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by Alison Willmore
October 15, 2013 1:07 PM
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'Homeland' and the Trouble With Nicholas Brody

Damian Lewis in 'Homeland' Kent Smith/Showtime

The article below contains spoilers for "Homeland" through October 13th, 2013 episode "Tower of David."

It took three episodes for "Homeland" to begrudgingly bring Nicholas Brody, the Marine-turned-POW-turned-terrorist-turned-Congressman-turned fugitive played by Damian Lewis, back to the light after spending the start of the third season on the travails of Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). It turns out that Brody, who's been on the run after having been falsely blamed for the attack on the CIA that left over 200 dead at the end of season two, is in Venezuela. Or rather, he's been carried there, bleeding and near death, to be patched up by a sketchy medic and given sanctuary/imprisoned in the Tower of David, a real, unfinished Caracas office building that's been taken over by squatters.

It's a setting that so far seems chosen for its near-dystopic and unquestionably cinematic qualities, but it's also one that recalls the underlying unease that fed the first and strongest season of the series -- that post-9/11 dread not just of another attack but of systems failing, of the costs of our national and global march toward development catching up with us in ways we never saw coming.

The Tower, as gangster El Nino (Manny Perez) explains to Brody, was the brainchild of a wealthy investor who passed away and whose constructions plans were halted by the country's 1994 banking crisis, leaving the poor to take over the half-finished skyscraper as an answer to pressing housing problems no investor with dreams of international corporate tenants wanted to bother with.

Spy movies like to show characters moving through global locations with ease, breaking out limitless language skills and cultural awareness, but "Homeland" showcases just how out of place Brody is in the Tower, letting the Spanish dialogue go unsubtitled and his pallor to all but glow in the dark, a $10 million bounty on his head in a neighborhood filled with people trying to get by however they can. The only touch of the familiar he finds is in the muezzin call from a nearby mosque, though when he heads there for help, he finds no welcome -- "You're not a Muslim. You're a terrorist!" the imam tells him after turning him into the local police. Brody's a man without a country or, apparently, a faith, rejected by both for things he considered but ultimately did not do.

"You have to think that "Homeland" would be in much better shape in this uncertain third season if Brody were dead."

Lewis is a terrific actor who was awarded an Emmy for his work, and Brody's a great character, but watching "Tower of David," which was directed by Clark Johnson and written by Henry and William Bromell, you have to think that "Homeland" would be in much better shape in this uncertain third season if Brody were dead. Even Lewis thinks so, telling Men's Journal that he believes that's what the writers want, but that "The more compromised storytelling is to keep him alive and to keep him bubbling along somehow. It's the executives who write that version."

It's an observation that recalls the news that spread about "Dexter," after its awful finale, when one of the show's producers told Vulture that Showtime wouldn't let the main character be killed off, and it's a troublesome one. "Homeland" teeters between being smart television and overblown television, and its network's tendency to fall in love with characters to the detriment of the programs they're on is one of the things that could tip it permanently in the latter direction.

Season two saw "Homeland" shift from being a show about terrorism, about the paranoia and stress of trying to protect against it and the ways an American could be turned toward it, to one about the crazy, forbidden romance between a schizophrenic CIA agent and an unstable POW. Danes and Lewis have tremendous chemistry, and the first season took its time bringing the two together, but in its second year the show seemed unable to resist turning their attraction and mutual understanding into an operatic romance despite the oddness of the shift in priorities. The urgency of the pair's supposedly being meant for one another just couldn't be matched to the urgency of the imminent terrorist attack they were trying to prevent.

And after what Brody has been through -- being turned, almost blowing up the Vice President, being turned again, helping kill the Vice President -- he's not a character who can plausibly be transmuted into a hero or even given a way back into the game, at this point. Even if Carrie were to clear his name, as she's vowed, he can't possibly be integrated back into the U.S. (or anywhere) without the show completely abandoning ties to reality that are already shredded and fragile.

Brody can't be fit back into the box, which is why the divide between his story and Carrie's felt so stark in this latest episode. She's trying to start on a long, maybe impossible journey out of the mental institution, back into the CIA and into working on what really happened in the attack and who was behind it. He's just trying to survive -- her story isn't dependent on his at all at the moment, and he's going to have to be wedged back into some kind of undercover plot in order for it to make sense for his narrative to come back into contact with hers.

