On 'Homeland,' Spying Is a Messed-Up Business

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In this week's episode, the line between right and wrong gets even harder to define

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"Everyone lies in this business. I accept that. But we all draw lines somewhere, and the two lines are between us and them."

Saul Berenson

Homeland began with a simple, hooky premise: An American POW may have been turned against the United States by a high-ranking terrorist, and a CIA analyst becomes obsessed with stopping him before it's too late. But just three episodes into the series, the lines between right and wrong have grown exponentially more complicated.

Last night's episode, "Clean Skin," pushed protagonist (and ostensible hero) Carrie even further onto the fringes. Carrie's methods in previous episodes have already been questionable at best. Acting mainly on vague intelligence and a gut feeling, she personally bankrolled surveillance of a private American citizen, and when friend and mentor Saul confronted her about her actions, she unsuccessfully attempted to seduce him. She uses her sister to get antipsychotic medication even though it puts her sister's career at risk.

But Carrie's greatest betrayal by far comes in "Clean Skin." In last week's episode, trusted source Lynne approached Carrie with a video connecting Lynne's boss/lover, a Saudi prince, with terrorist leader Abu Nazir. Unfortunately, Homeland doesn't go into the history of Carrie's relationship with Lynne, but Lynne clearly trusts her. When Carrie falsely assures Lynne that she's being protected by a security team, Lynne collects the data Carrie needs—despite the fact that she'll gain absolutely nothing by doing so.

It's been obvious from the start that Lynne is in way over her head, but that doesn't make it any less heartbreaking when she's gunned down in an alleyway as Carrie frantically tries to rendezvous with her. Even more depressingly, the cell phone that Lynne copied for Carrie contains no actionable data. As Carrie aptly puts it, spying is "a fucked-up business." On the record, Lynne's death served no greater purpose, and consequently her sacrifice will go unacknowledged by the United States government.

The tricky thing about Carrie's numerous moral and legal violations is that—right or wrong—she'll only be able to justify them retroactively. If Brody is truly a terrorist, or if Lynne's intelligence somehow leads Carrie closer to Abu Nazir, Carrie's actions may prove worthwhile—but only then. Though Saul considers himself to be a part of Carrie's "us," her task is too risky and specific to include someone at his level. For all intents and purposes, Carrie's "us" is her and her alone, and her "them" is anyone who gets in her way.

Though Lynne's mission is the episode's climactic action sequence, the real star of "Clean Skin" is Brody. The brilliant thing about Homeland's voyeuristic premise is that it forces you to identify with Carrie, no matter how egregious her actions become; we generally have as much information as she does, and we're scrutinizing Brody's actions just as closely. "Clean Skin" saw Brody at his best and worst, and like Carrie, it's up to the viewer to reconcile each of his actions with the potential threat that he represents.

In the years since Brody's disappearance, there's also been an "us vs. them" dichotomy growing in the Brody household developing between Brody's wife Jessica and their rebellious daughter Donna. Though Brody's homecoming has been uneasy at best, he's stepped neatly back into fatherhood. When Brody tenderly tells Donna that he thought of nothing but their family for his eight years of captivity—and certainly seems to mean it—it's hard to believe that he'd ever do anything to hurt his family.

But that's only one side of his personality, and "Clear Skin" also gives us reason to be skeptical of him. Brody's most troubling external actions are tied to Jessica. After injuring Jessica in his sleep in last week's "Grace," Brody has taken to sleeping on the floor. Brody and Jessica's life in the bedroom has been on display at least once in every episode of Homeland so far, and intentionally or unintentionally, his behavior has been unsettling. The series' pilot episode depicted Brody having violently aggressive sex with Jessica on his first night home. And in "Clean Skin," when Jessica reaches out to Brody sexually, he stops her, preferring to masturbate while she sits, obviously uncomfortable, in front of him. Is Brody's violence and sadism a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, or does it hide something even uglier about his nature beneath the surface?

If so, Jessica and Carrie—two women whose lives revolve around Brody for wholly different reasons right now—are the only ones who can decide. As "Clear Skin" ends, an interview with Brody and his family is broadcast to millions. For once, he knows exactly how public his actions are, and if he's not an all-American hero, he plays the role perfectly. But it's in his private actions—the ones that are still being broadcast 24/7 to an audience of one—that the real truth lies.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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