Saturday, November 5, 2011

Homeland, Season 1 Episode 5 – "Blind Spot"

Observe closely as I interrogate Homeland's fifth episode, "Blind Spot," behind the cut.

Although Homeland's supporters and perhaps even its creators might grimace at the comparison, it's not as if it and 24 don't share DNA, from their anti-terrorism premises to composer Sean Callery to, of course, showrunners Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa. The two shows are absolutely comparable: Homeland is to 24 as Game of Thrones is to Legend of the Seeker or Friday Night Lights is to Varsity Blues. It's not that the latter examples can't be entertaining, and it's not that I can't enjoy them myself, but the former examples are tackling similar genres and subject matter except with brains in their heads.

That comparison rung more clearly in my head during Homeland's fifth installment, "Blind Spot," than in any episode to date, chiefly because the primary set piece was the interrogation of a terrorist. Interrogating terrorists was of course not only a major part of 24 but the most famous part of the show, with Jack Bauer's trademark questioning methods of screaming "TELL ME WHERE THE BOMB IS!", shooting people's kneecaps, cutting them with knives, threatening to stuff towels down their throats and rip out their stomach linings, and torturing their wives and kids to get them to talk making the show a lightning rod for controversy and the belle of the ball among certain right-wing media groups.

In contrast, Carrie and Saul's interrogation of a captured associate of Abu Nazir (and former tormenter of Brody) in this episode seemed to actually take place in the real world, with their primary methods being mind games and the effective dropping of verbal bombs: Revealing information that disturbed him, holding back information he wanted to know, a couple of lies, and so on. Watching Saul throw the man off his game and get him to hemorrhage information with Carrie and Brody's help via earpiece was a riveting scene because of the realism and restraint, not in spite of it.

Of course, one could argue that there was torture involved as they left him in the room overnight to give him the final push into giving them what he knew about Nazir, but again, it was actually a real-world form of torture, with intermittent bright lights and piercing heavy metal music keeping him from falling asleep, which I might add was a lot more creepy and unsettling to me than any of Jack Bauer's antics ever were.

Of course the prisoner wound up dead anyway, but through his own volition via a razor to the wrist when left alone, not overzealous interrogation. The question now is who slipped him the razor, and if it was indeed Brody, as it seems, it's getting harder and harder by the episode to rationalize the slightest possibility that Brody hasn't turned. But on the other side, if he has turned, this seems like sloppy work, easily traced back to him. This show's utter ambiguity is part of its magic.

Ergo, no surprise that the episode's less subtle aspects were probably what I liked least about it: Saul and Mira's relationship (marriage? I couldn't quite tell) falling apart over his continued commitment to the job over her or anything in his personal life was just a little too sledgehammer, even melodramatic despite the actors giving it their best. It's not like this scenario doesn't probably unfold across the country every day, and I do in fact imagine that it could be even worse for people working in homeland security, but it's still something that I've just seen on TV too many times, on shows spanning 24 to The West Wing and plenty of others.

But that scene was immediately followed by maybe the single best argument of the show's first five hours as Carrie storms in and fucking goes at it with Saul, calling her CIA superior a pussy and swearing up a storm at him. Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin were great all episode but particularly exploded off the screen here, and Danes' greatness continued into the next part of the episode as she stumbled into her sister's house in a blur of rage, consoled only by her nieces. Great stuff. Great character work. Love Carrie Mathison.

But I think the thing I may admire most about Homeland, even over Carrie and Brody and the performances bringing them to life, is the manner of its storytelling: patient and methodical, but with a clear sense of momentum, the plot advancing tangibly and fascinatingly with each episode. There's been two deaths, Lynne Reed and Nazir's guy in this episode, but the former was over in half a second and the latter offscreen entirely. The show hasn't had a single action scene but still carries a sense of lingering, intense dread.

Both shows that feel the need to go way over the top to keep people's attention (like Homeland's unofficial parent show 24) and some of cable's more dull, glacially-paced dramas could take lessons from how this narrative is unfolding.

Final Grade: A-

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