Thursday, November 10, 2011

Homeland, Season 1 Episode 6 – "The Good Soldier"

Review of Homeland's sixth episode, "The Good Soldier," behind the cut. No lie.

Hot damn, that was awesome! I could practically end my review there and be satisfied at having adequately summed up "The Good Soldier," so suffice to say this was some quality TV even by Homeland's standards. Like the third episode, "Clean Skin," this latest episode felt like it brought a lot of stories either to a boil or a climax (literally, in the case of Carrie and Brody – hey-o!), and there's a tremendous amount to unpack. I'd divide this review up by characters, except that all the stories involve Carrie at least tangentially, so let's just take it one major plot thread at a time:

Polygraph tests. I can't praise the show highly enough for how seamlessly they were able to work character backstories, exposition, and even a little mystery into this story in a way that made complete and total sense within the context of the narrative. All four of the most key governmental players – Carrie, Saul, David, and Brody – hopped in the chair and we got fascinating bits and pieces from all of them, even from things as small as Carrie flunking the illegal drugs portion of her test. Great character beats from Saul and David too regarding the states of their personal lives, and of course Brody's polygraph was about as tense as a TV scene where no one is actually in any physical danger can be.

Outside of Brody's obviously fixed test, the ambiguous moment that sent the internet's small but passionate Homeland fanbase into something of a tizzy was Saul's first affirmation of not slipping the razor blade registering as a lie. Immediately – and not necessarily wrongly, given that this show is run by 24 alums – everyone began speculating, usually with disappointment, that Saul is a mole. I'll admit concern myself – that would seem like a very lurid plot twist beneath this show's commitment to reality – but honestly, I don't think so, for the simple reason that if he was a mole they wouldn't have dropped such an elephant turd-sized hint about it, with the camera focusing right in on it and everything. I do believe Saul has a secret, maybe even one that places him in contention with Carrie, but a mole? There's no way.

Aileen Morgan. Again with the 24 comparisons, this particular subplot – a young blonde American woman who is the real terrorist, as opposed to her Muslim husband – instantaneously brings to mind the character Marie Warner of 24's second season. But once again, just as I find Homeland's depiction of matters such as interrogation to be light years beyond 24, the show one-ups its unofficial, hopped-up parent series at its own game while telling a somewhat familiar story.

There was suspense to it, of course – Aileen spotting the bomb at their supposed safe house was a scene to hold your breath through – but I loved Carrie leading the investigation right there from the CIA control room, with them combing through Aileen's background and travel records and personal details to try and paint a useful picture of how, when, and why she became aligned with terrorist activities. There wasn't any absurd leaps or dumb technobabble to be found; it was just this engaging and fast-paced depiction of what a time-crunched CIA investigation might actually look like that was nonetheless smart and demanded your attention. It's always nice to see Carrie both being in her element and not breaking the law while doing so.

But the story did come down to violence in the end, as the unhappy couple's unwilling vacation was cut short by a hail of (presumably Abu Nazir-approved) machine gun fire through their hotel window, killing Faisel all kinds of dead. It's the most traditionally actiony of Homeland's three deaths to date, but it was still sudden as hell – I admit it made me jump even more than Lynne Reed's execution back in episode three – and more of an alarming exclamation point on Aileen's story than a mass audience-friendly "action scene." I have little doubt that Aileen, now on the run, will be rejoining the main plot shortly, and I applaud this show for moving story along quickly.

And finally, fuckin'. Indeed, just as I predicted two episodes back, Carrie has upped the ante on her investigation by allowing Brody's penis inside her as a means to get closer to him. Everything about this is deeply wrong and deeply wonderful, saying so much about how little Carrie holds to CIA protocol and how awesomely crazy she is and also about how little stock Brody puts in his marriage at this point. (Speaking of which: Brody punching out Mike? Can't say I didn't approve.)

I don't doubt that at least some level of legitimate attraction factored into their copulation as well – I mean, they are both nuts. Carrie's little mini-monologue in the bar beforehand about how she beat all her peers in playing chicken with trains as a kid was a great character beat, and it's fantastic that in just six episodes Claire Danes and the writers have shaped this character so clearly that you can nod at the anecdote and think, "Yep, that's Carrie alright."

NC-17-level sexuality is nothing new for premium cable dramas, but these more risque elements usually stand in the background rather than truly driving the plot. Homeland, despite taking place in contemporary America, kind of reminds me of Game of Thrones and Spartacus in the way that it isn't afraid to make weird, taboo sex not just go down but play a key role in the narrative, and I'm definitely curious to see if they can make things even weirder and more morally ambiguous as Brody whisks Carrie away for a weekend of extramarital fun at this episode's close.

So kudos to Homeland for showing that, after the last couple quiet and cerebral installments, they sure as hell still know how to wind up and deliver a wallop to the jaw via a thrilling episode of television. As of the end of Breaking Bad's season it's now incredibly safe to say there's no more consistently exciting drama currently airing.

Final Grade: A

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