involvement with Nazir's organization further and further, which threatens to undermine the glorious ambiguity of the character before long. Brody resorted a bit too glibly to killing a man tonight, and hopefully that will have repercussions in future weeks. For now, though, it threatens to turn our patriotic terrorist into something more straight-forwardly villainous. Its an arc that can completely work (see, e.g. Breaking Bad), but the show has been at its best when we wonder where Brody's limits lie, and if it decides that he has none, things will become far less interesting as a result.

I can see how this episode was ideally structured, and in theory it works. It opens with Brody and Jessica feeling closer than ever, and with Carrie excited by her involvement in an ongoing CIA investigation again. It then tracks both over the course of a very, very bad day, and reminds us how quickly things can unravel for our two leads. By day's end, Brody is on the verge of divorce, concussed, and damp from washing the blood of a dead man off at a self-service car wash, and Carrie is attempting suicide. It's a clever structure, but it feels too mannered to work.

At least, on the Brody side of things. Carrie's story line is exactly on-point, tracing a day in the life of our bipolar hero in a way that catches her at her manic highs and depressive lows. Carrie's descent into desperation feels organic to the character, and nothing that she does over the course of "State of Independence" feels shoe-horned in for the sake of convenience. Carrie navigates the CIA building more easily than it should be possible to do so, but she worked there for long enough that I buy it. And while I cringed at her bursting into the briefing, it was a moment of embarrassment and heartbreak, not one of incredulity. Danes plays Carrie's interaction with Estes, where she is not able to keep it together and that makes her feel even worse, to the hilt, and where everything in Brody's story felt like it came too quickly, I completely believed that a day like hers would lead Carrie to pop a handful of pills and chug a few glasses of wine.

The reason this works so well, I think, is a matter of flow. Each scene flows logically into the next, and each is so keyed in to Carrie's emotions that it tells a perfectly tuned story of her emotional roller coaster of a day. She begins it elated, working on a report for her old job and back on the case to track down Abu Nazir. She's elated when Danny tells her he'll keep her posted on the briefing, then distracted during class and let down when he doesn't. She makes one of her classic impulsive decisions to just head up to Langley, where she bursts into the briefing and is politely, but firmly, shut down by Estes. Then she goes home, and in a beautiful, tragic, wordless sequence that will stick with me for a long time, she prepares for a night on the town, swallows all of her medication with a few glasses of wine, calmly goes up to her bed, and lies down to wait for death. Then, she vaults out of bed and forces herself to throw up, in a moment of brutal catharsis.

Saul arrives, straight from the airport, to show Carrie the video of Brody's confession. Saul is his standard stoic self, of course, but Carrie breaks down in tears of joy that border on fervor at the revelation that she was right all along. The investigation that got her expelled from "the company" and lead her toward her suicide attempt, is not over, and what's more, she is finally vindicated after months of being shoved aside. The show lets us feel the joy of the moment, but we can't forget what is under Carrie's bathrobe. Sure, this is a win for our heroine, but the pit of despair she just clawed her way out of will always be waiting for her again. Such is the nature of her disease, and try as she might, she will never be able to break out of her cycle, and never truly be able to get back all she has lost.

That the show is able to end with the same revelation being made to two different people on two consecutive weeks without feeling like its stalling is impressive. But the tape means different things to each of them. Last week, it was a shocking twist for us and Saul, blowing the show wide open and prepping us for a brave new world within the show's status quo. This week, its a little beacon of hope, saving Carrie from her dark side, even if only for a little while. That the show can wring such different emotions out of the same video footage is incredibly impressive, and gives me faith that, missteps aside, Homeland still knows what its doing.

Ultimately, "State of Independence" is a doll's house of an episode, feeling too constructed to connect like it should. I respect the way the script is built, and the Carrie half of the episode is some of the best material this show has ever done. But Brody's half falls too flat for the episode to fully recover. It's a mixed bag of an episode, where the highs are some of Homeland's heights while the lows are new nadirs. Hopefully future weeks will be more the former than the latter.

Grade: B

Notes:

-Really, I'd give Carrie's half of the episode an A, and Brody's half a B-, but because Brody's half bled into Carrie's thematically and kept jarring me out of how much I was enjoying the Carrie stuff, I'm leaving the episode at a B instead of a B+.

-Much like the Dollhouse theme, I can't tell if I've started to like Homeland's theme song or just developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome appreciation for it. I've always liked the improvisational jazz bits for their thematic resonance, and the eerie qualities of the hedge maze, but all of the Presidents' speeches on terror have never felt organic to me, especially because it means every week I am reminded that this show has Obama in its opening credits even though the man does not exist within its reality.

-"Never come back to Lebanon."
Tags: Homeland
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