Sergeant Nicholas Brody has spent a lot of time on camera during the first season of Homeland. First, a suspicious Carrie rigged his house with so many hidden mics and night-vision lenses you’d think seven hard-drinking undergrads were about to start filming Real World: Potomac on the premises. Then he had to deal with the flashbulbs of a ravenous press, eager to celebrate the returned hero who, beneath the surface, was anything but. The CIA filmed him confronting his longtime guard; later, an illicit webcam connected him to the murderous Abu Nazir. Last week, as Brody’s suicidal endgame began to take focus, his daughter, Dana, played amateur cinematographer and grew more and more suspicious as her footage revealed how badly out of step with his surroundings her father had become.
In the opening moments of the finale, however, Nicholas Brody finally turned the camera on himself. And what we got was all Carrie ever wanted out of him: the truth.
After recounting the history of his donec horrendum — kidnapped in Iraq, sold to terrorists, beaten, tortured, and isolated — Brody attempts to set the record straight about his actions. “People will say I was broken. I was brainwashed ... taught to hate my country,” he dictates. “I love my country.” In Brody’s mind, blowing up the vice president is perfectly consistent with his sworn oath to defend the United States against enemies foreign and domestic. “The vice president and members of the national security team,” he explains, are “war criminals.” Brody’s wildly public death is an attempt to right the scales, to gain justice and recognition for the secret killing of the 82 children in Iraq and its subsequent cover-up.
But the most important part of Brody’s monologue was the first: “I have a wife and two kids who I love.” By beginning his confession with an admission of physical and emotional attachments, he foreshadowed his own failure to act. At the outset, Homeland purported to be a show about terrorism and the fight against it. But really it was about all the quotidian things that get in the way of those on both sides of the struggle, the inconsistencies of absolute faith and the all-too-human limits of devotion. Professor Faisel wasn’t a zealot, he was a shy intellectual in love with a rich girl. Mr. Sahrani was no extremist, just a financially deluded patsy who couldn’t bear the thought of his daughter growing up in the world he was helping to create. And Carrie’s obsession with Brody and need for the truth all too quickly morphed into wrenching desperation and misguided romance. Separated from his family by time and distance, Brody was willing to sacrifice himself for Abu Nazir’s child. But a bunker beneath the Capitol isn’t a spider-hole in Waziristan: As soon as Brody heard the scared, insistent voice of his own daughter on the other end of the line, there was no chance he’d pull the trigger. He can justify anything in front of a flip-cam, repeat Abu Nazir’s words like a mantra. He can cleanse his hands and his feet, as he explained to Dana. But he can’t purify his heart.
“Marine One” was a thrilling and devastating conclusion to what has been a supremely artful season of television. Homeland took the best of network TV — the sexy stakes, the Us vs. Them blueprint, the remarkably well-functioning face-recognition technology — and submerged them in the moral murk of cable. Straddling a divide that would have split lesser showrunners in two, creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa never stopped taking chances, doing their best work in the gray areas that 24, their previous collaboration, rejected. On Homeland, patriots could be murderers and all politics were personal. The result was a finale that was deeply satisfying even as it paved the way for future stories. It left the bomb unexploded and yet, at the end, our heroine’s life was blown utterly to bits.
Of course, she wasn’t in the best shape at the top of the hour, either. After Estes’ impromptu Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Carrie has retreated to her sister’s house in ruins. Stripped of her security clearance, she’s lost all will to survive: Not even Saul’s chicken soup — the “elixir of the gods” — can help. While it was touching to see the parade of people willing to care for someone so brittle — Saul, Maggie, even pasta aficionado Virgil — Carrie doesn’t want their comfort. The only thing that can sustain her is action, and soon she’s forcing Virgil to drive her to the vice president’s big campaign-kickoff announcement. Only this time she’s on the wrong side of the barricade, surrounded by flag-waving yokels. When she sputters and fulminates about how a larger attack is coming, how only she can see it, Carrie doesn’t sound committed — she sounds certifiable. (It’s a great moment when her ranting draws the attention of a beat cop, just an average performer in our nation’s ongoing exercise in security theater. “Don’t worry, everything’s fine,” Carrie practically spits. “Isn’t that what you wanted to hear?”)
Brody, meanwhile, is doing what all good boy scouts do: preparing. After stashing his video confessional in a dead drop, he returns home to say grace with his family, asking the good Lord to protect them — all while suspicious Dana eyes him warily. That night, unable to sleep, he prays again, this time to a different God, only Dana is there to spy on him again. It’s unclear at first in the scene that follows if Brody is gaming his daughter or actually grateful for the chance to unburden himself about his conversion. Either way, Dana is freaked and things get worse the next day: Brody lingers a little too long on his good-bye to Chris, his wistful wave to Jessica. When it’s time to strap on the vest, Dana tries to intervene yet again, only this time the door is locked. Later in the episode, Carrie refers to Dana as “the one who understands” her father, and even here Dana gains access to the parts of Brody that Carrie never could: He opens the door. Yet we’ve seen time and again that Brody is at his best when forced to talk; the lies and false promises that tumble fluidly from his mouth (perhaps he’s built for politics after all?) seem to reinvigorate him and, in this case, are enough to get him out of the house and on his way.
