Todd VanDerWerff: “The Star” is by far the strongest episode of this season of Homeland. What’s weird about that is that the season so far has been much better at spy games and thriller stuff than it has at character drama, but “The Star” largely shoves the espionage thriller elements off to the side—getting Brody out of Tehran mostly involves him laying down in a car—in favor of intense interpersonal drama, and it works. Yeah, there are moments I don’t like—the bit where Carrie and Brody commiserate about how their paths were destined to cross made me throw up in my mouth a little—but for the most part, this episode feels like the show needed season three to flush a whole bunch of stuff out of its system. Above all, it did the main thing a season finale should do: It made me interested to see what season four looks like. I don’t know if I would have said that before watching “The Star,” and that I feel that way after watching it is the highest compliment I could pay it.
But, then, I would say that, because the episode features the death of Nicholas Brody, the man who had so little reason to be on the show anymore that the entirety of every appearance he had this season was a metatextual discussion of what role he could possibly play in the show now that it had seemingly exhausted any story for him. If last week’s episode made the case for why Brody could, conceivably, stick around for the long-term (though I don’t know what that would have looked like—he was suddenly a CIA analyst or something?), then this week’s episode is writers Alex Gansa and Meredith Stiehm explaining to us over and over why that can’t be the case, if only because this is a TV show, and for as long as it’s a TV show, happy endings will have to be necessarily rare.
All of which is how we get to that gut-wrenching scene in which Brody is executed for the assassination of Akbari by being hanged from a crane. It’s a death unlike any other I can think of in TV history, and if I don’t buy that Carrie could climb up on that fence and start shouting at Brody as he died on a plot level (because surely somebody would have wondered what the fuck she was up to), then I completely buy it on an emotional level. I checked out of the Carrie-Brody romance last season—though I continue to think hooking the two up was a necessary and brave choice back in season one—but this still hit me like a ton of bricks. Here are two characters who might have tried my patience, but I was genuinely invested in their sorrows. That, again, is testament to how well “The Star” works.
There are certain things about Homeland that just are what they are. I have no idea how Javadi doesn’t become suspicious in the wake of Akbari’s death, particularly when he just leaves Carrie behind at the scene where he apprehends Brody, and the fact that Saul is able to singlehandedly predict what dozens of people will do, seemingly down to the second, so that he can remake the Middle East into a peaceful wonderland, is just goofy as all get out, no matter how much it might steal elements from other spy stories and reality. But I’m always willing to go with Homeland when it’s nailing the emotional undercurrents of the story. That was something that was in short supply throughout much of season three, particularly in its back half when it seemingly went for broke on becoming a slower-moving 24, but “The Star” was full of the characters behaving in ways that felt fundamentally right and moving. The episode made me care about Carrie as a person again, and that was something I had struggled with throughout season three. So another point to “The Star.”
But the biggest points go to the episode essentially letting everything be up in the air. We’re pretty sure Claire Danes will be back, whether as a mother or not, and Mandy Patinkin probably, too. But everything else is very much open right now, and that’s kind of exciting. What say you?
Sonia Saraiya: I loved this episode. I literally cried at the end. I haven’t had to think about this season as critically as you have—so I think I’ve been able to watch the show on a more emotional level, and get out of it what I want to, without worrying too much about the stuff that admittedly makes no sense. “The Star” hit me in the gut, with an echo of that same emotional wrenching that characterized some of the show’s strongest episodes from its first two seasons for me: “The Weekend,” which brought Brody and Carrie together romantically; “Marine One,” the season-one finale; “New Car Smell,” in which Carrie walks up to Representative Brody and starts talking; and “Q&A,” where these two people go down a psychological rabbit hole together.
I think that if Homeland had to sign on Damian Lewis for its third season—and I imagine it’s very hard to fire an actor who has won multiple awards for his role on your show—then “The Star” is the most powerful way it could have ushered Nicholas Brody out of the land of the living. Todd, we’ve discussed the likelihood of his death all season—and as soon as he started talking about where he was born, in the desert, I knew he was a goner—but it was still so hard to watch. At the same time, I’m so happy that Homeland offered Brody a chance to make his peace with death. That penultimate scene with him in the prison cell, when he talks to Carrie on the phone, was more heartbreaking to me than the final scene of his execution. She begs him not to hang up, to stay on the line for a few more seconds. He pauses, and then doesn’t even say goodbye: He just puts the phone down, and the guard takes it from him. It’s like a little death, before the final goodbye.
