By Jeff Jensen
January 02, 2014 at 05:00 AM EST
Didier Baverel/Showtime
  • TV Show

Homeland told us two stories in one this year. Both were clumsily assayed, but one was utterly essential. On the surface, season three chronicled Saul Berenson’s incredible black ops plot to neutralize big-bad Iran in two phases. The first: Sending combustible CIA prodigy Carrie Mathison on a self-degrading mission to turn a high-ranking Iranian intelligence officer into an asset. The second: Sending redemption-driven quagmire Nicholas Brody on a veritable suicide mission to murder the asset’s boss in order to promote him higher up the chain of command.

To be clear, by ”incredible” I do not mean, like, ”totally awesome.” I mean: ”not credible.” As in: ”I didn’t buy this at all, no matter how many psychotic Iranian super-spies or cartoonishly craven politicians Homeland used to manipulate me into cheering for our heroes to succeed.” It wasn’t just the fact that real-life events — specifically, the prospect that diplomacy, not cloak-and-dagger, might achieve a better relationship with Iran — clashed with Homeland’s cynical fantasy. It was that, plus the show’s simple inability to make us believe in its own heightened reality.

Homeland has always walked this line; hence, it has always needed passably logical, thematically rich story to stay on the right side of it. Season three failed at this mission and embarrassed the franchise in the process. There’s only so much ”just roll with it” you can ask an audience to swallow before they start gagging. Senator Lockhart may have been an ass, but he was right: If the CIA was nothing but Saul and a band of emotionally compromised lackeys and associates of incoherent character hooked on human shell-game hijinks, then it should have been shut down and rebooted.

Which was ironic. Because the other story, the story within the story, was about Homeland executing an epic assassination plot against one of its central characters as part of a risky play to put its own increasingly chaotic franchise in position for a fresh start. Both yarns culminated in the finale with the death of Brody, a once extraordinary character who had long outlived his usefulness, and whose continued presence kept Homeland beholden to irrelevant characters (the entire Brody family, not just unfairly maligned Dana) and untenable drama (the volatile gaga of the Carrie-Brody bad romance). In a year in which several subplots functioned as (knowing?) metaphors for Homeland?s troubled storytelling, and in which several time-killing, time-wasting subplots doubled (intentionally?) as arguments for radical change (again, see: overly used, poorly used Dana), Brody’s slumdog junkie idyll in Caracas was the most transparent. Homeland’s refusal to Just Say No to Brody had left it creatively boxed up; it had no choice but to go cold turkey and give him up altogether. ”It’s a sentimental idea. It always has been,” said Dar Nadal about the idea of getting Brody out of Iran alive, a line that might have also been a wink to those who believed Brody should have been given the hook earlier.

Anyway, Brody’s gone now. Literally given the hook, via a crane-assisted hanging in front of a throng of rabidly anti-American Iranians. (The show’s depiction of Middle Eastern people has become increasingly, queasily cliché.) Scribble yourself a tiny gold star, Homeland. You did the right thing. Can’t say you did it terribly well. But you did the right thing.

It would be great to be able to say here that season three brought a well-scaled three-season saga — All About Brody — to a close. It certainly possessed some attempt at symmetry: Brody was introduced as a war hero who was secretly an assassin for Islamic terrorists; he exited and earned redemption by perpetrating the same ruse, this time for American handlers. Yet too many loose ends and too much mismanagement betray the show’s lack of big picture vision. For example, it’s hard to believe an artfully crafted saga would have intentionally allowed Morena Baccarin’s Jessica Brody to wither and fade away from the narrative as she did in season three. (This is saying nothing of Brody’s son, Chris, about whom Homeland apparently had nothing to say.)

So it goes that Homeland’s first three seasons stand as a cautionary tale about how to nurture a hit series, and how a show’s most successful elements can become creative burdens. Season one was a remarkable achievement that, among many things, expressed the upside-down, all-turned-around discombobulation of post-9/11 people. It was most notable for the great performances by Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, who each made their characters into riveting human ciphers and together performed a stunning magic trick: turning the inevitable development of romance between their characters into the most fascinating relationship on television. Were they kindred spirits who truly dug each other? Or were they playing each other? Passion or usury or both? It was a bit of business that captured our imagination — and sound business sense said, ”Don’t let go of it.”

