Homeland, Emotional Plausibility, and the Tethered Triangle

03Dec12

My favorite show currently airing is Homeland, which I have found far less problematic in its second season than many critics seem to. [Note: I'll be vague & unspoilerly for the first part of this post, clearly marking when I dive into specific plot points at length beneath the fold.] Part of my reaction is because I’ve watched it at the same time as rewatching season 1 as part of the screening for my Television & American Culture course (and as an aside, it’s worked wonderfully for teaching!). Watching the two seasons in parallel creates all sorts of resonances & layers, making it feel more coherent and consistent than many seem to find it, especially concerning the relationship between Carrie & Brody, which I’ll unpack below the spoiler fold.

Last night’s episode seems to be particularly divisive, as some major things happened that set-off many folks’ plausibility meters. I agree with Todd VanDerWerff’s take wholeheartedly that “plausibility” is a red herring for much of serial TV, and if you’ve seen “Broken Hearts,” you should read it now, as it’s a great review/essay. If not, Todd’s essential spoiler-redacted argument is this:

Watching TV for plot is a fool’s game, and it’s just going to end with you being disappointed. But watching TV for long-term character arcs can be very rewarding, particularly if you’re in the hands of writers who keep an eye on the characters in a way that keeps them more or less consistent. It’s all but impossible to blow through plot at the level Homeland does without running out of room…, but it is possible to keep the big character moments coming, and the show has done an excellent job of that this season.

What’s more, I find character stuff more emotionally satisfying, generally. What I admire most about this season of Homeland is the way that it dropped a bombshell… then played out fairly logically how all of the other characters in the show’s orbit would react to that happening…. I’ve more or less bought everything that’s happened since on that level of the characters behaving rationally. That seems to be the modus operandi of this season: Something big and occasionally ridiculous happens, and then the show goes out of its way to examine just how the characters would react to said ridiculous happening. I suspect if you’re someone who watches for plot, primarily, you get stuck on the big thing happening…. But for character watchers, the real meat comes after the inciting incident.

I’m not trying to say watching TV for plot is wrong. It certainly isn’t, and there are certainly shows that have been able to deftly weave rocket-paced plots that nonetheless provide room for character introspection in the moment. But at the same time, every story contains its plausibility concerns, and if you poke at them hard enough (or come at them from the right point-of-view), you’ll find them. (See Film Crit Hulk on this issue.) I certainly find watching TV more rewarding when watched from a character or thematic or emotional or structural basis, but I’m not here to tell you how to watch TV and, instead, to defend mostly enjoying this episode when I see the haters are already out in force for it. But the way I’ve always seen TV is heavily influenced by something our own Scott Tobias said in the wake of XXX on Friday Night Lights: Serialized storytelling is often about throwing ridiculous plot points at already established characters and seeing how they react to them. More and more, I’m convinced the “problem” with this season of Homeland many of you are having has less to do with the ridiculousness of the plot points and more to do with how the show didn’t exactly scale its way up to them but, instead, just jumped right to them.

Truth. (Although, ridiculousness has always been in Homeland‘s DNA, as aptly summed up by James Poniewozik on Twitter: “Man, this show about the brainwashed POW coming  home to become a terrorist congressman is suddenly getting totally implausible.”)

So in this light, Homeland‘s chief narrative enigma isn’t about terrorist plots, CIA moles, or political maneuvers. It’s about how do Carrie and Brody really feel about each other. The series’s writers have often said that Homeland‘s magic ingredient is the chemistry between Claire Danes & Damien Lewis, and how it infuses all of the espionage plots with emotional stakes. That emotional depth is what elevates Homeland over 24, and why plot plausibility doesn’t really matter – but emotional character plausibility does.

Which raises the question: were the events of “Broken Hearts” plausible to the characters and storyworld as the program has established them? My answers – and many plot spoilers – beneath the fold.

