"Homeland" just wrapped up its outstanding debut season, and I have a review of the season finale coming up just as soon as we're all out of paper towels...
"I'm coming home, Dana. I promise." -Brody
In the intelligence game, as in many professions, there is what you know and what you can only guess at. When "Homeland" debuted, we knew that Claire Danes and Damian Lewis were both giving riveting lead performances (and that the supporting players weren't too shabby, either), that the cat-and-mouse game between Carrie and Brody was fascinating, that Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa had been able to apply their thriller skills from their "24" and "X-Files" days to a more human-scale story, and that this was a very strong start to the series.
What we could only guess at was whether Gordon and Gansa could make it work all the way to the end of the season - and, more importantly, beyond. The "is he or isn't he?" set-up seemed ideal for a one-season and out miniseries, or even a series centering mainly on Carrie, with a new villain each season as her co-star. But Gordon and Gansa insisted they had plans for how the show would continue into a second season(*), and with Lewis as part of the cast. That could have just been them performing some misdirection - why tip us off to the fact that Brody would blow up or go to jail by episode 12? - it could have been a hedge from two guys who didn't know exactly where the story was going to go yet, or it could have been the absolute truth.
(*) And, yes, I know the Israeli series "Homeland" is based on also had a second season. I have no idea how closely they wound up following what happened there.
I kept saying, early and often, that the character stuff involving Carrie, Brody, Saul and Jess was so strong that I ultimately wouldn't regret the time spent watching even if they muffed the ending. People compared this show to "The Killing," but the difference is that "The Killing" had ceased to be interesting long before that terrible finale, which was the straw that broke the camel's back. Had the "Homeland" finale not worked, it would've been a healthy camel saying, "Dude, that one piece of straw is really annoying, but I'm still good to go across this here desert."
And now that we've come to the end of the first season, and with Brody both alive and neatly situated to continue as Carrie's opponent - even if Carrie's own status going forward is much more questionable - I can say this:
They did it. They stuck the landing, ended this season satisfyingly, while plausibly setting things in motion for season 2.
Where the producers impressed me was how far they were willing to take things. Tom Walker kills Brody's new political handler Elizabeth Gaines, setting in motion what turned out to be a fiendishly clever plan that allowed Brody and his suicide vest to walk through a metal detector without anyone caring, and into a sealed bunker with Vice-President Walden and half the defense establishment. Brody has the detonator in hand, ready to go, and he presses the detonator, and while the vest's temporary malfunction could have played as a deus ex machina to get everyone out of the corner they'd been painted into, it instead accomplished two things: 1)Made it clear that Brody was ready and willing to go all the way with this murderous plot, and 2)Stalled just long enough for Carrie to reach Brody's daughter Dana and convince her to call her father (who had just finished repairing the bomb) and talk him down.
If the entire season came down to a few loose wires, that's terribly lame. Instead, it comes down to these characters we've been following and learning about for the last three months. Carrie knows Brody and his family so well from her time keeping them under illegal surveillance, and when all else fails she knows that Dana may be the last hope to save the day. And Brody, who never expected to live through the consequences of his decision, had to hear the alarm and horror in his daughter's voice as she repeated Carrie's allegations to him. Brody could tell himself that his wife and kids would understand and accept his actions, but the pain he heard coming through that telephone(**) made clear how much a lie that was. He got into this plot to avenge the death of a boy he had come to think of as a son, but he couldn't go through with it knowing how badly it would hurt his daughter.
(**) Would a Secret Service agent bother to put a concerned daughter on the phone with her father in a crisis like this? Probably not, but I'll accept the contrivance because the moment wasn't about how Dana reached out to her father, but simply that she did it.
And what was fantastic was the way the show got to satisfactorily have its cake and eat it, too. While standing outside the location of the attack, Carrie asks her good buddy Virgil if she's crazy, and he replies, "Look, you know you are." And that's both sad and hilarious at the same time, but it's the show being everything at once. Carrie is crazy and she's right. Carrie gets Dana to talk Brody out of killing a few dozen important people and escalating the war between America and the terrorists, but in a way where nobody, even Carrie, can realize what she did. (Though Carrie does start putting the pieces together in the finale's closing moments, and will no doubt be back on Brody's trail as we get into season 2.) The way events unfolded gave the producers everything they could have wanted going into a second year - both of their lead characters alive, the cat-and-mouse game extended, the world in the dark as to what's going on - without feeling like a cheat.
