22
Oct
2012
Homeland: Season 2, Episode 4
New Car Smell
Jordan
There was a moment during this evening's Homeland where I actually laughed out loud. Not at something especially humorous (though, there were a few of those as well), but at a moment that gave me such strange glee that I actually laughed with excitement. When Brody called Carrie to meet him at his hotel bar, my anticipation was so high, it manifested audibly. Homeland is a very good television show, but when Damian Lewis and Clare Danes are bouncing off each other in their fascinating mixture of antipathy and sexual tension, it is a great television show. The interplay between Damian Lewis and Claire Danes is too good, and too interesting, to be on the sidelines for too long, and "New Car Smell" brought it back in a way that made an already solid episode into a fairly stellar outing for the show.

The questionable plausibility of the last few weeks is in the rear view mirror, this week, as the show strives confidently in a bold new direction with a final 15 minutes that will probably go down as one of the greatest, and most important, sequences in all of Homeland. The show is very good at its national security plot lines, but they often bear the mark of the fact that creators and showrunners Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa spent time working on 24. At their best, they are superior to that show's often sloppy plotting, but in moments like Brody's story line last week, they can move a bit too close to that show's worst moments. But it is never better than when it focuses on the relationship between its two compellingly drawn leads: bipolar analyst Carrie Mathison and the man/mark she loves/is obsessed with. It shouldn't work as well as it does. A CIA agent that falls in love with the terrorist she is surveiling sounds like the sort of poorly formed "star crossed lover" plot that would sink a terrible version of this show on the CW. But somehow, whether its due to how well formed the characters are or how lived in the performances by Danes and Lewis feel, it does, and it is something the show cannot give me enough of; Carrie and Brody are all-time great television characters, and their relationship is the stuff that makes great television great.

All of this comes to a head in the high-wire final minutes of the episode, when an "undercover" Carrie (the term isn't strictly accurate, since Brody knows everything he needs to about her) does what Carrie does best and goes completely off the rails in a desperate plea for success. The show has set us up to expect that Carrie and Brody may play their seduction game again, this time while their respective handlers encourage them to dig deeper. But no. Instead, Carrie goes off book (a thing she does literally every time she is in the field), confronting Brody and then having him hauled away. Its a darkly thrilling sequence, and the smile Carrie flashes as her target and lover is dragged off, hood over his head, is of a very different stripe than the one we saw in "The Smile." This is a Carrie who has won, in a way, but also recognizes all she has lost. She's lost Brody, for one thing, which clearly stings her far more than she'd like. But she has also just blown the careful operation Saul and Estes have set up, which may (and should) alienate her from the men whose respect she was on her way to regaining. This mixture of triumph and tragedy is something Homeland does well, and its these complex emotional moments that will stick with me long after the memory of Brody soaked in the tailor's blood has faded.

This is a show that lives for the moments when it accelerates its story way faster than the audience expects. You think Brody being a Muslim is going to come out eventually? Here it is, right now. Pretty sure there will eventually be evidence tying Brody to Nazir? Yup, Saul has the tape. That tape will eventually lead to Brody's arrest, right? Yeah. One episode later. The show charges forward with such force it can make me nervous, but it does so with a confidence I am increasingly coming to have faith in, with a skill that becomes more impressive the more it is properly deployed.

It also means that the show is burning through plot points and status quos that might have fed its story engines for longer (and would have to if this show was, like 24 a network drama turning out full 24-episode season orders). Saul and Carrie in Beirut was fascinating, and the possibility of Saul, Estes, Virgil, Carrie, and Quinn in a full-blown, authorized investigation of Brody was a set up introduced this episode that could have lasted all season easily. But this is a show that doesn't waste any time getting where its going, which is fantastic so long as its playing a long game and not racing along faster than it can build track in front of itself. This all comes back to my recurring revisitations of my feelings on the show's theme song (it really does): Homeland is constructed like the great jazz that Carrie is constantly listening to: its full of familiar notes, and it constantly builds on its themes, but it is built around variation and experimentation, to the point where certain beats and notes can pop up anywhere, and it can be hard to tell where the piece is going until it reaches its end. Its a thrilling way to build a television show, and I'm more and more confident we are watching virtuosos at work.

We've talked a lot about the last 15 minutes of the episode, which will always be the stand out moments of "New Car Smell," but a lot of the episode before them was good as well. The weak point is obviously the veterans storyline, which is starting to become a drag on the show. Series like this often have a character, like Mike, who is useful in season one, but then quickly becomes someone the show has simply outgrown. Perhaps the best example of this is Harry on Dexter who was needed for set up early in the show's run, but quickly became superfluous and then increasingly ridiculous as the show went on (this is also true of nearly every other character on Dexter, but that's a conversation for a different show. Having Mike be Jessica's go-to guy when Brody is being terrible doesn't work as well as the show thinks, and the "Mike and Lauder start to figure Brody out" story line is flat out ridiculous. I don't want to have to know how to spell Lauder's name. He's a poorly drawn character, little more than a stereotypical bitter vet archetype, and his conspiracy theories happening to be accurate undercut the competence of the CIA analysts we root for. If random guy on the street can figure out what Estes and Saul didn't, with evidence and resources, for years, how are we supposed to trust the skill of these men who are presented to us as the best in their field?

What works surprisingly better is the slowly budding romance between Dana and Finn Walden. This should be the most obligatory plot on the show, and on any other, lesser program, it would be about an angsty teenager falling for the son of the man her father publicly supports and privately hopes to assassinate. I'm sure we will get into this territory eventually, and I'm sure it will be somewhat annoying when it happens, but taking the time to lay this (occasionally awkward, though realistically so) groundwork will at least make it feel more earned when it gets there.

Also well played is the introduction of Quinn (Rupert Friend), who is kind of the standard dick-with-a-heart-of-gold, but who gets some good lines and seems well realized enough at the outset to develop well down the line. Though, this is Homeland, and he has good chemistry with Carrie, so there's a chance he'll be dead next week. That I would find that to be a shame is to the show's credit. They built him up as an interesting character and made him someone I hope to become invested in, which is a hard trick to pull off.

Ultimately, though, its that last act that really seals the deal on this episode. This show is never better than when it focuses on Carrie and Brody as they try to figure out each other, and themselves. The camera will pause on these character contemplating their next move, and it becomes as thrilling as the moments when there is something more tactile at stake. Just watching these two think their way around each other and dance their way through a combination of attraction and repulsion, of desire and antipathy, is enough to make this one of the greatest shows on television, and the more we get of this, the better. Homeland is, at its core, a show about a connection that formed between two deeply flawed people, and the ways it changes both of them, for better and for worse. But its also a relentlessly propulsive thriller, and in that regard, I cannot wait to see what happens next.

Grade: A-

Notes:

-"And I don't like surprises." "I'm not crazy about them either." "Crazy? Interesting choice of words."

-"I have good boundaries now. It's part of being well."

-"Who are you fucking?" "An ER nurse. I'm not that into her."

-"There's nothing to say except I'm sorry, and good work." "That's enough."

-The new offices for the task force feel decidedly like The Wire. This is a very good thing.

-"Night, Sally." "Night TJ." This is weird, right?

-"Woah. Dark turn." This is a thing I say on the Review To Be Named Podcast far too often.

-"How long can you get away with something like that?" "I've had a pretty good run so far."

"I liked you, Carrie." "I LOVED you!"

-I watched the "Writing for Carrie" featurette after the episode. It was interesting, though too brief to be all that informative.

-Good God, next week looks intense. Like, potentially a landmark episode intense. Color me excited.
Tags: Homeland
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