This Week’s ‘Homeland’ Twist Was Either Terrible Or Awesome, Depending On Who You Ask

After three sluggish episodes to kick off the third season of Homeland (which was picked up for a fourth season yesterday), the Internet is abuzz over the what-the-f*ck twist that arrived at the end of the fourth episode. Was it jaw-droppingly awesome? Was it a hackery? Did Mandy Patinkin cry when he found out about the twist? Yes, yes he did.

I’m on the record as being impressed by it. The rest of the season hasn’t been particularly good, but that twist blew open my mindhole. Some are suggesting that it was a cheat, but my sense is that a cheat is what you do when you’re backed into a narrative corner. Here, Alex Gansis and the Homeland writers set out from the beginning to set up the twist. I don’t think that’s a cheat; I just think that the degree of difficulty is a little easier when you don’t let the audience in on the knowledge that a character has. I don’t hold that against Homeland, though I do agree that there’s a debate to be had over whether the twist justified three lousy episodes.

The general internet reaction has been pretty evenly split, though. For the hackery viewpoint, I give you THR’s Tim Goodman:

From a storytelling perspective, it doesn’t add up. Even if we are to assume, now that the ruse has been revealed, that Carrie was “acting” in case outside forces (the Iranians) or inside forces of dubious intentions (Dar Adal) were watching her, the logic only works part of the time (in public) and even then not all the time. Homeland is using the camera’s point of view to manipulate the audience into thinking one thing while winking that it was all fake – and yet the camera catches moments (Carrie saying “F— you, Saul” at the end of the second episode, or Carrie, alone, crying and feeling hurt by Saul tossing her reputation to the congressional dogs) that had no reason to be faked. It’s just too convenient to say, “Oh, even though Carrie knew Saul was going to do that, it still hurt seeing it.” For one thing, that’s lazy. For another, it doesn’t explain subtleties like Carrie’s slow head shake that indicates disbelief that Saul would do such a thing.

You can’t use the camera to both deceive and to lie outright to the viewer. That’s not a twist or even a trick. It’s cheating. It’s hackery … It’s also lazy and dangerous. Gansa and his writers can claim “twist” when it feels more like “gotcha” to the viewer.

Those, I’ll admit, are some good points, though they do sound like the thoughts of a critic rather than a viewer.

Meanwhile, in this corner, we have David Chute over at IndieWire, who says that the twist is rooted in the history of thriller novels:

The naysayers need a history lesson. The late great mystery and thriller writer Donald Westlake, especially in the books he wrote as Richard Stark about the grimly professional thief Parker, liked to create surprises just from the way he structured his stories. In novels with more than one central character he’d separate his protagonists and allow their plot threads to diverge. For several chapters we’d follow protagonist A, as Westlake/Stark systematically backed him into a corner — at which point protagonist B would magically reappear to blast the plot wide open. The narrative would then backtrack to the point of divergence and follow protagonist B forward again to the point of impact. Hugely cool.

“Undermining the believability of what we see” (a sore point with the above sorehead) is a staple tool in the thriller writer’s kit, and not only of those on the far end of the noir spectrum, such as Woolrich and Bardin, whose anti-heroes are often unreliable to the point of psychosis. A more mainstream example, Robert Ludlum’s novel “The Bourne Identity,” though not the film version, employed major efforts of misdirection to convince Bourne himself, and the reader, that the amnesiac fugitive is actually Carlos, the Most Wanted Terrorist of the era in which the book was written. Does that make Ludlum, too, a “cheater”?

Speaking of thriller novels, if the twist sounds like it came right out of a John le Carré novel, perhaps — as the L.A. Times suggests — it did come straight out of a John le Carré novel.

Meanwhile, Willa Paskin over on Slate doesn’t care whether it made sense or not. She’s just happy that something actually happened on Homeland.

After three episodes dealing with the depressing repercussions of the Langley bombing, finally, a twist: Instead of being at odds, Carrie and Saul are really in cahoots. There are so many things that I like about this development—what it does for pace, future plot, character, my interest level—that I don’t really care that it may not make sense.

Thanks to the twist, Sean T. Collins at Rolling Stone thinks Homeland is must-watch again.

But both the twist and the relatively restrained and suspenseful way the show built up to it (Virgil’s signal to Carrie that he’d been compromised, a simple and cryptic “Say hi to your mom for me,” was far more thrilling than the show’s umpteenth surprise shootout) are supremely satisfying signs of life for a show that needed them badly. Homeland may never be a big-questions show again, but a genuinely intelligent, character-driven political thriller would be most welcome, and tonight the show lived up to that ripe potential. Game on indeed.

Alan Sepinwall over on Hitfix, however, thinks it was an annoying Hail Mary pass.

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.

Personally, agree or disagree, the best thing to come out of the Homeland twist, to me anyway, is that people are talking about Homeland again, and it’s not entirely about how much they dislike Dana.