Developed for American Television by Howard Gordon & Alex Gansa
Based on the Israeli series Prisoners of War by Gideon Raff
Original Air Date: September 29th 2013-December 15th 2013
It’s hard to know where to begin with Homeland’s third season. The biggest problem with it appears to be Brody, which is an odd thing to think of as a problem because in truth this is both the season that features Damian Lewis’ final appearance as a regular on the series, as well as the least amount of screen time for the character.
Going on the run as the main suspect of the CIA bombing that closed out season two, the character doesn’t show up until the third episode for what is arguably the weakest episode of the series up to this point. It feels like a shame to say that considering that it’s also the last episode that was delivered to the show by Henry Bromell before his death and who contributed so many of the best episodes of season one and two, but it maybe gets to the heart of the weird schism going on with the series this season.
There is a Brody problem both on-screen and off, and that’s even reflected in the dialogue between characters who spend time debating what to do with him. If you didn’t know any better, you might have suspected that the dialogue was coming verbatim from the writers’ room itself as they debate about what to do with a character that was a big draw for the series when it began but who has clearly run his course.
The first season of the series got so much of its power from his motives being a mystery and when those motivations were revealed, the suspense came from whether an increasingly unhinged Carrie could get anyone to believe her.
Season two muddied the waters a little by plunging ever further into more overt thriller territory and with it an increase in preposterous narrative threads such as assassinating the Vice President and blowing up the CIA, the latter of which haunts the events of this season.
The problem becomes that we know that Brody must catch up to events at some point, even when the series goes through many episodes where he isn’t appearing, but since we know he’s hiding away at the Tower of David in Caracas, there is an inevitable feeling in the air that someone on the CIA side, Saul as it turns out, will have to bring him back to the fold.
Yet, you get the sense that when he isn’t around, the writers don’t have a problem with him being missing and it’s here that you can feel Homeland start to reconceptualise itself into a series without Brody.
His family barely appear and when Dana, a character that tends to rub viewers and fans of the show up the wrong way despite Morgan Saylor doing the best she can with the material she is given, opts to move out of the house and leave the nest, the show pretty much abandons Brody’s wife, son, and even best friend Mike as if the show it itching to move beyond them.
Whenever he does show up again and ends up getting involved in Saul’s operation in Iraq and seemingly ends up switching sides again (yep, again), we are then privy to conversations between Saul, Dar Adal, and Senator Lockhart (Tracy Letts) that feel as if we’ve intruded on to the writers’ room discussions as to whether the character should be killed off/assassinated.
Once again, he becomes a pawn in a PR war, this time for Al Qaeda as he is rolled out on television and in the media as a returning hero, this time for the ‘other side’ and in a sense the character does come full circle, but it once again feels as if after the reveal that he was in fact working for Abu Nazir in season one and was getting ready to blow himself up via a suicide vest, the writers honestly had nothing left to do with him. Sure, getting arrested in season two was dramatic, and ‘Q&A’ is still one of the all-time great episodes of the show, but after that and the show’s capitulation to more standard, albeit entertaining, thriller fare, the character was literally worked into a corner.
For several episodes after ‘Tower of David’, the series details Saul and Carrie’s attempts to try and inveigle their way into the orbit of Iranian intelligence chief Majid Javadi to kick start their own attempt to change the course of Iranian foreign policy. This inevitably leads them to bring Brody back to the fold, as Saul knows where he is, but when ‘Tower of David’ ended with Brody in a dark room injecting himself with heroin, in a dark way you kind of feel it’s where Homeland just wanted to leave him and never return.
From season four onwards, the show will devote itself to Carrie and Saul’s intelligence work with a soft reboot every season where they themselves are the tangential link, but the story arc changes, and you get the sense of everyone involved here starting to feel their way along to that.
Brody’s spectre hangs over the season at the beginning given the enormity of what happened and Carrie’s clear feelings for him, but the series is more interested in the Carrie/Saul dynamic and the break down of their friendship which in the end turns out to be a ruse concocted by the two so Carrie will be approached by the terrorist network that they have their eye on.
It’s all very dramatic, of course, and not without entertainment, although similarly to when 24 did such a twist in its own third season, you’re left with question of the ‘why did that character do this?’ variety that can only be explained away by the answer that the writers aren’t planning this stuff too far ahead of time.
