Homeland: “Game On” (Episode 3.04)

TV Reviews
Homeland: “Game On” (Episode 3.04)

So what makes a good twist?

Surprise has always been one of the most useful weapons in a storyteller’s arsenal. A shocking revelation, unexpectedly unreliable narrator, red herring or reversal of fortune can be used to great and memorable effect, upsetting the audience’s expectations and turning a conventional plot into something unique. Darth Vader tells Luke Skywalker he’s his father. Bruce Willis realizes why he’s been talking to Haley Joel Osment all along. Tyler Durden reveals himself. Etc.

Once the veil has been pulled back, you’re compelled to re-watch, looking for Easter eggs, hints and clues dropped in by the storytelling team that portended the eventual reveal. When these seeds are planted successfully, it makes the germination of that revelation even more compelling. But if those seedlings aren’t sown skillfully, they sprout awkwardly, and a season of work can yield an unsatisfactory harvest.

The final five minutes of “Game On” certainly surprised me, but I would argue that, upon deeper inspection, the fundamentally flawed revelation created far more questions than it ultimately answered. We learn that there has indeed been a game being played here—Carrie and Saul have been working together behind the scenes. She was discredited, beaten down and apparently abandoned by her agency—hung out to dry in a public shaming for all to see. The hope, we are now supposed to assume, was to discredit Carrie enough to make others think that the left-for-dead agent would turn against her tormentors.

Their plan ultimately worked, but the road to revelation was paved very poorly. In essence, the writing team took an entire episode (or three, really) to build up to Carrie and Saul’s backyard porch pow-wow. When you reexamine the events of this episode (and the preceding ones) with the newfound knowledge of their plan, it throws into question a great deal of what we’ve watched so far this season. Frankly, it makes a lot of what we’ve watched effectively nonsensical.

To wit, two weeks ago Carrie lay slumped in a chair after being shot up with thorazine. It was a low point in what has been a season of them for a character cut adrift. A contrite Saul leaned in, apologizing for betraying her, and though she could barely form words, she still summoned herself long enough to curse him out before the credits rolled. What are we to make of that moment now? I assume the plot hadn’t been hatched yet, but there was never even a hint of something like this coming in the weeks that followed. Instead, Carrie grew more and more unhinged, Saul and Dar Adal worked more and more to discredit her, and she seemingly slipped deeper into despair.

When at some point Carrie presumably agreed to be Saul’s bait, was she really signing up for sleepless nights, head injuries and complete abandonment? After her unsuccessful hearing last week, as she was being dragged out of the room, she yelled “this is a sham.” In hindsight, that line is plenty ironic, but the four hours of television leading up to the last five minutes of this episode were poorly stewarded. Much of what happened between then and now makes no sense.

Why would Saul be working so hard to keep Carrie locked up? Why would Carrie steal her lawyer’s phone to try and get a message to him? Why, why why? With so little to go on and virtually no hint that it was coming, the big reveal here fell completely flat for me.

Meanwhile, Saul and Fara have “followed the money” to Caracas, Venezuela. Conveniently, that’s where Brody wound up last episode, and although we didn’t see him this week, it seems like it won’t be too long until these plots and fates align down south.

The money for the Langley bomb was laundered through a soccer stadium, allegedly sent by the ghost of a dead Iranian national hero. Saul puts the pieces together quickly, realizing that Mujeed Javadi is the financier, which he suspected all along. Now they know for sure, and I don’t doubt that the pursuit of Javadi could ultimately lead to a satisfactory second half of this season in spite of the mess they’ve made of Carrie Mathison. We learned at the beginning of the season that Javadi’s nickname is “the magician” because he “makes people disappear.” But as Saul closes in, he’s bound to have a Houdini trick or two up his sleeve.

For such an expensive treatment center, Dana and Leo are having a surprisingly easy time breaking in and out each week. Leo sneaks out in broad daylight, hopping into the Brody family’s trusty Subaru Outback (which, as “Uncle Mike” reminds us, is blue). Our teenage lovers are literally driving farther and farther away from the story each week, and for me the absurdity of this plot was encapsulated by an exchange Dana has with one of the garage workers where they’re trying to pawn the car. He asks her if it’s “hot,” and she laughs, joking that they’ve just stolen it. It’s hard to take this plot seriously when Dana can’t even keep a straight face.

As they drive around the DC metro area (Dana plus cars is never a winning combination), stopping at Leo’s brother’s grave and the military base where Dana bid goodbye to her father a decade ago, it remains as hard as ever to care about this distraction while there’s finally starting to be a greater plot afoot. Back at the clinic, Leo’s parents are too busy being indignant over Dana’s involvement to mention that Leo may be responsible for his brother’s death and that Dana could be in the company of someone who—like her—probably could’ve benefitted from a higher-security facility.

Carrie’s also rambling about town after being freed from confinement by the lawyers and a crooked circuit court judge. Once she gets home, she packs a bag before realizing her car is gone and her bank accounts have been locked. Again, though, who is she trying to fool with this other than us? If her goal is ultimately to be picked up by the lawyers who got her out in the first place, where is she trying to go?

Eventually, she is picked up by Franklin and taken to meet his boss, Leland Bennett. He tries to convince her to inform against the agency, but she seems to be remaining steadfast in her refusal until she realizes that she’s going to be locked back up again. After last week hammered home the dual prisons Carrie and Brody were trapped in, it made some sense that the thought of returning to lock-up would be a motivation to turn traitor, but I never believed for a second that there wasn’t another shoe to drop.

After five hours of deception (almost as much time as we’ve been kept in the dark) Carrie finally gets the face-to-face with Saul she’s been begging for. She’s in bad shape and clearly shaken from keeping up this charade as she unraveled in captivity. But for now, she’s back in Saul’s good graces—a double-double agent finally integrated back into the main plot and given purpose for the first time in weeks. “It worked, Saul,” she says. Sorry, but for me, it didn’t.

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