It stunned me how the conversations about Brody’s death as a political decision (between the CIA operatives in the show) mirrored conversations about Brody’s death from a creative vantage point (between critics in the real world). I missed that metatextual thread up until this episode, but when I saw it, it struck me with its ingenuity. Homeland has made itself a show that processes the War on Terror on the screen, and that means that it does not have the comfortable 40-50 years of cushion that a show like Mad Men does with portraying real events. As a result it is messy, but it also consistently feels emotionally relevant. (I really liked Phil Dyess-Nugent’s take on this in his third-season wrap-up.) What better way to end this third season than to process, literally on-screen, the decision of whether or not this flawed man—who has fought on practically every side of this war—should die?
By the end of the season, Carrie Mathison is the only person left on the planet who’s willing to fight to keep Brody alive. And it makes perfect, sad sense: She’s in love with him, and this war became a far more meaningful fight for her when Brody’s life was on the line. I remember hearing this truism about soldiers once: That they don’t fight for their country, or for their families, so much as they fight for each other, the other soldiers on the battle line. With Brody and Carrie, it felt like their understanding of what mattered in the whole world had shrunk very small, down to maybe just each other, and maybe not even that. Throughout “The Star” you can see Brody just letting go of his life, even before the Iranians capture him, and I think a lot of that is because he’s suffered so much, and a lot of that is because the suffering doesn’t mean anything.
Now, looking back on this third season, the whole thing comes into clarity as setup for this man’s death. It made a lot of this season frustrating, but my investment in the characters made it work for me. Homeland was always interesting to me as a show about Carrie Mathison, but once it became about the romance of Carrie and Brody, it began to affect me in a totally different way. On one hand, I know that the romance has forced the show to make decisions that have worked against it time and time again: It’s had to double down on the idea of “timeless romance” over and over again, and that’s hard to swallow on a show that is otherwise so pragmatic. But on the other hand? I buy into it completely. I am one of those people. I am the monster who will ’ship a couple off a cliff.
My only justification for this, critically, is that even if Brody and Carrie being in some kind of operatic tragedy of star-crossed lovers assaults our willing suspension of disbelief, it is true to the way most of us think about our lives: We’re the stars of our own triumphs and tragedies, and it didn’t surprise me at all that Carrie Mathison, who has had to go through hours and hours of group therapy and silent contemplation, has come to the conclusion that one of the few reasons she exists is to have found this other person. If anything, to paraphrase Brody, that seems like the only plausible explanation. Nothing about their relationship makes logical sense; but emotionally, the connection is clear and present. (I’m proud of Homeland for not pushing this too far. I was terrified that at some point in “The Star” Brody and Carrie were going to start making out like horny teenagers in their safe house. I’m so glad they didn’t, and instead settled for a dynamic that is loving but restrained.)
Homeland became this show about the meaning of an individual life in a world of chaos and the possibilities for redemption and judgment and a higher calling, and that is a big roiling mess most of the time, but it really spoke to me. “The Star” felt like a very spiritual episode (and stars are religious symbols for many religions, but particularly for both Christianity and Islam); and through all of that work it put into the meaning of things, I felt like the life and death of Brody were resolved, in some quiet way. It felt like it needed to end that way, and it needed to end, too, with Carrie drawing her star on the memorial. (I was hoping and hoping she would do that, and around then is when I started crying.) War trades on the idea of good and evil; it deals constantly with right and wrong. It claims to be able to enact justice and to maintain peace. More than anything, Homeland shows me that war can’t do that. These concepts are so present for the characters in the show, but the resulting decisions are still so unsatisfying. No bureaucratic machinery of war can determine whether or not Brody deserves a star on the wall. Because, as Javadi tells Carrie: “That is up to Allah.”
