[Spoilers from the current seasons of “Homeland’’ and “Dexter’’ are included in this story.]
It was striking TV. The moment Deb Morgan walked into one of her brother’s kill rooms and saw him plunge a knife into a man entombed in plastic wrap, “Dexter’’ crossed a line it had drawn on day one.
The threat of Deb discovering the twisted truth about Dexter – it had been a kind of apocalypse looming over every episode of the series. If Deb ever found out about Dexter’s dirty little serial-killing habit, it seemed, the end would be nigh. The final tension would be released from the drama. But last year Deb did see it all — the writers crossed the Rubicon — with two full seasons left to go.
“Dexter’’ went there.
Every series has a few major narrative assets to play with over the long run. Often they are withheld events that keep us hooked, eager, questioning, sometimes tense. On “How I Met Your Mother,’’ for example, the writers have denied us the identity of the mother since 2005, teasing us mercilessly with clues and Ted’s various girlfriends. These withholdings and super-twists are a show’s trump cards; they’re a little bigger than regular plot turns, as they threaten to change the original direction of a show. And when the writers deploy them, danger – in the form of a deflated series, or viewer alienation, or retroactive plot illogic, or the “Moonlighting’’ effect – is afoot. Going there is a hazardous business.
Which brings me to “Homeland.’’ This season, like “Dexter,’’ “Homeland’’ has also gone there. The dramatic underpinnings of season 1 – that Brody was indeed a terrorist, that Carrie was not trusted by the CIA – have undergone some continental shifting. By episode 5, the CIA had learned the truth about Brody, and he had been co-opted to do right by his country after a violent and emotional interrogation. Carrie had become a redeemed member of the team. We’ve now entered new territory as Brody has gone back out into his terrorism work as a US spy.
There have also been regular-sized plot turns aplenty this season on “Homeland,’’ including Brody’s murder of weapons man Bassel, the Tailor; Finn Walden’s hit and run; and growing suspicions by Lauder and Mike that Brody was involved in the death of fellow Marine Tom Walker. Also, Abu Nazir’s people took out a roomful of CIA agents in order to retrieve a nefarious-looking trunk that probably contains some kind of evil weaponry. So “Homeland’’ has been hectic. But the re-turning of Brody is a more fundamental deal. It is, to use a phrase that is overused, a game changer. All together, the show has been very busy.
And so, as I assess the first half of the season, I’m starting to worry about “Homeland’’ and super-twists. The first season unfolded at a brisk but still cautious pace, becoming a mesmerizing thriller as each bit of ambiguity about Brody’s allegiance was resolved. But is the show now building up to becoming another “24,’’ which was also produced by “Homeland’’ producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa? “24’’ got lost in an addiction to going there. Every episode became a Chicken Little exercise in falling sky, whereby super-twists became a sort of dull norm. Moles were exposed, then exposed as not-moles, then killed, then revealed not to be dead.
I’m all for turning things around on the viewer, but only with a very spare approach. “Lost’’ went there a few too many times by the end of its run, but “Breaking Bad’’ has been a model of going there prudently. First, the show went there when Skyler found out about Walt’s meth business, and that has played out with excruciating excellence across many episodes. Now, Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law seems to have made the connection. That’s endgame-level going there – which is fine, since there are only 8 episodes of the series left. Each of these changes in course has been done so gradually and carefully, the likelihood of loose ends is small.
But “Homeland’’ is starting to rush the super-twists. The potential for glaring leaps in logic is rearing its head, as we wonder why the CIA is being so sloppy. How can Saul not wonder if Abu Nazir knows the CIA is onto Brody, after his experience in airport security coming home from Beirut? Why did the CIA not take precautions when they went into Bassel’s shop? Why did they fail to ask Brody details about the death of Bassel? Nitpicks such as these aren’t huge problems, but an accumulation of them can weaken a show that has, so far, rewarded intelligent viewing. Perhaps once we learn the identity of the CIA mole, which the “Homeland’’ writers still have up their sleeves, some of these breaks will make more sense. I hope so.
Last season, the speed of the action subsided for an episode in which Brody and Carrie spent a weekend in a country house. The writers need to similarly take the pace down a notch at some point soon, to let the consequences of all the previous episodes sink in. A super-twist is exciting in the moment, for sure. But now that Deb knows about Dexter, “Dexter’’ has begun to descend back into mediocrity. The “Homeland’’ writers need to take care of later on, once the initial thrill of a super-twist is gone.