Contains spoilers – big ones – only read once you’ve seen all of season 1.
I reviewed the first three episodes of Homeland two months ago, and came to the conclusion that I was missing something: that I simply didn’t feel as wowed by the show as everyone else seemed to be.
I can’t say that I have really shifted from that position since then over the rest of its run. It was well made and certainly very well acted – again, let me just emphasis how terrific Damian Lewis, Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin were; and kudos also to Morena Baccarin and David Harewood. Story-wise it felt a little disjointed, uneven and inconsistent, moving through several different distinct phases in the course of a very short season. Some of the character progressions were just too jarring to go along with, even factoring in the mental instability of Danes’ character Carrie Mathison as she went from being ultra suspicious of Lewis’ ex-PoW marine Brody to falling in love with him in rather record time, while still believing him to be a terrorist. Other plot threads and supporting characters felt as though they were spun out to fill an episode before being dropped and never mentioned again; alternative plot opportunities went untried.
Any show has a fair measure of these rough edges, of course. A show can still be great even with them present. For example, I’m the first to admit that the Danish series Forbrydelsen – which I totally adore beyond reason – has all sorts of loose ends and contradictions. But somehow in the case of Homeland these flaws didn’t contribute to a richer experience so much as they just irritated.
Perhaps I’m just taking it personally that they went ahead and made Brody into a terrorism convert after all. In my earlier review I’d concluded that they wouldn’t, at least not clearly or overtly, because this would paint the picture that anyone who adheres to Islamic faith must de facto be a clear and present threat. In 24 you’d expect that; but surely they wouldn’t do that sort of knee-jerk jingoism in a high-brow serious drama like Homeland? Well, it turns out that they would, and indeed did (it was obvious it was going to happen the minute Brody’s fellow ex-PoW Tom Walker popped up to deflect suspicion.) Even if the story did successfully nuance the issue with Brody’s reasons for his actions and make it clear that the targets of his revenge were essentially outright war criminals, it’s still a distinction that will be lost on the majority of viewers who will be far more influenced and shaken by the sight of Brody in full US army uniform wearing a suicide bomber’s vest: the ultimate traitor.
Despite all my reservations about the show, the final episode – the double-length season finale – almost converted me. The whole first hour as the assassination started to play out was staggeringly well executed on screen. It was as good a piece of nerve-wracking suspense as I think I’ve seen done on television in a very long time indeed: Hitchcockian, indeed (the ultimate praise in my book.) It also saw a credible, intelligent assassination plot which brought together various strands and hints from earlier episodes and made sense of it all as it played out. At that moment – with Brody in the bunker with the Vice President, Estes, the defence secretary and the rest of those he knows to be responsible for a war atrocity – the series was poised on the edge of greatness. And then it fluffed it.
Dramatically speaking, the correct play at that point was for the bomb to be detonated. Everything had led up to it. While obviously we don’t support, condone or cheer on terrorist actions either in fiction let alone in the real world, for the bomb not to go off at that point leaves the series climax without any climax at all: just a meek sort of “Oh … okay then, let’s just tidy up and reset everything.” If you’ve had the courage to take the audience on this painstaking two-month journey, then at least have the episode end on a cliffhanger: will he or won’t he? Don’t answer it anticlimactically well before the end of the episode.
But this is where commercial television priorities trump the dramatic requirements. The broadcaster (US premium cable channel Showtime) has a hit on its hands – one that even has President Obama watching and inviting the stars over for dinner as a consequence – and so the thought of it ending there and then is simply unpalatable to the executives. The show must go on, regardless of how it’s achieved. And since Damian Lewis is a big star as a result of the show, they certainly can’t have him exit the series by being vaporised in a ball of flame. Hence the whole thing has to be backed down and reset so that we can go through a second season next year.
Yet where exactly does it go from here? Carrie is no longer in the CIA, which is a problem (unless she’s magically welcomed back after all despite everyone saying it can’t happen.) We the audience now know Brody’s true intentions and motivations: although he’ll likely try to back away from Abu Nazir and rehabilitate himself in season 2, he’ll doubtless get blackmailed back in by the existence of the video recording of his suicide statement. Walker is dead. Do we really care enough about whether Abu Nazir is captured? Or whether the Vice President’s dark secret comes to light? Not really: we now know the secrets that were buried in the show at the start, and a fresh load of plots will just feel like pale imitation by comparison, as would a new assassination attempt.
At least if the bomb had exploded it would have projected the show into genuinely new and bold territory and asked fresh questions. Would Brody’s recording have been aired or would everyone be left wondering what had gone on in that sealed bunker? Having been proved right about the imminent danger to the Vice President, Carrie would have been rushed back into the CIA fold as soon as she was treated, regardless: or worse, she could publicly reveal that the CIA bungled and that the plot was preventable. What would happen to Brody’s family – would they know the truth or would daughter Dana be left in agonising uncertainty? What would the reaction have been to the revelation of Vice President’s drone strike secret – would it turn people against the government, perhaps even inspire sympathy for the terrorists? What would the CIA do about Nazir? Was there a next step to his plan that involved someone other than Brody and Walker that we didn’t get to see?
There’s a rich vein of untapped dramatic potential here, but none of this will happen now because the show must go on and it couldn’t afford to lose its star. I sympathise in a way as Damian Lewis together with Claire Danes were and are definitely the main reasons to watch the show. But sometimes broadcasters should realise that the perfect length for a program is precisely one series, and that not everything needs to be spun out over several years until the things that made it work in the first place are threadbare and worn out, and the shine has well and truly gone off the whole venture.
At which point, doubtless Sky would step in and buy up UK rights to the show and shunt it off to some channel where we can’t see it without paying subscriptions, like they have with everything else of late. In the meantime, expect series 2 at least of Homeland back on Channel 4 either in the late autumn or in the New Year. You’ll have to wait almost as long for the DVD of the first season to come out on October 1, I’m afraid.
Sky Arts is to show the original Israeli mini-series “Prisoners of War” from which Homeland was adapted, starting on Thursday May 10 at 9.30pm.