Have the Creators of 'Homeland' Gone as Crazy as Their Characters?

"Broken Hearts" proves that the people in the show and making it will go to insane lengths for a cause.

homeland carrie bloody 615.jpg
Showtime

Blood splattered, tear-stained, and zip-tied to a pipe, Homeland's heroine Carrie Mathison shakes her head and replies to Homeland's villain's question about whether she and her country have it in them to defeat him and his allies: "Whatever it takes."

Abu Nazir laughs. Americans, grown complacent at their health clubs and with their organic food (?), don't have a stomach for suffering, he says. They'll lose the hundreds-year war that true believers like Nazir will wage to exterminate them. Carrie, he says pityingly, can't even imagine what it's like to want to fight and die for a cause bigger than herself.

At this point it may be best to believe that Homeland's scribes have embarked upon a conceptual dare. How far can "whatever it takes" go?

How wrong he is. "Whatever it takes" has been one of Homeland's guiding principles since its very earliest episodes, with Carrie breaking rule of law and law of conscience to pursue the people she thinks are plotting another 9/11-style attack. But in Sunday's very gripping and very frustrating installment, "Broken Hearts," this notion of anarchy-in-the-name-of-something-higher was taken by to an uncomfortable extreme: used not only to justify its characters' morally questionable actions, but the show itself's increasingly outrageous plotting.

Any Homeland fan has developed a healthy capacity for suspension of disbelief, to semi-begrudgingly nod along when suicide vests conveniently malfunction or when one of Carrie's far-out hunches turns out to be completely right. A lot of what happened in "Broken Hearts" fell into this category. Nazir finding a way to stalk, crash into, and capture Carrie in broad daylight? The New York Times giving away the location of the vice president's medical kit? Terrorists remote-controlling the pacemaker of the second most powerful man in the country simply with the knowledge of a serial code? Well, OK, we think. Knowing this show, these leaps may pay off.

But Homeland—and all works of entertainment—are on far sturdier ground when glossing over the question of "how?" than they are glossing over the question of "why?" The show, once so good at convincing viewers that the extraordinarily scarred main characters were real people, has them acting like the foolhardy protaganists-to-be-butchered of a bad slasher film. When Nicholas Brody gets the call from Nazir saying Carrie's been captured, he could have reached out to David Estes or Saul Berenson for backup—they'd just completed a successful operation with him, and theoretically they'd be able to track down Nazir's call or provide fake codes to buy time. Instead Brody heads on an implausible adventure to the Naval Observatory and lies to Saul about it, further endangering Carrie's life.

When he was forced to grab an ornate magnifying glass to read the code in a moment of exquisitely trumped-up tension, it was as though the show's writers were winkingly acknowledging the cruddy-spy-film schlockiness they'd descended into. Similarly, when Carrie heads back to the darkened factory Nazir had freed her from, the emotion I felt so closely mirrored the emotion anyone feels watching a manipulative horror movie—Wait, stop, you idiot, why are you going BACK into the murderer's lair alone?—that it's best to believe that Homeland's scribes have embarked upon a conceptual dare. How far can "whatever it takes" go?

Because for however much the show has lost its emotional and intellectual consistency, it still feels thematically of a whole. Nazir and Carrie's conversation drove home the symmetry between good guy and bad guy: Both are fanatics who'll stop at nothing to take down their sworn enemy. Dal Adal telling Saul in the opening diner scene—one of the lovelier moments of dialogue yet in the series—that he misses the Cold War, when the enemy played by a set of rules, nicely set the stage for the chaos to come. The reckless lengths that Nazir and Brody went to at least were motivated by their well-established and almost-sympathetic desire to kill William Walden. Carrie heading back into the factory may be a setup for a similarly crazy but justifable hit job. And the apparent for-greater-good betrayals within the CIA echo the betrayals that rule the rest of the show—among its characters, and increasingly among its creators.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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