My big plausibility question from “Broken Hearts” is not whether you can kill someone remotely with a pacemaker (which the writers say is feasible, if unlikely, but they fail to address whether it’s been tried on Dick Cheney), or how Brody could infiltrate the Naval Observatory so easily, or how Nazir could move about the D.C. area openly, or such plot matters—those all seem consistent enough with the heightened dramatic license of Homeland‘s storyworld. The big question is why would Brody risk everything to save Carrie? And that’s Todd’s main plausibility gripe as well:

I’m not sure I’ll believe that Brody will put everything on the line like this for Carrie or, crucially, that Abu Nazir really thinks Brody would do everything he wants to ensure Carrie’s life. In the moment, I more or less went with it, because I was sort of toying with the idea that the show might really kill Carrie (even as I knew it wouldn’t), but the more I thought about it, the less I really thought that Brody’s feelings for her ran all that deeply. I’ve always seen him as viewing her as another part of a life he can’t quite get under control, not the person he loves more than anything (as Carrie obviously feels about him). The connection between the two of them is palpable, but it can’t explain everything.

I see two possible explanations for why Brody rolls the dice to save Carrie: either his emotional connection to her trumps rational logic, or it’s part of a long-con that he & Nazir have worked out. The latter option is one that Emily Nussbaum has been mulling on Twitter [Update: and now she's blogged about it], basically saying that Nazir is trying to convince Carrie that Brody loves her & implicate her in covering up the VP murder for some future benefit. Part of me likes this: we’ve still got a major gap in time when Brody was captured by Nazir in Virginia, and we know he’s withheld at least some information from the CIA (that he & Nazir prayed together). Plus as Carrie likes to remind us, Nazir’s just too good to be going for a simple plan like the one that they busted last week. In fact, during this week’s Previously-On segment, my wife & I discussed whether Brody is still helping Nazir, and I thought he probably was. But if this turns out to be true, the next two episodes have a lot of retconning to do to make me buy that Brody’s freak-out from getting Nazir’s call & seeing Carrie captured was a ruse for her benefit.

For now, I totally buy that Brody’s emotional connection to Carrie (and Nazir) is enough to sign-on for the pacemaker plot to save her. And this gets to the real point of this post: Homeland regularly uses the word “love” to describe how Carrie feels toward Brody, and suggests that Brody does not feel the same for Carrie. But I do not think “love” sums up either of their emotions particularly well, especially not in how most of us experience love in relationships in terms of romance, friendship, and pleasure. Instead, best term I can come up with for how Carrie and Brody feel toward each other is emotionally tethered. This feeling is mutual, and it overrides both logic and other relationships (aside from one).

Let’s start with Carrie, as she’s the one who instigated this relationship. As became clear from my rewatch, Carrie’s emotions toward Brody were forged during her month of video surveillance, where she observed every part of his intimate personal life (aside from what he did in his garage prayer room) and made him part of her everyday life. Just as we sit on the couch, eating ice cream and making intense emotional connections with people on a screen, Carrie’s attachment to Brody was first established virtually—and rudely cancelled by Saul just as it was getting good! Carrie made the virtual into a physical relationship in part to pursue her suspicions, but also because she needed to feel that connection to Brody, as he represented a form of togetherness & intimacy that she otherwise lacked. Carrie often mentions her fear of growing old alone and struggle to connect with anyone outside the agency, while also telling Brody how hard it is to have experiences and secrets that nobody else can understand. There’s always manipulation under this dialogue, but that doesn’t make it untrue. While yes, she loves the passionate eavesdropping-Saul-mortifying sex that they have, ultimately what Carrie needs from Brody is that tether, the sincere emotional connection & sharing that she lacks with anyone else in her life.

For Brody, things are more complicated—8 years living in isolation while being broken by terrorists will do that to a guy. He does have the potential of intimacy with Jess, but he can never be honest with her and knows that Mike has taken his place in her heart, enough that he’s willing to push the two of them together at times. He can share more with Dana, but it’s always clouded by his deception and necessary distance from her, concerned how she’ll regard him and his choices. He certainly can’t be fully honest with Carrie early in their relationship, but he can share more of his vulnerability with her than anyone else. And what we know about his time in captivity is that he was searching for connections, and desperately latched onto whatever was offered: first Islam, then Issa, then Nazir. Back in the USA, he becomes disconnected from Nazir, especially once he goes into deep cover as a Congressman, and Carrie’s bold bid to reconnect rekindles his need to tether himself to someone, establishing a sense of intimacy that he otherwise lacks, even with his family. In the masterful episode “Q & A,” Carrie lays this all out for us, making it clear that Brody desperately needs a tether to something real and sincere, and offering herself up as that point of connection. He doesn’t love her in any conventional way (Saul-shaming sex aside), but he needs her and what she represents: the ability (or maybe just the possibility) to communicate without pretense.

