It's a shame that Robert Rodriguez is trapped in the shadow of Quentin Tarantino. After Grindhouse it felt like together they were Wham! and apart one was George Michael and the other was the guy who put up with George Michael's fame. Comparing Rodriguez to Andrew Ridgeley might actually be unfair. I can name all of Rodriguez's films. But Grindhouse confirmed their divergent handle on junk. Tarantino's half, Death Proof, gave you the '70s road thriller as feminist revenge comedy. At 76 or so minutes, it was miniskirt moviemaking: short, tight, and wow. Rodriguez's half, Planet Terror, was an extra-large caftan scribbled on by feral kindergarteners and ripped up by wolves: fun, ragged, ugly, in need of a timeout.
When Rodriguez's bad taste can bite into politics or a flavorless genre, he comes alive. You see something like 2010's Machete, and you feel like Rodriguez finally found his calling as a shlock editorialist. The movie came during the height of our country's immigration debates and opted for guerrilla lunacy to attack racism and oppression and U.S.-Mexico relations. Most of his throw-it-all-at-the-wall filmmaking actually stuck. You could tell the ideas meant something to him. And the exuberance in Machete turned out to be a perfect twin for the shock radicalism fueling Tarantino's Django Unchained. The Tarantino is disciplined where the Rodriguez is wild. But both are grisly, dangerous, and violent. Machete you could dismiss as a cartoon. It didn't seem to disturb the peace the way Django did. That's too bad. It has the same gonzo force.
Three episodes into its third season seems a bit early for a show to have split its fan base into distinct, warring factions — Breaking Bad, by contrast, waited until the very last hour. But Homeland has never been a particularly patient series, so here we are. On one side of the divide are the Brody Banishers, die-hard fans who feel frustrated by Sergeant Nick's stubborn refusal to die. To their eyes, Homeland is still a worthy show, but one being held back by its slavish devotion to the diminishing returns offered by its original story line. On the other side are the True ’Shippers, those who feel — not unjustly — that Homeland elevates only when its two touched-in-the-head leads are furiously touching each other. (The True ’Shippers, I should add, would have a much stronger case if Carrie and Brody's names lent themselves to a catchy portmanteau like all other important 21st century couples: Bennifer, Kimye, et al. But "Brarie" has unfortunate connotations and "Carrody" sounds gross.)
If last week's recap didn't make it clear, I've been firmly planted in the banishment camp ever since the second-season finale. That was when Carrie, in the post-crater chaos, fled Langley and pushed her ginger gentleman across the Canadian border. (Sorry, Canada! He's your problem now. Consider this payback for Tom Green.) By choosing exile over death, I thought showrunner Alex Gansa had stumbled upon the ideal way to have his Emmy-winning cake and eat it too. With Brody gone for at least half a season — and ideally more — Homeland could get down to the busy, necessary work of securing itself against other threats and prepping for other story lines. One True Pairings like Carrie and Brody can easily sink a show, even if said Pairings aren't explicitly intended to be romantic. Like a blackjack dealer in Vegas, a showrunner is nothing if he can't repeatedly shuffle his own deck.
There has always been a strong element of silliness to Homeland, but the way it has been handled has been consistently smart. At its very best, the show mimicked not the plausible particulars of our national security mechanism, but instead the real emotional mania that has rumbled like a subway line beneath the insecure decade since 9/11. Claire Danes's Carrie Mathison was so spooked and ravaged by the massive intelligence failure that defined the beginning of her career that she'd lost all perspective on what she was looking for; in her medically maintained head, the ideas of saving her country and saving herself had become dangerously intertwined. By asking questions that were almost impossibly crazy — a Marine hero turned Al Qaeda sleeper? Turned congressman? Turned presidential running mate? Turned CIA asset/doomed hero? — Homeland actually found a way to dramatize ideas that were uncomfortably, often painfully, true. How can we spy on the world without taking a hard look at ourselves? Do we want actual security or just the illusion of safety? And is one more possible than the other?
