Remember When Homeland Was Fun?

"Tower of David," the third episode of the Showtime drama's third season, was mostly an hour of pointless pain.

It’s nice to see Nicholas Brody again. It’s not nice to see him screaming and squirming at length as he undergoes bootleg surgical procedures, lurching around a slum skyscraper all zombie-like, repeatedly grunting the same lines about not wanting to be there, and unwillingly acquiring a heroin addiction.

Dark stories and uncomfortable situations help define today’s so-called golden age of television, and Homeland has subjected its audience to rough viewing many times before. But I fear that the bleakness of tonight’s installment, “Tower of David,” stems from a deep flaw of the series' third season. As has been the case since the premiere two weeks ago, Homeland seems to be overcorrecting for its wild, messy second season by binging on austere, slow-going, self-conscious seriousness.

Again, seriousness isn't inherently bad. But Homeland's seriousness once was also fun, with sharp, interesting, damaged characters unraveling a fascinating web of tantalizing, at-times-scary plot questions. That fun is, for now, gone. On tonight’s episode, there were two questions of low-level intrigue for the viewer: What do the men protecting/imprisoning Brody really want, and who’s trying to court Carrie via lawyer? But we made no progress on those new mysteries, nor on the other ones Homeland has recently introduced (what’s up with the CIA and Saul?) or left hanging (who bombed Langley?).

Instead, the show opted for character punishment disguised as character development. Brody is in bad shape. We see that in the episode’s first scene. We see it in the second one. And on. His aimlessness, his powerlessness, and his deadly pariah status are underlined in long sequences of him suffering and struggling in various ways. Carrie, we already knew, is battling mental health issues. In this episode we see she’s still at it but getting better, with difficulty. Why do we need to spend so much time learning the unsurprising details of her halting return to normal and her frustration with the psych ward? Why can’t the show sketch these character-level developments at the same time as it advances the story?

It’d be one thing if all this gloom came with flashes of, you know, entertainment. Even the famously uncheery Breaking Bad held onto humor, narrative interest, and varied pacing while it brought viewers low. When that show subjected its characters to their worst personal hells in its penultimate episode (“Granite State”), it at least offered up a bucket of AmeriCone Dream and two copies of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium for laughs.

The last shots of tonight’s Homeland, with Brody and Carrie despairing in separate confinements, made clear that the episode had similar aspirations: to bring the protagonists to rock bottom. But rock bottom isn't inherently interesting. The settings of the Tower of David and the asylum would seem to offer plenty of colorful potential, but the writers executed on that potential cruelly. That new doctor character did seem like the kind of wry, advice-giving figure we might want to root for—and then it became pretty clear he’s a pedophile. And it says something that the dramatic high point of the episode came with the brutal yet predictable murder of an innocent, well-meaning Muslim family.

Of course, the writers almost certainly had a narrative purpose for the depths of misery that Brody and Carrie went through this week. Soon, I imagine, that misery will inform an important choice each one has to make. Maybe Carrie will sell out America in a moment of weakness. Maybe then this season's action will really start and Homeland will become enjoyable again. But the fact remains that wearing down a character's commitment to doing the right thing doesn't also have to mean wearing down the viewer's commitment to the show itself. After tonight, onetime fans may be starting to sympathize with Brody and Carrie more than Homeland’s creators intend: locked down, uncomfortable, sedated, and not really knowing why.

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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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