With Sunday's season finale of Homeland ("The Star"), Showtime's espionage thriller seemed to fold inward upon itself, offering up a 20-minute epilogue that felt very much like a conclusion for the series, an alternately intelligent and deeply frustrating drama, depending where in its overall narrative you were at any given time. (It was, however, renewed for a fourth season earlier this year.)
In its often maddening and meandering third season, Homeland found Carrie (Claire Danes) pretending to be on the outs with the CIA while actually on a covert operation under the watchful eye of an even-more-gruff-than-usual Saul (Mandy Patinkin). Saul, meanwhile, hatched a truly mind-boggling plot to insert a high-level asset in the Iranian government... and to get Brody (Damian Lewis) — himself the subject of an international manhunt for a bombing at the CIA that killed 100-plus people — to assassinate a high-ranking Iranian official in order to put the rogue nation under U.S. control.
"The Star" managed to tie up many of the narrative's loose ends and capped off the Carrie/Brody dynamic, offering up a season finale that may have worked more effectively as a series finale. (Seriously, stop reading right now if you haven't yet watched "The Star." SPOILERS!) Brody's death — ordered by Javadi (Shaun Toub) in an effort to secure his role in this power play — is meant to be a pyrrhic victory; it's meant to be a gut-wrenching ordeal both for Carrie — who is carrying his baby — and for the audience at large. And there is a brief moment, when Brody is raised on a crane by his neck at a public execution and he stares outward with terror in his eyes, where his death has some actual emotional weight and consequence. And then Carrie climbs the fence and shouts his name and I remember I'm watching Homeland, which ultimately stumbles into some melodramatic excess every five minutes or so.
Brody: "So what happens next?"
Carrie: "What do you mean?"
Brody: "When we get home, what happens next?"
Carrie: "I don't know. What do you want to happen?"
Brody: "Honestly, I never expected to get this far, so I try not to think about it."
That's one of the last exchanges between Carrie and Brody before his execution, and it's impossible to watch that sequence without reading it as meta, really. What did the showrunners expect would happen with Brody's arc over the course of this series? When I interviewed Alex Gansa way back at the end of Season 1, he seemed to see that the Brody storyline had a very finite shelf life:
"Even after we went to pilot, there was a sense of 'How long can you keep the Brody story going?' and is the question of 'Is he or is he not a terrorist?' and 'Has he or has he not been turned?' — is that enough to sustain even a season? ... As we got into the story room and started discussing it, it has expanded and bloomed in a way that clearly Brody is going to exist at least through the first two seasons.
"Beyond that, you have a franchise with Saul and Carrie and the CIA and their battle against terrorists ... I think the series has legs. How long the Brody character exists in that narrative, I don't know. But certainly for two seasons."
In the era of what I've previously dubbed Big Twist Television, there is a danger in attempting to constantly outdo the previous revelation and Homeland fell headfirst into this trap by not killing off Brody at the end of Season 2, which is really when Brody should have exited this series. In many ways, his death would have served to heighten the tension; after all, everything with the Brody family (which appears to have now been wrapped up, as Morena Baccarin and Morgan Saylor won't be back as series regulars next year) could have largely played out as is, as could have Carrie's pregnancy. But keeping Brody around was one twist too far in an already contorted storyline, and his quest for "redemption," i.e., murdering an Iranian official in order to regain his heroic status, was far-fetched even for Homeland.
Would Brody's death at the end of Season 2 — even as he was suspected of being the Langley bomber — have helped with the longevity of the show? It seems curious to me that we're going into a fourth season with Homeland only now finally undergoing a reboot of sorts after finishing Brody's storyline.
Homeland was always best when it sought to mine Big Ideas rather than Big Plots: When the show looked at national and personal identity, loyalty, and judgment (not to mention the bonds of family), it transformed the espionage narrative into something larger and more meaningful than it appeared, exploring how a U.S. Marine, tortured for eight years, could become an enemy of the state and how ideology is something slippery and quicksilver. It found in Lewis' Brody and Danes' bipolar CIA agent Carrie two inherently unreliable protagonists, whose flaws threw them together in some very unexpected ways as the audience was left in the dark about who to trust. What followed was a taut cat-and-mouse chase where it became unclear just who was chasing whom... before things went off the rails midway through the show's second season.
So where does Homeland go from here? Can it return to its glory days?
They're decent questions, given that the show has more or less unraveled at this point. Carrie is still pregnant and she appears to want to give up the baby for adoption and take a job as the section chief in Istanbul, a career move that would be much easier, one assumes, without an infant in tow. And her actions at the end of the episode — drawing a star on the memorial wall at the CIA in order to commemorate Brody — clearly point toward the notion that she views his actions as redemptive. Brody died a hero, an asset, and deserves to be memorialized. (Never mind that he murdered the vice president, almost blew up the cabinet, and killed a number of people.) The moment is meant to feel profound — it's a permanent marker, but really how permanent are any of our actions, it seems to ask — but it feels tacky. The entire 20-minute epilogue of "The Star" does, really; it feels like an ending to a show that has lost its fiery spark, however fleeting that bright burning might have been. The twists and turns, when stacked up, have resulted in nothing less than narrative whiplash.
Does Carrie go to Istanbul, where she ascends to the role of section chief, far away from Washington and memories of Brody? Does she give up the baby? It seems a given that Carrie brings Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) with her to Istanbul. For one, he's the only character left on the show who elicits any shred of sympathy these days, and his relationship with Carrie went to some semi-interesting places this year. (He shot her!)
It also seems obvious that the show will make another time jump (likely larger than the four-month leap in the epilogue) in order to show us a different facet of Carrie, one that has finally moved past her doubts and her struggles to a place of success. Until some new terrorism threat tests her mettle once more.
What of Carrie's fraught partnership with Saul Berenson? Saul, after all, has moved into the private sector, though Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) hints that Saul might return, particularly if Sen. Lockwood (Tracy Letts) came begging. But after all of the complications that their relationship endured this year, it's hard to muster enthusiasm for another Carrie/Saul pairing at this point. Betrayals, double-crosses, mistrust, and failures in communication have soured this once central dynamic in unexpected ways this year. I'm sure that Homeland's writers will dream up some scenario that will put the duo back together again in some fashion.
The only problem is, after a terrible season that failed to reestablish the equilibrium displaced in Season 2, it feels like Homeland has stalled in so many ways. Carrie's efforts to salvage Brody's memory — to install his memory as part of that wall of fallen heroes — is also the show's own attempt to restart itself somehow. But from what we see in the finale, this is one star that is falling, not rising.
Season 4 of Homeland is scheduled to air in 2014.