The Homeland Season 3 Finale: Too Little, Too Late for a Lost Show

Showtime Homeland

Like Carrie Mathison, I, too, have loved recklessly and too deeply. Like Carrie, I have listened to the addled voices in my own head when the facts on the ground were screaming at me to turn tail and retreat. I have been stubborn. I have burned bridges. I have seen only what I wanted to see right up until the last possible second. Like Carrie in a predawn corner of Tehran, when the truth finally smacked me across the face it was already too late.

I only wish that I had four months to process last night’s make-or-break episode of Homeland, a season finale that revealed the show I once loved to be utterly, perhaps irreparably broken. After 12 episodes filled with twists that felt more like sprains and surprises that were as welcome as a midnight visit from the Revolutionary Guard, I would love a chance to screw on a Panama hat, stare at the blue ocean, and eat croissants until my hands were slick with butter. Maybe, after a few weeks had passed, I would come to accept that the show I wanted to be watching was wildly different from the one that I actually watched. If not, the time might be right to consider convening a Senate hearing to determine just what went wrong — more than that, even. I’d want the hows and the whys. I’d want names to be named. I’d want heads to roll.

But unlike Carrie Mathison, I can’t always get what I want. Instead, I’m forced to wrestle with the immediate reality of a once-captivating show that this season exploded itself completely, leaving behind a smoking creative crater far more damaging than what hit Langley one year ago. What was the real culprit for this bomb? Was it hubris? It’s certainly possible. From the very beginning of the series, what elevated Homeland was its kicky sense of daring. The first season and a half used the impossible as a starting point and played with timing and our expectations like the Miami Heat dominating Chris Brody’s beloved Washington Wizards. This last run of episodes belonged in the D-League: The sport was nominally the same but the bricks outnumbered the baskets.

Still, as is always the case with Homeland, if you pull back from the week-to-week reality of the series and squint, it’s possible to see some semblance of a plan for the season that just ended. After the high-stakes punting of last year, showrunner Alex Gansa needed to do two contradictory things at once: communicate a vision for the show that could thrive without the psychodrama of Nicholas Brody and his increasingly vestigial family, as well as provide some closure for each one of them. (Aside from Chris, of course. Karate heals all wounds!) Season 3 needed to introduce new antagonists and threats, push an already shattered Carrie to a new breaking point, and dramatically raise the stakes of an already life-or-death show. Carrie and Brody had no reason to ever see each other again, but it was inevitable that they would. Accomplishing all this would have been a challenge even before taking into account the tumult in the writers’ room — staff sachem Henry Bromell passed away suddenly in March; Meredith Stiehm left to launch The Bridge (though she returned to cowrite the finale last night). The truth is, all committed risk-takers, from race car drivers to drug addicts, crash eventually. Even skilled tightrope walkers can’t stay up forever. When it’s time to come down, they have but two choices. Homeland was never the type of show that was going to take the stairs.

Still, I’m astonished at how far it has fallen. I think I’m done giving Homeland credit for things I want to believe I see in it, but there were two moments in the otherwise overheated “The Star,” last night’s season finale, that seemed flickeringly, almost maddeningly self-aware. The first was when Brody and Carrie, ridiculously reunited, were racing out of Tehran, heading east toward a CIA safe house. “I was born in the desert,” Brody mused, staring out at his desiccated and hopeless surroundings. “I can’t believe I didn’t know that!” Carrie exclaimed, giving voice to the frustrations of everyone in the audience. Homeland long ago made the fatal choice to make its characters broad, not deep. The increasingly insane machinations of the plot left no room for actual emotional development or psychological insight. Carrie has no friends, no passion or purpose other than the fugitive riding shotgun beside her. Brody is a perpetually exhausted, plot-advancing drone. In his own words, he’d become a “cockroach.”

And yet, here, at the end, Homeland was suddenly offering a rare glimpse into the psyche of one of the most fascinating characters in TV history: He had a father who had also been in the military, a father who would have been as mortified by Brody’s actions as his own (unmentioned) children were. Suddenly there was a sense of context, of grounding. Did Sergeant Brody Sr. expect too much of his sensitive son? Was he distant and demanding, the first of multiple manipulative father figures to get their hands on Nicholas, from Abu Nazir to Saul Berenson? Would we finally have a chance to see Brody as the sad and scared cipher he always was instead of the tragic hero Carrie had single-handedly willed him to become?

But all too quickly, the window slammed shut. The car drove on. This was the season finale. There was no time for motivations or reflections. There was business to be done. It was here that I appreciated the show’s other moment of candor, when Saul — a once brilliant character reduced to making crazy decisions that proved him unfit to direct a Foot Locker, let alone a federal agency — turned to his replacement, Senator Lockhart, and fumed, “Honestly, I don’t know what the fuck we’re doing here anymore.”

Let me be clear about something: I don’t care about plausibility in fiction. It’s a mug’s game to pick every nit, to hold every plot strand up to the unflattering light of reality. Problems arise when writers neglect to provide the ballast needed to keep our attention where it belongs, on the characters and the drama that spins out of their many interactions. Back in November, I wrote about how dangerously detached the series was becoming from these anchors, how the particulars of the third season seemed designed to problem-solve and shock, not to tell a compelling story that could stand on its own. Dana Brody’s legitimate anguish was transformed into runaway schlock. Carrie’s hospitalization was revealed to be a trick, a scheme devised to bait the audience as much as Iran. Akbari was a nothing, his connection to the 12/12 bombing too convoluted even to consider. By the time Brody commandoed into Iran, the emotional tether that had once kept me riveted to Homeland had snapped completely. When Brody’s dangling body went slack, I felt nothing at all.