When Nazir captures him to reestablish their connection, it puts Brody at the heart of a tether triangle: whose connection does he value the most? If we believe that he ultimately did betray Nazir and that events in “Broken Hearts” are as they appear, then Brody’s actions to kill the VP seek to reaffirm both of his tethers: he carries out his revenge mission for Nazir, and ensures Carrie’s safety for his future connectedness. (And if he refused, he loses both of them.) Of course, Nazir speaks of his own tether to Nicholas (pronounced as only Nazir can say): “Sometimes, when you’re breaking a man, an emotional transference takes place. For me, with Nicholas, it was quite powerful. It was really a kind of love.” Although characters on Homeland lie all the time, I think they usually speak the truth when discussing such emotional connections. I do believe that Nazir reciprocates Brody’s tether to a lesser degree, that Brody is more than just a sleeper agent to Nazir (hence his quick willingness to side with Brody against Walker in “Marine One”), but an intimate connection who share mutual love for a dead boy and a Muslim faith. And much has been made about how tethered Carrie feels to Nazir, obsessively trying to get inside his head and treating him like her white whale, although that seems to be a solely one-way connection.

All this is to say that the core emotional realism of the show still feels completely true to me, and that Brody’s search for connection does fully motivate his actions in “Broken Hearts” – and I think even Emily’s long-con theory would make sense at its emotional (if not practical) core as well, as it would deepen Brody’s connection with both Carrie and Nazir. Of course, one of the great challenges about analyzing such serial storytelling is that we’re trying to catch a moving target—anything I say here could be reversed, undermined, or recontextualized by the next episode’s twist. But that’s why Todd’s point is so essential: for viewers of serial stories, trying to latch onto a fast-moving plotline is a fool’s game. Instead, we must tether ourselves to the relative stability of the characters and their motivations, seeking that connectedness as we watch their intimate moments from our own couches.

Random Asides:

While this is not an episodic review like TV critics tend to offer, I do envy the format of the “hail of bullets” common in weekly reviews as you can write things about an episode that doesn’t otherwise flow with the whole argument. So…

  • Homeland often uses double meanings in its titles, but “Broken Hearts” wins for a triple meaning: the shattered loves among the tethered triangle, the pacemaker malfunction, and the interrupted card game between Chris & Brody!
  • The scene with Saul & Dar Adal, or the “beard-off” as it’s being called, was great as expected, but I kept getting flashbacks to F. Murray Abraham’s last restaurant scene – in the “Dad” episode of Louie – so I was waiting for him to order two Cornish hens and talk about a credenza.
  • And a theory for what’s happening with Quinn, Saul, etc.: I think Dar Adal & Estes plan to take down Carrie in addition to Brody once Nazir is neutralized, and thus detained Saul to avoid complications. There are too many loose ends to leave these potential wildcards in play. But I refuse to even consider that they’d hurt even a hair on Saul’s beard!
  • Update: A link to a great Mo Ryan post that offers an assortment of theories as to where this season might be going, and some kind words about this post!
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9 Responses to “Homeland, Emotional Plausibility, and the Tethered Triangle”

  1. 1 Simon

    Here’s where I have a huge problem with Homeland this season and the idea of not watching for plot as a whole. There isn’t anything that will ruin my immersion more than suddenly being forced to think ‘well that’s just stupid.’ Once I do that all the Emotional Plausibility in the world won’t matter because I’m too busy wondering how the hell someone got phone reception in a nuclear bunker when I can’t get it on the tube.

    I’m happy that some critics have reached a Zen state where basic failures of logic can be ignored because CHARACTER! and THEME! But as a poor ignorant member of the TV watching proletariat it just feels like laziness at best and negligence at worst. Plot isn’t a luxury, it’s the foundation your character’s are built on. If you can’t put the effort in to get that right then you don’t get to moan when the whole thing fall apart.

