Tonight's episode of Homeland makes it clear that most of the show's characters have an instability problem. Carrie lands in the psych ward. Dana goes back to one. Saul seems stretched to the breaking point, and Quinn is so morally troubled that he's beginning to envision his exit from the CIA altogether.
There's nothing wrong with unstable characters — but unfortunately, Homeland's narrative's quality remains just as unstable. It's only the second episode of the season, but tonight's "Uh… Oh… Ah…" is just as unfocused as the troubled people who populate it, and just as elliptical as its bizarre title.
Saul may be stressed, but when did he become a xenophobe who would scowl at a colleague's hijab? "You wearing that thing on your head is one big "fuck you" to the people who would have been your co-workers — except they perished in a blast right out there," says the new CIA chief to Fara, a young analyst who's been on the job less than two weeks. "Give me a goddamn plan or don't say anything." No wonder Fara tears up.
In a season that's overloaded with mysteries, the change in Saul's character might be the biggest one. He proved himself to be a sharp, thoughtful guru in the past two seasons, but the weight of leadership has begun to burden him — and believably or not, the character seems to be splintering. He still assumes the pose of caring easily enough, but there's no question of the calculations and stress that now drive him — especially in his interactions with Carrie. Quinn rightly calls Saul "panicked" when speaking to Carrie in the mental hospital. Later on, her family lambastes Saul's "phony sympathy," as he insists that some in the CIA want Carrie indicted on criminal charges, and that he's looking out for her best interests.
Does he believe that on any level? It seems inconceivable, but given his other rants, the character may be able to justify his lockdown. He's not wrong to deem Carrie a reckless threat, and the CIA's chilly Dar Adal is all too ready to shut down Carrie's disobedience. The episode ends with Carrie medicated and glaring at Saul, who has finally come to see the hospitalized wreck he helped create. He assumes that wise-man frown and mutters about how sorry he is. She, barely able to speak through the drugs, curses him.
With Brody out of play, the core conflict this season is between Saul and Carrie — a drama that springboards straight from the final scene of the premiere, when Saul testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee as Carrie watched in horror. This episode doubles down on the shadowy nature of the CIA depicted last season — an agency that would send Quinn to kill Brody once Abu Nazir died. Homeland showcases the paranoia people feel about intelligence agencies, which — in the show's fictional world, at least — is certainly justified. Carrie comes off looking like a crackpot, chained to a hospital gurney and speculating that the CIA may have expunged her work history as part of an attempt to scapegoat her as a madwoman and shut her up. She drops phrases like "the Big Lie" to a reporter, referring to the alleged frame of Brody for the 12/12 bombing. Cue the aluminum foil?
But Homeland places the blame on the CIA as much as Carrie's own recklessness. "We did that to her," Quinn quietly tells Saul. "We did it." In "Uh… Oh… Ah…" Carrie constantly — and often correctly — accuses the CIA of covering up its actions related to Brody. "He pretended to be my friend, and he's not," Carrie tells her family of Saul. There's a haunting One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest vibe to these scenes, with Carrie strapped down and a doctor murmuring, "All anyone's asking is that you take your meds," as she receives an injection. Unhinged, lonely, and driven, Claire Danes portrays the tearfulness with the usual aplomb. But there's also the faint sense that this drama is just a manufactured flare-up to pass the time as Saul and Fara contend with shady bankers who have ties to the Iranian government, as part of the broader subplot surrounding the Langley bombing investigation.
The messiness is a sign of the strange, divided series that Homeland has become. It premiered in the fall of 2011 with a much tighter premise and a unified narrative. Is war hero Nick Brody a secret terrorist, and if so, will CIA Agent Carrie Mathison be able to overcome her secret mental illnesses to convince the CIA to investigate him? Those questions drove the show — a little schlocky at times, but compelling nonetheless. The stakes were clear.
Last year, Homeland literally and figuratively blew up that original premise, and it's trying to build itself back up — but the going is slow. Old pieces of the story still clutter the show, but they're not particularly well connected. In earlier seasons, Brody's daughter Dana was a brilliant foil for her father due to their delicate, pained relationship — but does anyone care about her angst now? In fact, angst has come to characterize Homeland's narrative across the board: From Carrie to Dana to Saul, the characters shamble listlessly through stories without much forward momentum. There's plenty of grim quivering, but no reason to care about it.
Two episodes in, Homeland is obviously trying to knit together these meltdowns in a way that makes the viewer care. It may eventually work; this second episode does include its share of moving moments, which — painful as they are now — may serve as good setups further down the road. Let's hope the show knows where it's going.
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