When Zero Dark Thirty was released last December, there was a good deal of sneering among “TV is better than movie” types that for all of its praise and awards recognition, the picture was little more than an above-average episode of Homeland. The criticism was a dopey one, borne out of an apples-and-microwaves comparison that (as we’ve discussed before) is fundamentally silly. But the idea of putting that film and this show up against each other is impossible to escape in the most recent episode of Homeland, “Good Night,” which seems explicitly modeled on the climactic passage of Kathryn Bigelow’s movie.
Though two episodes remain in this third season, “Good Night” felt like a climax, if we think of the year like a big, long Homeland movie. Most the season’s threads have pointed towards it (not all; let’s face it, turnaround to watchability or no, this third year has not exactly been a model of disciplined storytelling), and the opening section is about preparatory rituals, about everyone counting down, getting in place and in gear, with some light comic effect added by the contrast between Brody and his crew checking night vision goggles and comms and, say, Saul making sure he’s got his lucky chewing gum. The stakes are high; as Saul notes, it’s “like I’m in Vegas, bettin’ the mortgage.”
And what have then is something of an anomaly in the Homeland universe, where episodes often cover multiple storylines and an expanded timeframe. Here, the window is tight, something akin to real time, and while there are several players involved in several locations across the globe, they are all focused on a single place and event: Brody’s mission. The storytelling is thus of the tick-tock variety, walking us through the mission—and its various hiccups, speed bumps, and land mines—on a minute-by-minute basis.
It’s something new for the show, and it works. “Good Night” is tense, scary, and quietly gripping, throwing us with its moments of suspense, thoroughly convincing down to the smallest detail. Little flourishes heighten the suspense throughout; my favorite was the way we keep our distance after that explosion, showing only the heat signatures (only revealing, in other words, what those in the control room see). The dialogue battles equal the firefights; this new dynamic between Saul and Lockhart remains fascinating (and that’s a nice little moment between them just before Saul leaves the room), while the argument between Saul and chief of staff Higgins is good, sharp stuff.
But the personal stakes are what matter, and they’re well played. Claire Danes doesn’t get to do much Capital-A Acting in this episode; instead, it catches her almost entirely in reactive mode, and that’s a nice change. Her stern rebuff to Quinn’s concerns about her impartiality (what with that little Brody in her belly and all) aside, the operation is colored, for her, with genuine fear; look at the way Danes’ face hardens, her jaw locks, the way her eyes dart back and forth after the explosion. Mandy Patinkin’s Saul has a couple of terrific moments, his quiet handover to the general topped only by his tastefully framed breakdown while waiting for the elevator.
And Damian Lewis proves himself mighty capable of doing this man-of-action stuff, showing tremendous range from his breakdowns in last week’s episode (and his shaking, shell-shocked, bloody-faced attempt to flee after the titular command is issued in this one). Of course, we knew Brody would eventually manage to step up; there’s little surprise there, nor when he bucks command and determines that he’s going through with the mission. But there was one big, commendable surprise: when Carrie took the comm to talk Brody into coming home, I’d have bet you a shiny silver dollar that she was about to tell him about the baby. That certainly would’ve been the easy play; it also would’ve been a cheap way out, and kudos to writers Alexander Cary and Charlotte Stoudt for not taking it. It serves as a nice confirmation that, as soapy as Homeland can occasionally get, it’s still quite capable of some good old-fashioned restraint.
(Fun fact: this week’s episode was directed—and well—by Keith Gordon, whom you might remember from his leading role in Christine or his turn as Rodney Dangerfield’s son in Back to School.)