“I don’t know what the hell we’re doing, I really don’t,” insists Peter Quinn near the end of last night’s Homeland, and all I could think was, Well, at least someone’s admitting it. After a season premiere that was just a little on the wobbly side, episode two, titled “Uh… Oh… Ah…” (in an apparent attempt to forecast the slack-jawed response of its viewers), sees the show going clean off the rails, amplifying all of last week’s problems adding a big new one, just for funsies.
The new one is the sudden and mostly unexplained asshole-ification of Mandy Patinkin’s Saul, who has (for this viewer’s money, anyway), always been the show’s most interesting character and inexcusably underpraised performance. But last week’s episode ended with him selling out Carrie, his protégé and friend, in front of the Senate subcommittee and a full bank of television cameras, and we never really got a sense of why. Ah well, I thought, that’s your big episode-ending bombshell, we’ll understand it better next week. Not so much!
Sure, he’s under heavy pressure as acting director, but that’s only hinted at the previous week; yes, he’s got F. Murray Abraham in his ear, which would turn just about anybody a couple shades of nefarious, but that doesn’t explain it either. By the time he’s giving the new transactions expert the business about her headscarf, it’s hard to reconcile this guy with the character we’ve spent the last two seasons with.
Which is not to say that Saul couldn’t turn, under the pressure of 12/12 and its aftermath, into an empty-souled semi-xenophobe who sells out his friends. But are we just to assume that this is what happened? In previous years, even season two (which, remember, I actually liked), Homeland was either crystal clear about what made its characters tick (as with Carrie) or used their enigmatic motivations to create high drama (Brody). But Saul’s just a dick now, it seems.
What makes this development all the more dramatically frustrating it is makes so little sense in terms of Saul’s smarts as an administrator. The CIA is having, as he admits to Quinn, a “rough week”—and if anybody could help them track down the this “Magician,” Javiadi, it’s the woman who got them Abu Nazir. And Saul is the one person, before this point in the series, who would have known that, who knew even at her crazypants colored-marker worst, she was a gifted analyst whose instincts were unimpeachable. Maybe their big reconciliation is the long game for the season; if so, they’ve tipped their hand too obviously and too early.
Meanwhile: Jess disapproves of Dana’s new boyfriend? We’re really spending this much time on this? It’s not that we don’t care… no, scratch that, we don’t care. It is sort of admirable, how the show’s creatives are doubling down on what seemed the loudest complaint of last season (Too much Dana), and are boiling it down to its Lifetime movie essence: Jess the sad mother who can’t reach her door-slamming teen, her later affirmation that “I want to be alive” as Jess nods heroically, tears in her eyes. At risk of repeating myself: Brody’s family were barely interesting when Brody was in the show, and now that he’s MIA for the second straight episode, this scenes are an unreasonable drag that don’t even work on their own terms (i.e., they’ve gotta give us more insight into why Dana is who she is now, instead of just a carrier of sexual acting-out and wild, inexplicable mood swings.)
All is not lost, and there are still commendable elements to Homeland; Danes is just acting up a storm, perfectly conveying both her desperation and the qualities that would make her so untrustworthy (that scene with the reporter is an ace bit of multi-level acting), Quinn threatening the asshole banker makes for a nice scene (he’s giving the CIA an unexpected, but now necessary, moral center), and the new character of Fara, the aforementioned head-scarfed analyst, is a compelling one, well played by Nazanin Boniadi (so charming as Nora on How I Met Your Mother).
But it’s impossible to come out of this week’s episode feeling confident about the direction in which Homeland is heading: no Brody, crazy Carrie, Dana swooning over her dreamy boyfriend, and Saul being a dick. If I may close as I opened, by quoting Peter Quinn, “What’s going on here is not okay with me.”