The 10 rules of "Homeland" storytelling

These tropes and tricks have come to define the increasingly bizarre third season

Published December 9, 2013 1:30PM (EST)


This week’s “Homeland” was the penultimate episode of this sometimes gripping, often maddening, occasionally laughable third season. At this point, most critics and a number of viewers likely agree that Showtime’s once highbrow-ish CIA thriller has traveled far, far off its original GPS-plotted course. Already, Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever mentioned “Homeland” as one of 2013’s big television letdowns. Surely more year-end lists will do the same.

There seems to be little point, then, in spending this recap seriously analyzing a show that often doesn’t take itself seriously enough to bother making credible sense. Instead, perhaps what we all need to do, assuming we intend to stick with  “Homeland” through next week’s finale and the fourth season that will follow in 2014, is accept a few things.

Over and over again on this show, and especially during season three, the “Homeland” writers have relied on certain tropes and tricks to keep the Javadi-Saul and Carrie-Brody story lines humming along. Various recaps -- including ones I have written for Salon -- have bemoaned the fact that certain types of plot twists continue to rear their preposterous, repetitive heads. But at a certain point, you either have to stop watching “Homeland,” or just accept that those twists are now endemic to what “Homeland” is. I mean, if you walk into a diner and order a vanilla milkshake, you cannot be pissed when the waitress brings you a vanilla milkshake.

Therefore, to continue drinking the “Homeland” milkshake -- or, to use another analogy, make the kind of peace with this drama that Nicholas Brody pretended he had found in Tehran -- you need to accept the 10 tenets of “Homeland” storytelling. If you can accept each of these, you will reach the sort of zen state normally only achieved by attending a yoga class while pretending to be Carrie Mathison. At the very least, you may be less inclined to attempt to suffocate your television with a throw pillow during next week’s “Homeland” finale.

Note: For the record, I have not accepted at least eight of the 10 tenets listed below and am not sure that I ever can unless I start watching this show while heavily sedated.

1. Nicholas Brody will always have something unexpected up his sleeve.

“One thing we know about Brody is, this is a guy who changes his mind,” noted the astute Sen. Lockhart as he explained one of the core tenets of “Homeland” in the most obvious possible terms. Yes, Brody usually has something unexpected up his sleeve, sometimes quite literally in the form of cyanide intended to kill Gen. Akbari so Javadi can assume control of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard per Saul Berenson’s plan. Other times, what’s up his sleeve is less tangible and predictable, like his decision to share that plan with Akbari, then follow up immediately by killing the general with a candy dish to the head and a suffocating pillow to the face. Three seasons in, the writers continue to play with the Brody mistrust established back in Season 1. We are still supposed to think that he could turn at any moment, a fact that is extra-convenient when “Homeland” is in need of an episode-ending shocker or two. (Brody and the Akbari candy dish is to Season 3 what Brody and Vice President Walden’s pacemaker was to Season 2.)

2. Carrie will always be right about Brody.

Carrie was right that Brody didn’t bomb Langley. She was right to assume that he would remain committed to the CIA mission, even after the shock of confronting his daughter, Dana “housekeeping!” Lazaro. And Carrie was right again this week when she told Saul that Brody was staying in Tehran not because he had switched sides, but because he was waiting for another chance at Akbari. Carrie made sure it was clear that she was right about Brody by announcing to Saul once more, with feeling: “Saul, I have been right about him this whole time.”

3. Saul will willingly assign Carrie to missions in which it makes no sense for her to participate.

When it initially became apparent in Sunday’s episode that Carrie had gone to Tehran, I assumed she had gone rogue. Surely Saul wouldn’t send her to Tehran considering that earlier this season she was publicly outed as Brody’s lover, which would make her an especially conspicuous person to put on the ground in Iran. Surely Saul wouldn’t send Carrie to Tehran since she also has about 77 conflicts of interest regarding her involvement in anything Brody-related. Surely Saul wouldn’t send Carrie to Tehran when he has reprimanded Carrie multiple times in recent episodes for not following orders and screwing up everything. Surely Saul wouldn’t do that.

