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Homeland Review: "Tin Man Is Down" (Episode 3.01)

September 29, 2013  |  10:02pm
<i>Homeland</i> Review: "Tin Man Is Down" (Episode 3.01)

Hello, everyone. My name is John Vilanova, and I’m very excited to be handling the recaps of Showtime’s Homeland this season. Feel free to let me know your thoughts in the comments section; I’ll try to respond to each of them via Facetime.

This week’s episode begins what could be called a second act for the show with the departure (for now) of marine-turned-traitor-turned-CIA asset-turned-(maybe)-traitor again Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis). With the fires still burning at Langley from a bomb planted in Brody’s car, our intrepid heroine Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) whisked him off to the Canadian border for a farewell to the relationship that gestated in Season 1 and bloomed in Season 2. The Danes and Lewis pairing, which netted Emmys for both after Season 1, was famously too compelling, if such a thing is possible.

Much has been said (and not said) about showrunners Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon’s plans for Brody, who strapped on a suicide vest at the end of Season 1 only to hold off on pulling the trigger. Many have suggested that his second thoughts were a concession to the show’s ratings breakout and the on-screen chemistry of Danes and Lewis. But whatever the case, as Carrie’s mentor Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) reminded her (and us), Brody will always be the guy who put on that vest.

And thus Homeland’s Brody problem—how to reincorporate a character whose credibility had run its course but who needed to remain relevant—was often handled sloppily during the show’s second season, creating a disjointed set of episodes that never ascended to the heights of the show’s breakout debut. One of the hallmarks of the first season was its impeccable plotting—the strings moving these characters toward the finale grew tauter and tauter each week in a story that was as well-managed as it was dynamic. That continued throughout much of the second season’s first half, but as time wore on, there were too many moving parts as each week’s hour became spread more and more thinly.

The show’s relationships—Carrie and Brody; Brody and his wife, Jessica (Morena Baccarin); Brody and his daughter, Dana (Morgan Saylor); Carrie and Saul—created a skewed set of priorities that negatively impacted the Homeland team’s ability to tell the bigger story. Simply put, it’s just hard to care about Jessica being pissed at Brody for not answering her calls when there’s supposed to be a terror plot of that scale in the works.

The misdirection of Season 1 (the sniper-ready roof in view of Marine One’s landing spot) also seemed to give way to less relevant distraction (Dana and Finn’s hit-and-run) throughout much of last year. Two seasons ago, these twists and turns felt in service to the larger story and the “big question” of Brody’s allegiance. Last year, the waters were often too muddied and the question (still unanswered, for the record) mattered less and less. The show is built on putting the viewer in a place of not-knowing, but throughout much of last year, the evidence we were working with was simply too inconsistent to come to any conclusions at all.

The season’s liberties also gave rise to the Internet as a kind of plausibility police—calling foul on Brody and Abu Nazir’s Facetime talks, the CIA’s use of super-Skype for webcam chats and the remote overload of Vice President Walden’s pacemaker. While the creators’ America can be whatever they want it to be, these choices created an unevenness that undermined the season as it reached its conclusion.

That all being said, moments like Carrie and Brody’s hotel-room confrontation and the subsequent “Q&A” episode (arguably the series’ strongest hour) were still great television. Upon rewatching the season over the last few weeks to prepare for Season 3, there were still multiple nights where after finishing an episode, I felt the itch to keep going late into the night. If a show’s doing that—in spite of its imperfections—it’s still doing something right. Let’s hope Season 3 can remove the inconsistency of last year and get back on the right track.

We pick things up two months later, with the fallout from the explosion still crashing back down to earth around Langley. Last season ended with Carrie and Saul standing over 219 neatly bagged corpses; now the carnage of the world around them is on full view after America’s “second 9/11.”

Saul’s left holding the agency conch—as ranking officer, people now stand when he enters the room. Thankfully, he’s got a buddy, with F. Murray Abraham’s Dar Adal coming on in a more permanent role as his right wing, right-hand man. It almost went without saying after his brief introduction last season that Abraham wasn’t going to be confined to buses and breakfast joints, and his calculated ruthlessness is a fitting foil to Saul’s flip-flopping.

