'Homeland' And The Delicate Art Of Withholding
[Be aware that this post contains information about Sunday night's episode of Homeland. Consider yourself forewarned.]
Much of the first season of Homeland was just about perfect. The dance between federal agent Carrie Mathison's maybe-paranoia and returned soldier Nicholas Brody's maybe-nefarious intentions was effective in part because the withholding of the truth about Brody was done so elegantly. The audience showed a high tolerance for the fact that the show clearly knew what Brody was up to, and didn't tell us until they were good and ready.
Since then, though, Homeland has struggled to find a reason for continuing its story, and especially for keeping Brody and Carrie in a story together. Attempts to make the show compelling by centering it around their romance have been uneven at best. Perhaps it's not surprising that in this third season, the first four episodes haven't put them together at all — he's been entirely absent from all but last week's episode, in which he was bottled up away from Carrie.
Sunday night's episode, "Game On," continued Carrie's story, which this season has had her betrayed by Saul and the CIA following a bombing Brody is accused of spearheading. She's been shamed and blamed in a public narrative in which a bipolar CIA operative had an affair with a terrorist, then perhaps even facilitated an attack and then cooperated in the attacker's escape. She was involuntarily committed, heavily medicated, separated from her family, and burned by the agency when all her money was frozen, her car confiscated, and her friends turned against her.
Oh, wait — that didn't happen. They spent three and a half episodes on it, but that didn't happen.
After Carrie, in despair, agreed to become a spy for Iran (?), she went to see Saul and it was revealed that some or all of this was a front to bait the Iranians into approaching her so that she could get inside and get intelligence on the bombing.
On the one hand, it's a reversal that redeems a plot that was really starting to not make any sense; who would believe Carrie would start working for Iran?
But on the other hand, it meant that the story in which the audience had been asked to invest for several episodes — Carrie's isolation, her fear, her despair, her estrangement from Saul, her sense of betrayal — was either not true or part true. (As Alan Sepinwall points out, it's not even clear when this became a plot in which Carrie was cooperating. His theory that it began right after she threw Saul's apology back in his face seems possible, but certainly not unambiguously correct.) While this twist is fun, in its way, it's also problematic. It's not quite as bad as "it was all a dream," but it has discouraging similarities to "it was all a dream."
It's still withholding, but it's an entirely different kind of withholding from the first season. When you withhold and the audience knows you're doing it, then when you finally give it up — when you finally tell them that yes, Brody is planning to blow himself up along with the vice president — it's satisfying. But when you suddenly reveal that you've been doing a big fake-out, not just for a scene or two scenes or one episode, but perhaps for the lion's share of four episodes, you risk making the audience so wary of your tricks that they stop caring.
Narratively, at some point, you have to commit. The audience has to know that what you've already shown them is written in pen, not pencil. You can expand on what you've written; you can write reversals and surprises. Reversals are part of the game, and surprises are key, particularly in a spy show. But it's different, and a little hazardous, to undo your story, especially in large quantities. It's the difference between "you thought this was happening, but much more was happening" and "you thought this was happening, but it wasn't."
So Carrie wasn't frightened about being burned. She wasn't conflicted about the approach from the Iranians. She wasn't alarmed that her credit cards were shut down. She wasn't feeling betrayed by Saul. She wasn't on her own. She wasn't upset when she seemed upset, wasn't scared when she seemed scared, wasn't suffering when she seemed to be suffering.
There's a fine line between a flourish and a trick, between the delicious feeling that you've been had in the best way and the unpleasant feeling that you've been, for lack of a more elegant phrase, jerked around. Homeland has been at times very good at the former. Last night felt a little more like the latter.