Entertainment

11.03.13

‘Still Positive’ Shows Why ‘Homeland’ Hasn’t Jumped the Shark (Yet)

Sunday’s episode wasn’t transformative, but it was taut, precise, and compelling because it focused on what made the show great—Carrie, Saul, and the spy games they play.

Homeland has a problem.

The third season of Showtime's flagship drama is now halfway over. Viewers have seen plenty of action in recent episodes. Carrie Mathison has been abducted by Iranian thugs. Saul Berenson has been running the CIA. Dana Brody lost her virginity on the floor of a mental asylum. And Nicholas Brody, imprisoned inside Caracas’s infamous Tower of David, has unleashed his inner Sid Vicious

And yet despite all of the drama, or perhaps because of it, the show still doesn’t seem to know what it is. It feels unsure of itself—like it’s constantly recalibrating, constantly struggling to regain its footing, constantly trying to right the ship and find a new way forward.

So has Homeland jumped the shark? According to many fans and critics, the show hurdled the hammerhead a long time ago. Near the end of Season 2, Sgt. Brody killed his presidential running mate, Vice President William Walden, by feeding the serial number of Walden’s pacemaker to a team of al Qaeda henchmen who then stopped Walden’s heart by remote control. Meanwhile, terrorist mastermind Abu Nazir suddenly materialized inside the U.S. and proceeded to chase Carrie around a murky underground maze, Freddy Krueger-style. “Increasingly erratic and outlandish,” wrote Scott Collura at IGN. “Giv[es] even devoted viewers reason to feel cheated,” added Alessandra Stanley at The New York Times. “Such a mess,” concluded Alan Sepinwall at HitFix.

But here’s the thing: as a whole, Season 2 was actually pretty good. The first few episodes received a 96 rating on Metacritic, one of the highest scores ever posted on the site; the finale garnered a lot more positive reviews than negative ones. Sure, the two episodes leading up to the finale represented a silly, implausible departure from the intimate shadowland storytelling that had characterized the rest of the show’s run up to that point. But they were a misstep, not a death blow. Plenty of classic TV dramas—like, say, Friday Night Lights, with its absurd, 90210-esque second season—have recovered from worse. 

And recovering is clearly what the Homeland crew intended to do in Season 3. When I spoke to showrunner Alex Gansa shortly before the first episode aired in late September, he basically said as much. “I think we were smarting a bit at the criticism,” he told me. “We knew we had to plot a new course for the show.” 

The rub is that, watching Season 3, you can really feel Gansa & Co. plotting away—disassembling their creation, rearranging the pieces, and trying to put it all back together in a manner that will appease the critics who were carping at them last year about Walden’s pacemaker and Abu Nazir’s spooky bunker. As a result, this season has often felt less like an organic narrative than a laborious calculation.  

This season has often felt less like an organic narrative than a laborious calculation.

Too much mindless 24-style action, the critics complained? Fine, said Homeland: Season 3 will “start off slower,” as Gansa put it—“less plot-driven.” Brody and Carrie’s relationship has run out of steam, you say? No problem: Brody will appear in only one of the first six episodes, and his storyline will in no way connect with Carrie’s. (I can’t recall another series that has given one of its two main characters less screen time—or relevance—than Homeland has given Brody in the first half of Season 3. It’s like he’s been deported to a different show.)   

Meanwhile, the more Homeland focused on the plodding exploits of sullen teenager Dana Brody and her new boyfriend Leo, the more it seemed like the writers were simply trying check off the “Effect on the Family” box without actually bothering to create an interesting story on the subject. And then, of course, came The Twist: the big “It Was All a Dream”-style revelation, in episode four, that everything that had happened so far this season—Saul throwing Carrie under the proverbial bus; Carrie raging at Saul from the confines of a mental institution—was part of an elaborate scheme by the two of them to lure to the U.S. and subsequently interrogate Majid Javadi, the Iranian intelligence official who masterminded the Langley bombing at the end of Season 2.   

For all of these reasons, it would be easy to dismiss Homeland at this point. I’m sure many viewers have. But one of the problems with the otherwise wonderful way that we watch TV now—that is, around the online watercooler, with critics and fans weighing in after each installment—is that the true unit of measure for an hour-long drama like Homeland isn’t the episode. It’s the season. Reviewing each episode in real time is a bit like reviewing each chapter of a book right after you finish it: there’s something to be said for waiting to pass judgment until the entire story has been told. The risk of claiming that a series has jumped the shark, quote-unquote, is that you could be jumping the gun.

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Which brings us to Sunday night’s episode of Homeland, titled “Still Positive.” Last week we learned that Saul and Carrie’s plan had worked: Javadi had come to the U.S. to meet Carrie, whom he hoped to turn. But then something went wrong. Javadi’s thugs broke into Carrie’s house, stripped her down, threw her in a car—and Saul lost them. On Sunday, Carrie managed (spoiler alert) to extricate herself from a potentially dangerous situation with a cunning bit of spycraft and to bring Javadi to Saul for interrogation (but not before Javadi murdered his former wife with bottle). Meanwhile, Sen. Andrew Lockhart, the man who is about to take Saul’s place as CIA director, aligned himself with black ops veteran Dar Adal, and Dana Brody legally took her mother’s maiden name and decided to move out of the Brody household once and for all.  

“Still Positive” wasn’t a transformative episode, but it was taut, precise, and compelling from start to finish largely because it focused on the stuff that made Season 1 so gripping in the first place: the process and intrigue of international intelligence-gathering in the 21st century as practiced by characters like Saul, Carrie, and Peter Quinn—characters who are flawed and complex but ultimately very good at what they do.  

And so, with six episodes left in Season 3, Homeland is at a pivot point. I agree with the critics who say that the plot twist a few episodes back was poorly handled. (Why was Carrie acting upset when no one was watching? If she was in on the ploy, why didn’t she realize that the CIA would freeze her credit cards?) But even the untouchable Breaking Bad had its fair share of forced narrative devices. (Magnets, anyone? The Great Methylamine Train Robbery?) I tend to think that in the right circumstances big, crazy plots twists can be forgivable (or at least forgettable); the question is what happens next. If a twist can make me more interested in a struggling series—if it can improve a show’s pace, plotting, and character development—then, like Slate’s Willa Paskin, “I don't really care that it may not make sense.”

“Still Positive” suggests that Homeland has a chance to make good on that promise. Dead-end Dana Brody is off-stage for the moment. Her father is about to return, and his storyline—long a bit of a dead-end as well—will eventually wrap up, I imagine. (Gansa recently told Entertainment Weekly that “Brody is a huge part of the architecture of this season,” but I wouldn’t count on much beyond that.) What “Still Positive” makes clear, I think, is that the main work of Season 3 has been to refocus the series on Carrie and Saul—and the spy games they play. If Gansa & Co. can craft a denouement along those lines—perhaps one that pits Lockhart’s drone-happy strategy against Saul’s more human approach, and thus flicks at the larger issues surrounding the CIA right now—then they will have justified Homeland’s continued existence and kept the shark-jumping apparatus at bay.  

Gansa, at least, sounds confident. “By the time we move into the last five episodes, we’ll be back in breakneck speed again,” he recently said. “In the writer’s room, we’ve been playing a long con, too.”

I’m giving him until the end of the season.