Don't read on unless you have seen "The Star," the Season 3 finale of "Homeland."
The third season of "Homeland" ended with an action that symbolized so much of what had come before: Carrie commemorated her obsession with Nicholas Brody in a way that broke the rules. And like a lot of other things that happened this season, it didn't make a whole lot of sense.
Doesn't the CIA have cameras everywhere, especially in its lobby? Wouldn't someone see what she had done? Wouldn't she face consequences? Well, no, because this is "Homeland," where Carrie Mathison can pretty much do anything she wants and never face any long-term consequences.
Oh, "Homeland." I wish that moment had landed for me, I really do, but like Carrie's star, the season was off-kilter and off-balance. I didn't dislike the finale -- when the characters sat and talked to each other, it had effective moments, and from time to time, it even felt like the "Homeland" of old. But much of the third season felt as hastily scrawled and ill-advised as that lopsided star.
Where does "Homeland" go from here? I don't know, but I pray to all the available gods that both it and Carrie drop the Brody obsession. The show's uneven, often preposterous and generally disappointing 2013 episodes served as proof that Brody died about a season too late.
As others have pointed out, somewhere toward the end of the show's second season, "Homeland" swerved hard in a new direction -- it became an unreasonable shipper.
A bit of context, for those unfamiliar with the term: Shipping is short for "relationship." Some devoted fans of certain shows start hoping for two characters to get together romantically, and if you're in favor of a particular hookup, you're said to be "shipping" that pair.
There's nothing intrinsically wrong with shipping: Many shippers have fun with their fixations and enjoy communing with like-minded souls, and sometimes, those fans even get to see their preferred ships on screen. Sometimes those on-screen pairings work out, sometimes they don't, and some ships never set sail on screen, but the impulse toward shipping is understandable. Who hasn't spent a bit of time daydreaming about what would happen if two well-drawn characters had an Epic Romance? Part of the fun of a good story can be extending it and embroidering it in our brains.
As is the case with any kinds of fans -- NASCAR lovers or wine devotees or TV obsessives -- there are those who participate in productive, enthusiastic and delightful ways. Then there are those who appear to be bound and determined to derail message boards, throw verbal bombs and otherwise whip up a community up until everyone is in an uproar. They're the minority, but some shippers, if allowed to, will shout down anyone who opposes them and engage in ship-to-ship combat with those who dare to sail in other directions. Their single-mindedness can be shrill, tiresome and -- worst of all -- predictable.
That's my long way of saying, boy, am I sorry "Homeland" shipped Carrie-Brody so obsessively and relentlessly. That fixation drove off, consumed or sublimated a lot of the things that made the drama so potent in the first place.
This show was always going to have a short shelf life, not unlike the similarly intense "Breaking Bad." With some shows, there's simply a limited number of seasons that can potentially be good before the whole enterprise strays into cartoonland. Espionage and intelligence work have high burnout rates, and I hope no one associated with "Homeland" wants it to run as many seasons as "Dexter" did (and if they do, may hellfire rain down upon their souls).
The problem is, turning "Homeland" into the Carrie and Brody show substantially cut down that already slender window of potential quality.
A show that drills down into the moral, ethical and personal choices of characters embroiled in the world of national security -- now that's a show that could be good for a reasonably long period of time -- say, five or six seasons. That potent mix of personal and professional secrecy helped make "Homeland" invigorating in Season 1 and in parts of Season 2 as well. As the third season wound down, it became ever more apparent that "Homeland" should have seriously considered doubling down on those core concepts and themes, rather than spending the lion's share of its energy on the drama's chosen OTP ("one true pairing," in shipping terms).
What if we could watch a high-stakes, intellectually challenging and emotionally rich show that depicted various characters going through a set of evolving professional and personal challenges that put lives and the future of nations at stake? What if Brody had died in Season 2 and Carrie and Saul had had to reconstruct their personal and professional lives in a post-Brody, post-CIA bombing world?
What if "Homeland" had ceded some screen time to new and returning characters and built out the world of the CIA, rather narrowing the focusing to that one relationship? Imagine stories about intimacy, truth and loyalty playing out among an interlocking series of fraught relationships -- relationships built upon the rock of Saul and Carrie's weird father-daughter bond. Imagine "Homeland" not as a mash note to two star-crossed lovers (who never actually spent much time together this season), but as an ode to the sacrifices that front-line operatives continually make in the name of national security. More "Rubicon," less doomed romance.
