‘Homeland’ Open Thread: Good Boundaries

This post discusses plot points from the October 21 episode of Homeland.

There’s a real statue in front of the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters, much like the one Brody glimpsed Carrie through this week on Homeland, called Kryptos. A series of four elaborate encryptions, only three have ever been broken. The first to be decoded reads “BETWEEN SUBTLE SHADING AND THE ABSENCE OF LIGHT LIES THE NUANCE OF IQLUSION.” (The misspelling is deliberate.) It’s harder to think of a better lesson for Homeland, which delivered its best episode this season, and one of its most powerful of the show by sticking to the nuance of illusion, rather than the increasingly frantic contrivances the show has used to generate drama in Brody’s half of the story this season, and by examining the subtleties of the ways Brody and Carrie have lied to each other over the year they’ve known each other*.

In a way, the show makes a joke of such mummery in the first scene when David’s son from his failed marriage, Kenny, meets Saul at the door waving a lightsaber and warns him “I am your father. Don’t make me destroy you.” Saul is here on a quieter mission, to let David know that Carrie was right, with a minimum of bitterness and blame. “We could arrest him. That would be that,” Saul suggests. “Or we could leave him right where he is. Iran is planning blowback against the U.S. for the Israel bombings. Abu Nazir was going to be the agent of that plan. That’s what the Beirut meet was about.” David’s anxieties mostly have to do with his relationship with Vice President Walden. “I dupe this guy, he fires me in five seconds,” he tells Saul. “You tell him you missed the signs on Golden Boy, he’ll fire you in three,” Saul tells him, the closest he gets to nastiness for what David did to Carrie, offering him a way to redeem himself to his country, if not to the woman he drummed out of the agency.

As proof Carrie remains unredeemed in his eyes, David assigns another agent, Peter Quinn, to oversee her. But that insult appears to be an unexpected gift, because after some initial prodding at each other, it seems like Quinn and Carrie might turn out to like each other. Some of the best scenes in the episode happen between Carrie and Quinn, pitting her emotional wrecking ball against his penchant for cleverness as they learn the basic facts, the subtle shadings of each other. “I don’t like surprises,” he tells her when they meet. “I’m not crazy about them either,” Carrie agrees. “Crazy. Interesting choice of words,” Quinn tells her, reminding her he knows who she is. Where Carrie gives out information directly, Quinn does it at a slant, cloaked in sharp, short phrases. “You were fucking him, huh?” Quinn asks her. “Who are you fucking?” Carrie responds, her voice going up in confirmation. “An ER nurse. I’m not that into her,” Quinn deadpans. But he’s sympathetic. “I’m just saying, if he did to me what he did to you, got me fired, and made me think I was crazy when I wasn’t, and sent me off to get my brain zapped, I’d fucking rip his skin off.” When he pushes again, asking “So, was it work or love? Brody?” Carrie snaps at him “What are, we, girlfriends?” and he lets her interrogate him instead. “You ever go back to Philly?” she asks of his past. “There’s no good Indian food,” he complains as a form of the negative. “Why does Estes like you so much?” she wants to know, not revealing that once upon a time, Estes liked her a lot, too. “I’m pretty likable.” He might be, but there’s a knife edge to him, too.

They aren’t alone in their flirtation, either. “Makes you realize there’s this whole big world out there,” Dana tells Finn Walden when he sneaks her away from a study break to the top of the Washington Monument (bonus points for the post-earthquake construction setup). It’s heartbreaking to contrast Dana’s hope for that big world with Carrie, who has a world of experience Dana can’t even begin to contemplate, tentatively approaching someone new. Finn and Dana are sweet and tentative with each other because this is new to them. When Finn tells Dana “I like your attitude,” and she tells him artlessly ‘I like you,” they’re tentative because the risk of rejection is some of the worst hurt they can imagine, Dana’s need to untangle herself from Xander the most complicated emotional extraction she could undertake. Dana and Carrie have the same problems, magnified and distorted by pain and experience.

For Carrie, that pain is more than phantom: the CIA has asked her to surprise Brody, rattle his cage, little knowing that Roya has suggested that Brody, who has been kicked out of the house by Jessica, has suggested Brody reach out to her. She plays her role at the CIA flawlessly, first tentative, telling him “It’s…been a while…I’m supposed to stay away from you,” and maintaining that facade of reluctance to engage even as she thanks him.”You said I should get help, and I did,” Carrie says, flattering him. “And it was a long road back, but I’m myself again. You kind of saved me. Anyway, I’m sure you’re busy, Congressman.” When he wants to know more about her return to work, she insists politely “I have good boundaries now. It’s part of being well.”

But the attraction between them has always been about a wanton destruction of boundaries, be they professionalism, operational protocols, the vows of marriage, the need for secrecy about Carrie’s mental illness and Brody’s conversion to Islam. Throwing up a wall between them, as Carrie does here, is an invitation to tear it down, to fuck her in the car in the parking lot outside the support group, to run away for a weekend, to tell her everything and love her forever. And when she confronts him that hotel room and names him for who he is, it’s almost erotic. Saul tenses as Brody tells her “Okay, not friends,” and moves forward, but whether to do her violence or to embrace her is hard to tell. “So what are you going to do then? Kill me? Blame it on rough sex? Maybe. I mean, how long can you get away with something like that?” Carrie taunts him, revealing how well she sees him. “I seem to be good at this,” Brody tells her, adding with a dash of self-hatred, “If nothing else.” ‘You’re special,” she tells him. “I liked you, Carrie,” Brody tells her, wanting to be seen and understood, but as it turns out, failing to see her. “I loved you,” Carrie spits at him. And as he’s hooded, manacled, thrown to the floor, she tells him “If only the circumstances had been wildly different. You are a disgrace to your nation, Sgt. Nicholas Brody. You’re a traitor and a terrorist. And now it’s time you pay for that.”

To see Carrie arrive at that conclusion, to hear her state it so baldly is shocking, not just because the two of them have always seen each other through a perforated divider, because they’ve spent their entire relationship trying to decode the slips of information they could see through the letters and numbers of their conversations with each other. The subtle shadings and the absence of light between them may have been an easier code to break that the one offered up by Kryptos. But the process has been similar to the revelation described in the third encryption on the sculpture, and to the clambering out of darkness into the light that made Brody’s recovery so dramatic: “SLOWLY DESPARATLY SLOWLY THE REMAINS OF PASSAGE DEBRIS THAT ENCUMBERED THE LOWER PART OF THE DOORWAY WAS REMOVED WITH TREMBLING HANDS I MADE A TINY BREACH IN THE UPPER LEFT HAND CORNER AND THEN WIDENING THE HOLE A LITTLE I INSERTED THE CANDLE AND PEERED IN THE HOT AIR ESCAPING FROM THE CHAMBER CAUSED THE FLAME TO FLICKER BUT PRESENTLY DETAILS OF THE ROOM WITHIN EMERGED FROM THE MIST X CAN YOU SEE ANYTHING.” In the subtle shading of his reemergence into the light, America saw a hero and Carrie saw a terrorist. But she’s throwing shading of her own right now: Carrie can say all she wants that all she sees in Brody anymore is a terrorist, but she’s lying. And as her face crumbled as he was lead away, we saw how long she can maintain that illusion.

*It’s no mistake, I think, that this episode was written by the divine Meredith Stiehm, who also wrote “The Weekend,” the stand-out episode of last season.