Three episodes in, this new season's main aim seems to be walking back the nuttiness of last year's wild plot twists, refocusing on culpability and lost public trust, on the importance of work to a character who the previous season was ready to retire and leave that life behind in order to be with her love. It has traced not just on the consequences of the attack for Carrie but also for Brody's family, who ironically are a more natural fit for this season than the character connecting them to the action, as they struggle with life in a spotlight of negative media attention.

But "Homeland" will never get back on the level while keeping an eye on Brody -- the very fact that he's alive and still considered a major part of the story prevents it, is a sign that the show can't let go of its "Terrorism: A Love Story" aspect, is still more about the relationship between two characters than about a larger subject. At a time when shows like "Game of Thrones," "The Walking Dead" and "Breaking Bad" have taught us not to get too attached to the idea of any character, no matter how important, surviving, "Homeland"'s insistence on sticking with Brody feels not just old fashioned, but limiting. 

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13 Comments

  • Rosie | December 16, 2013 8:28 PMReply

    ["Then we see the daughter pursue an impossible love with another imprisoned male who, like Carrie, has mental health issues. So her love is like her father’s for Carrie. Her statement to this boy lover that “You’re so beautiful,” may be true, but the boy is false, an illusion, a ghost person like her father. The mother tries to warn her daughter, but in a way that lacks sympathy, that cannot be heard. Yet it is during this unsympathetic encounter that mother and daughter finally connect emotionally, around the truth of their betrayal by Brody. Brody betrays his country, then his adopted tribe (the Muslim terrorists), then his fellow confused soldier, then his country and all along his family. Yet you would have to be heartless not to find him a sympathetic character, as is the daughter’s boy lover."]


    Betrayal? What the hell did you expect from a man who was held prisoner, tortured and brainwashed for eight years? Did people honestly expected Brody to resist being broken during his eight years of captivity? And yet, people try to fit his actions into some kind of black-and-white morality. Why? Why can't people accept Brody for what he really became? A victim and a tool for other people and governments.

  • RosieP | December 16, 2013 1:10 AMReply

    You wanted Brody gone, because you cannot deal with such a complex character in this particular genre. Instead, you want a character representing some stupid black-and-white morality, especially in the world of politics and America's so-called war on terrorism. I find this desire pathetic and a prime example of how people are good at desiring and creating illusions for themselves . . . even in regard to fictional characters.

  • Matthew | October 17, 2013 11:35 AMReply

    Agreed on Brody storyline only resulting from the wish to keep him on the show. The same thing happens on Justified with Boyd Crowder. He was meant to be killed off in the first episode but because he was so good he was kept alive and each year they've contrived to write a new storyline for him to keep him on the show. On the show he's gone from being a white supremacist, a born again Christian, a miner with no faith and then he becomes the king of Harlan's underworld. Now every season involves a new bad guy coming into the town and having to deal with both Raylan and Boyd and of course they like Boyd so writers constantly come up with these ways to write him out of trouble when he should have been killed ten times already.

  • Izzy | October 16, 2013 9:50 AMReply

    Rodrigo, you hit the nail on the head. So many of us stuck around for Dexter to get better again episode after episode, season after season. Once a show goes bad, it almost never gets better. If Homeland is the exception, I'll come back to it, one day. It's very doubtful Showtime won't renew Homeland another season. They don't have very much else going. So it'll be around for a while. But, what I won't do is tune every week to a mediocre to bad show just because it used to be good.

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  • Rodrigo | October 16, 2013 4:46 AMReply

    Dude you made me give up watching this season. I was about to start it, but i have read bad reviews, and this one was the 'thats it' moment. I was really unmotivated by what you said is happening this season and I believe is real. I hope the execs read this and change, maybe then Ill give another chance. Dexter made me learn sometimes its not worth to see the end.

  • Bos | October 16, 2013 12:20 AMReply

    Burned Bright. Burnt Fast. This show should have been a one-off 16 episode series, and it would have been epic. It's now devolved into something confused and mostly boring.

  • John McGrath | October 15, 2013 4:30 PMReply

    The writers may have been told by the suits to keep Brody alive (for ratings) but the writers, not surprisingly for creative people, are making good use of the necessity forced on them. Necessity can indeed be the mother of invention.

    First, the parallel doomed love/guilt stories.

