The unreliable narrator is a tricky storytelling device to pull off successfully. Audiences can feel deceived or cheated or they can lose interest in the multiple questions being raised without clear answers if it’s not executed well. But when it’s done right, it can result in bold, unpredictable, exhilarating storytelling.
I’m happy to say the latter is the case when it comes to Showtime’s newest hit series, Homeland. This contemporary drama, from the producers of the long-running 24, features not just one, but two main characters whose motives are shrouded in mystery.
(It’s not possible to clue you in to what’s been happening without spoilers, so be ready!)
Claire Danes plays Carrie Mathison, a driven, bipolar CIA Agent (with questionable ethics) who was tipped off some years back that an American POW soldier had been turned by Al Qaeda. Thinking there were no American POWs she dismissed the intel, but five years later, Sergeant Nicholas Brody (played by Damian Lewis) is discovered during a military raid. He’s been held in captivity for eight years in a hole in the ground by Al Qaeda, and Carrie, of course, thinks he’s the turncoat and possible terrorist. She just has to find proof.
What starts as a straightforward, albeit of somewhat shady legality, surveillance op, with Carrie watching Brody at home with all the enthusiasm of a reality TV junkie, quickly turns into a cat-and-mouse game of the highest order. We, the audience, watch Brody for signs of guilt just as attentively as Carrie does. That strange, nervous gesture he makes with his hands—is he signaling someone? When he goes for a jog and ends up staring pensively at the US Congress building—is he plotting something? If he participates in Muslim prayer rituals—is he just seeking comfort in the familiarity of religion, or does it mean more? Those flashbacks of him viciously beating to death his fellow POW and friend—is that a sign of the lurking violence in his heart? After he passes a polygraph test with flying colors that we know he falsely answered—is he lying about everything?
Danes’ Carrie is also something of a wild card. Professionally, she’s got drive and determination to spare, a tenacity bolstered by sharp instincts that often pay off. But she’s hampered by having zero impulse control and a complete lack of boundaries. Carrie struggles with bipolar disorder, and an over-dependency on medication, and she seems socially awkward, often reading situations wrongly. Quickly we see her personal flaws bleed into her professional life as well, as we see her try to manipulate her mentor, the mature and somewhat crusty Saul Berenson (played by Mandy Patinkin), to get something she wants by making an inappropriate and unwelcome sexual advance. We also learn that an assignation with Carrie may have lead to her direct supervisor getting a divorce some years back.
Even seeing this unfold doesn’t really prepare you for the massive train wreck that’s to come. For the first five episodes, we watch Brody trying to readjust to life with his family (complicated by the fact that his wife and his best friend had begun a clandestine relationship), the domestic arena the primary venue for his storylines, while other subplots of trying to gather intel on Al Qaeda unfold in the background. Then in episode six, the game changes. Frustrated when her warrant to surveil Brody expires, Carrie orchestrates an accidental meeting at a veteran support group, bumping into him and engaging him in flirty, direct conversation in the parking lot.
For the first time, we see Brody and Carrie both at ease. Sparks fly immediately between our two leads (Danes and Lewis are both turning in top-notch performances in their roles separately, but together they’re positively incendiary.), broken souls who seem to have found a kindred spirit. The question of course for the audience is who’s playing whom here. Things spiral out of control quickly, with the chance meeting leading to more—a trip to a bar, then alcohol- and adrenaline-fueled parking lot sex. We’re aware that Carrie’s not above using sex as a means to an end, but are there genuine feelings at play, or is it all a ploy to engender Brody’s confidence?
In the most recent episode, the excellent “The Weekend,” we finally get some answers. The drunken assignation was not a one-time event, as we watch Brody and Carrie escape (on a whim, after they get into a bar fight) to her family’s lakeside cabin and indulge in some seemingly quite intimate and meaningful moments. They talk, they make love, she kisses his torture scars (!). Yet, we also see Carrie ascertain there’s a loaded gun handy. We walk a razor’s edge, wondering when the axe might fall on this apparently idyllic fantasy weekend. And soon enough it does. Carrie slips up, inadvertently reveals that she knows his favorite brand of tea, and it all unravels from there, as Brody finds the gun and in a tense standoff, Carrie tells him she believes he’s been turned.
There follows a scene where Brody ostensibly comes clean, agreeing to answer all of Carrie’s (and our) questions and suspicions. But even as he does, we’re left wondering if this is the truth he’s giving us, or more flawless, undetectable lies. As Brody finally leaves in disgust, betrayed by Carrie’s refusal to believe him, her phone rings with a call from Saul, who has intel from a suspected embedded terrorist (a subplot that unfolds for several episodes) about the turned POW. It’s not Brody, it was his friend and fellow POW—the one whom Brody said he killed. The man’s alive and he is the terrorist.
And with that, the game changes again. It’ll be interesting to see where the show will go having presumably declared Brody’s innocence so quickly. There’s still plenty of ways he could be involved or implicated in future episodes, and since the show has half of season one still to go and has already been renewed for season two, one imagines it’s a good bet that he will be. But innocent or guilty, it doesn’t really matter. Homeland, with its stellar acting, compelling characterization, tight pacing, and unpredictable plotting, is a must-watch for anyone who loves a great mystery.
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Tara Gelsomino is a reader, writer, pop culture junkie, and internet addict. You can tweet her at @taragel.