Though the show's second season wasn't nearly as catastrophic as some critics maintain — in fact, some of it was outrageously good — its latter half did give itself over to a certain kind of madness. Part of it was commercial: In a business as unpredictable as television, it's awfully hard to kill off an Emmy-winning co-lead, no matter what the facts on the ground are telling you. But even reasonable business decisions can have creative consequences. Despite Damian Lewis's dwindling usefulness, Homeland’s brain trust seemed so wedded to the idea of keeping him employed that it transformed Carrie and Brody's fatal attraction into a full-fledged harlequin romance, thus imbuing something wonderfully twisted with a bogus, unpalatable righteousness. The two had an extraordinary connection, sure, but it's the same one an addict has with the bottom of a whiskey bottle. Pretending otherwise seemed to serve Homeland’s long-term viability more than its audience. Mistaking the couple's kink for commitment felt like staging a Catholic wedding in an S&M dungeon, and it was about as easy to watch.
We think we have already established, at least beyond the Internet-accepted standard of "a supercut-supported reasonable doubt," that Claire Danes is the finest crier of her generation. But does bestowing such a specific and limiting title give short shrift to her entire body of incredibly expressive face-acting work? Last night's Homeland finale was a master class in owning every close-up by conveying complex emotions with dancing eyes, a quivering brow, and yes, the full chin-to-hairline "cryface" that we all know and love. And so we've collected the six best face-moments from last night; the harrowing facial journey Carrie Mathison traveled is one worth reliving, especially when you consider that her romantic screen partner's own repertoire is limited to the pursing and unpursing of a tiny, tiny mouth. Enjoy. We have a long and miserable wait ahead of us for Season 3.
"The agency is a funny place, very insular. It's like middle-schoolers with clearances."
— A former CIA official, as quoted in the Washington Post, 12/10/12
"What is all this squishy bullshit?!?"
— A formerly living CIA official, as quoted last night on Homeland.
Other than Storage Wars, no current television program has received as much scrutiny for blurring the lines between reality and fiction as Homeland. In its schizoid second season, the reigning Best Drama Series — according to a plurality of Emmy voters and U.S. presidents, at least — has walked a wobbly tightrope in its attempts to balance plausibility and imagination, head and heart. After a breathless return that saw the show binging on plot like Carrie Mathison left alone with a box of Chardonnay, recent episodes have ranged far from the reservation, alienating wavering viewers with an abundance of action and a sudsy indulgence in doomy romanticism. But "The Choice" — last night's deeply satisfying, deeply moving season finale — was a reminder that this fundamental imbalance is Homeland’s greatest achievement.
Jessica Brody has just spent nearly a week trapped in a luxurious CIA penthouse making do with semi-decent wine, making time with her extramarital action figure, seeing her daughter freak out over spilled milk, and watching her husband choke back tears over the death of the man who tortured him for close to a decade. Rather than pique her curiosity, all of this has, in fact, shut it down entirely. "For the longest time, all I wanted was for you to tell me the truth," she tells Brody in the parked car that is their relationship. "I don't have to know anymore. I just don't want to."
It seems both convenient and counterproductive for Jess to take comfort in ignorance, especially to those of us impatiently waiting for next week's finale and its promise of either redemption or ruin for a sophomore season that's flirting with the edge. But if the episode briefly known as "The Motherfucker With a Turban" was about anything — and, let's be clear, at times it was hard to tell if it was — it was about Homeland’s particularly cynical view of truth: that, contra the black and white dogma of the Nazirs and Waldens of the world (RIP x2!) truth is entirely subjective, just another weapon to be used and abused, depending on who's doing the asking. Saul fights off the polygraph for the second time in a year — not because he's a mole, but because he knows the score: No matter his noble intentions, anything he says can and will be used against him by an even more dangerous motherfucker, this one in a slick suit. "The test is a goddamn farce," he barks. Sometimes it's better to keep the answers to yourself or, like Jess, just not know anything at all.
A month or so back I paid a visit to the Homeland set in Charlotte, North Carolina. I'll be writing more about my time there later this week, but I thought it was worth mentioning now since the scenes I watched being filmed all aired last night. Due to the choppy nature of TV shooting schedules, I had no idea just where the puzzle pieces I observed fit — I watched Claire Danes talk on her cell phone and get in her pre-crashed car over and over again for about an hour, leading me to assume the dramatic kidnapping was the episode's cliffhanger, not the inciting incident. I spent time with a mopey Dana and Finn on the roof and a frantic Saul and Virgil on the street, yet had absolutely no sense of what the hour was about or where it was heading.
