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 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: Ross, I'm so happy you could join me to discuss this episode. Every Monday I look forward to reading your response in the Slate comments, so I'm glad I don't have to wait this week.
This felt like a transitional episode, the moment when Brody cracked and perhaps when Carrie proved she's still sane. It was a quiet episode, full of pauses and silent freak-outs. And that crazy reveal at the end told us what will happen next: We really are going to have another assault on U.S. soil. Did you buy Brody's breakdown?
Ross Gottesman: Hi June, it's a total pleasure to be here! I enjoyed this week's show insofar as it advanced the plot, or the inevitability of certain reckonings. Brody's freak-out was authentic to me. He's a pingpong ball in a game between the CIA and Nazir's organization. Or maybe he’s in a game of Canadian doubles with his family thrown in there? At a certain point, he can't take it or make sense of it anymore. The stakes have to be high as the season starts its rush to a finale, so the reveal (oh my gosh, Nazir shaved!) worked. He seems simultaneously less threatening without facial hair, and more so now that he is on U.S. soil.
Thomas: So true! Now Saul's the only one with heaven-may-care grooming. The show's anxiety transferred over to me this week—I was just as afraid as the CIA agents that the operation was going to go to hell, and they'd lose their one connection to Abu Nazir. Ultimately, I was afraid that Brody was going to kill himself—as we've seen so recently, just about anything can help a person commit suicide if they're determined enough. I guess now I just have to wonder who else he'll take with him if he does go that route. I was almost surprised by the final scene: If we hadn’t seen Brody scared and shocked when Abu Nazir showed up, we might be wondering if he is still committed to jihad, and if he's just been playing a changed man for the benefit of his CIA handlers.
Gottesman: That prison warden didn't know what he was talking about. I would love to have a pied-à-terre in Saul's beard. You raise a good point about anxiety, though. As viewers, we are like the CIA. We don’t know what the terrorists are doing, so we speculate or obsess over it. After all, Roya knew a lot about Brody's day. How much surveillance does Nazir's organization have? I wasn't worried about Brody's life, but only because I can't see the writers taking that step. I also wasn't surprised by the final scene, but that is partially because the "previously on" segment softened the blow. Still, I think you’re onto something now that Brody is a POW, this time at home: Does he still harbor any desire to be a terrorist or to get revenge on Walden? By the way, how long can they keep Walden et al. in the dark? This is a matter of national security and criminality (not just sex, as the Petraeus affair appears to be, at least so far). Does it warrant disclosure?
Thomas: On one level disclosure seems essential, but this week we were reminded that "the right thing" isn't always the best solution. When Dana was dining with Mike, he told her he had no regrets about “doing the right thing” when Brody came home, but when Dana, all fired up by Mike's righteousness, goes to talk with the daughter of the woman Finn mowed down, she's profoundly disturbed to learn that the wrong thing—the Waldens' side deal, which offers the woman’s family some financial security—is a much better arrangement for her survivors. That shakes everything up. Last season Brody did the right thing by not exploding his vest; this season doing the right thing might well mean taking out the people around him—if they're terrorists who are threatening the United States. It's all very confusing!
Gottesman: It’s certainly a strange lesson for Dana. The show was also pretty heavy-handed in contrasting Brody to Mike, in knowing and doing the right thing. And in showing that Mike is implicitly a better father by being there for the family. Also, how much time elapsed between the end of the last episode and the start of this one? It didn't seem like much more than a day, in which case, Walden's bribers are darned efficient.
Speaking of being right, does it bother you that Carrie is right, which is to say correct, almost every time? (That Brody could be put back on track, that he was going to be kidnapped, etc.)
Thomas: I've had some issues with Carrie's amazing batting average—Nate Silver would have a term for her Gut Instincts Over Replacement, or some such—but, as you said earlier with regard to Brody, what's the alternative? That she's wrong and he is cut off by Roya/gets killed/just curls in a ball and refuses to get up?
I wish we had more of a sense of why she's so good. Sure, she works hard, but we haven't seen any of the CIA team slacking—Quinn is working around the clock when he should be lying in a hospital bed. (No word about Galvez this episode, right? That's not a good sign.) Saul sacrificed his marriage for the cause. So what is it about Carrie that explains her impressive record? I don't think the show has told us, and on reflection I don't think it's just that she's crazy like a fox. So, is it some romantic thing? Are she and Brody just naturally on the same wavelength? Or is she so in love with him that she will do anything—make a fool of herself when the rest of us would just stay silent—to keep him alive?
