Unlike other shows, Homeland works best for me when I have no fucking idea what is going on. During its glory days of Season 1, the simplest of answers that should form the backbone of the series (is Brody playing for the bad guys?) were murky, leaving us all paranoid and unsure of just about everything.
The biggest problem I've had with the most recent episodes of Homeland aren't the obvious questions of plausibility (a killer hack into a Wi-fi-enabled pacemaker? Nazir taking Carrie prisoner to work Brody over? Nazir materializing out of warehouse fog like something out of Aliens?), it's the obviousness of the threat. As soon as Abu Nazir showed up stateside and was in our faces, so much of Homeland's mystery disappeared. The scariest part of The War On Terror is not knowing whether the terror is coming from some desert mountain cave in Afghanistan or if its coming from your neighbor's house. When there's an obvious target, like a Nazir or an Osama Bin Laden, the focus becomes narrow. It simplifies things down to, "He's our guy, let's hunt the pig down and kill him." When the threat is unknown, everyone, even those we think we know, can be a suspect.
Homeland moved back towards what made it so great in Season 1 with tonight's Season 2 finale "The Choice," a satisfying, jarring, and uneasy hour of television. And I'm not just saying that because the horrible opening credits weren't included. But omitting the free jazz, pagan masks, and brain-cramping symbolism of the credits signals a greater goal for the episode other than avoiding starting off on the wrong foot. To me, the new feel of the beginning and end of the episode was a sign that the show is ready to redefine itself for Season 3 and leave the past behind.
I actually really enjoyed the first half of "The Choice" as a mellow epilogue to the season and the death of Nazir, though I'm assuming most of you found it achingly boring. It may have mostly been Brody and Carrie having those new-relationship chats that we hope we never get caught in public doing (juggling, Brody? That's funny to you?), but it was a glimpse of an optimal future free of naysayers telling them to keep their hands off each other and served as the foundation of things to come in the second half of the episode. Quinn spying on the lovebirds provided ample tension, and seeing the humanity creep across his face while he ate tuna fish (or was it cat food?) straight out of the can on a stakeout was a fantastic preamble to his version of Breaking Bad's "I'm the one who knocks" speech with Estes. Saul was held captive by Estes and had to have the proper daily allowance of milk snuck in, Brody gave Mike the okay to bang his wife over some crappy beer, Carrie had to choose between a career that would make her life hell and a boyfriend that would probably make her life hell, and Dana got a confession from Brody that somehow later made her convinced that he wouldn't be capable of blowing people up. This first half was the healing process after the Nazir nightmare and a glimpse of what things could be now that things were back to normal again. It was also the beginning of a series heading into one of the most boring third seasons in TV history.
But even with all the justified talk of ridiculousness in recent episodes, Homeland has been anything but boring and we all knew Season 2 would not go quietly into the night and set up the next season of Brody and Carrie sneaking around like horny teenagers. However, I didn't think it would be that! A bomb tore through the CIA headquarters at Langley, shredding more than 200 people to bits–including Estes, Finn Walden, and Momma Walden (R.I.P. you guys!)–and kicking us all in the groin again when we least expected it. Most importantly, it dumped a whole bucket of metaphorical gasoline over the metaphorical flame of uncertainty and paranoia that makes Homeland so damn good.
Did Brody know the bomb was going off? (I say no.) And is that why he pulled Carrie out of Walden's CIA memorial? (Again, no.) Did Brody's reasoning that Nazir set this all up a long time ago make any sense, or was this more pillow talk and he was actually instrumental in the bombing? (It sounds like a stretch to me.) Did these cuts to Saul looking slightly menacing with evil music in the background point to him as a participant in the act of terror? (They were meant to plant a seed of doubt for sure, and the show has gone out of its way to try to make that a possible option, but I have to say no.) Heck, some people even think Saul's wife could be part of this. (No way.) Were the terrorists who claimed responsibility for the explosion actually responsible for the explosion, or were they just stealing credit? (I'm thinking they were responsible, and have a perfect person to set up as part of it in Brody.) Who moved Brody's car? (I dunno!) Who leaked his confession tape to the news networks? (Probably the terrorists, but if you're one of the nutjobs clinging onto the idea that Saul could be involved, then it could have been him.)
We've selfishly settled into a cycle of television watching where we demand answers to questions that series raise, but Homeland is never stronger than when we don't know the answers. Terrorists leave people cowering because the fear they propagate comes from the unknown. Just when we thought the threat had been neutralized when Nazir ate lead (okay, none of us really thought the threat was gone), "The Choice" gave us another unknown. When Homeland isn't about star-crossed lovers, it's about the destructive mentality caused by terrorism, not the terrorists themselves. I don't want Homeland to be about chasing a bad guy, I want Homeland to be about everyone clamoring for answers and so damn scared that they can't even trust their closest friends. "The Choice" accomplished that in just about every single way.
It also set up some interesting possibilities for Season 3. Saul got promoted the hard way, putting him at the head of the CIA, or what's left of it. Will he butt heads with Dar Adul and whatever sneaky shit he's up to? Brody on the run means that he might not only disappear from America, but he may also disappear from the series while Carrie tries to clear his name. But how long can Homeland go without its Emmy winning male lead? I wouldn't be surprised to see the writers pull Brody back in quickly by having him captured and maybe even put on trial while Carrie does her thing to find the real culprit. There are already a lot of theories that Damian Lewis will be used sporadically next season, but in this business, you never bench your cleanup hitter and my money's on Brody's run as a fugitive not lasting that long at all.
Overall, I dug the finale for putting Homeland back into a place where I think it's at its strongest: in uncertainty. It might not have atoned for some of the silliness that came before it, but there was an ample amount of course correcting so that we're at least back to a point of interest where the possibilities are plenty. Whether or not Season 3 brings the show back to its paranoid best or continues to move towards unbelievable 24 adventures remains to be seen. And if future episodes decide to cut out the opening credits, even better.
– Mandy Patinkin was particularly fantastic in this episode, playing his role with a ton of ambiguity. While I don't honestly think Saul is involved in any terror plot, I like the show's push towards raising the question.
– Saul tells Carrie what we're all thinking: "You're the smartest and the dumbest fucking person I've known."
– Are we supposed to believe that Nazir's plan all along was to have Walden killed in a way that would set up a CIA-only memorial so that Nazir could blow the whole thing up? And that plan involved keeping Brody in the loop so that his car could be used as a bomb-delivery service? And that Nazir's death would mean the CIA's guard would be down? Because if so, that's one complex plan that's extremely difficult to pull off considering one step in it is dying before the plan is completed. It might help explain some of the craziness of the prior two episodes, but it doesn't explain them satisfactorily.
– Saul threw in a Les Miserables reference when he called Estes "Javert." Just in time to promote the big Les Mis movie coming out in a few weeks that my wife is trying to get me to go see with her. (I'm not going.)
– What's with all the milk in this series?
– Chris Brody, after seeing his dad's confession on television, can just go to sleep that night like it's no big deal.