    • The CIA is not authorized to do domestic intelligence, meaning that 90% of what we see in the series is more implausible than getting phone reception in a bunker (I assume that VIP government bunkers have mobile relays). Every fiction requires us to take some liberties, whether it’s a fantasy or pseudorealist drama – the crucial test is whether the show feels consistent to its own norms, which Homeland still does to me.

      I’d never say plot is a luxury or irrelevant – it’s just that it’s less important than character, something that every decent TV writer will attest to. Interesting people doing boring or ludicrous things is much more successful than boring people doing interesting things (see FlashForward, The Event, etc.).

      Thanks for commenting!

      • 3 Simon

        I’d probably argue about it being less important than character depending on the show/format but in Homelands case I’m fine with the idea. Domestic CIA ops and Carrie being mad as a box of frogs are both implausible but they were tied into the premise and if I couldn’t get past that I wouldn’t still be watching. The rest of the first season though was brilliant character interaction set upon tight plotting, at least until the finale where they got away with it through sheer momentum. For me though they didn’t have that same momentum through 2nd season though and it’s partly because of all the ‘well that’s just stupid’ speed bumps they put in their own way. So in a way I’m even more annoyed because I know I’d be enjoying the excellent character work more if the writers had been doing their job properly in setting the scene properly.

        Anyways great article and thanks for letting me vent.

  2. I’m perfectly willing to allow plot to take a back seat when it comes to HOMELAND because I agree that the show is really all about the relationship between Carrie and Brody. But the scene at the Naval Observatory was…challenging. And I don’t mean Brody’s ability to get inside or even the pacemaker-as-murder-weapon nonsense.

    No, what had me aiming a slipper at the screen was the fact that the writers apparently were so hellbent on milking the drama out of the scene that they had Brody CONDUCT THE NEGOTIATION WITH NAZIR right there, on the spot! Instead of simply photographing the serial number or even texting it to himself and getting the hell out of there, we’re supposed to believe that he’d spend ten minutes bargaining over the phone for Carrie’s release.

    Like I said, manipulate me all you want, HOMELAND, but don’t make me feel like a fool for caring.

    • Yes, that was definitely a moment where the payoff for the scene with the VP – “I’m killing you!” – required choices that made no sense. For me, the cost was worth the benefit, as I forgot about my incredulity as soon as the Veep showed up.

  3. 6 jen

    A thank you and a new theory – or at least one I have yet to read:

    Just watched Broken Hearts and have read a few post mortems, including yours and Emily’s. I’m agree in that I’m fine with the poetic license taken regarding plausibility of the plot – up to a point. I think you’ve provided the reason that I’m okay with it. It is all about the logic and honesty of the character’s reactions to events as well as the layers of connectedness between the characters. Given me a deep welldeveloped and interesting characters and I might be okay watchinmg them do a post mortem on Homeland.

    So my theory after reading a lot of others is that, Nazir didn’t kill Brody during the kidnapping because of Brody’s realtionship with Carrie. Nadir made it plain to Brody that his relationship with Carrie was Brodie’s ticket to staying alive. That Brody needed to continue this relationship in order to get Carrie to do some future deed for Nazir. When Brody saw that Nazir had Carrie and was threatening to kill her Brody was confused and afraid because that would mean Brody no longer had value and their deal was off and he too would soon be dead. Brody acted strangely because he was wondering why Nazir was doing this. Why would he threaten to kill Carrie if Brody’s job was to remain close to her to eventually use her. Brody is wondering why Nazir changed the terms and if this meant Brody would soon also be dead?

    Nazir knows this and it’s why he makes a point of working extra hard at convincing Brody that he was serious and actually would kill their deal right then and there by killing Carrie. It also explains why Nazir he released her, trusted Brodie to turn over the numbers (Brodie is helping Nazir) and why they kept talking out of Carrie’s ear shot after she escaped. Why else would Nazir let Carrie go? Nazir has bigger plans for cxarrie and Brody will help convince/make/manipulate Carrie into carryin Nazir’s plans out. Brody took the extraordinary risk not out of layalty to Nazir or love for Carrie but because he wanted to ensure his life preserver remained alive and that their initial deal/plan was till on..

