Following last week’s action-heavy Homeland, Slate’s Willa Paskin ran a bizarro recap insisting that the series on the verge of crossing the line into “fantasy.” “If Brody survives this mission, Homeland is a fantasy,” Paskin writes. “Homeland is ridiculous, but a word like ‘fantasy’ is a red flag. Even Homeland’s writers don’t want the show to be a ‘fantasy.’” When I read that assertion, my eyebrows furled with enough force to cause a migraine—wait a second, Homeland is just now becoming a fantasy? A show predicated on the writer’s construct/Glenn Beck wet dream of a kidnapped U.S. Marine transformed into a secret Muslim terrorist? A plot twist that revealed two different Marines had been brainwashed, and one of them faked his own death (even convincing his own would-be killer)? A series whose second-season climax concerned an assassination via remote pacemaker? (Oh, wait, maybe that’s not so fantastical.) The point is, Homeland has always been fantasy. What’s interesting about this week’s episode, “Big Man in Tehran,” is how keenly aware its creators are that it’s fantasy, and that we’re aware of it too—and how that colors where it’s going next.
The episode’s plot—Brody in Tehran, trying to get close to Akbari, seeming to abandon the mission, the U.S. looking to abandon him—is expectedly twisty. But the episode is about one thing: deception. Throughout the narrative, the game is to figure out who’s putting on a show, and what they’re really up to. Javadi gives Brody the business in his interrogation (“You think what? We like traitors here?”) so that the meeting with Akbari doesn’t come too easily. Carrie pitches a fit, in French, when Javadi’s security guys hustler her out of the hotel lobby. Brody bonds, sharing warm memories and a warrior’s words, with Abu Nazir’s widow, who is there not to reconnect, but to vet him. Brody appears on Iranian television, spouting anti-American rhetoric; is he keeping his cover, or has he turned again? He goes to Akbari—to sell Javadi out, or to finally get close enough to accomplish his mission?
In interactions like these, the viewer is left to make their own calls, and writers Chip Johannessen and Partrick Harbinson keep varying the amount of information we’re actually privy to. But they know we’ve seen a television show or two, and they know we’ve probably pieced together—after Brody survived his brushes with death at the conclusions of the previous two seasons—that he’s not gonna die at the end of this one. Homeland isn’t like The Sopranos or The Wire, where a major character could go at any time; first half of this season notwithstanding, Brody is (at least) a third of the show.
So as with any action movie or other form of, what’s the word, fantasy, the question is not if the lead character will survive—it’s how. It may not make for the highest stakes (though, credit where due, the tension in that aborted first meeting with Akbari is quite genuine), or for the most consistent characterizations. But what’s great about the Brody character, at this point, is that he’s flipped so many times that when he sits down across from Akbari, it really is up in the air; we’re not 100 percent certain which way he’s gonna break. It seems fairly safe to bet, as he’s going in to that meeting, that it’s all a set-up, but there’s at least a reasonable chance that he really is willing to do whatever it takes to save his own skin.
Quite the contrary, turns out. After taking out Akbari (in a scene self-consciously reminiscent of the aforementioned assassination of VP Walden), he’s on the horn with Carrie. (Too easy? Sure. So was the turnaround of Fara’s uncle, but let’s not start wandering down those rabbit holes.) “I killed him,” he tells her. “Get me out of here.” Will she? Probably. It’s television. It’s escapism. And we’ll tune in next week to see exactly how they’ll pull it off.