Right up there with buzzkill spouses and eager-to-cuckold best friends, the overstuffed tack board has become one of the premier television clichés of our time. From the steady nobility of Lester Freamon to the neon inanity of Beauty & the Beast, committed characters on all ends of the dial use pushpins, twine, and intuition to puzzle out their show's greatest mysteries. (Just last week on Twitter The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum suggested a show wholly devoted to the Pinterests of just such a manic protagonist.) The reigning queen of both mania and office supplies is Carrie Mathison, whose color-coded meltdown last season made for great television and a spike in Magic Marker sales.
There's a tack board in the CIA's special off-site surveillance dungeon this year, too. It's a staid and forlorn affair, unencumbered by bipolar rainbows or much of anything, really. For awhile there were photos of the immigrant cab drivers and car-wash attendants unlucky enough to cross Brody's path, but they were taken down soon enough. As we head into the final quarter of Homeland's rollicking second season, I'd wager the only things remaining on the board are photos of Abu Nazir, Roya Hamad, and perhaps one of Carrie's "Buy 9, Get 3 Free" coupons from the local Wine Depot.
Homeland is rightly lauded for many things, but humor is rarely among them. To be fair, topics like terrorism, mental health, and the unhygienic, lonely smearing of peanut butter onto crackers are not the stuff great comedies are made of. But was I wrong to see a few tendrils of winking good cheer peeking out from the cracks of what was otherwise a desperately tense hour? The first giveaway was the title: Last night's episode was called "I'll Fly Away," which, yes, helicopters. But "I'll Fly Away" was also the name of a critically adored NBC drama that aired two decades ago and gave Homeland writer Henry Bromell his start. (I'll Fly Away starred Regina Taylor as an African American maid and Sam Waterston as a liberal-ish Southern gentleman at the dawning of the civil rights era; forget the golden age of cable, you couldn't get such a high-minded series on the air today if Waterston also sold meth and Taylor moonlighted as the mother of dragons.)
And then there was the year-in-the-making moment in the motel with Carrie and Brody, during which the secret agent once again tapped that asset.
Exactly one year ago Homeland aired its seventh episode. Titled “The Weekend,” it marked the moment the freshman series went from good to great. It happens that way sometimes, in TV, when the panicked crush of production finally catches up to the promise of the pilot. I’ve heard it described variously as a show finding its voice or, more anthropomorphically, the show revealing how it should be written. Regardless, it’s as if, in an instant, the writers find depth in the material they hadn’t even realized was there. For the audience, the feeling can be delirious and disorienting. It’s like taking a step into the deep end of a pool: Suddenly there is no bottom; suddenly anything is possible.
In the case of “The Weekend,” it was the backwoods tango between Carrie and Brody that got all the ink. And rightly so! It was hypnotizing to watch the two leads dip in and out of honesty — and each other — like bags of Brody’s precious Yorkshire Gold into mugs of hot water. The hour provided the rare opportunity to watch both actors and characters losing themselves in the best roles of their lives. But my favorite part of “The Weekend” was its b-story: Saul’s long, intimate road trip with Aileen Morgan, the bloodthirsty blue blood. In direct contrast to Carrie and Brody’s teetering Jenga tower of lies, these two presented a simple binary: Saul needed the truth, Aileen wasn’t talking. And so they drove on, watching the odometer click in silence, two pawns in a global game sharing a ride but going in very different directions.
John Mayer & Katy Perry & Adam Levine: Katy Perry went to Adam Levine's annual Halloween party and the two were flirting nonstop. "Adam was touching and hugging Katy affectionately while they did shots together for a half hour, even though his girlfriend model Behati Prinsloo was at the party too. It was kind of uncomfortable." Perry is show-business buddies with Levine, who is also BFF with Katy's rumored beau, John Mayer. Mayer once dated Jessica Simpson, whom Levine was once said to have tooted and booted.
"Adam texted Jess that he 'needed space.'" WHAT? "Then he avoided her calls. She phoned him several times, but he didn't answer." While Katy and Adam's flirtation is probably innocent, there's no doubt that she knows a potential fling with Levine is her ace in the hole should John Mayer's wandering eye and life-ruining dick get the best of John and Katy's relationship.
