‘Homeland’ can balance its tension for at least one more season

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, right, and Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson in a scene from the second season of 'Homeland.'
Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, right, and Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson in a scene from the second season of 'Homeland.'

In recognition of the shooting tragedy in Connecticut, Showtime’s Homeland wisely and conscientiously preceded its Sunday night finale with a brief disclaimer warning of violent scenes ahead. There are times when human events shatter the seemingly impervious entertainment biosphere, and this was one of those occasions.

But the stories we tell ourselves remain significant, become perhaps even more so. Homeland is one of those shows that has become important, topping many critics’ 10 best lists this year, so it is not surprising that its conclusion sparked a lively discussion, beginning with blow-by-blow critical recaps, many of which found the episode wanting.

It’s true that, going in, it was difficult to imagine an ending that would leave both main characters alive. Over two seasons, Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), a former Marine turned al Qaeda terrorist, has murdered several people, including the vice president of the United States. He wasn’t a very nice guy, the vice president, and Brody only helped kill him (he says) because his former captor, Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban), was holding Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) captive.

Even in a post 24 world, it was difficult to imagine Brody would be allowed to continue as a hero — highly damaged, but still sympathetic — of the piece after that. On the other hand, Homeland is a hit and Lewis just won an Emmy and American television isn’t known for having a two-seasons-and-we’re-out mentality.

The finale opened with Brody, ostensibly allowed his freedom after helping the CIA take down Nazir, playing house with Carrie as they tried to figure out the future. Stilted and a bit cheesy, the scene was affecting in its woodenness — although these two have shared many an inappropriate and steamy liaison, they don’t know how to talk honestly to each other about anything vaguely normal.

Not surprisingly, their future was all a setup; just as Carrie decided she would choose her lover over her job, an explosion ripped through the vice presidential memorial service, killing hundreds via a bomb planted in Brody’s car. For reasons due apparently more to love than sense, Carrie comes to believe he was not actually involved in the deadly plot.

Thus, the second season ended in a reverse of the show’s beginning: Brody the hero is now Brody the terrorist, and the only person not believing this is Carrie.

Which is why for all its inevitable flaws Homeland remains mesmerizing. After all the soul baring and table thumping, the tears, and the faceoffs, the show still revolves around three fascinating characters (the third being Mandy Patinkin’s Saul) whom we really don’t know.

Is Brody a double-turned terrorist? Is Carrie possibly truly mentally ill? And Saul, so conveniently and oddly not at the fatal memorial service: Is he who he appears to be?

Homeland has always been a study in deception, political, personal, and, to a certain extent, artistic. For much of the first season, viewers were not sure if Brody was indeed a terrorist or if Carrie, who is bipolar but medicated, was just madly seeking redemption for having “missed something” on Sept. 11. When the two began a romantic relationship, it was not clear if these were two broken people hanging on to each other for dear life or a pair of wily opponents.

Season 2 began with her boss and father figure Saul discovering the truth and bringing Carrie — who once had her doubts about Brody — back to the CIA to take down the Marine hero turned U.S. congressman. The dance began again.

Only this time it was Brody doubting his judgment. Much of this past season was a fascinating portrait of a shattered man whose pieces were now being acted upon by two equally intractable and magnetic forces: Carrie and his former captor Nazir.

Carrie, meanwhile, was deceiving not only Brody, but Saul and herself — her feelings for Brody both threatened and sharpened her ability to handle him in the field, even after he has confessed all and become an “asset” for the team hunting Nazir.

But the sincerity of Carrie’s feelings and of Brody’s intentions, not to mention the suspicious activities of virtually every member of the supporting cast including Saul, gave each episode some wrenching twist or another. Much of the praise heaped on Homeland has gone, rightfully, to the performers and it is difficult to imagine the writers being able to pull off half of their hairpin turns without the mighty talents of Danes, Lewis, and Patinkin.

Still, the show’s driving force is actually the plot. If not the sometimes crazy and implausible things that inevitably make up any espionage tale (why does no one ever see the big black van parked across the street?), then the essential question of who is lying to whom and about what.

That is an exquisite tension that show creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa have already maintained for a long time and seem prepared to balance for at least one season more. While the A plot will no doubt be Carrie’s attempts to clear Brody, the real work will happen in between the big events. Within these quiet scenes, lies become the truth and then lies again, and all building toward a resolution where there could be no resolution.

Every long-running show becomes diluted by admiration fatigue and plot failings; even The Sopranos had a less-than-great season or two. Given the high level of combustibility of both plot and character, Homeland seems to have a shorter potential life span than most.