That kind of "Homeland 2.0" could have retained its signature intensity and even its pulpier, pulse-pounding elements as it transitioned away from Carrie-Brody, and it could have retained what was good about "Homeland 1.0." Carrie's agonies could have threaded through the show's next waves of stories, and Saul could have continued grounding her flights of fancy and her plunges into despair. New allies, enemies and ambiguous friends could have been woven into and out of stories about realpolitik, betrayal, intimacy, terrorism and loneliness.
But instead of crackling trips in Virgil's van and the development of characters like Quinn and Dar Adal, the show remained stuck in a sweaty car with Carrie and Brody. Even Brody seemed tired of it at the end, and why wouldn't he be? Carrie's single-minded devotion seemed a little adolescent and shrill this season. We didn't learn much that was new about either of them, and we didn't explore interesting ideas about intimacy in a world shot through with trust issues.
The fact that the finale was a relatively quiet, dignified affair that allowed Brody to finally have his longed-for exit doesn't really take away from the fact that a host of ill-judged decisions played out this season. As Brody's head was put in a noose, all I could think was, "I'm betting Damian Lewis is glad he can move on to other things now." All he'd been asked to play for so long was haunted sadness; there was so little emotional variety for either lead actor this season.
The time spent on Dana Brody was almost a complete waste (I thought we'd find out in the finale that she was informed of her father's heroism, but I guess not. Oh well). When the season began, I didn't necessarily object to "Homeland" showing the damage done to the Brodys and what Nicholas' complete failure as a father and husband had done to them, but all of that could have been handled in a much more succinct and effective fashion.
The parallels between Dana and her dad really never had much juice, nor did Dana's tedious road trip with her boyfriend. Once all that was done, however, the season pivoted back to Carrie and Brody, but it never really made me all that interested in their bond. They've gone around in circles so long that it was hard to care. Isn't it telling that one of the most satisfying aspects of the last third of the season episodes was the introduction of the nameless Special Forces guys? They were great, but of course, they had to die, because Carrie-Brody-Carrie-Brody-Carrie-Brody.
Until the finale, a lot of the emotional beats involving the lead characters didn't land for me, partly because the show's been making odd decisions about what to include and what to gloss over. There was the trickery of Carrie and Saul's mental-hospital play, which felt cheap and manipulative. Then before you know it, Brody was back in Iran; somehow junkie Brody had been turned into a fighting machine before you could say Abu Nazir.
It should have mattered that Brody only decided to kill the Iranian spy chief when Brody heard that he and Abu Nazir had decided in that very room to remake the former Marine into their "sword." But that moment didn't have a ton of impact for me, because the Iranian guy was a cipher and the ambiguity about Brody's motivations stopped being interesting some time ago. There's only so much indecision and flipflopping I can take before I lose track of what matters to a character.
What's weird is that "Homeland" rushed past a lot of events and incidents that could have illuminated Brody's path to that Tehran office: His metamorphosis from depressed drug addict to competent field operative was lightning fast and not quite credible. Brody was offered a way out of Iran but turned it down -- why? Ultimately it seemed that he turned it down because the plot required him to.
Similarly, I wished I cared about what Carrie wanted at various points, but I stopped caring the minute she started walking across the motel parking lot in order to save her boyfriend. As many others have written, a very difficult Carrie who is difficult and abrasive in service of her country is one thing. A difficult and abrasive Carrie who puts one guy's needs ahead of her country's goals is a much harder pill to swallow.
Her one saving grace used to be that she was good at her job, but come on, the Carrie we saw this season was all over the map. I found it very hard to believe she'd be given an important posting in the Middle East. For two seasons, she has lied, been insubordinate, ignored orders and put a personal relationship ahead of missions. That's what it takes to get a promotion from the CIA -- a CIA run by the guy who publicly called Carrie out as an unstable wild card?
Yes, I know that ultimately the Javadi/Iran play worked, and that might have bought Carrie some goodwill inside the agency, but she's proven time and again that she's not a team player and often unwilling to listen to her superiors. I wish the show had made me care for her despite all that, but she grated on my nerves for long stretches this season. In any event, I would have thought that an unpredictable agent like her would get ground down by the system, not put in a leadership position, but what do I know?
Ultimately, the grand Carrie-Brody ship ran aground well before the season ended. The scene between them in the Iranian safe house was well-acted -- this is still a tremendously talented cast -- but by that point, Carrie was the only person in the world who thought Brody could or should be saved. From where I sat, the live wire that threw off such sparks between them early in the show's run had long since shorted out. The most incendiary, fantastic parts of Seasons 1 and 2 made their emotional states and their bond feel palpable and alive. Now Carrie-Brody-Carrie-Brody-Carrie-Brody comes off like a slogan that has lost its punch; by the end, it felt like an uninspired Don Draper pitch.
