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. In this final exchange, she chats with Ross Gottesman, who comments in Slate under the name BriefWit. He also writes at brief-wit.com and tweets under the same handle.
June Thomas: Hi Ross, thanks for coming back and working the early shift in the Slate Homeland opinion mines. Last night, David Haglund and I shared our initial responses to the finale; this morning our task is to consider the series as a whole. As much as I've enjoyed (and defended) the show throughout Season 2, I admit to being disappointed overall. Even as the writers were asking us to go along with some tough-to-swallow plot points, I retained my faith in them. I thought they were going to make some important points about some of the big issues of the day. The finale left me disappointed overall. After feinting at a lot of topics, the only one they took seriously was the love affair between Brody and Carrie. And, frankly, even that wasn't terribly convincing.
Ross Gottesman: Thanks for having me back, June. I'm of a similar mindset. The finale had one or two notable moments, but overall, the episode and the season bugged me. Season 1 of Homeland came out of nowhere and floored me. I was initially attracted because of the great characters and a provocative, audience-challenging set-up that cut to the heart of nationalism, terrorism, and surveillance. Now that this season is over, I'm left asking, why did the writers go in this direction? What was the point?
Thomas: My sense is that after the response to the amazing penultimate episode of Season 1 (the one that if it were an episode of Friends would be titled "The One With the Vest"), the writers became thrill-seekers. They got addicted to twists and turns—and in the end all that did was make some viewers sick to our stomachs.
Having said that, I don't want to let my disappointment color me too negative. The bright spot for me this season was the Brody family—yes, even Dana's hit and run. Homeland was always "inspired by" the Israeli show Hatufim rather than being an American version of it, but I was glad to see the writers return to the issue at the center of the Israeli show: how coming back affects—and messes up—everyone involved. The question of whether Jess could do the right thing—a vague but real imperative, policed by everyone from Cynthia Walden to Dana and Chris—and make her marriage work finally got the focus it deserved. The decision to split, and the general acceptance that having Mike in the family would be better for everyone involved, was one of the few things that felt fully credible.
Gottesman: That seems right. As the writers told the New York Times: "Our motto is, give up the secret before the audience expects it. Because you guys know it’s coming. The only way we can surprise you is to deliver it ahead of schedule." The resolution toward a semblance of normal family life in the finale was responsible. The Finn (RIP) and Dana hit and run was gruesome (both as depicted and as a plot point), but it was redeemed in the way it revealed the true colors of the parents and the controversial wrench Carrie threw in its way.
Man, it would be great to see the characters from this show re-enact the opening of Friends in that fountain.
Thomas: Maybe that's what was going on in that surveillance scene with Roya and the leader of the raid on the Gettysburg tailor's shop. They made us think it was tradecraft that made Roya talk with Mysterious Bad Guy No. 1 next to the fountain so as to foil Max’s microphones. In fact, it was a Friends hommage. And really, is there any better summation of the state of Carrie's mind at the beginning of Season 2 than the following: "Your job's a joke, you're broke, your love life's DOA." Then by the end of the season, Brody was singing to her thusly: "I'll be there for you, when the rain starts to pour./ I'll be there for you, like I've been there before./ I'll be there for you, cause you're there for me too."
Gottesman: Ha! That Friends thought reminds me of the one when Rachel makes the trifle. Joey says: "What's not to like? Custard, good. Jam, good. Meat, good!" That's a metaphor for this season of Homeland to me. It had ingredients that on their own can be tasty and satisfying, but the way they were prepared was not palatable.
In the end, that should be the goal: Is it satisfying? I mean, does the story resolve itself to an ending you are comfortable or pleased with as a viewer? Does it ask a compelling question or leave you with a cliffhanger you ask your friends about all summer?
Thomas: Exactly! A friend suggested to me that Saul was creating all this havoc to bring his wife back. My first thought was that it was a ridiculous idea—no one would unleash the forces of global terrorism to mend a broken heart. But after this Love, Actually kind of season, I wouldn't put it past them.
Gottesman: It was interesting to see Saul on both sides of Brody. He braves Estes for Three Days of the Conference Room to defend Rep. Brody from assassination, but he tears into Carrie for pursuing a relationship with someone who will always be a terrorist.
Thomas: Yes, that was a flashback to the "good" Homeland, which could explore multiple sides of an issue. Saul's was a morally consistent position: You can't just kill U.S. citizens you perceive to be enemies, but that doesn't mean you can have a relationship with one—even if he has provided real, useful intelligence and has maybe returned his allegiances to our side—and still keep your job.
Gottesman: When a would-be terrorist tries to blow up a temple in New York City, but doesn't, we don't say, "Well, they didn't, so they can be redeemed.”
We should also say the acting still remains tip-top. An argument can be made that the performances were better this season, and that the actors deserve to win Emmys again. What I don't get is, as terrific as Damian Lewis is onscreen, why should we care about Brody anymore?
Thomas: I agree about the acting, and that's why I'll keep watching this show come what may. The season finale was full of excellent performances: Brody and Carrie were awkward around each other, both trying desperately not to seem desperate about how things would go now that a lot of pressure was off. Lewis and Danes were absolutely convincing in those roles. And Saul's lop-sided grin when he saw that Carrie was alive and back by his side at the end of the episode was a glorious note to go out on.
Gottesman: Agreed. I would watch a show about Saul running the CIA. I would watch a show about Saul running the NEA. I would watch a show about Saul running a P.F. Chang's franchise. Perhaps with Toby Ziegler from The West Wing in a perfect world. Imagine the beards and debates.
It takes a lot for me to quit on a show I liked so much. Homeland was a great show. For now, it's a good one.
Thomas: Thank goodness it's still a great one to talk about. Ross, thanks to you and the other regular commenters for making this TV Club so much fun. I especially appreciated your joining me in these IMs. As the great Saul Berenson (who I still have my suspicions about) put it: Thanks for the milk.