So what made tonight’s episode of “Homeland” so good?
Was it the acting? Sure, but “Homeland” generally has very good acting all the time.
Was it the cinematography? Sure, but “Homeland” always looks fantastic.
No, the clear answer is the “holy shit, they are really doing this moment” in which Carrie confronts Brody in his hotel room about her true nature there. It’s the type of moment towards which the show has been building. But we the audience only THOUGHT we understood the underlying edifice that is the super-story of “Homeland”. I’ve been trying to think back to the last time a show messed with my expectations as much as “New Car Smell”, and the closest I can come up with is the “Lost” season three finale “Through The Looking Glass”.
But even that isn’t an apt comparison, since that was a season finale, an episode in which game-changing events are expected to unfurl. I didn’t have any particular expectations for “New Car Smell”, which is why I was so confused, delighted, and straight-up shocked that what I was watching was unfolding at this particular point in time. Something like this simply doesn’t happen in the fourth episode of the second season of an open-ended television program. But here it was, happening all the same.
“Homeland” has already messed with our narrative expectations once this season, with the discovery of Brody’s suicide note. But even that shockingly deployment led to what felt like an overall structure for season two: Carrie getting back into the CIA’s good graces and being a part of a team to systematically root out Brody’s treachery while staying low to the ground to avoid tipping off the Vice President. The first half of “New Car Smell” felt very much like a “getting the team together” episode, reintroducing Virgil to the mix but also Peter Quinn, a security expert set up as both an off-kilter leader of this new team but also a potential love interest for Carrie going forth. All of the scenes tonight seemed to signal potential events down the line, lighting the season’s arc up like a landing strip on a nighttime runway.
And then the show proceeded to demolish the tarmac.
The smartest thing about this, of course, is that by bypassing the “normal” way in which a season like this often unfolds, the show has become vastly more interesting as a whole. No longer beholden to any apparent overarching structure, “Homeland” can follow its own bliss over the next nine episodes, or hell, nine seasons. What unfolded tonight was shocking, but it’s only shocking in terms of when the show decided to pull the trigger. It felt thrilling to watch Brody tell Carrie, “OK. Not friends!” because it’s the kind of line that a less-confident show would hold off until, say, a season five finale. But it made sense for the show to do this now, because having Carrie act that rashly is completely and utterly in character for her. “New Car Smell” worked because the show let its characters dictate the plot, not the other way around.
And now, we no longer have to wait nine more episodes for any climatic confrontation between the Carrie and Brody, a confrontation that may have put a button on their relationship or may have set up the plot for the next season. Since we no longer have to wait for things to happen down the line, we the audience can now focus on the show’s present. Because that present is now full of infinite possibilities. As great as it is to see a meticulously laid-out narrative unfold over the course of a few weeks, months, or even seasons, it’s also equally great to strap in and hold on for dear life as the show winds its way through uncharted waters. (I love “Breaking Bad”, a show seemingly referenced tonight with Brody’s trip to the car wash, but it was also never better than its third season, which featured the most on-the-seat plotting the show ever produced.)
“Homeland” might completely collapse on itself by the time this season is through. That’s the danger when a show takes off the safety rails and marches to its own beat. But while dissonance might ensue, a sweeter melody than could ever have been transcribed could also emerge. All I know is that I’ll be watching (and listening) more intently than ever to “Homeland” after tonight’s installment.