The secondary problem this season is that "Homeland" surrounded all that emotional implausibility with shoddy plot constructions that had more holes than the apartments in the Tower of David.
Don't get me wrong, I know there was always a big load of crazy baked right into "Homeland," even in its earlier seasons. The CIA operating on U.S. soil, a mentally ill agent allowed free reign over important operations, a Marine turned by Islamic terrorists getting access to the inner sanctums of power again and again -- I get that it was never super-believable in the first place.
But if the emotions and relationships were electric, if the thematic density was rich and compelling, so what? Plausibility is a much less pressing concern when a show was delivering in a reasonably interesting way in those arenas. But this season, we've had to put up with plots that lurched around like Carrie after a tequila bender. I could have gotten past the fake-out at the end of Episode 4 had the show gone on to better things, and some of the stuff with Javadi and the Special Forces guys was moderately interesting (even if I still don't get why the Javadi family murders had to happen). But then "Homeland" had to go and mess with Saul.
The one idea I kept coming back to this season was that Saul would save it; his magical beard would somehow salvage what was salvageable and make it OK. "Homeland's" still able to establish interesting moods and find good locations and deliver suspenseful action on occasion, so if Saul didn't falter, maybe he could somehow bring this erratic ship into the harbor. I wanted nothing more than for "Homeland" to pull off the TV equivalent of a Gentleman's C.
But I began heaving big, giant, beard-worthy sighs when Saul unveiled Part Deux of his Iran Play. One of the main features of this season has been my husband or I stopping the DVR every few minutes to talk about something that confuses us or irritates us, and nothing has been more of a DVR stopper than Saul's Brody operation.
So let me get this straight: The CIA basically owns the No. 2 guy in Iran's Revolutionary Guard. I'm no intelligence professional, but that sounds like a big win to me. Why not solidify that coup rather than endanger it? Why not develop that asset and put things into play over time? Why put that amazing, once-in-a-lifetime intelligence win at risk by putting a former drug addict with unstable loyalties and a mentally challenged agent with unstable loyalties in close proximity to that asset? What are the odds of that going south? Aren't they very, very high? Am I the only one who felt like this?
I'm not asking for "Homeland" to be a documentary about high-level espionage, but if the show wanted me to buy into something Saul bet the farm on, it should be an amazing, jaw-droppingly awesome plan. If deliberate, circumspect Saul was going to throw caution to the wind, it should be for a good reason. But it was an irrationally risky plan, and the execution of it often felt cramped and off.
The CIA is so starved for operatives in Tehran that they have to go to Fara's uncle? Carrie's the only field officer who can make sure everything goes according to plan? And while we're on the subject, nobody in Iran noticed that the lady who was being grilled by the government on American TV a few weeks ago just waltzed right into the Tehran Hilton? Even if Javadi was protecting her or whatever, nobody at the airport noticed? Speaking of the finale, nobody noticed Brody wandering around a public park after he killed the IRGC chief? Carrie actually dropped Javadi's name to soldiers at the safe house, thus possibly outing the man as a CIA asset? I could go on, but you get the idea.
Let me be clear: I will give loony or preposterous developments a big hug and a glass of wine if a show is rocking my world in some way or other. But Season 3 has been chock full of developments that either just about make sense -- maybe, if you squint and avert your eyes -- or that don't make any real sense. Even though the Brody play somehow worked, the trust I had in "Homeland" to balance character exploration with pulse-pounding storytelling is quite damaged at this point.
Where do we go from here? I don't know. There aren't many supporting characters that feel ready to step up to the spotlight. Quinn's moral doubts were a thing this season until they weren't. Saul made Fara cry, but it all worked out because she deepened into... yeah, not much happened with Fara. Saul's wife and he exchanged Significant Looks and then she was duped by an Israeli operative and then everything between Saul and her was OK.
I love Dar Adal and his glittering, merciless eyes, but for long periods of time, he was reduced to standing around the operations center, glowering at nobody in particular. Big, bad Senator Lockhart was anti-Team Saul, until Lockhart blessed the Brody Play and then promoted Carrie. At least we are done with Carrie-Brody-Carrie-Brody-Carrie-Brody, who found love in a hopeless place. Their affair was one for the ages until it became the stuff of poorly conceived fan-fic. Those two wore me down and then they just wore me out.
Shows have off seasons. It happens. Sometimes they come back from them, sometimes they don't. What worries me about "Homeland" is that it seems to have made structural and thematic choices that limit where it can go next and how effectively it can get there. For three seasons, Brody and Carrie kept finding their way out of impossible situations.
I wonder if "Homeland" can do the same.
Follow Maureen Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/moryan