This article contains spoilers for “Broken Hearts,” the Sunday, December 2nd episode of “Homeland.”
It wasn’t Brody’s (Damian Lewis) warning text to Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban) from inside the Pentagon that did it, or that time that he and Carrie (Claire Danes) fell into a clinch in the clearing outside a fundraiser for Vice President Walden’s (Jamey Sheridan) campaign. No, what it took for “Homeland” to finally jump the shark (and leap over it, really, while holding sparklers in both hands) was last night’s kidnapping plot in which Carrie was used by Nazir as a hostage to force Brody to do something naughty in exchange for her life. Because of this, the VP is apparently dead or close to it, brought down by a hacked pacemaker, while Nazir’s still on the loose and Saul’s (Mandy Patinkin) been hauled in for questioning, potentially because Estes (David Harewood) no longer trusts him.
“Homeland” has been pushing at the boundaries of feasible plot twists all season, but this is the first time, at least for this writer, that it felt like it went off the rails and broke faith with its own characterizations. The show has dispensed with more story in its 10 episodes so far this season than most series do in several years, and some developments have edged toward the boundaries of what fits within its reality.
This is not to say that the problems have really been ones of believability — to worry about plausibility in “Homeland” is to focus on something that the show does not put serious emphasis on itself. Its universe is a heightened, concentrated one in which issues of trust, intention and allegiances are more important than how likely it would be to have an al-Qaeda member in Congress or a CIA agent back at work after getting fired for long-term concealment of a mental illness that led to a dramatic breakdown. If you want to quibble about how real-world credible the details of the show are, you needn’t dig very deep to find problems. The show works because its characters are complex, smart and fully formed and their interactions have a consistency and depth that rings true even when the plot goes in wilder directions.
Which is why the main action of “Broken Hearts,” directed by Guy Ferland and scripted by Henry Bromell (who also wrote the excellent “Q&A”), felt so problematic. “Homeland” rests on the difficult connection between Carrie and Brody, but the idea that Nazir would know to use Carrie as a tool against Brody, that he would have an idea of her importance to him, or that Brody would immediately rush off and risk exposing his connections to the man in order to save her just didn’t ring true.
The series can be soap operatic, but this episode had a melodramatic edge that seemed at odds with what we know about the two main characters. They understand each other at some fundamental level, sure — they connect, and they have physical chemistry. Beyond that, we know that Carrie was in love with Brody once, and she may be again despite her protests otherwise, but she doesn’t trust him, and how he feels about her is even more complicated. He’s aware that she’s using him, but also takes genuine comfort in her company and in her professed devotion — “I do feel used and played and lied to… but I also feel good. Two minutes with you and I feel good,” he told her back in “The Clearing.”
Brody likes Carrie — he’s even told her so. She’s one of the few people, if not the only person, who he’s honest with. It makes sense that he’d want to keep her alive, but we’ve never gotten evidence that he harbors the sort of emotion that would have him frantically trying to save her life by coming up with an excuse to rifle through the Walden’s office looking for the serial number on his pacemaker — a combination technical and medical vulnerability that, as Nazir said, was reported on by the New York Times.
Even if Brody discovered at that moment that he was in love with his current handler and willing to go to extremes to save her, the idea that he would take this type of action and potentially expose himself in such a way that his family would find out goes against his oft-stated desire to protect them from the knowledge of the person he’s become. The only guiding principle in Brody’s life beyond his muddied connection to al-Qaeda has been his connection to his wife and kids — it was a conversation with Dana (Morgan Saylor) that stopped him from using the bomb at the end of the first season, and it’s the promise of Jessica (Morena Baccarin), Dana and Chris (Jackson Pace) being spared knowing what he almost did that keeps him going once he’s brought in by the CIA.
The Brody who came back from Iraq is far different from the one who left, and one of the things that makes his relationship to his family so poignant and painful is that he feel beholden to them while being unable to really relate to them anymore. His desperation to protect them is fueled by guilt and sorrow as well as love and by his awareness that he’s unable to get back to the place he once was, a place he shared with them. Even if he felt the same depths of emotion for Carrie, she’s a knowing participant in this battle, not an innocent bystander like the Brodys, and one with her own backup system in place.
And he needn’t have rushed to the rescue himself; he could have told Saul what happened and called in the cavalry. The show fudges a little by having the act of terrorism Brody abets be one he wanted anyway — Walden’s death, gasping and clutching his chest in his office, before a triumphant Brody who’s finally able to tell the man what he really thinks, a scene that did come off as contrived but was nonetheless searing.
“Homeland” may be at heart about the strange, warped romance between its two broken protagonists, but “Broken Hearts” pushed it too far into the open for what’s always previously been an intricate, impossible connection. Here’s hoping the show pulls back a little in its final two episodes — in this thing, at least. Bombs in the White House, terrorists manning desks at Langley — whatever crazy, “24”-esque turns the rest of the story need take are fine, but the relationship between its two main characters is a delicate thing and one with no equivalent on television. It deserves to be treated with respect and not mangled for the sake of easy thrills.