Gottesman: But wait, if we’ve learned anything from Nate Silver, isn't it that gut instincts are overrated?
They haven't explored Carrie’s bipolar condition in weeks, if that is an explanation for why she’s so good. And they haven't revealed enough about her past or training to be persuasive. She clearly connects with Brody and has a heightened ability to think as others do. I was going to pose similar questions to yours: Does Carrie remain smitten, or did she just have sex in the motel for the job? Do the writers think we are supposed to know? Was it love, or a last resort to calm him down?
Nothing on Galvez, who by the way has been among the mole suspects. Even Jim Cramer is speculating on Twitter. "#Homeland—Saul and Estes are, in the end, perhaps too obvious as moles? I was going with Galvez, but doesn't look like that's so smart." Does there have to a mole? Does this show need one? The writers already flipped us all on our heads once by having Brody apprehended by the CIA in the hotel room.
Thomas: I think there is a mole—things have happened that suggested "the other side" was getting help—but perhaps we viewers need to believe that there’s cheating going on. If it were a fair fight, it would be even more terrifying. Or maybe a mole is a genre requirement: “Spy story = good guys + bad guys + mole + board with lots of photos connected by colored string.”
One turn of phrase that stood out to me this episode came when Carrie talked with Brody about "this deal of ours." That reminded me of Cosa Nostra, "this thing of ours," and Sinn Fein, "ourselves alone." That puts Homeland in the context of secret societies and illicit organizations, and God knows it has all those things.
Gottesman: Sigh. I just hope it isn't someone implausible. The "deal of ours" is necessarily unseemly. It laid bare that the CIA is a sort of state-sponsored mafia that we are glad looks out for us. It's like The Sopranos, but with bigger stakes than Tony and Meadow getting wacked.
I've often thought that if the U.S. v. al-Qaida were a fair fight in the real world, it would be paralyzing. If anything is reassuring, it's how many resources we have that they don't. Speaking of the real world, do you make anything of the notion that Homeland is (intentionally or not) influencing thinking on the issues it concerns itself with? It obviously takes things to extremes, but it has landed in the zeitgeist especially within media and political circles. And if it does, what is it trying to say?
The other recent show that stands out for this is The West Wing. As much as I liked it, it didn't do much to influence the national debate. And there is no show about domestic policy that could ever be exciting enough to woo an audience and sway people. (I already scrapped my fiscal cliff reality show pitch.)
Thomas: As ridiculous as this may seem, given how many Americans--in uniform and otherwise—are putting themselves at risk around the world, if Homeland is having any impact in the real world, I suspect it's in reminding the few hundred thousand of us who watch every week that all this stuff is hella complicated. When something terrible happens, people always ask, "Why didn't we see this coming?" Wouldn't it be crazy if a sometimes ridiculous piece of fiction like Homeland is what it takes to remind us how difficult surveillance is. Even when you have great equipment and dedicated people, and you know who the enemy is, it's still nigh-on impossible to find a few needles—terrorists—in the haystack of America.
From shows like The West Wing (and the great Scandinavian show Borgen, about Denmark's first female prime minister), the winning ingredient seems to be hopefulness. We don't want to watch TV shows about people being cynical about politics. We want to see smart people, working hard, trying to make the world a better place. Homeland is doing that, but it's still not always easy to watch the compromises that people have to make to further their goals.
Gottesman: One question: Why are clips of Louis Armstrong featured so deliberately in the opening credits? Why connect jazz with terrorism and investigation? I've landed on the metaphorical side, that terrorists and CIA analysts are jazz musicians, improvising and syncopating to the changes in their set. Carrie obviously does this, and Roya does it in this episode when she meets Brody in the garage and drives off to the field. (How does Roya get away all day from her job as a correspondent? Is she writing a long piece on Brody? Perhaps a Slate Fresca?)
Thomas: Ooh, the famous and much-despised opening credit sequence, surely the only one in the history of television to feature not just one, but two unbleeped F bombs. I admit that I usually fast-forward though it, but I always figured that Carrie's identity as a jazz aficionada served two purposes—one, to show that she is a woman apart, someone who finds her own passions rather than going along with whatever's popular at the time; and then, as you to suggest, to show that her brain is attuned to the riffing and improvisation that we associate with jazz. I'm still not sure about the lion's head though.