Review: ‘Homeland’ – ‘Game On’

A review of tonight’s “Homeland” coming up just as soon as I say I’m going to Trader Joe’s…

The other day, I was talking with Mo Ryan about how even the great showrunners often have blind spots, giving some undeserving character or storyline way too much burn, and either not realizing or caring about how they actually play. “Mad Men,” for instance, has Betty; “The Wire” season 5 had the newspaper. It happens, and usually the shows are otherwise so great that you learn to ignore the part that the creative team can’t or won’t fix.

But as we pass the one-third mark of “Homeland” season 3, I’m beginning to fear that we have a show made up of nothing but blind spots.

If it was just that the creative team loved Morgan Saylor’s performance as Dana and didn’t understand that viewers don’t care about Dana outside her interactions with her father, it would be a difficult problem, but a survivable one. There is absolutely no reason we need to be spending any time in an episode, let alone this much, on Dana’s overwrought, poetry-reciting escapades with Leo(*) – who, like her father, isn’t exactly who he claims to be, and has a past and possible future of suicidal behavior – but if the show around her was strong, I would just roll my eyes and move on.

(*) I just realized this week that the actor, Sam Underwood, is the same one who played Dexter’s would-be protege Zach Hamilton in that show’s final season. The Showtime casting people are more impressed with Underwood than I am. 

But there’s also the continued survival of Brody, which we talked about last week. There’s more time spent with Jessica, who was one of the series’ most interesting characters in its first few episodes and has become progressively less so, which necessitates the return from “The Blacklist” of Diego Klattenhoff as Mike.(**) There’s a lot of time spent on forensic accounting of the new Iranian villains, which isn’t that tough to follow, but has so far just played as a massive info dump.

(**) The same episode also brings back David Marciano for a brief appearance as Virgil. “Homeland” giveth with the returning actors, and “Homeland” taketh away.

And then there’s Carrie Matheson. Claire Danes now has two Emmys for this role. She is great in it, and given the design of the series, she’s theoretically its best bet as a star for the long haul. (Much as I love Mandy Patinkin, and I’ll be talking about him more in a moment, Showtime isn’t doing 8 seasons of “Saul the Bear.”) But as I talked about last week, they’ve put Carrie in such a bad place – covering up Brody’s assassination of Walden (and not even trying to stop it once she escaped from Nazir), helping Brody go fugitive, being wildly out of control and self-indulgent – that it’s amazing to remember how sympathetic she once was.

The twist at the end of “Game On” – revealing that Saul was using Carrie as bait for the Iranians, and that Carrie was in on the plan – feels like a Hail Mary pass by the writers to solve the Carrie problem in a single move. Carrie’s not out of control! She’s in cahoots with our man Saul! She’s still on the side of the angels, and always has been! Like her! Please!

Mostly, though, the revelation just left me scratching my head about what exactly was real over the last four episodes – and not in a pleased “Usual Suspects”/”Sixth Sense” way that made me eager to revisit what I’d already seen, but a much more annoyed mode. Perhaps we’ll find out next week exactly what happened, and when, but right now my guess is that when Saul visited Carrie at the end of the season’s second episode, he responded to her drugged “Fuck you, Saul” with an explanation of his plan. For all of Carrie’s behavior this season to be acting defies credulity, and even if she became aware of the plan at that late date, there’s too much behavior from the two most recent episodes for it to entirely work. There are too many moments where she’s entirely alone, or in contexts where it doesn’t matter who’s observing her – except for us in the audience, and we should not factor into this equation – where she acts like this is all real. I can understand, perhaps, why she might try to go fugitive after getting Franklin’s offer – it’s all a show for the people she knows are watching her – but why is she so concerned about her father and Maggie blowing off the hearing? Why is she near tears at the thought of betraying her country for cash when her back is to bad guy lawyer Leland Bennett? Who are the guys in Virgil’s office?

UPDATE: Alex Gansa told EW that Carrie and Saul hatched the plan shortly after the CIA bombing, which means this entire thing has been an elaborate play. Don’t buy it. Sorry. And it cheapens a lot of what we’ve previously seen (like ending episode 2 on “Fuck you, Saul”). Also, Linda Holmes does an excellent job of articulating the difference between concealing Brody’s motivations in season 1 and Carrie’s here.

And why is “Homeland” playing this game with the audience? It was one thing to keep Brody’s motives opaque during the first season, as that year was designed as a cat-and-mouse game where the biggest question was whether Carrie was right or crazy (or both). We’re past that point now. We know Carrie. We know Saul. We know about their relationship. You build on that and you explore it; you don’t do narrative sleight of hand that doesn’t entirely make sense.

And yet I will say that despite my largely annoyed reaction to this twist, Mandy Patinkin’s performance in the final scene was just so good – so warm and inviting in that beautifully understated way Patinkin plays Saul – that I came incredibly close to going along with it. Saul was happy with this turn of events, and therefore I should have been.

Which, I suppose, makes Saul my own “Homeland” blind spot.

What did everybody else think? Now that the season’s story arc has become more clear – including placing the bad guys in Caracas, which will no doubt bring Brody back into things – are you interested in where it’s going? And does anyone want to defend the Dana/Leo road trip?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at