    The bonus is for Nazir, he got to play Brody one more time and kill off the Vice President, he convinced Brody to fear him even more and Nazir convinced Carrie that Brody really did love her. Carrie, is of course even more trusting and deeper in love with Brody now that he did this for her and from her perspective their relationship is stronger than ever and she is far more liley to do something horrible for Brody at Nazir’s direction when asked.

    This larger plan for Brody to use Carie tocarry out Nazir’s plans woud explain some of the other strange over-acting and overly sweet and awkard banter with Carrie prior to her kidnapping. When on the phone, call just before her car accident Brody responds, ‘yours too’, about hearing Carrie’s voice. He was in the middle of an awkard fight with his wife and typically would have been disturbed to get a call from her but instead, knowing that Jess knows it is Carrie calling he ecuises himself and cheerily takes the call. He is working Carrie. But this would also explain why Brody appeared to be genuinely surprised to be hearing that Nazir had kidnapped and was going to kill Carrie. This would also explain why Brody would risk goimg to the Naval Observatory – not to save Carrie for love, or kill Walden out of spite, or loyalty to Nazir but to save himself by keeping Carrie alive, so that he still has value to Nazir. His relationship with Carrie and his ability to control and manipuate her is valuable.

    On a sidie note – Brody has always been genuinely afraid of Nazir and seems to credit him with more power than he truly has or at least more fearful of Nazir than he is of the CIA despite being under their thumb. Thus his willingness to believe Nazir would kill Carrie right there, despite their previous plan.

    Brody is continually faced with choosing sides and axting on their behalf but on a deeper level that conflict seems to a genuine one that is going on within himself – between the western world and terrorists, about who really are are the terrorists and about of course about religion and being a muslim – his faith and what that means.

    He vascillated when initially faced with flipping the switch on the suicide vest. Like then, Brody seems to hesitate when giving the numbers to Nazir to kill Walden. It seems Brody is continually being forced to choose between his conflicting loyalties which is made more difficult becase each choice is followed not only by actions with dire and final consequences but more imprtantly his choices say something about who he is as a man and the deeper conflicts within Brody. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the one piece of evidence that we have is that Brody didn’t tell the CIA everything that happened during the kidnapping by Nazir is the scene where they were both praying. Religion and faith seem to play a central role for him and I think he kept praying even after he switched sides to help the CIA. Brody is conflicted at the deepest level. His family, and his life/job are things that represent his western world and Nazir, Issa, terrorism represent his muslim faith. Both sides have redeeming and dark truths. It is unclear where Carrie falls along that continuum although my sense is that she represents a sense of freedom to follow his true self which is somewhere along the middle and portions of each life and belief system. Which is odd given his actions are always at the extremes of both sides. At his core, Brody wants to do good but he is unclear what actions are ‘good’.

    No clue what the ultimate goal of Nazir is and what Carrie knows or may be forced or manipulated into doing by Brody but likely is has to do with Quinn and the special ops leader that seems to be a precursor to saeason 3. Estes falling into the dark side alonmg with them and set against Sal who is unwilling to play dirty as discussed in the cafe. Light and dark, good and evil in all aspects – Joseph Conrad would be proud.

  4. 7 Thomas Witholt

    I would also love to see the Carrie-Brody relationship as one long con (on both side), since I love a good con reversal, but there are two things that seem important to me in this debate that are left out of this particular post and the conversation happening in the comments:

    1.) I am not sure that an episode or a show needs emotional realism, where you end the post, to be a good episode or show. That assumes a kind of value that is so often touted but I think is a huge assumption, and certainly not why many people like TV shows (or other similar pleasures), especially those on Showtime where everyone seems psychologically and emotionally compromised;

    2.) Carrie and Brody are both really troubled people, as you say about Brody, so it’s hard to know what is going through their minds. Why, for example, does Carrie get dressed up and slip on a wedding ring, seemingly to go out, only to pass out with a bottle of wine at home? Did she lose her fiancé somewhere before all this began? Is he being kept secret from the audience? Related, another plot point I’m still waiting to resurface is Carrie’s affair with Estes. It is easy to put Carrie into a stereotype of sexualized powerful but unhinged women (_House of Lies_ comes to mind), but I’m hoping, because I also succumb to my critique in point 1, that there is some smart, well-developed long game behind her bad romance choices (even if Brody is part of a long con, which would be the best of both worlds for me).


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