One by one the players assemble. Walker sneaks through the security parameters by stowing away in the backseat of a bingo-playing septuagenarian with a perfect view for a kill. Estes and Vice President Walden ride together, grumbling about how bulldog Berenson almost uncovered their über-classified drone strike — the one that killed Issa and started Brody’s murder engine. (It was gratifying to see that, in typical Homeland fashion, Estes was revealed to be something much more interesting than a mole: a coldhearted careerist bastard.) And Saul, thanks to his belief in Carrie’s “wall of garbage,” is stuck at the State Department “like a crossing guard,” considered more of a threat to Walden’s future than Walker’s bullets.
When it all goes down, only Carrie understands what’s happening, of course. Walker was a highly specialized decoy: He guns down Elizabeth Gaines, destroying the VP’s suit but not his life. And the security ritual that follows is intended to give Brody his opening. When the shots ring out, he’s rushed past the beeping metal detectors and crammed into an airless, fetid bunker with the rest of Walden’s brain trust. As Carrie explains to a heartbreakingly skeptical Saul, “Marine One” and “Marine Two” don’t refer to the presidential helicopters, they’re the terrorist weapons themselves, Brody and Walker. And just as Walker held up his end of the bargain, so, too, does Brody. He steels himself, stares daggers at his enemy, and pulls the trigger.
Now, some might complain about the convenient malfunctioning of the suicide vest, but not me. First off, who can expect expert tailoring from central Pennsylvania? But more important, the moment worked dramatically. It was important to see that Brody truly was willing to die for his cause, and the suspenseful delay left many of us dying under our slankets. As Brody retreats into the paper towel-free bathroom to attend to some loose wires, Carrie drives straight to his house and detonates: screaming at Dana to call her father and yelling at Jessica on the front lawn. It was so much easier for Carrie when she was merely watching the Brody family on TV, omniscient and in control. But she, like the viewers of Homeland, got pulled into the program with catastrophically messy results. In Homeland there’s no such thing as an innocent bystander.
Ultimately, Carrie’s career-suicide mission works and Dana’s call talks her father’s thumb off the trigger. (Is it really possible that the vice presidential security bunker has better cell-phone reception than an average Brooklyn apartment? It’s a small comfort knowing that in the event of a massive terrorist strike Joe Biden will at least be able to enjoy Words With Friends uninterrupted.) Though his confession tape is gone — a plot thread, like the CIA mole, wisely stashed away until next season — Brody is instead repositioned for a more subtle assault on the vice president: this time not from inside a safe room but from inside the government itself. He dispatches Walker (for real this time) and rejoins his family.
Brody may have wavered in his devotion to the cause, at least in the short term, but Carrie never blinked. Yet even when she was right — as she was, ultimately, about Abu Nazir’s plans — she was wrong. And the results are sad and horrific to see. She’s humiliated by Brody in front of the police station — the complete shifting of the power dynamic in that relationship has been startling to see — and not even Saul’s revelation of the secret drone strike, the truth behind Nazir’s “fallow yellow” period, can revive her. (Not that it makes Saul all that happy, either: He may be in a position to blackmail the future president, but, as Estes points out, that’s as far as it can go. He can’t call the New York Times and risk exposing agents in the field. There’s truth and then there’s consequences.) The season ends with Carrie willfully submitting to electroshock therapy in an attempt to fix her brain. Yet even as she passes into unconsciousness, her mind still turns up clues, this time the realization that Brody knew Issa. But the memory arrives too late, for this season at least. She pulls the trigger on her own act of violence, stopping herself as methodically and brutally as she might have stopped a terrorist. “It’ll always be my job, don’t you get that?” Carrie yelled at Virgil just before Walker opened fire. At the time it sounded heroic; in retrospect it sounded like a cry for help.
There are only two true villains in the universe of Homeland — Vice President Walden and Abu Nazir — and at the end of the season both appear triumphant. They’re linked in other ways, too, of course: Both prefer large demonstrations of power over “softball spy games,” and both believe that Brody is the walking embodiment of all their most grandiose and selfish dreams. But more than that, they are the only two characters who seem to possess perfect moral clarity, an unshakeable belief in the justness of their cause. To men like them, the rest of the world is collateral. And while the large-scale attack may have been averted, this black-and-white worldview still reigns: Walden will retaliate, and so will Nazir. And lives will be lost and ruined in the process.