The focus shifts away from Brody, eventually settling on Carrie, Saul, and Peter’s attempts to get into Javadi’s orbit, which unfortunately mounts a body count when before turning himself into the CIA’s hands he ends up killing his ex-wife and daughter-in-law in one of the most distressingly violent scenes in the show up to this point. Given that the series has been dominated by Brody and his relationship with Carrie, there is a refreshingly new feeling to the series in that it’s focusing on new stories and themes away from Brody’s allegiances and Abu Nazir.
The inclusion of Tracy Letts as Senator Lockhart is a welcome addition, portraying the character with the air of ‘douchebag bureaucrat’ that are always fun to have around in a thriller like this. The character subverts expectations the longer the season goes on and shows himself to be potentially a more sympathetic one than might have been expected when the season began, and Letts makes for a great addition to the series going forward into season four.
So far, Homeland has been great at delivering the goods with quietly epic finales and three is no exception. Inevitably, it all leads back to Brody but given that by this stage the series has decided that he’s done for and write him into a corner that he literally cannot return from, it all eventually leads to one of the darkest and most challenging death scenes in television history in a finale that opts not go for the fireworks that ‘Marine One’ and ‘The Choice’ settled for, but instead for something more low-key, poignant and filled with aching sadness.
I will be honest, I groaned a little inwardly when it was revealed that Carrie was pregnant, a cliché that predominantly male writers’ rooms go for whenever they have run out of anything else to do with female leads. With Meredith Stiehm and Leslie Linka Glatter prominent voices on the series, Homeland doesn’t have that problem even if a large part of the episodes features male names in the writing credits, but it still feels like a cliché whenever thrillers or series with a genre component play the pregnancy card.
The reveal of all the pregnancy tests in Carrie’s bathroom drawer is admittedly well done and on the basis of this, the series does appear to know what it wants to do, but in getting to the finale the episode brilliantly centres itself not on a threat or a shocking terrorist action, but on a story where both Brody and Carrie realise that they have reached the end of the road and there is no turning back.
Like so much around it, you feel as if it’s the series itself making that revelation as much as the characters, but it does allow the final stretch of the season to flow as brilliantly as it does, and ‘The Star’ (the only contribution to the season from Meredith Stiehm) ends with an episode that seemingly promises hope but cannot in the end deliver because this is Homeland.
Brody’s death is one of the most agonizingly brutal in television history, a public hanging that is filmed in near nauseating detail by Glatter’s unflinching camera as it watches the life go out of the eyes of a character whose story started the ball rolling on the series. It’s an episode that brings out the very best in everyone involved and plays satisfyingly on a character level rather than a plot one.
This being Homeland, there are no last-minute rescues or escapes. Death is the one absolute that is guaranteed here and there is no coming back. It’s a terrific episode and brings the season to an end in fine style, but make no mistake, this is Homeland’s messiest season up to this point, the one where it struggles to balance the thriller with the character drama for a good chunk of the season. Weirdly both elements work well independently of each other, but there’s a feeling that it cannot combine them as potently as it did before.
That Meredith Stiehm was showrunning The Bridge while this season in production, eventually leaving to come back to Homeland after creative differences on the FX series, might be why this season doesn’t click as fully and why that final episode especially is as brilliant as it is.
That might sound like I’m applauding one writer over the others, which I’m really not and it would honestly be unfair to do that. It’s more that the season’s problem is that everyone involved appears to feel that the series is transitioning to a new format of sorts, but it really needs to figure out the Brody problem before it can fully commit to that change. Carrie, Saul, and Peter’s dealing with Javadi are well done, and Shaun Toub makes for a superb addition to the series this year as does Tracy Letts, but that Brody shaped spectre hangs over everything, awaiting his inevitable return even though you can feel the series and the writing staff desperately wanting to shift gears.
The Carrie/Saul subterfuge of the first four episodes doesn’t really work as well as it should do, and it’s only when both they and Peter get back to working on Javadi that the season gets better. Having said all that, the final stretch is a great run of episodes, and the build up to the finale is exemplary.
The season’s finale image of Carrie drawing a star on the CIA memorial in protest of Brody not receiving one is as powerful as anything the series has produced, played brilliantly by Danes, directed superbly by Glatter, and scored to perfection by Sean Callery.
It brings the season to a poignant end, but also leaves one hopeful for Homeland’s future where it now has a clean slate to do something new and fresh once again.