In Slate’s Homeland TV Club, June Thomas will IM each week with a different partner—policy experts, intelligence researchers, critics, and even Slate commenters. This week she chats with Fred Kaplan, Slate’s “War Stories” columnist and author of the forthcoming book The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War.
June Thomas: Fred, thanks for joining me again. That was an odd, tense episode, full of genuine surprises and emotional payoff. The killing of Abu Nazir seemed almost anti-climactic after last week's high drama and two years of chasing him. His end was more Saddam "Spider Hole" Hussein than Osama "Abbottabad Crash Pad" Bin Laden. If I had to boil this week's episode down to one theme, I'd say it was "the things we choose not to say or hear." Which of those things did you find most dramatic?
Fred Kaplan: June, I'm sorry, did you say "dramatic"? The most notable thing about this episode is how undramatic it was. That says it all, to my mind, about the weird direction the series has taken this season—that what should have been the climax should be so banal. I still can't suspend my disbelief; it's been violated too often. Nazir is down in these tunnels, like Orson Welles in The Third Man, all by himself? The FBI guy who gets killed separates from his partner—even after one character has noted, five minutes earlier, that they always work in pairs? Emily Nussbaum came up with a very clever theory explaining all the improbable plot points from last episode, but her theory was wrong. The scriptwriters just don't know how to write their way from one point to another. I'd say that next season, they should hire Emily.
Thomas: I suspect I said this to you last time we talked, but Fred: Stop making sense. Yes, the FBI tac guy talking with Carrie separating off and going alone into the room that only Carrie could see was ridiculous, but I've long ago stopped fretting about those details. I'm in it for the emotions—this episode was about loyalty. Some people—Carrie and Brody, Saul and righteousness, Quinn to Estes—stayed loyal to each other. Others—Estes more than anyone, Jess after a long attempt to stick it out with Brody—prioritized expediency. But you and your reality-based kind get hung up on questions like why would Abu Nazir let kidnapped Carrie keep her phone. [Update Dec. 10, 2012: As several commenters pointed out, Abu Nazir did take Carrie's phone; she "borrowed" one from a truck driver and somehow got another when the cavalry arrived in Dalton's Mill.]
Kaplan: You're right, June, I guess I'm too much a reality-based guy. But I do think one responsibility of a dramatist is to create if not reality then at least a simulacrum that has some internally consistent logic. This one doesn't. There were two scenes that I did like very much. One was Carrie's interrogation of Roya Hammad. She starts doing her pop-psychology bit, which worked well with a screwed-up, torn guy like Brody. But it doesn't work with this hard-core terrorist. She starts screaming at Carrie in Arabic. Some people cannot be turned. And some CIA agents aren't good interrogators.
Thomas: I also liked that scene. I loved Roya's trick—"Have you ever had someone who somehow takes over your life, pulls you in. Makes you do things ... that you know are wrong, but you can't help yourself? Do you have anyone like that?" she asked her. Claire Danes made one of her great faces, showing that Carrie knew she had made a connection. Then moments later, Roya was laughing in her face and calling her an "idiot whore." But Roya's Arabic screaming ultimately led them to Abu Nazir. It was a verb that Roya used that led Carrie (and convinced Quinn) that Abu Nazir was still in the tunnel. So—as always—Carrie's interrogation really did yield the goods.
Kaplan: But, see, I thought that was a bit contrived. "He won't run," she interprets to mean "He didn't leave that hide-out." A bit much. There was, I should note, one other scene I liked a lot: the one between Brody and Jess in the car, where they're parsing the sheaf of lies that their marriage—their whole life—has become, and Brody says, "I was fucked the moment I left for Iraq. We all were." "We all," I assume, meaning all of us. We're all screwed up by the logic unleashed by the invasion of Iraq, the war on terror, the twisting of law, of fear, of concepts of security, the whole bit. It's a little heavy-handed, and a soap-opera scene in an SUV isn't quite heavy enough to bear the full poignancy of this revelation—but I hope it marks a return to what were once the show's compelling themes.
Thomas: We're once again in agreement. That was a beautiful scene—two people who just can't argue or pretend anymore and are both finally willing to accept the truth. They've been "together" since they were 16, but those eight years they were separated while Brody was in Abu Nazir's hands, ripped them apart forever. No matter how much she tried, Jess just couldn't bring herself to hear exactly what happened to him out there. Carrie knows and accepts it. That's what makes it possible for Jess to let go.
I'm glad she said goodbye, because I'm worried about Brody. And Carrie. I have come to respect Quinn. But he's a soldier, and soldiers obey orders. Brody and Carrie's love affair might be coming to an end soon.
Kaplan: This is another thing that bothers me about the show's direction. A once-dramatic (truly dramatic) show about terrorism and spies and conflicting loyalties and the legacy of a misbegotten war—all this is reduced to a tangled love story between a talented but psychotic CIA agent who's complicit in the murder of an admittedly dreadful vice president and a duplicitous but conscience-struggling terrorist. I'm afraid that the Anne Hathaway parody of the show on Saturday Night Live a few weeks ago took out the steam that the scriptwriters hadn't blown out themselves.
Thomas: As Dana will eventually learn, there's no point sulking over spilled milk. I'm very curious about what we'll see next week. Carrie and Brody are together, and Quinn is outside no doubt with his sniper's rifle—two birds with one stone. Saul is our only hope, and he may have fallen victim to a sneaky polygraph. But I'm pulling for the bearded wonder.
Kaplan: I'll agree, these guys do know how to make you turn the page. Even I'm wondering what happens next, and I'll be watching next Sunday. But it's been true for a while that Veep offers a more trenchant portrait of how Washington works, and now I'd go so far to say that Dexter has deeper insight into the complexities of human relations.
Thomas: I have one last question for you, Fred: Are you sometimes called The Bear?
Kaplan: I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you.