When David Simon spoke out against the pitfalls of television critics reviewing shows on an episode-by-episode basis, he could not have asked for better evidence in support of his viewpoint than the second season of Homeland. For the first half of the this year’s run, it seemed like the Showtime drama could do not wrong. In September, it won the Best Dram Emmy, ending Mad Men’s dominance of the category, plus Claire Danes and Damian Lewis garnered the acting awards. The following week, season two debuted and the first five episodes ranked as one of the best runs on television this year, culminating in the fantastic “Q&A“, in which Brody was brought in for questioning and broken by Carrie to confess that he had worn a suicide vest with the intention of assassinating Vice President Walden.
However, critics and fans began to dislike some of the outlandish plot twists that were occurring – most notably the killing of the Vice President by wirelessly “hacking” into his pacemaker; and the morphing of terrorist mastermind, Abu Nazir, into a broad villain who hid out in the tunnels, before being shot and killed by the SWAT team. On weekly reviews on HitFix and Grantland, a general feeling was evident that the show had lost its edge and was becoming a replica of 24. While the Kiefer Sutherland real-time drama was a commercial success and, in the early seasons especially, well received, Homeland had been thrust into the conversation with Breaking Bad and Mad Men for the title of “Best Show Currently on Television” and, by that yardstick, it was coming up short. This shift in public perception of the show was exacerbated by an astute SNL skit parodying Homeland, which cast a spotlight on some of the more ridiculous aspects of the program in subsequent episodes – such as Saul’s persistence in backing Carrie even though “she’s only let me down every time I’ve trusted her” and Brody’s very small mouth.
But then came Sunday’s finale, which put a new perspective on the events that had led up to it and made people re-evaluate how they felt about the season as a whole. For me, too much time was spent at the start of the episode on the relationship between Brody and Carrie, which had been interesting when it was a Marine who might have turned into a terrorist and the CIA Agent who is investigating him, but now that hook has gone, the love story is somewhat mundane. However, once Carrie had left the cabin in the woods to get croissants, the finale really kicked into gear as the plot machinations of the second half of the season began to make more sense. While Walden’s death may have been in private, and the simplicity of Abu Nazir’s demise after his bizarre scurrying around tunnels, the events were revealed to be merely two pieces being moved into place as part of a much larger plan. Much more fitting with the terrorist’s modus operandi, the plot resulted in a showpiece bombing that claimed the lives of more than 200 people – including the Vice President’s son, which Nazir would have considered an appropriate response to the drone attack that killed his own boy, Issa – while the finger of blame for the attack was pointed squarely at Sergeant Nicholas Brody.
Although the show has strongly suggested that Brody was innocent – this time – his previous willingness to strap a bomb to his chest means that viewers will still question whether or not he did have anything to do with the bombing. Alongside this, there have been doubts raised about Saul Berenson, who was absent from the ceremony as he attended the burial at sea of Abu Nazir, but his forthright riposte of Carrie for getting involved with Brody, a man who had confessed that he had worn a suicide vest, means I do not think he was involved, no matter how many lie detector tests he fails. The one character I do have suspicions about is Peter Quinn, the Black Ops agent who was ready to kill Brody and had him in his sights in the woods, but chose not to pull the trigger for reasons we did not see for ourselves. We have only briefly met his boss, Dar Adal – played by Oscar winner, F. Murray Abraham, suggesting he will become an important piece of the puzzle – and, although he was clearly respected and trusted by Saul to some degree, we do not know the full extent of his involvement. Is it possible that Quinn, who was absent from the ceremony and told David Estes that “he kills bad people” prior to the bombing, was ordered not to assassinate Brody in private, rather frame him for an attack as a way of achieving some bigger goal (it would have been assumed that the former Marine would also die in the incident, since they could not have predicted that he and Carrie would make an early exit).
Overall the second season of Homeland was about equal with the first, both had a strong run of episodes, but also had stretches where the plot stalled and the direction of the show appeared unclear. When it returns next year, there might be a temptation for them to focus on Carrie trying to clear Brody’s name so that he can return, as a way of keeping Damian Lewis on the series. However, it would be better if the writers were brave enough to explore new avenues that do not just maintain the status quo – The Wire did that every season and that was part of the reason it is so great.
Speaking of shows that have had a huge problem with doing everything in their power to keep everything the same, no matter how ridiculous it made the plot…Dexter ended its seventh season on Sunday night. Last year’s story of Colin Hanks as the big bad that Dexter Morgan chased through the thirteen episodes was so terrible that it almost made me stop watching the show altogether, but they managed to maintain my interest in the final seconds of the finale, by having Deb witness her brother killing Travis Marshall. What followed this year was definitely an improvement, but the show chose to move Deb into a position where she accepted Dexter’s serial killing habits, even if for most of the year she did not fully endorse them. By having her be an accomplice as opposed to an adversary, the writers found a way to keep the same formula they have used since the beginning, only this time one more person knows Dexter’s secret.
Actually, a couple of more people found out, but they were then dispatched far too quickly to develop into interesting storylines. The drink that Dexter shared with his adversary, Isaak Sirko, was one of the highlights of the season, but within an episode of that meeting he was dead and the plot moved on to Hannah McKay. Again, Dexter being in a relationship where he can be open about his “need” to kill, while not altogether feeling safe himself, seemed like something they could be engrossing over a longer period; but in the finale it seems as though Hannah has exited for good, leaving only a plant as a memory. Finally, Captain LaGuerta at last showed some detective props to suddenly suggest she might be natural pOlice, as a blood slide she finds at the church where Travis dies results in her re-opening the Bay Harbor Butcher case. While her motivation may have been to clear the name of her former partner, Doakes, LaGuerta successfully put all of the pieces together and even set up the show’s antihero by dangling Hector Estrada – the man who ordered the death of Dexter’s mother – in front of him. The Captain even made it as far as putting Dexter in bracelets, but then all of her policing instincts evaporated and she does not request back-up when she received a phone call from Estrada saying he was back in the storage container on the docks, allowing herself to become prey for the Morgans. In order to protect our feelings towards the main character, Deb steps in to prevent her brother from being the person who kills LaGuerta – an innocent – using her service weapon to ensure maximum blowback potential, but given that all the loose ends will probably be dumped into Miami Harbor, we should not worry too much about such details.
The first and second seasons – along with the fourth, which was made by John Lithgow’s great guest role – set a high standard for Dexter that it has failed to live up in the other four. Next year’s run is supposedly to be the last – now that they are writing to a definitive end point, hopefully the makers of the show can at least give Dexter a grand finale.