Twist or Trick: How 'Homeland' Further Damaged Its Reputation
Those early signs that Showtime's "Homeland" was getting back on track were a dream deferred with smoke, mirrors and a camera's lie. How can viewers believe what they see now?
[Warning: Spoilers ahead for last Sunday's episode of Homeland, "Game On"]
On Sunday night's Homeland episode – the fourth of the season – we learned the difference between a twist and a trick. It was not a good lesson.
Well, actually, we didn't learn about the trick until executive producer and amateur magician Alex Gansa explained it. Up until that point it was just an ill-advised twist that put believability in Homeland up for debate yet again (see: all of season two). After Gansa explained the intentions of the "Game On" episode, it just became a trick that he seems smugly proud of when, in fact, it was the easiest kind of trick and thus the cheapest.
And now, perhaps, the most damaging. Not only because it undermines viewers' faith and brings Homeland's heaviest albatross – plausibility – back to center stage, but also because Gansa seems to be suggesting that this "phase" of the season is over and now it will go back to breakneck speed in its storytelling, which scares me far more than Sunday's trick annoyed me. More on that later.
In the meantime, if you didn't watch Sunday's episode, stop reading. If you did watch the episode, then you'll know that everything we've witnessed this season with Carrie has been an elaborate ruse concocted between her and Saul to out the Iranian terrorist responsible for the attack on the CIA.
Which means that everything Carrie was going through – all of the crazy emotions, paranoia, anger at being betrayed, the hospitalization, the tears, the worries and every single facial expression viewers witnessed was a manipulation.
Except that, from a storytelling perspective, it doesn't add up. Even if we are to assume, now that the ruse has been revealed, that Carrie was "acting" in case outside forces (the Iranians) or inside forces of dubious intentions (Dar Adal) were watching her, the logic only works part of the time (in public) and even then not all the time. Homeland is using the camera's point of view to manipulate the audience into thinking one thing while winking that it was all fake – and yet the camera catches moments (Carrie saying "F--- you, Saul" at the end of the second episode, or Carrie, alone, crying and feeling hurt by Saul tossing her reputation to the congressional dogs) that had no reason to be faked. It's just too convenient to say, "Oh, even though Carrie knew Saul was going to do that, it still hurt seeing it." For one thing, that's lazy. For another, it doesn't explain subtleties like Carrie's slow head shake that indicates disbelief that Saul would do such a thing.
You can't use the camera to both deceive and to lie outright to the viewer. That's not a twist or even a trick. It's cheating. It's hackery.
It's also lazy and dangerous. Gansa and his writers can claim "twist" when it feels more like "gotcha" to the viewer. Saying that the show will now move forward all-too-conveniently dismisses the inconsistencies of the execution in this trick and asks the audience not to go back and question what happened. Just go with it, is what the Homeland writers seem to be saying. But the danger in that is that we can never believe what we see in the future. Is Brody really bleeding? Or is that fake? Is Dana's boyfriend going to turn out to be working for the Iranians as well? How manipulated are we supposed to feel?
I was dearly hoping that Homeland would turn into a Saul-centric show. Mandy Patinkin is superb in it, for starters, and his character grounds much of the nonsense that sprouted in season two. This is why Gansa's "reveal" is so damaging. This season we got Saul worn down by events, disconnected from his wife. He's portrayed as unable to make a decision in the season opener – but now we're to believe he'd already made an incredibly risky decision to use Carrie as both bait for the Iranians and discredited agent for the press and for Americans. We're to believe that Saul is so precise in his worrying that he's going to call off a strike on six terrorists because one link doesn't work, but he was the mastermind behind this high-risk gambit with Carrie?
Dubious. And does that mean that tracking the Iranian connection through the bank records, which seemed to be really getting somewhere, was a fall-back plan?
I think part of this storytelling cockiness comes from how great season one was. Despite my serious disappointment in season two (which turned into a love story instead of a terrorist spy story and eschewed the hard storytelling work of season one for a more absurdist 24 take on action and plausibility), I remain an ardent and appreciative supporter of the freshman season.
But that success has clearly led to ill-advised decisions and Homeland has suffered from it. The series went from great to not very good in some kind of dubious record last season. What's bothersome now is that the first two episodes of this current season were very good. Until they were revealed, on Sunday, to be something other than what we watched. The third episode, with Brody in Caracas, was good but uneven. And while many viewers seem to be tired of the Brody children (and even wife Jessica), I think season three is actually making up for the missteps it took with the kids' storyline in the first two seasons. Look, yes, Dana has been supremely annoying, and season two solidified that. But season three has taken impressive, believable strides in trying to address what the Brody home life would be like after the world finds out your dad is a terrorist monster. And it's Dana – the whipping girl of so many fans – who is the character getting the chance to convey that side of the story (a side that must be told if Homeland wants to be taken seriously, which it apparently still does despite getting in its own way all the time).
I don't see the idea – key word there – of the Dana storyline as a bad thing. The execution might be something else entirely going forward. We'll see. At the same time, the son seems superfluous to the series, and the writers don't really know what to do with Jessica. Those are issues I was worried about prior to Sunday's episode.
Now I'm worried about everything. Because by undermining the believability of what we see, Homeland has taken on a risk it can't afford. Just when the series seemed to be getting back on track, this cheat happens.
Worse, I'm concerned about Gansa hinting that Homeland will now press down hard on the accelerator means a return to the 24-esque hijinks of last season.
I'll still watch. But my hope that the first two episodes of this season were putting Homeland back on track seems shattered now that I'm supposed to believe that 98 percent of the first four episodes were a hoax.
It might just be easier to watch Homeland with the understanding that the greatness in season one was a fluke and expectations should be adjusted accordingly at this point.