Homeland, Season One: False Alarm

Showtime’s Homeland might best be described as a character-driven existential technothriller. And because it’s part thriller, I’m willing to tolerate a certain level of implausibility — characters coming across exactly the right snippet of information (the order number on this heavily redacted document tells us there was a drone strike!) or being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, a formerly captive Marine who is both so unstable that he beats up his best friend for having an affair with his wife yet also manages to perfectly execute a months-long deception about the fact that he is both a converted Muslim and a terrorist, easy street parking in downtown Washington and the existence of high-rise apartment buildings in Foggy Bottom. 

I can tolerate all these things, some easier than others. But because the show is fundamentally character driven, it loses me when it uses those implausibilities to avoid testing its characters’ most fundamental beliefs — or tests them, and then cries false alarm.

The season one finale was all false alarm. Boiled down, the entire season was devoted to two big questions about its Marine-turned-maybe-terrorist protagonist, Nicholas Brody: Is he or isn’t he (a terrorist)? And will he or won’t he (carry out a major attack)? 

Over the course of the season, we learn that Brody is indeed a converted terrorist, and that he’s willing to carry out a suicide attack on the Vice President and a host of Defense Department bigwigs who’re locked inside a secure location after a sniper attack. He flicks the switch on his suicide vest, but there’s a wire loose. He repairs it, and then, in one of those just-go-with-it thriller implausibilities, his daughter manages to get a call through via a Secret Service agent at the secure location. His suicide vest is ready to go, but with his daughter on the line, he can’t flip the switch a second time. 

The problem isn’t that I wanted to see him die, or that the show’s writers didn’t deliver a sufficiently violent shocker in the season finale. It’s that they set up the whole season as an exploration of Brody’s character — the upstanding Marine who, after eight years of imprisonment overseas, returns as a secret terrorist — and a test of his most fundamental beliefs: Will he die for the cause he’s adopted? But after testing those beliefs, they didn’t make him live with the consequences — didn’t make him truly commit.

Yes, he pulled the trigger. Once. But on the second try, under pressure from his daughter, he didn’t. This isn’t a resolution; it’s a restatement of the original question. Will he or won’t he? Well, maybe he will, maybe he won’t. It’s a cop out. 

The best drama doesn’t just force its characters to make hard choices; it makes those characters live (or die) with the outcomes of their choices. But thanks to a convenient last-minute implausibility — a little loose wire — the writers allowed Brody and the rest of the show’s characters to evade the full consequences of his turn to terrorism. It’s an escape hatch — for Brody, for the network (a second season is in the works), for the writers, and ultimately for the audience as well.