This post discusses the plot of the Oct. 26 episode of “Homeland,” “About a Boy.”
It is very easy to make a highly entertaining spy drama if you do not care very much about the morals or ethics of the people involved in the spy trade. If you are free to spend your mental energy choreographing great chase sequences or tense fights constrained by the need to avoid discovery, you can make movies and television that feel tense and exciting. But if you have set yourself the task not simply of making espionage look cool but of saying something serious about both the trade and the positions of the participants, everything gets a lot harder.
In recent years, we have had a couple of movies about spycraft that managed to deploy style and substance, if not in exactly equal measure.
Sam Mendes’ “Skyfall” is every inch in the James Bond tradition, but despite a flamboyant villain and a lot of snazzy explosions, it is also a melancholic meditation on the limitations of the British empire. And while I know some critics found Thomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carré’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” difficult to follow, his chronicle of spy George Smiley’s (Gary Oldman) redemption and rise to power is told with a sense of both agonizing love and ethical squalor.
One of the problems “Homeland” has at present seems to be a sense that, in order to pronounce judgment on the War on Terror and what it has done to us, only extreme dourness will do. To a certain extent, the show has locked itself into this position as a result of past artistic choices and events: Carrie’s (Claire Danes) mental illness, her doomed affair with Brody and the abandoned child that resulted all cast a depressive fog over the series.
But I wonder if digging into that tone is a mistake. Part of what is powerful about le Carré’s work or the best adaptation of Ian Fleming’s is that it conveys just how satisfying it can be to pull off a perfect operation, how powerful you can feel when you have access to a secret world. If intelligence is a quick route to misery and emotional illness, and if the people in it are fated to fail in painful and embarrassing ways, we would not have to frown in sorrow about its dangers and appeal. Showing spies being competent and exercising great power is critical both to entertaining and audience and leading them to an authentic moral judgment on this work and the people who do it.
Take Carrie’s seduction of Aayan (Suraj Sharma). On a different, shallower show he might be an adult, and their romp would be a flirtation of equals. At the very least, there might be something genuinely sweet about Aayan’s sexual awakening. But “Homeland” digs in on the grubbiness of her tactics.
“It’s against my faith,” Aayan tells her the morning after. “I don’t want to sin, I want to be devout.” “It’s all right,” Carrie tells him. “We don’t have to do anything.” Of course, she proceeds to seduce him again, promising to be his sexual tutor so he will know what to do, for his pleasure and for hers. She emotionally connects to him, which of course means he is in for some sort of disaster, and even confides that she would have liked to be married to Brody. And if it was not all seedy enough, Quinn (Rupert Friend) shows up tell Carrie that while she may think she is recruiting Aayan, “to me it looks like you’re f—ing a child.”
Then, there is the pathetic dissolution of Dennis (Mark Moses) and Martha’s (Laila Robins) marriage. “Don’t make up a story. If you want to leave, say it to my face,” Martha tells Dennis, who slinks off to drink himself silly in a bar. “Men secretly fear their wives are crazy, and wives secretly fear their husbands are losers,” Martha tells John (Michael O’Keefe) when he fetches Dennis home. “He was dashing. A bright light. That guy is gone.”
There is absolutely truth in the idea that marriages can fall apart when gender roles are reversed to one partner’s displeasure, when one partner does not have meaningful work, or when the couple lacks a social network. But taken with Carrie’s latest seduction, this kind of grinding misery makes it hard to stick around for the lessons “Homeland” is supposed to impart to me. The show sometimes feels like the equivalent of burying vitamins not in ice cream but in castor oil.
Thank goodness for the few people in Islamabad who appears to have a sense of style. John wanted Carrie’s job as station chief; he may be bitter, but he hasn’t let that cramp his killer deadpan. “I don’t know how great he was, but he was all right to drink with,” he says in the bar with Dennis. And then there’s Ghazi, who may be a thug and a killer, but who has enough game to lure Saul (Mandy Patinkin) into a trap.
This season of “Homeland” may be a reboot. But for it to work as both morality tale and entertainment, the series and its main characters could learn from its villains and the minor players on their own side that they have shunted aside.