    Brody, Carrie's lover, is imprisoned, in an alien place again, as in Afghanistan, but this time probably without the ability to make a false adaptation (converting to Islam) to his alien place. In the Middle East he converts out of love and guilt, love for the boy who becomes his reconnect to humanity, an experience with a powerful impact after years of isolation. Of course that love is part of his captor's manipulation of him, an aspect of brainwashing. And guilt at the killing of the boy by a US attack, one illegally authorized by the Vice President whom Brody later bonds with, but in a manipulative way, as he was manipulated by his Muslim captor/terrorist. The VP’s illegal authorization makes that US attack a form of terrorism itself. And later Brody become the VP’s executioner, the VP found guilty of terrorism by those we know as terrorists against the US. Meanwhile Brody, still enthralled by his love for that slain Muslim boy, neglects his own children and his wife to pursue a mutually manipulative but passionate love with Carrie. His daughter, meanwhile, in her isolation, bonds with her alien father, only to realize in the end that her father was screwed up, unreliable as a person, an important part of him missing, another part of him monstrous, morally off base, false, not a true father at all. But nonetheless a figure of sympathy.

    Then we see the daughter pursue an impossible love with another imprisoned male who, like Carrie, has mental health issues. So her love is like her father’s for Carrie. Her statement to this boy lover that “You’re so beautiful,” may be true, but the boy is false, an illusion, a ghost person like her father. The mother tries to warn her daughter, but in a way that lacks sympathy, that cannot be heard. Yet it is during this unsympathetic encounter that mother and daughter finally connect emotionally, around the truth of their betrayal by Brody. Brody betrays his country, then his adopted tribe (the Muslim terrorists), then his fellow confused soldier, then his country and all along his family. Yet you would have to be heartless not to find him a sympathetic character, as is the daughter’s boy lover.

    Of course Carrie is imprisoned too, in a mental hospital. But more importantly in her mind, her limited view of the world. She is imprisoned by her unbalanced love for her job and her reckless love for Brody and her need for the rush of excitement of danger. She never really loved Brody beyond the physical attraction and the rush of a forbidden love with a dangerous character who has lost touch with his identity and any decent moral code that would ground him in humanity and in his family.

    Next, the emerging moral vision.

    The young male assassin, ruthless in a way, emerges as the most morally grounded person in this story. He is grounded by purpose, which brings limits. Once he sees no purpose to the organization, and perhaps the country, he serves, he knows he must get out. He is not in it for personal satisfaction, for the rush, for the obsession with career. He’s there to serve and protect, to deliver us from evil and when the evil appears to be on both sides he can no longer take a side. Will he merge as the true father to Brody’s children and a true partner to Brody’s wife? Or will he die?

    Another thing the writers are doing is laying out, subtly, the terrorist role of the US in the world. We got some of this in the bombing of the school in which the Muslim boy was killed. I think we will get more of it as the malign effect the US has on Latin America gets developed.

    I don’t know about anyone else, but Brody’s wife is emerging for me as the most admirable and lovable character in this story, With the young assassin second.

    A moral filter that simply says bad, guilty man is not sufficient to get at the moral issues in this story. The story in many ways is illustrating the moral confusion of America. Brody and all the other characters, “they is us,” to quote a famous comic strip. The Roman dramatist/comedian Terence expressed it best. “I am a human being and I think that nothing another human being does is alien to my nature.”

  • TF | October 15, 2013 4:28 PMReply

    The season 3 focus on teenage Dana's involuntary commitment to a mental health institution and Carrie's involuntary commitment to a mental health institution are pretty far removed from the show's core premise about the CIA combatting terrorism. (Are there not enough TV shows about misunderstood teenagers falling in love already?) The Brody episode was the most entertaining of season 3 so far, but I wonder how (and hope) the show will find its way back to the premise that intrigued us all in the first place.

  • rodie | October 15, 2013 3:46 PMReply

    I would be more interested in this season if Brody had died at the end of last season and his family's issues and story arc wrapped up by episode 3 this season. More Carrie and Saul, and a new villain/threat is what this show needs.

  • tmack | October 15, 2013 2:51 PMReply

    You said it quite clearly. Brody cannot be cleared of these crimes, mainly because he is guilty of most of them. Personally, I do think he collaborated to blow up Langley, going ahead with it once he lost both his family and Carrie (which explains his dismay when Carrie changes his mind).

    But, most important, he killed the VP of the United States. Carrie will be lucky to clear her own name given that she's helped a murderer and assassin flee justice & covered up his crimes. I'm sure that makes her an accessory or accomplice in anybody's book.

  • HL | October 15, 2013 1:58 PMReply

    No Brody, no watch. Period.