Any hour of TV that features the public execution of one of its main characters is going to be pretty emotional. And indeed, judging by Twitter, Homeland’s third season finale brought at least a few viewers to tears. The second half of the episode—where Iranian authorities grab Nicholas Brody, Carrie Mathison realizes she won’t be able to save him, and a crane hoists the ex-marine into the air by his neck—presented Brody’s death in unflinching, moving detail. Carrie covertly drawing a star onto the memorial wall at the CIA was just about perfect as a final shot; for one last time, Brody has her breaking the rules.
But the death wasn't actually that shocking. As telegraphed in that safe-house scene where Brody said he hadn’t expected to get this far and had no idea what he’d do back in America, his character had no future.
What was more surprising was that this was a happy ending.
A few episodes back, it seemed like Homeland might be up to something deeply subversive. Season Three had thrown a parade of punishments at its characters (Carrie’s stint in a psych ward; Saul’s cuckolding; Brody destitution) and at innocent bystanders (the kid Peter Quinn shot in the season opener; the imam’s family in Caracas; Javadi's ex wife and her daughter; the Iraqi policemen at the Iranian border). Saul’s plan to defang Iran via a secret coup seemed too far-fetched, too reminiscent of America’s troubled history of interventionism, to actually work. Having it fail would be a tough but bold creative choice that might have explained all the bleakness this season. Maybe, Homeland could have decided to say, Peter Quinn was right to wonder whether any greater good could justify the collateral damage caused by the CIA's meddling. Maybe, it could have said, America shouldn't try to play god.
Instead, the show ended up offering a more comforting justification for all the carnage and moral compromise this season. Saul’s scheme works out, and Iran assents to nuclear inspections. Not only that, but our characters are pretty much OK. Saul’s out at the CIA, but he gets to vacation with his seemingly recommitted wife in the Mediterranean, pull in a huge private-sector salary, and not have to try and manage Carrie anymore. Carrie receives the station-chief promotion she has long wanted, and her pesky pregnancy takes care of itself when her dad offers to raise the kid. Brody dies a hero. Hurray for assassinations!
To be fair, Homeland seems a little ambivalent about the fact that it has again reduced thorny questions of policy and morality to a mere backdrop for its main characters' psychodramas. The conversation between Brody and Carrie at the safe house feels like the show’s writers trying to head off criticisms:
With that, we’re told (not shown) that everything’s above board: Danesh Akbari, the fellow Brody bludgeoned to death with an ashtray, was a “bad guy." Who could quarrel with the killing of someone who sends children into minefields? Well, Brody, for one. He realizes that, for him, the entire operation wasn’t about making the world a more peaceful place, but rather about his own personal redemption. “What a fucking joke,” he says. “In what universe can you redeem one murder by committing another?”
Later, Javadi makes a bizarrely perceptive speech to Carrie about her own motivations, saying she'd done everything she'd done for Brody's sake. (Seriously, what does this snake who's hung out with Carrie for, like, one car ride know about her inner workings?) The greater mission—making sure that the timeline of American traumas that Homeland’s title sequence recaps each week doesn't get longer—has receded. This show, we’re told in a clearer way than ever before, is a soap opera.
That’s fine, to a point. Again and again, Homeland has seemed interested in bigger issues and yet has declined to really engage with them, but that's the show's prerogative. It's entertainment.
Still, it's worth remembering that artistic decisions can have consequences. Earlier this week, for example, Middle East scholar Fawaz Gerges told The Wrap that Homeland is “poisonous” to relations between America and Iran. He contends that the show sets up an entire nation of people as a terrorist-sympathizing schemers, which “enforces Iranians’ images of the United States as a hostile nation, as a nation that cannot be trusted.”
I’ll leave aside the question of how much a past-its-prime cable drama can affect attitudes abroad. But Gerges’s comments do bring into focus just how clumsy this show can be, and if Iranians were to take offense, you couldn’t really blame them. In this season’s final Tehran arc, the crimes of Akbari, who’s death we’re made to root for, are only revealed briefly and after the fact. Fara takes a huge risk by availing her family to Carrie—and then is not heard from again at all. Outside of Fara's uncle, the only other Iranians we meet are the murderous, double-crossing Javadi, and the crowds cheering at Brody’s execution. It’s not that Homeland is trying to reduce a country a faceless, stereotypical mass—it’s just that it’s not interested in anything other than the redemptive and romantic narratives for its main characters.
Or at least, that’s been the case so far. The best thing about this season finale is the way it seems to reboot the show. The melodramatic elements—baby, love interest, the Brody family—are whisked away. Season Four, it seems, might mainly consist of watching Carrie do the work she’s so good at, in the Middle East. Could Homeland finally become the juicy, serious, Obama-era spy drama it has always promised it could be? Probably not—but at least after this frustrating season, it's given us something to hope for.