TV: Here is what I missed in this episode (though I don’t blame the show for not including it): the Brody family. I know that the Brody family ended up being rather a controversial aspect of the show for many fans in the first half of this season, and that “Dana and Leo go on an adventure!” storyline was so pointless. But I wanted a better sense of the man from a viewpoint other than Carrie’s, and I didn’t get that. Now, to be sure, the show has always viewed Brody primarily through Carrie’s lens (which is one of the reasons the Brody family things always felt extraneous to some, even when they weren’t). But I wanted to pull back a bit from the benediction of the final 20 minutes and get a slightly more jaundiced view. The show seemed to be setting us up for this with the earlier Dana scene at the hotel, and then it was just… gone. In terms of meaningful relationships, I didn’t want Brody’s life to be reduced to just the one.
This goes back, I think, to the scene in the safe house, where Brody and Carrie are talking quietly about what the future looks like, among other things. Carrie tries to assure Brody that he’s done a good thing in killing Akbari, because he was a “bad man,” and she brings up the children he chained together to clear out Iraqi minefields. It’s a blatant play on Brody’s love of and affection for children, the fact that Issa’s death is what caused him to turn against his own country and the fact that he always wanted to be a teacher. Homeland is a weirdly pacifistic show for one that seems to take such delight in shit blowing up, but it always is through the lens of its characters, who have been brutally used up by an ongoing war that doesn’t seem to have much point. The show views Akbari’s death as an ultimate good, I suppose, since it’s Saul’s triumph, but it’s also the death sentence Brody signs on himself. It solidifies him as an “American hero,” in all that might mean for both sides, but the episode also gives the sense that the wheel could have easily turned all over again if Brody had remained alive.
“The Star” also brought me around, somewhat grudgingly, on Senator Lockhart, who’s been slowly turning into a genuine character, instead of a villain out of a cartoon. The scene where he and Carrie argue about whether Brody deserves that star is a good moment for him, and it helps us understand his point-of-view much better (even as I suspect Tracy Letts will have other things to do next year and won’t be a part of the show; too bad). I also realized how much I’d come to like Dar Adal as the episode went on, even if I could have done without the waitress glibly noting he and Saul had ordered two “old schools.” And yet Peter Quinn is someone who’s weirdly diminished in my estimation. Now, he’s mostly there to hang around with Carrie, rather than having any particular goal or drive of his own. Remember when he was adamant about quitting the CIA? What happened to that side of his character?
But it always comes back to Carrie and Brody and the way the show has been sneaking up on me. I’ve gotten some guff from commenters and tweeters in the past few weeks about why I thought Brody had to die for the show to move forward. I think these last two episodes show exactly why the character was a long-term liability for the show—it required so much effort to remove him from the story so that it could be about something else, then even more effort to squeeze him back in there—but the best explanation I can offer is the way that the last half of “The Star” becomes this muted, reflective thing about this man and his legacy (another reason I might have liked to have seen the Brodys one last time). Throughout, characters try to convince Carrie that Brody is what she always said he was, but I keep coming back to what Javadi said in the same scene you’ve cited: Carrie, of all people, should know that no man is just one thing. The show so thoroughly dissected and pulled apart Brody that we knew everything about him, and any attempts to do anything new with him lapsed into self-parody. I don’t know that I can go so far as to say that his death redeems all of season three—since there are a lot of weird story turns—but it makes the whole thing make more sense, because we’re watching the writers wrestle with these very questions themselves.
And yet they can have a piece of him around, if they want to, as Carrie’s carrying his baby. I was impressed with the way the show seemed ready to have Carrie give the kid up for adoption (or to her sister or father), but then it didn’t come down on one side or the other, which makes me think that she’s going to be raising her daughter next season. Of all of the possibilities for the new year, I’m most ambivalent about that. What do you think, Sonia? And I’ll ask a question from my friend Alan Sepinwall, who has been adamant about this: How can Carrie still have a job, after all of this?
SS: To go back to what makes Homeland compelling right from day one—Carrie Mathison is such an unconventional action hero, a tough but very feminine woman with a set of problems that never feel cute or varnished. I’m excited to see her do almost anything, raising her daughter included. Claire Danes has managed to give Carrie emotional depth even when she’s mired in the most implausible plot twists. Even this pregnancy, which started out as something that felt like a digression, has been followed through with enough nuance that I find myself buying it completely. That little breakdown she had with her sister and father seemed to me such a dose of reality in what has otherwise been a fairytale plot: Because a baby isn’t just a plot device, it’s a life-altering small person that will change everything. I’m glad she didn’t make that decision yet, because I think it’s not that Carrie doesn’t want a child, it’s that she’s terrified. And that’s perfectly reasonable.
