This post contains spoilers for the entire first season of Showtime’s Homeland. Be warned.
“I’m not.” -Sgt. Nicholas Brody
The war on terror has made America sick, and accepting a cure will kill us. The finale of the first season of Showtime was full of philosophical debates. And it ended with a Carrie, a patient driven mad by a basic and critical impossibility behind those debates — the dream that we can ever be completely safe from terrorism — wiping out her own brain, all the joy and love and agony, and crucial insights, of her last few weeks. Whatever you may think of how the show has handled Brody’s motivations, there’s no question that it’s successfully walked an exceedingly fine line in making a difficult point: that it’s insanity to let yourself be consumed by a fear of terrorism, but equally insane to refuse to see the risk. It’s a tragic madness to let terrorism convince you to give up who you are, whether you’re an American elected official or a captured Marine. And it’s equally devastating to cling rigidly to the past when you desperately need to change. The show hasn’t forged a compromise, and neither have we in the world beyond the screen. But Homeland is articulating that central dilemma, the one that’s governed so much of our politics for the last decade, in a critical and urgent way.
It’s also become a fantasy about assassinating or undermining Dick Cheney, who is the clear model for Vice President William Walden. “My action this day is against such domestic enemies,” Brody tells us in the suicide video that he records and that begins the episode in language that echoes charges lobbed at both Cheney and President Bush. “The Vice President and members of his national security team who I know to be liars and war criminals, responsible for atrocities they were never hold accountable for. This is about justice for 82 children whose deaths were never acknowledged and whose murder is a stain on the soul of this nation.” In the video of him working with David to order the drone strike, Walden declares that “If Abu Nazir is taking refuge among children, he’s putting them at risk, not us.” There are no innocents. In giving the order, he falls into obscurantist language, saying “It’s our collective opinion that the potential collateral damage falls within current matrix parameters.” Watching years later, Saul has the reaction that many of us would: “Good God. Someone actually came up with that language?” And that’s not all he’s done. In his sitdown with Walden, Saul reminds the Vice President that David may be willing to throw evidence down the memory for the sake of his career and clothe that decision in an ideological shift, but he is not. “I’m a sentimentalist,” Saul declares with controlled venom. “I like to hold on to things. For old times’ sake. Whoever told the American people these interrogation tapes had been destroyed is mistaken. Coercion. cruelty. Outright torture makes for a very unhappy human. You gave the orders, William.” When he survives Brody’s botched attack, Walden makes grotesque use of Elizabeth’s death to kickstart his presidential campaign. He’s easy to despise.
But while Cheney is out of power, the ideas he promoted persist, and Homeland focuses instead on what the real and fictional vice presidents have wrought. Brody and Nazir come to a collective conclusion that the man isn’t what’s important. “Why kill a man when you can kill an idea?” Nazir asks Brody, as they reach an uneasy truce over a new strategy.
Even before they do that work, though, the show does it for them, showing the weaknesses in Walden’s worldview in a stunning sequence where Brody comes to within a fingernail of fulfilling his mission even after a failed attempt, and pulls away. “Tell him it doesn’t matter why terrorists do what they do,” Walden snaps at David on the way to the event, as David tells him that Saul is on to the drone strike. “He’s a security expert not a fucking social worker.” But of course it matters why terrorists do what they do: it lets us figure out how not to generate more of them, and to win potential terrorists back before they can carry out their terrible work. Which is, of course, what happens to Brody in this episode. He easily could have given up when the vest doesn’t work, but in that profoundly claustrophobic space, he reconnects the wires dislodged when he reached for his ID or in the rush through the metal detectors and tries again. I, of course, just adore that it’s a father-daughter relationship that saves the republic. And it’s extraordinary to hear Brody tell Dana first “I’m not,” when she begs him for reassurance that Carrie is lying about him being a terrorist, to see him go through the process of coming to a place where he can tell her “I’m coming home, Dana. I promise,” and mean it, to give up the cause that’s consumed so much of his life. It’s Dana with whom he can share both the roof and the revelation that “I never knew we had views.” He’s finally home.
Isa’s gone, and it’s Abu Nazir who needs him avenged. But Brody has a living daughter telling him “I need you. You know that.” And it appears that he’ll play an awfully dangerous game to serve that need. A suicide bombing has an end point. A permanent role as Abu Nazir’s lobbyist does not. And I’d be curious to know what happened to the drive from Brody’s camera that Tom Walker retrieved. Did Brody have the presence of mind to remove it from Walker’s body and destroy it? Will it be yet another thing that a newly inquisitive Dana, discovering her parents’ private lives as she develops her own, discovers around the house? And what became of the vest?
If there’s one thing I feel somewhat reluctant about in this episode and this season, it’s the treatment of Tom Walker. One of the best things about Homeland has been its commitment to letting Brody live in his contradictions, to reveal his motivations and convictions slowly, to let him explain his conversion to Carrie and to Dana (I love the latter’s “Well it is a good time you didn’t shoot a deer or step out on Mom” reaction.). By contrast, his black counterpart gets to jack an old white lady’s car and apartment. I do love Walker fluffing his victim’s hair on the way out the door after sparking the panic, which makes up for the play to trope. But there’s no question that Walker’s given short shrift here, and there are compelling questions that are left unanswered. When he and Brody face off in the tunnel and he tells Brody, “We both got to the same place, Nick. I just got there quicker,” I want to know that journey. Did Tom Walker not need 82 dead children to turn to Abu Nazir? What convinced him? Is the implication that a black man is less likely to be attached to and trust in the American idea than a white one? And what happened to Tom’s guilt-ridden wife after she helped him get away?
If Walker’s motivations are opaque to us, and seem likely to remain that way, by the end of the episode, Carrie’s are painfully clear. “It’s fucking barbaric. I won’t allow it,” Saul declares when he races into the hospital, the need to preserve “a brain I happen to love” as urgent as Carrie’s need to save the whole world. Unlike David (who seems to have become a version of his namesake, David Addington), Saul can see the value of the woman — and of the tactics, mission, and morals — his agency is throwing out like trash. But her rationale for getting shock treatment is painful but undeniable. “I want to do this thing. It was my decision. I told them to go ahead,” Carrie tells her mentor. “I need to do something. I can’t take this anymore…It won’t pass. It’s only getting worse…[The risk of memory loss is] only short term. It’s usually temporary. And a lot of what’s happened lately I’d kind of like to forget anyway…I’m grateful for the concern. But I can’t live like this anymore. It needs to stop.”
It does. Of course it does. But it doesn’t make it easier to see Carrie give up part of herself for the sake of sanity, to slow down that big, speeding brain. The finale suggests that she’s losing at least one insight, as Maggie and the nurses miss her murmuring “Isa. Isa. Nazir’s son. Don’t let me forget.” But I imagine she’ll have lost more than that. It will be heartbreaking next season to have see this woman we’ve come to love maimed in search of a health. Carrie can’t both purify herself entirely and remain the woman that she was. And neither can her country.