Much of that is a credit, as so much of the show's greatness has been, to the two leads. Last week's episode, with Carrie's manic outburst, will likely be Danes' Emmy submission episode, and the finale should certainly be Lewis'. He starts off doing Brody's confession looking so clear-eyed and confident (and in what I think was a single take), but as the episode moves along and Brody starts experiencing various lasts (last hug of his son, an aborted last conversation with his wife, etc.), you can see the pressure getting to him, until by the time he's in that secured bunker, he's just a wreck: sweaty and shaking and confused - and, by the time Dana calls him, trembling so fiercely that he looks like he could vibrate apart at any moment. Raw, magnetic, unflinching, mesmerizing acting, that was.
Does Brody mean what he says to Abu Nazir about wanting to punish the American government by corrupting Walden rather than killing him, or is he just saying that to keep Walker from shooting him? I don't know. The fact that Nazir or someone in his employ has a copy of the video confession is one hell of a piece of leverage to use on him, and I could see a storyline in season 2 where Brody has second thoughts but can't get out because of that damn video. As with so many things about the character, we know everything about his actions and only some things about what's going on inside that damaged body and soul. Aside from that one feint at mid-season - where Brody appeared to be innocent at the end of one episode and then was revealed to be aligned with Nazir at the end of the next one - the show has played fairly straightforward with us about what Brody's up to, and I think the drama has been richer for the lack of a narrative shell game. But there's definitely some wiggle room next year for what's truly on his heart and mind.
As for Carrie, we know what's on her mind in the closing seconds - the name Issa, which she heard Brody blurt out in a nightmare, and which she realizes was the murdered son of Abu Nazir - but her mind is about to be very changed, thanks to her decision to have electro shock therapy to deal with her bipolar disorder. Where Brody eventually declines to set off the bomb strapped to his chest, Carrie winds up blowing up her entire life to stop the guy (and, again, doesn't entirely realize that she's done it). Her mental illness has been exposed, as have the various illegal and/or unethical acts she committed in her pursuit of Brody. She has no job - even if she insists to Virgl that "It'll always be my job!" - and just as she's on the verge of finally piecing together the Brody puzzle, the shocks hit her and zap her short-term memory.
Carrie will get back on the scent in season 2... somehow. She'll get her job back... somehow. (Or, failing that, she and Virgil will drive around in his van solving mysteries, which is a show I would not in any way object to watching.) Maybe Gordon, Gansa and company will have to contort themselves a little to get the pieces back into place for the new season, but after how well they brought things home in the finale, they have earned a huge benefit of the doubt second time around.
Some other thoughts:
* Fienberg is going to interview Alex Gansa tomorrow, and I'll link to that piece when it's up. UPDATE: And here it is.
* One plot thread left hanging, for now: who was the mole? Or was there a mole at all? As I've said, I'd be displeased if it turns out to be Saul, and the subplot with Saul investigating the drone strike would seem to point suspicion away from both him and David. If there has to be a mole, I'd almost rather it be someone we haven't met yet or don't care about. One thing that occurs to me is that Nazir knew Brody was going to be offered a chance to run for office. At one point, I wondered if Elizabeth Gaines might be working for him, and it's possible she was (and was sacrificed without realizing it), but that kind of knowledge seems like it would have come from outside the CIA offices.
* I'm not sure I noticed Chris Chalk in anything before he turned up in this show as Tom Walker, but he made a very strong impression given minimal screen time and even more minimal dialogue. Like Danes and Lewis, it's a performance defined by physicality (the stillness, precision and sense of purpose seemed perfect for a bad-ass Marine sniper), and one that was striking every time he was on screen. I'll miss him, even if Walker outlived his story usefulness. And before he went away, we got some blanks filled in on Brody's memories of captivity, as we learn that Walker turned more quickly than Brody did, and participated in the faking of his own death to help break his partner.
* I also liked the moment where Walker ruffled the hair of the woman whose apartment he used as his perch and walked out with her still alive; he has no need to hide his identity, so why bother killing her?
* For that matter, I appreciated the various moral grey areas the show has gone into throughout the season, not just with Carrie's illegal surveillance of the Brody family, but the drone strike that inspired Brody's mission, Saul and David's debate about how certain attempts to fight terrorism can only create more terrorists, etc. The plot structure of "24" didn't allow for much in the way of moral ambiguity - Jack Bauer didn't have the time to debate ethics, man! - but it's good to see that some of the same writers can raise these questions within the framework of a show that seems more conducive to them.
* I liked the transition from Carrie lying awake in her bed to Brody lying awake in his; as we were reminded in those early episodes when she was just watching him on TV, they are the same in many ways.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com