But in retrospect, we see Homeland either lacked a good story for Brody and the Brody-Carrie relationship, or lacked the ability to do both things well. Season two was a hot mess of reckless ”speed plotting” that somehow survived its craziest, clumsiest beats thanks to some coherent if not artful character arcs, at least until its very last episode: Brody should have been written out there and then, with death or imprisonment. But Homeland simply did not have the guts to part ways with Lewis or the love affair. Not yet. The marketing/advertising for season three prominently featured Brody/Lewis (way to leverage the hostage/asset for propaganda value, Iran…er, Showtime!), even though Brody himself only appeared in five of 12 installments — training us for a future Homeland without him. If only his spare storyline was, you know, good. Trapping Brody in an unfinished skyscraper controlled by mercenaries and hooking him on heroin, was lamer-than-Dana lame, even if the ”Tower of David” locale was rather inspired. At least Dana’s arc of falling into and out of despair — a romance with a misunderstood, unstable misfit like herself; letting him take her on a joyride to nowhere before realizing he wasn’t worthy of her trust — made sense, given everything her character had been through. Brody’s analogous, briefer descent/ascent stall/park was so implausible (this is a guy who endured eight years of brutal captivity and he succumbs to hopelessness in just two months on the run?!) and so contrived that the show could barely muster the energy to explain why it was even happening. Why did Brody go to Central America? Who shot Brody at the Venezuela border? How incredibly convenient was it that Brody was found and saved by some mercenary guy who owed Carrie a favor? (Weird, though, that Mercenary Guy never tried to tell her about it.) (Or maybe Saul orchestrated the whole thing – the shooting, the sequester, keeping it all secret from Carrie? I don’t know.) Whatever. Season three did to Brody what Saul did to his wife?s secret agent lover: It put him in a ”dark f—ing hole” and left him there until the show needed him to facilitate an endgame.

Carrie didn’t fair much better this season. It bothered me that one of the most interesting things that has ever happened to her on the show — her pregnancy — wasn’t given the attention it deserved until the last few minutes of the finale, with a scene that powerfully demonstrated that Carrie, for all her chaos, possesses a clear understanding of herself. (Something fog-of-war incarnate Brody would have killed for — and did — but never got until he submitted to his own death.) Still, the matter of the child was basically punted to next season. Carrie’s major contribution to this season’s hero project wasn’t cracked/crack analysis or loopy problem solving but her willingness to play the part of Crazy Woman Destroyed and allow the CIA to denigrate and demonize her to set up a cover that would bait the attention of a single individual, soccer-loving money-grubbing woman-hating Iranian intelligence officer, the Langley bombing mastermind*, Majid Javadi, which it did. (So lucky!) I still don?t know how I feel about the season’s signature twist, that Carrie’s ordeal in the first four episodes was a long con and all part of Saul’s master plan. Brilliant or bulls–t? The fact that I never knew for sure kept me from fully engaging the rest of the season. I also resented being constantly told by the men of the show (Saul, Quinn, Javadi) just how brave, so brave Carrie was to do what she did. Thanks for telling me how I should feel about your bold storytelling moves, Homeland, but despite my considerable respect and fear of Saul’s beard, I’m currently leaning toward bulls–t.

*Saul’s scheme hinged on the belief that Brody would be welcomed in Iran as a hero — the Langley bomber. But Javadi, who masterminded the Langley bombing, knew that Brody was not involved in executing the plot. Therefore, the audience had to accept two never-explicated premises as givens in order to roll with this storyline: 1. That Javadi never told his superiors in Iran about the operation, or never told them whom he used and didn’t use to perpetrate it; and 2. That Saul knew this. Maybe I missed something here, and I confess, this ”plot hole” is only occurring to me now, so I can’t say it bothered me in the moment.

It speaks to some commendable qualities of Homeland that I actually found season three to be watchable (especially in its final Zero Dark Brody stretch) even as it consistently disappointed me. It’s a well-acted, well-directed, well-paced show. For these same reasons, I’ll be back next season, with the hope that Homeland can do better, and curious to see where it goes from here. Liberated from Brody, Carrie is now free to change and grow with new story and new relationships, free to be more of her dynamic, messy self. In addition to a better Carrie, I hope Homeland will give us more of its strong supporting players — namely, Peter Quinn, Fara, and Dar Adal — and provide them with more substantial, fully realized arcs. Homeland is one of the few creative enterprises in our culture uniquely capable of making provocative entertainment out of the complex geopolitical concerns and conflicts of the present. Now that it’s done with a season of uninspired housekeeping, Homeland can get back to the business of being interesting again. C-

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