It’s as hard to keep a longform television narrative going as it is to raise a child. Sometimes shorter forms are tempting, with old-hat conventions like climax and closure. But these longform series now have a pressing ambition to be as good as the best modern novels. That raises an awkward question: Are we watching the predicament of the characters, or the cornered rat antics of the writers?
As the third season of Homeland came in sight I was sympathetic. No one doubted that Claire Danes could do the best bipolar CIA woman we’ll ever see. But for a third time? My guess was that Danes (now a producer on the show) would know enough was enough. But did she realize that, deprived of that perilous brink, Carrie Mathison’s new danger was being reduced to an intense, dull and implausible CIA agent? So they thought they’d make her pregnant?
The second season had ended with that big bang at Langley, 219 dead (including several tedious supporting characters), Saul in distant distress and Carrie somehow confident that “her” Brody had had nothing to do with it, so she’d smuggle him out of the country and vow to clear his name. Why not, if he’s going to be the father of her unborn child, who may also be step-sibling to the deeply uninteresting Brody daughter, Dana (Morgan Saylor). For over a year now, whenever the plot insisted on bringing Dana back, you could hear groans of dismay from the two million viewers (on a good night), as the suspicion grew that the people organizing Homeland were tossing coins and waiting for the next episode of Masters of Sex.
Season three opened with Brody imprisoned in some foreign country (the official synopsis said it was Caracas), cross-cut with Carrie in a hospital in D.C. (because she’s easily taken for nuts). Whereupon, Saul (now acting director of the CIA) went before a Congressional committee and said Brody had set off the big bang, while the mentally unstable Carrie had fallen in love with him and helped in the mayhem. But no, that hearing was as much of a sham as most CIA testimony. This was all rigged, to make Carrie seem like discontented bait so that Majid Javadi, of the Iranian secret service, would come to America, just to see her. Are you with me?—Saul would say this often later, as if Mandy Patinkin could never get the line right—Javadi was lured out into the open. Yes, he had been unseen for a decade and he was known as “The Magician,” but why should he not be an idiot, too, and easily confused with Abu Nazir (very big in al-Qaeda, and Brody’s jailer in season one).
Has Homeland stopped taking its meds? The show was never famous for credibility: with Carrie such a flagrant mess, would our CIA keep employing her? And was Brody—suspect from the moment he returned from years of imprisonment—ready to be a Senator and vice-presidential timber? A man with red hair and a less than submerged English accent? What made Homeland work was Carrie’s need to do her job, stay sane and find someone to love. Plus the suspense as to whether Brody had been turned, or re-turned. When that first season ended, with Carrie undergoing electro-shock treatment, her tragedy had been delivered, as if this were a novel about an unstable woman whose mania was accelerated by job stress.
Javadi, coming after Nazir, ends any hopes that Homeland is prepared to find depth in Islamic characters; he is one more razor-lipped, saturnine terrorist, whispering Arabic threats (the kind of guy Hope and Crosby met on the road to everywhere). Magically brought to America to meet Carrie, the all-wise Jivadi finds time to slaughter his ex-wife (who happens to be nearby!) and his daughter-in-law. Just keep a low profile, Jivadi. This raises more problems because surveillance footage catches Quinn coming in on the murders (but not Carrie—are pregnant women blurred in surveillance?). Quinn then has to lie to the local cops about the “security-cleared killings” (one of which is the nastiest use of a broken bottle since Marty Augustine in The Long Goodbye, 1973). Which prompts Quinn (Rupert Friend) to wonder what the hell he is doing in this awful, ill-written CIA, and how does any secret operation think it’s doing anything but damage?
When Quinn speaks out like that, we’re seeing a halfway decent and intelligent character —though we’re out of practice at picking up on them. Saul’s plan is to send Jivadi back to Iran as another double-agent (Argo fuck yourself). But Saul has only ten days left as acting director of the CIA, and after that Mandy Patinkin really needs to think about acting instead of going through his grim motions.
The third season is more than half over, so Brody can only reappear at the end. What will be done about Carrie’s pregnancy? She had a one-night fling; she was sleeping with Brody; but I could see sharp writing reveal that she has an edgy thing for Quinn—he is the only attractive character left. At issue, or within reach, is the possibility of a scathing attack on the way all these secret meta-governments operate. Will an Assange-like figure sneak into view? Not even Benedict Cumberbatch could rescue that morose flake in The Fifth Estate, and Homeland has too many unappealing men already. F. Murray Abraham’s veteran, Dar Adal, is keeping a very poker face: does he have plans, or is the actor canny enough to reveal nothing while the writers decide what to do with him? I still dread a return for Dana—suppose she intends to lure Brody into the open?!
So in three seasons, Homeland has slipped from brilliance to chaos, and Claire Danes has surrendered bipolar frenzy for the forlorn look of a producer who regrets too many wrong turns. All of which helps prove that making up a story (even in longform) still needs to honor old rules: know where you’re going (and why); have an idea at the heart of the action; and once something has paid off it doesn’t deserve a renewable pension. Carrie Mathison was made for a single disaster. Maybe the same could be said for her America. In which case, have the courage of your own despair and give up the vanity that dreams of seven seasons. As it is, “Previously on Homeland” have become words of doom and self-mockery.