And so, yes, feel free to have at all the bizarre and unlikely details of Marine One’s final mission: How not one but two global powers have now been foolish enough to leave Nicholas Brody unattended in a room with a senior leader; how General Akbari’s secretary picked quite a time for an extended coffee break; how the world’s most wanted fugitive was, even in his final moments, able to walk through downtown Tehran without drawing as much as a sideways stare. Let’s marvel at the ease of cell phone communication between the director of the CIA and his chain-smoking asset at the highest levels of Iranian power. Let’s talk about how, Langley bombing aside, the CIA seemed to employ only a half-dozen people and how, even out of that small number, five of them were more qualified to be Brody’s support on the ground than Carrie Mathison. Let’s chat about how Saul was willing not only to burn his mission for an admitted, if reformed, Al Qaeda operative, he also seemed dangerously close to starting World War III in the process. (Real talk: Tel Aviv would be in cinders before those Chinook helicopters even made it back into Afghan airspace.) If there’s time we could discuss the fact that Iran is controlled by its revolutionary religious leaders, not its political and military apparatus. A high-profile assassination, if it were admitted at all, would make the Ayatollah less likely to broker a deal with the West, not more. And, finally, we could toss around the most ironic twist of all: that Iran — the real version, not the one Homeland re-created in Morocco — recently agreed to everything Saul sacrificed his career for and it did so without anyone getting brained with an ashtray.

But who cares about any of that? To me, the most egregious sin was the wholesale transformation of Homeland from a brainy, ballsy series about faith, terror, and trust into the gloppiest of romances. When I spoke to Alex Gansa at this time last year, he insisted that the love connection between Carrie and Brody was intentionally misguided, that the writers were aware of the characters’ doomed folly even if they themselves were not. Carrie’s behavior this season put the lie to that: Her desperately ‘shipping monomania gobbled up far more oxygen and at far graver cost than the now mercifully abandoned Dana. “It was always about him,” Javadi told Carrie after she had bewilderingly traveled from the safe house back to her downtown hotel. (Had she forgotten her phone charger?) “That’s what you care about. Maybe the only thing.” Saul was right: Truly, the man is a master of observation and intelligence.

At episode’s end, Brody was finally at peace — his death was so overdue and necessary that it hardly registered. But at least prior to the noose, he had come to grips with the impossible insanity of his situation: that he was only ever a pawn to the CIA just as he had been to Nazir; that a lifetime of taking eyes for eyes had left him utterly blind. In their final tête-à-tête, Brody seemed to be indulging Carrie just as every other character had done over the course of the season. Here was a man who spent nearly a decade with jihadists, and the look on his face suggested that his baby mama was the biggest, scariest fanatic he had ever encountered. Her talk of a suburban future together was somehow less plausible than an afterlife filled with 72 virgins. I couldn’t tell who was more drained and exhausted, the actor or the character. When Brody was sleeping with Carrie’s arms around him I couldn’t help but think he looked more comfortable back when he was sporting a suicide vest.

Even so, Homeland finally went through with it: Brody had to go and off he went. What’s most worrisome about a show headed toward a fourth season of total reinvention is the damage done to the characters who survived. It’s impossible to overstate how ludicrous Carrie Mathison’s behavior was this season, how hard the titanic Claire Danes had to work to keep even the most ardent fandom from drifting into ire. At every step of the way she defied orders, flirted with treason, and abused friends and colleagues with vigor and real venom. She was no longer a brilliant analyst or a troubled career woman. She was a love-struck dingbat who actually turned to a man who once assassinated the sitting vice-president of the United States and declared that “one of the reasons I was put on this Earth was for our paths to cross.” How far we’ve fallen from wanting to prevent another 9/11!

Last night alone, Carrie single-handedly relocated denial from Egypt to Iran. Did she really think Brody might be spared execution after suffocating a senior government official with a pillow? Does she really think that highly of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch? And that was before she scribbled a star on the CIA wall like a teenager doodling MASH notes in the corner of her Trapper Keeper. It doesn’t matter if Carrie is likable, but it does matter that she has suddenly been revealed to be incompetent. There’s a difference between being a passionate rebel and being a dangerous fanatic, and, from Brody to Carrie, it’s a distinction Homeland has never displayed much interest in unpacking.

Still, I suspect Gansa and his writers are eager for us to just move on. Why else would the show be so quick to change the conversation from Carrie falling in love to her inexplicably falling upward? (If someone can tell me just why, exactly, she deserves a prime posting and a position of real power and influence in Andrew Lockhart’s CIA, I will repay you in a lifetime supply of tequila and Thorazine.) And perhaps it was the return of Meredith Stiehm, a writer who always found the humanity beneath Carrie’s car crash of a life, that inspired the scene at episode’s end in which Carrie admits to her family how scared and sad she is. It was a rare moment of introspection and clarity from a show that, until now, seemed more interested in putting bullets into its protagonist than drawing anything out of her.

I suppose there’s a chance that a fourth season could reverse these wrongs. Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin remain world-class performers. Putting Carrie back into the field with a new cast of characters is long overdue. Allowing Saul to play around in the moral murk that exists between state-sanctioned espionage and the private sector is intriguing. Shaun Toub is a fine, slithery presence to haunt the margins. I like Fara. Dar Adal and Quinn are worthy, especially when they’re allowed to affect the plot, not merely react to it. But I can’t help but wonder if such wholesale reimagining is too little, too late. The radical gamesmanship of this season would have been much more compelling had it been attempted in the wake of Brody’s death, not as a long and winding on-ramp to achieving it. In the season’s lone bright spot, we learned that heroin can wreck your life. But only a full-blown addiction to Brody can devastate a heroine. Recovery is going to be a bitch.

Filed Under: Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Homeland, Mandy Patinkin, Showtime

Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald