This post contains spoilers through the Oct. 9 episode of Homeland.
The difference between a good television show and a great show is often that the latter, even when an episode is somewhat below-par, is still capable of doing something smart and surprising. Homeland got put to that test in this second episode, and I think it passed. So even though I’m slightly underwhelmed by this second episode, I still think this is the best new show of the fall.
One of the things I liked best about this episode was the way it built parallels between Carrie and Nicholas, between the man being hunted and the woman hunting him. It’s in some little things: Carrie’s body curling up as she paints her toenails in an imitation of the safety Nicholas finds in the corner when he can’t bring himself to face the cameras outside the house; Nicholas lying on the couch to watch the game and Carrie lying on the couch to watch him. These are both deeply messed-up people operating in parallel, Carrie desperately seeking absolution from the people around her while everyone wants Nicholas’ blessing; Nicholas is opaque to the people around him while Carrie is too clear, too open, too easily wounded.
I found myself wishing that the folks who shoot Breaking Bad were shooting this show, particularly Nicholas’s flashbacks to the time of his captivity. Can you imagine that scene of him digging his fellow captive’s grave, singing the Marine’s Hymn, with the kind of weird color saturation as Gus’ confrontation with Walt in the New Mexico desert? But from those flashbacks we see Brody’s isolation in captivity, and we see him come to the light again in a mosque. Even so, I was genuinely surprised by the image of him praying in his garage. His disappearance, the trip to the hardware store, all suggested some terrible project, some weapon as a monster in the basement. That he was picking up a prayer rug instead both delays the tension and suggests a deeper conversion. Is Brody not a Manchurian Candidate, but instead, a true believer?
And i thought it was powerful that said revelation came after the show took some time to explore how deeply how many branches of government are invested in Brody as a symbol. “The man represents a significant victory in the war on terror thanks to our friends at the CIA,” the brass warns Mike, before blackmailing him by revealing that they know about his affair with Jessica. “Putting aside for the moment that Sgt. Brody owes him his life, these are the facts. bin Laden’s dead. America thinks, or wants to think, that this war is drawing to an end. Politicians are pushing for a wholesale withdrawal from Afghanistan.” And when Mike makes the mistake of thinking about Nicholas’ well-being, they make it clear what they think: “Fuck it. Drive on. Isn’t that what you Marines say?” In keeping with that deep connection between Brody and Carrie, David is in on that meeting, applying the pressure. “He has career stakes in Brody, whom he and his department brought home to great fanfare,” Saul warns Carrie. “You want to challenge that? Get all your ducks in a row, first.”
Brody’s response to Mike’s pressure was one of the parts of the episode that felt a bit overwritten to me, though it does suggest that Brody knows that Mike’s gotten too close to Jessica. I can see why he’d want to condemn the war, but I wonder if this is just a bit too on the nose, a reflection of the writers’ sentiments rather than his: “The brass sent you over here to turn me into some fucking poster boy for their bullshit war. You can go back there and tell them the days that I take orders from the United States military or the government are done. You know what I really need, Mike? I need the last eight years back. Where I get to take care of my wife and kids. Where I don’t get asked to go over there and fight their fucking war…Can you do that for me? Or is that too much to ask? There’s the door. Uncle Mike.” That said, the unnaturalness of it all could be because it’s a put-on. It’s a measure of how much I want to trust this show that I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Is the real him the man who begs for death in Arabic in his sleep and bruises his wife’s arm? Is the real man the one praying in the garage? Does a real Nicholas Brody exist anymore?
Meanwhile, Brody’s not the only one who’s playing games. The other unnatural part of the episode to me was Lynn’s interview with an addition to the prince’s harem. Maybe folks really do get giggly and excited for job interviews where they’re asked things like “Do you enjoy anal sex? How about other women?” and told “You need to wax, sweetie. Hair down there’s not an option for his highness,” but it’s a kind of repellent way to introduce us to Lynn, a character we’re supposed to sympathize with. The show does move quickly to make her a person, though, in a way I appreciate — the “On hold. Kenny G. Welcome to America,” she delivers deadpan to one of the prince’s handler’s is the funniest line of the episode and maybe the series so far (though it’s a close tie with Virgil’s dry assessment of the awful Dana “maybe the daughter’s the terrorist). And it’s nice to see Carrie be strong on her behalf, steeling her spine with the knowledge that “You are the only agency asset to have eyes on Nazir in seven years” and promising to protect her.
Of course she can’t. When she asks for protection for Lynn, David mocks her, telling Carrie, “For an escort you recruited in Bahrain?…It’s my job to make tough calls. She needs backup, you’re it.” There’s a real cruelty there, but also a fair tension: recruiting assets takes compassion, but deciding how to use them requires a kind of steel that Carrie doesn’t have. She’s too emotionally involved for that kind of decision-making. And she takes the same kind of approach to her career, as we find out when she goes to visit her sister and nieces. On the surface, she’s a polished, funny, beautifully-dressed aunt who may be late with a birthday present but still finds just the right gift. But in all actuality, she’s skimming pills from her sister’s supply. “I”m really good at what I do, Maggie,” she tells her sister. “And I’m not just a quack,” Maggie reminds her sharply that she’s not the only talented person taking risks here. If this is a contest between Nicholas and Carrie, Carrie’s clearly not as good at keeping up her own disguise as Nicholas is. But she may know more about who, at this point, she really is.