‘Homeland’ Open Thread: Wreck of the Hesperus

This post discusses plot points from the November 4 episode of Homeland.

Down came the storm, and smote amain
The vessel in its strength;
She shuddered and paused, like a frighted steed,
Then leaped her cable’s length.

“Come hither! come hither! my little daughtèr,
And do not tremble so;
For I can weather the roughest gale
That ever wind did blow.”

He wrapped her warm in his seaman’s coat
Against the stinging blast;
He cut a rope from a broken spar,
And bound her to the mast.

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Wreck of the Hesperus”

“Mom says it’s like the wreck of the Hesparus in here,” Chris Brody tells Mike when he comes over to root through their garage for proof of Brody’s perfidy towards the end of this episode of Homeland. Mike explains that Jessica, who is using the reference to explain that the garage is a mess, is referring to a historical wreck that “some guy,” actually Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote a poem about it. It’s telling that all three of them miss the actual meaning of the poem, which is neither about actual wreckage, nor history, but a wrenching story about a father’s failure to protect his daughter. The wreckage that’s found from the trip is her body, the mast she was lashed to in a vain attempt to protect her in a hurricane, and ” her hair, like the brown sea-weed, / On the billows fall and rise.” It’s a poem with terrible resonance for Chris’s big sister Dana, who has gotten herself into terrible trouble. And it’s a perfect epigraph for an episode of television that’s significantly concerned with how people try and fail to protect each other, and their country.

The first person to fail is Carrie. After all the miracles she’s performed this season, I thought there was something sly about having her be defeated in what she is sure is a definitive investigation by a variety of mundane obstacles. Roya’s speech is obscured by a water fountain. Facial recognition software doesn’t work on her contact because he’s wearing sunglasses. Virgil loses him in the subway. Brody turns out not to know the guy. Later, at his meet with Roya, an irritating interloper checks his Blackberry near the two targets of Carrie’s surveillance, giving them a moment to go silence and become more careful in their speech. Carrie may have an enormous capacity to connect with sources and fantastic instincts about where information might lie. But separating the noise from the signal, in some cases quite literally, is the inevitable challenge of intelligence, and even Carrie can’t change that rule.

And even when she does everything right, warning Quinn that something might go wrong with their search of the tailor’s shop in Gettysburg, even Carrie has to fail sometimes. “Everybody missed something that day,” Saul told her of September 11, but she hasn’t learned from that terrible tragedy that sometimes it’s impossible to outrace events, especially when she believes her failure to do so is traceable to error rather than chance. “Did you know?” she confronts Brody. “I have got seven casualties in Gettysburg. Did you know that was going to happen?…Have you been lying to me?…Don’t touch me. Don’t you fucking dare.” The fact that he didn’t know, that he appears to be telling her the truth, seems to be more painful for Carrie than if she’d been betrayed. It means she was truly powerless, that she could not have saved the seven men shot in Gettysburg, that she cannot now extract further truth from Brody, that such disaster will likely strike her again.

When Brody reaches out to comfort her, it’s with his wounded hand, the most he has to offer in an episode where events are moving beyond him and without his knowledge. He and Jess don’t know that Dana is telling the truth when she says “I’m sick,” even if she’s suffering from a moral illness rather than a physical one. And in the car on the way to school, Dana and Brody lie to each other when they ask how the other is doing. Brody doesn’t have an experienced first mate to warn him of the hurricane that’s coming like the captain of the Hesperus. His hand is wounded such that he couldn’t lash Dana to the mast, even if he knew the storm was descending. And after Mike’s visit to Jessica, and the rapid erosion of his cover, Brody may not have much of a mast left to lash anyone to.

Dana, of course, is both the daughter that the storm is bearing down on it, and the observer watching on the shore as a woman’s body washes up onto the sand. Unable to believe Finn Walden’s insistence that “She’s going to be fine,” Dana skips school to visit the woman they hit on their wild ride in the last episode in the hospital, only to find the woman’s daughter there. “She was doing okay. And then a couple of hours ago a clot kicked loose in her head,” the young woman tells Dana. “A couple of idiots hit her with a car.” And before Dana’s eyes, the woman dies. Finn wouldn’t let her act to save their victim in the moment, and she’s beyond help now. When Dana tries to insist to Finn that their obligation passes down to the dead woman’s daughter, he lashes out at her. “You went to the hospital? Are you crazy? What is wrong with you? What is wrong with you? What the fuck is wrong?” Finn spits at her. “I need our help. I was driving, this comes down on me.” Like another one of Longfellow’s tragic women, Evangeline, Dana on a doomed quest, this episode shrouds her in “a feeling of wonder and sadness,—/ Strange forebodings of ill, unseen and that cannot be compassed.”

Dana is trying to absolve a death, while Mike is trying to find the truth of another, and both are facing down substantial obstacles from the executive branch of government. While Finn brings the power of his father’s office to bear on Dana, Mike receives a more blunt and enforceable directive from the CIA. “You’re being told by fellow intelligence officers, respectfully at this point, not to pursue your unauthorized, freelance investigation into a matter of national security,” Saul tells him, his day-to-day tone withering in its mildness. “Nod your head if you understand.” But he doesn’t stop, visiting the Brodys to confirm his suspicions, and confronting Jess about them.

In addition to the common thread of failure, Mike, Dana, and Carrie are all experiencing something similar now: being told that their passion and insights are a pathology. Mike tells Jessica that Louder, who stormed into her kitchen to lay out his theories about Brody, was “Drunk but not wrong.” Finn tells Dana she’s crazy for wanting to be accountable for her role in ending a woman’s life. And Carrie is repeatedly warned not to trust Brody, though, as she tells Saul “If you’ll remember, I’m the one who came up with that theory back when everyone else was calling him the patriot of the century. You don’t know what it’s like…having everyone assume you’re at your worst, like you can’t see straight.” When Carrie suspected Brody, she was treated like she was crazy. Now that she’s been proven right about herself, she has to be pathologized for something else, in this case for running Brody as a double agent through her closeness to him. There’s been some discussion of the idea that Homeland acts as if people with mental illness are possessed of a special insight, but this episode actually suggests something rather different: that running counter to the powers that be in Washington will get you treated as if you’re mad. If the first season of this show was about how Brody successfully gaslit Carrie, in part by enlisting the powerful people around her, this one is about how Washington institutions and the people who occupy them can, and will, gaslight anybody if it’s their interest to do so. That’s a damning thing to suggest about our political culture.

Then up and spake an old Sailòr,
Had sailed to the Spanish Main,
“I pray thee, put into yonder port,
For I fear a hurricane.

“Last night, the moon had a golden ring,
And to-night no moon we see!”
The skipper, he blew a whiff from his pipe,
And a scornful laugh laughed he.

It’s a risky thing to deny the storm is coming. And with seven men dead, the CIA will have to sort out who is mad, who is right, and what constitutes the noise in the signal with dreadful speed.

A note: you should really read my friend Maureen Ryan’s extraordinary analysis of the last few episodes of Homeland from last week, in which she uses “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to explain the show.