For the most part through its first two seasons, Homeland did a great job of asking the “big picture” CIA-related questions subtly rather than moralizing or beating audiences over the head with how complex it was trying to be. One of the first times we met Carrie, she was ordering surveillance of somewhat dubious legality on the Brody house. Our erstwhile Sergeant’s suicide tape—which was used by the terrorist group claiming responsibility for the bombing—explained that he’d turned against his country to get justice against unpunished war criminals who had ordered a drone strike that killed children.

Now, though, we’re wading into procedural questions about the effectiveness of a spy-first CIA. Senator Andrew Lockhart (a bloodthirsty, biting Tracy Letts) asks, “How can the CIA protect the nation if it can’t protect itself?” Of course, he’s asking Carrie, its most unstable member, a willing self-saboteur who’s been tasked with jumping on the smoking gun of the agency’s failure. Though Saul was responsible for the off-the-books Brody task force, Carrie’s the one facing a Congressional firing squad.

Danes is extra twitchy here—after her lawyer sees a notebook page that looks like a Pollock painting, it’s clear that Carrie’s off her meds. Her stubborn insistence that Brody may still be innocent is an unpopular minority opinion, which is nothing new for her. This time it’s a nice flip of the script because she’s defending the terrorist she welcomed into her bed rather than accusing him. And though it seemed like Carrie’s belief in Brody’s innocence was firm enough that we were supposed to believe it, too, there are a few more twists coming here, I’m sure.

In essence, Carrie is forced to perjure herself because she can’t concede the existence of Brody’s suicide vest from Season 1. Much of the criticism last year centered around the idea that the CIA would even consider employing Brody after what he’d done. Now, at least, Lockhart and his investigation provide evidence that the creators are aware how much rope they were asking us to give them.

The agency isn’t the only thing that Brody left in shambles, as his family lies in relative ruin since his disappearance. Jessica’s ducking paparazzi and dusting off her accounting degree to bring in money. After a suicide attempt, Dana’s in therapy, though she seems to be getting the most therapeutic treatment of all from a glowering teenage boy. Though trying to take things “one day at a time…and all that,” Dana’s damage seems to be something a remodeled bathroom at home can’t gloss over.

As she strips the posters off the walls of her bedroom, she also strips down to surreptitiously sext her latest paramour. I can’t decide if sexting is something a bunch of adults would assume teenagers would do in this situation or an in-character move for “Dana the destroyed.” But as much as her plaintive “Dad?” seemed overused (my favorite part of the SNL spoof), Dana was more useful as a moral measuring stick than the troubled teen who railroaded a lot of last season’s second half.

Back at the CIA, we meet what appears to be the new “big bad”—Iranian mastermind Mujeed Javadi. “The Magician” is still in hiding, but six other targets related to the bombing are within the CIA’s reach, and the decision falls to Saul. After wringing a few layers of skin off his hands while overlooking the burned-out section of Langley, Saul gives the go-ahead to take them out, in part because he and the CIA need to save some face for the public.

One of the agents carrying out the plan is Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend)—Dar Adal’s hand-stabbing, silencer-wielding “soldier” who’s set up in Caracas, Venezuela following a suit (code name: “Tin Man”) who bankrolled the Brody bomb. Quinn puts him down, though a child’s life becomes accidental collateral damage along the way. It’s clearly a tough blow to stomach for someone whose stated job is to “kill bad guys.”

Once his encrypted text message (sigh) is sent to CIA headquarters, the other five targets—each code-named after a Wizard of Oz character—are dispatched. As Saul knew all along, being the “great and powerful” decision-maker isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; he, too, is raked over the coals by Senator Lockhart for attempting to curry easy favor with the American public.

Although Carrie dials back her defiance to the committee, she’s forced to sit in silence while Lockhart castigates her for hurting her country. That surely cuts deeply, but, after a leaked newspaper report reveals Carrie’s bedding of Brody, Saul cuts even deeper, betraying her on national television. As he pulls back the curtain on Carrie’s bipolar disorder and her relationship with the most wanted man on the planet, it’s reminiscent of some words Oz passed along to the original tin woodsman—“Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable.”

Homeland’s third season kicked off with a lot of broken people and a damaged nucleus, but I believe the intrigue and tight storytelling that made the first season such a phenomenon is still in place. Though Brody will be returning at some point, hopefully he’s off the grid enough that the storytellers won’t have to take too many liberties to keep him around. In the meantime, we’ve got new roles, new enemies and (hopefully) challenges for the next 11 weeks. As Jessica Brody said, “The landscape has changed.” We’ll have to see to what extent in the weeks to come.

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