On "Homeland," as on "Breaking Bad," a man leaves his family behind

The "Homeland" season premiere finds Brody's family struggling without him, and Carrie off her meds and defiant

By Jen Chaney
September 30, 2013 4:00PM (UTC)
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It’s difficult to reduce a show as meaty and wide-ranging as "Homeland" to a single, prevailing theme. It’s about a lot of different things: mental illness, loyalty to colleagues and country, America’s relationship with Islam, the urgent need to determine who the bad guys are in a post-9/11 era, and the subsequent, urgent need to capture those bad guys.

Another thing it’s about is the murkiness of truth in a time of terrorism, especially when politics enter the picture. During the excellent first season of "Homeland," both Carrie Mathison and we, the audience, attempted to determine whether war hero Nicholas Brody really had been turned into a terrorist or was just a conflicted man who became a Muslim. The answer, it turned out, was: kind of both. What ultimately moved Brody toward carrying out the wishes of Abu Nazir -- what made him almost detonate a bomb in order to kill the vice president, then actually kill Vice President William Walden via pacemaker-murder in one of the more over-the-top moments during season 2 -- was a lie. Specifically, the lie Walden told when he said the drone strike that killed Issa, son of Nazir and pseudo-son of Brody, didn’t affect any children.


Now here we are at the beginning of season 3. Brody is out of the picture, at least for now, having gone into hiding after the explosion at the CIA that killed 219 Americans and has now been dubbed the second 9/11. Nearly two months after that explosion, there are people sitting before Senate committees and TV cameras once again telling lies. But those people are now Carrie Mathison, back in unhinged mode, and Saul Berenson, now acting director of the CIA and a man responsible, indirectly, for the death of yet another innocent child in a U.S.-driven attack. The cycle continues.

"Homeland" fans also may be wondering whether the season 2 cycle of soap-opera-ish plot twists will continue into this run of fresh episodes. It’s clearly too early in season 3 to say for sure. But this premiere indicated that purely in terms of plot, "Homeland" intends to repeat some of its own history.

When Carrie blamed herself for the Langley bombing (“It was right in front of my eyes, and I never saw it coming”), it sounded an awful lot like her previous lament about not catching 9/11: “I missed something once before. I won’t, I can’t, let that happen again.” All of that signature Carrie stuff -- the intricate apartment wall maps cobbled together with thumbtacks, media clippings and rubber bands; the paranoia (which, to be fair, is probably somewhat founded); the quiver-lipped crying -- returned in all its simultaneously compelling and ripe-for-"SNL"-parody form. And as usual, Emmy winner Claire Danes immersed herself in it commendably and fully.


We all know that Danes makes an exceptional cry face. What interested me in this episode was her defiant face, the one she flashed when she burst into a restaurant that looked a lot like D.C.’s Capital Grille and lit into Saul, Dar Adal, and their CIA colleagues for purportedly leaking the information about her relationship with Brody. (We all agree that F. Murray Abraham totally did that, right?) I have a feeling we’ll be seeing a lot of Carrie’s defiant face this season, especially now that she’s off her lithium and determined to drink all the vodka.

As her father told her, Carrie shouldn’t blame herself for not recognizing the signs that a bombing was imminent. But what she can blame herself for is her relationship with Brody, a fact that she’s still not willing to accept. She was angry about that newspaper story, and understandably hurt by Saul’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in which he confirmed, without naming Carrie personally, that she’s an agent who has “been diagnosed as bipolar, a condition she withheld from her superiors for more than 10 years.” That was not a good moment for her. It wasn’t really a good moment for Saul. And for that matter, it was a pretty rotten moment for people who suffer from mental illness, only adding to the stigma that they’re incapable and not to be trusted.

But while Carrie may feel angry and self-righteous about that betrayal, the harsh truth is that nothing in that newspaper story was wrong. And, minus the honking, bald-faced lie Saul told about not knowing anything about their affair, what he said was correct, too. Carrie’s behavior is erratic, and she did sleep with a man the CIA knew had a relationship with terrorists, for weeks and months leading up the attack. That doesn’t mean Brody’s responsible for the bombing, but it does mean that she exercised horrible judgment, something she’s not willing to process. It’s easier to think she just missed something than it is to realize that she walked right into the situation with both eyes fully open.


Now let’s talk about Saul, who has been thrust into the head-of-CIA role at the worst possible time imaginable. As established yet again in this episode, he’s not a decider and he hates to play politics. But Saul understands that there’s more on the line than just his relationship with Carrie. It’s up to him to restore the reputation of an agency and save the jobs of every single Langley survivor. That means he had to lie, and he had to authorize a series of attacks designed to make it look like the CIA had knocked out the top tier of the terrorist network responsible for the bombing, even though Saul knew very well that it didn’t really eliminate the person who ordered that bombing. And he had to throw Carrie under the bus even though he swore he wouldn’t.

It’s taken him decades, but Saul has finally learned to act on the two key rules of surviving in politics: first save face, then cover your own butt. He probably won’t be able to sleep at night. But he’s doing what men, like Estes before him, have always done when they reach such leadership positions: He’s toughening up and flicking on the blinders to preserve his sanity. Given the unnecessary deaths of that young boy and those other civilians, he’s also probably laid the fertile soil that will grow more future terrorists. History, history, history. Repeat, repeat, repeat. It’s terrible, and yet it’s hard to see another way for Saul.


And speaking of hard situations: Ugh. The Brodys. They are in a terrible spot now: ostracized, under surveillance and quickly running out of money. Some of the early reviews of this new "Homeland" season criticized the amount of time being focused on Dana Brody’s suicide attempt and release from the hospital, but I didn’t mind it. "Homeland" has often centered the majority of its attention on Brody, Carrie and the ripple effects of their story throughout the CIA ranks. Now we can finally see the lasting impact of Brody’s actions on his own family members, people who, despite their flaws, absolutely do not deserve the punishment that’s raining down on them.

Given that "Homeland’s" premiere aired opposed the final episode of "Breaking Bad," the connection between those two stories can’t be ignored. Nicholas Brody made ethically questionable decisions and has now disappeared, leaving his family to muddle through the aftermath alone. Under vastly different circumstances, Walter White did the same thing. But just as Walt couldn’t stay away from home for long, surely Brody -- who loves Dana, Chris and even Jess -- won’t be able to stay out of contact forever, either.

Either way, in the meantime, it’s the people on the sidelines of what happened who suffer. In a way, the Brodys are a lot like that poor kid Quinn gunned down in Venezuela. Their lives got ruined and right now, most Americans don’t know and don’t care.

Jen Chaney

Jen Chaney is a pop culture writer whose work appears regularly in The Washington Post, New York Magazine’s Vulture and The Dissolve. She’s currently working on a book about the movie “Clueless,” to be published next year by Touchstone.

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