In fine-dining restaurants — places that serve the sort of thing that wouldn’t interest Carrie Mathison (i.e., food) — it’s traditional to serve a tart sorbet or granita as a palate cleanser. It’s a way to bridge the gap from one set of rich flavors to the indulgences still to come. It could be that I was merely hungry, but the thought did cross my mind that “A Gettysburg Address” was just that sort of intermezzo. Even a show like Homeland, which, in its riotously paced second season, has been binging on plot like a stoned sumo wrestler, has to ease back now and again. The delicious surprises of the past two weeks would be ruined without proper time to digest them.
Does that mean this was a lesser episode? Not necessarily. There was still much to savor, much of it in the form of the suddenly resurgent spy games. Two weeks ago, before Carrie dropped a bag over Brody’s head, flipping our expectations in the process, I wrote how I was fully prepared to enjoy the more traditional surveillance story that seemed on tap. I liked the return of Virgil and his long lens, the grimy, Wire-esque HQ, and the fun, friction-filled banter with temperamental cheesesteak-eater Peter Quinn. So while the target was no longer Brody, I liked that Homeland’s fallback setting still worked. If you strip away the probing psychodrama and the risky, high-wire script acrobatics, this is still a damn good undercover show, all furrowed brows, cats and mice and microphones that never seem to work when you need them to. Between last season’s bombing and this week’s fatal assignation, I’ll never look at fountains the same way again. (As for the continuing adventures of Encyclopedia Mike and his limping sidekick Lauder, the bearded blunderer, I’m less interested. Corporal Cuckolder may be a better man and a better match for Jessica than Brody is, but he’s certainly not a better character.)
The best thing I've seen in a movie theater so far this year was an intimate conversation. It occurred about a quarter of the way through The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson's invigorating and infuriating three-hour tone poem about a guy who thinks with his own torpedo and guzzles oil out of the Navy's. Joaquin Phoenix — as said guy — and Philip Seymour Hoffman trade shots of poisonous moonshine and then lock horns and eyes for what feels like forever. The back-and-forth is part pseudo-religious "processing," part confessional, part testosterone thunder-yawp. Ostensibly, Hoffman is trying to unlock the darkest parts of Phoenix's twisted psyche, but it's as much about performance as power. Ferocious and precise, it's utterly mesmerizing and patently absurd, like watching grizzly bears arm-wrestle.
One of the more eye-catching portions of my friend (and recent podcast guest!) Sean Howe’s new book, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, occurs early on when Stan Lee, the mustachioed architect of the Marvel Universe, declares that the secret recipe for four-color success isn’t gamma rays or secret spider bites: It’s “the illusion of change.” Turns out, the trick to keeping the Merry Marvel Marching Society on its toes was creating a feeling of forward momentum while simultaneously guaranteeing that everything stayed exactly the same: No matter how many super-villains they conquered, by next issue the X-Men would always be hated and feared, Spider-Man would always be broke and misunderstood, and the Man-Thing would always be a lousy double entendre brought to swampy life. It was two steps forward, then two steps back; a perfectly calibrated process of pushing and pulling that felt like movement without taking you anywhere at all.
The thing that separates Carrie Mathison from the rest of her less-intelligent intelligence colleagues, in terms of ability and, at present, professional standing, is her tenacious, chemically unbalanced brain. Where others see problem solving as a linear list of questions and answers — the sort of methodical, putting-in-the-hours probing that allows for slivers of private life or, barring that, time to take traitorous journalists out for bistro fare on a Saturday night — Carrie views every clue and loose end the way Felix Baumgartner regards an open airplane window: just another thing at which to throw herself. There’s no "off" switch or timeouts, only the inevitable crash of impact.
Because of this, and despite her avid curiosity on the subject matter, I can’t help but think that Carrie wouldn’t be much of a Homeland fan. Without an elephant-size dose of lithium, she’s simply too hung up on details to sit quietly and be entertained. And accepting the fiction — not fighting it — is key to enjoying any genre exercise, even one as sharp and brainy as Homeland. The rise in popularity and prestige the show has experienced in its second season has also seen a wild increase in skepticism: Loose threads are being tugged, nits are being thoroughly picked. Don’t get me wrong: I respect this level of relentlessness in CIA agents, oncologists, and Batmen. But when it comes to TV, I’m less certain.