4. Carrie will talk about how she can’t do certain things because they put a mission at risk, while doing other things that blatantly put the same mission at even greater risk.

Man, it was hilarious when she noted that Brody had not reached out to her directly because everyone agreed that was “too risky,” even though she had already stood among the Brody-adoring crowd in a public street (very risky) and would later call Brody while standing a courtyard-length away from him outside that mosque (extra-crazy risky). Based on what we saw in this episode, Brody is basically like a member of One Direction in Tehran right now, while Carrie sticks out in Iran like … well, Claire Danes wearing a head scarf in the middle of Iran. Either one of them would attract attention by themselves, just by standing still. Put them on the phone mere feet from each other while they have agitated conversations about escaping to the United States and it’s a wonder Akbari’s men didn’t swoop in and immediately execute them. Honestly, was Carrie absent during the CIA orientation session on the basic principles of sneakiness?

5. Quinn will be the only person making a damn bit of sense.

“Where’s Carrie in all of this?” Quinn asked during Saul’s briefing. “She’s done her job putting together an extraction plan. Shouldn’t she be pulled out before the event?” Well, of course she should, Peter Quinn. But if she were pulled out, she couldn’t stand around on the streets of Iran, sticking out like an Angela Chase-ian sore thumb when it would make infinitely more sense for her to be as far away from Brody as possible.

6. Nicholas Brody will demonstrate total indifference toward his own son.

“I lost so much,” Brody told Abu Nazir’s widow. “Your family,” she said. “Especially my daughter,” Brody responded, as if he doesn’t have another living, breathing child that he’s also lost. I feel like there should be some Big Brother/Big Sister program that matches neglected TV children with mentors who can help them feel loved again. Chris Brody could be in it. Haddie Braverman from “Parenthood” could be in it. Gene Draper from “Mad Men” could be in it.

7. Carrie will continue to be in denial about a condition she has known about for some time.

This used to be true of her mental illness. This season, it’s true of her pregnancy. Then again, I can’t blame her entirely. When she saw her own reflection in the balcony glass, she was clearly showing, but in the courtyard scene, her baby bump seemed to have disappeared. Perhaps that’s contributing to her confusion?

8. CIA technology will always be alarmingly inadequate.

“It looks like he’s on the phone,” noted the ever-observant Team Saul when Brody took Carrie’s call, holding a telephone to his ear for all to see. If they can afford to put up Carrie in such a nice and unnecessary Iranian hotel for a week, can’t they afford better cameras to track Brody, as well as SOME WAY TO KEEP TABS ON WHERE CARRIE IS AND WHO SHE IS TALKING TO????

9. Even when Carrie’s actions could potentially lead to World War III, she will believe that it’s possible for everything to turn out fine.

By warning Brody about the CIA’s plan to kill him, she ran the risk of him going rogue and revealing everything to Akbari, which he did, in a move that would have undoubtedly led to a diplomatic crisis and potential war between the U.S. and Iran. Of course, Brody followed that up by killing Akbari, which could still lead to major international conflict, but at least Brody remained alive and proved that Carrie was right about Brody’s motives. As we know per tenet No. 2, that is the most important thing of all.

10. Carrie will never get fired.

No matter what she does, the CIA will not fire Carrie Mathison. Sure, they might suspend her or even forcibly institutionalize her as part of a top-secret master plan. But terminate her employment permanently? Never.

Although, maybe that’s one tenet that could be flexible. After she ignored Saul’s orders to come home and then hung up on him in this week’s episode, maybe he’ll finally realize next week that it’s time to stop investing in a once great agent who, thanks to “Homeland’s” writers, has become a wild card on multiple continents.

That would mean violating a core tent of “Homeland” storytelling, though, an act that would require “Homeland” to keep a trick up its own sleeve, one that’s potentially surprising and believable. Only time, as well as next week’s finale, will tell whether this show still has the guts and the smarts to do something like that.

By 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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