Which is to say that—somehow, I feel that if Homeland decides to make Carrie a working single mother in Istanbul, they will pull it off. Morgan Saylor and Morena Baccarin were finally taken off the series regular cast for season four, which makes perfect sense; but maybe they’ll have a role as guest-stars for the inevitable moment where Carrie wonders if her daughter should know that she has a half-sister and half-brother.
You know, Carrie grew up a lot in just this last episode. I think she’s got a job because she learned to stop fighting for battles that are already lost. So much of this season was about discrediting her (and how does she escape that now, even if it was a ruse?), but in the end, she did her job with minimal rogue disturbances. I don’t know if sleeping with a marine-turned-terrorist is addressed in the CIA handbook, but if it’s not, Carrie seems to have grown up into an agent who can take care of herself in other respects. Saul took the rap for a lot of the insanity of the past year when he was fired; and even without his guidance, or perhaps because she now has to be more independent, Carrie’s become a successful career woman. It’s sort of shocking, because in this season’s premiere she was publicly ranting in a newsroom. But maybe she’s learned something. Or maybe she’s finally taking her lithium.
It looks like Peter Quinn, Fara, and maybe even Dar Adal joined the cast for Carrie’s new adventures post-Brody. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them all in and out of the picture in Istanbul, but my guess is that Istanbul isn’t where Carrie will be for very long. It seemed to me that Saul is going to be easy to write back into the story, too. And I’m really excited for her. In a lot of ways, this feels like a reasonable endpoint for the show. I know it’s not going to end, but it could, and that would be okay.
TV: I have to agree with that. I spent most of the season feeling disconnected from what the show wanted me to think and feel about its main character—to the degree that when she got shot in the shoulder, I was really, viscerally excited to see it happen. “The Star” isn’t perfect—it’s a little muddled and formless in places, and even as good as it is, it’s hard to say that all of the peculiarities of this season were worth what it ultimately was—but the most important thing it does is reorient this as Carrie’s journey, as a show about this woman’s attempts to regain control of her life.
What’s interesting about that is that, then, looking at the first three seasons of the show, it very neatly breaks down as the story of how Carrie Mathison lost herself in this one particular mission—very neatly paralleling her feelings about being unable to prevent September 11 somehow (the timeline is still iffy on that one)—then found herself again through a kind of dreadful honesty. The Brody story is done—and even if I think it wandered wildly afield, I kind of love how it very nearly bifurcates at “Q&A,” which was a turning point in so many ways for this show—but another story is beginning. Maybe that story is Carrie Mathison, working spy mom, something I was intensely skeptical about before but that I’m now at least a little willing to give some room to find itself.
But the ultimate point remains: Carrie will be at the center of Homeland, and that is something I’m once again intrigued and even a little excited by. That, in the end, is the greatest gift “The Star” gives to its audience: a suggestion somebody somewhere knows what they’re doing with this show.
Todd’s finale grade: A-
Todd’s season grade: B
Sonia’s finale grade: A
Sonia’s season grade: B
- I interviewed Damian Lewis about this role earlier in the season, and looking back, it’s some interesting foreshadowing on how this season went down. [SS]
- I’ll go one further and take you all back to my interview with Alex Gansa, where he said that maybe they should have just sent Carrie off to Istanbul after season two, then concluded with “maybe that’s season four.” At the time, I thought it was a joke, but I guess not. [TV]
- Next season: Peter Quinn and Carrie Mathison and a baby in Istanbul? “Homeland: Baby Makes Three.” [SS]
- I really did wish we had gotten a couple of moments with Fara in this episode. I appreciated the laser focus, but she was one of the brighter spots of the season for me. [TV]
- Sean Callery’s music over the closing credits was really lovely. I haven’t always been the biggest fan of his work, but he did a really great job with that piece. [TV]
- I’ve talked about Lesli Linka Glatter so much in these reviews that people are surely sick of me doing so, but I thought she got some great performances out of the actors and kept things really nicely low-key, even when, say, Brody was cleaning up after a murder. [TV]
- Thanks, all, for joining me on this journey and indulging my many whims. I’ll see you all in the fall of 2014. [TV]