Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Homeland and the Tyranny of the Episode (spoilers)

(If you don't want Homeland spoilers then don't read this post for your own safety. ) This morning I read three positive blog posts regarding last night's episode of Homeland. All were by writers I respect and all celebrated the writing and acting in a long scene during which CIA agent Carrie (Claire Danes) and returned soldier and suspected terrorist Brody (Damian Lewis) finally take each others' measure. It's to the credit of all involved with Homeland that the scene and indeed the whole episode (which suggests a surprising new direction for the show) was so gripping, and I do think the already renewed series has earned the acclaim it has received as one of the high spots of the TV season. Yet as I thought about last night's episode and the plot developments that led up to it I couldn't help but wonder if those praising Homeland are failing to (as Carrie would say) "play the long game".

Web TV critics, even the good ones, are day traders of web cultural writing. They're up one week and down the next, and if someone is writing great pieces about the emotional honesty of Mae Whitman's arc over two seasons of Parenthood (to cite just one example) then I'm missing them. Last night's Homeland (which also featured strong work from Mandy Patinkin as Carrie's mentor Saul) was an excellent episode of television, but how did we get to this point? I had trouble believing that Carrie would sleep with Brody (which happened for the first time in last week's episode), then accidentally reveal a detail she gleaned from her surveillance of Brody, and THEN give away the whole I-think-you're-a-terrorist plot. I could have seen one of these things happening, but all three in close proximity felt as if the show were working too hard to make a point about Carrie’s instability. Much was made in the early episodes of Carrie self-medicating for a “mood disorder”; we’d almost forgotten about it as the plot sped up, and now we find that the writers have maneuvered Carrie into a situation where she doesn’t have access to her meds when she needs them most. It’s a clever piece of narrative control to get Carrie and us to this point, but as the focus of the investigation shifts we can only assume that the CIA will need Carrie at her best (back on her pills) and that she’ll stay quiet about her dalliance with Brody for fear of having her objectivity questioned.

All this to say that Homeland sets Carrie up as a skilled, highly valued CIA officer and then depends on her not doing her job well for the show’s momentum. Carrie sets up ill-advised, extra-legal surveillance on Brody, fails to correctly interpret his “prayer beads” gesture earlier (Mightn’t she or Saul have known what that meant?), then risks operational security by revealing she thinks Brody is a terrorist. She also lies to an asset who is later murdered. Carrie’s impulsive decision to sleep with Brody is part of a pattern for her; we know about her affair with her boss David (David Harewood) and there’s certainly an undercurrent between Carrie and her mentor Saul, though I think the introduction of Saul’s wife rules out an affair there. There’s no question of Carrie’s seriousness or of her raw ability, but the writers of Homeland are implicitly and perhaps unconsciously painting Carrie as someone who gets what she wants (or at least attempts to ) via her sexuality. That’s a shame given Danes’ lived-in performance and the show’s apparent desire to subvert genre expectations. I’ve read little of this in reaction to the show, which has mostly focused on whether or not Brody is a terrorist and how he’ll be worked into the show going forward and in a second season. Since The Sopranos premiered we value television drama perhaps more than ever before, but because of a never-ending desire for web content even the best of it takes on a weird disposable quality. I wish there was time to consider a series as good as Homeland on a deeper lever, but I fear that we have gone too far down the road of hot and now criticism to turn back now.

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