Saturday, 1 November 2014

Homeland S04E01 review + deconstruction of episode finale

"...this hasn't been a 14 year war we've been waging, but a one year war, waged 14 times."

Episode rating: 9/10

After a mixed season 3, Homeland is back on our screens and it's more fearless, confident and unapologetic than ever. Season 4 answers the key questions of what a post-Brody Homeland looks like and how everybody picks up the pieces from , and which damaged intelligence asset will Carrie sleep with this time? Dive in for a recap and analysis of Homeland season 4, episode 1.

Sorry for the late review folks, but better late than never!

Between seasons 3 and 4, one could’ve been forgiven for thinking that more than a decade after 9/11 and the end of the Brody storyline, Homeland was somewhat passé and dependent on the greatly diminished al-Qaeda for its material. For a while, the dominant discourse was not about terrorism but how Arab societies were throwing off the shackles of dictatorship and letting a thousand voices bloom. However, then ISIS burst through the barricades to remake parts of the Middle East, Boko Haram kidnapped children across Nigeria and al-Shabaab massacred shoppers in the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. Suddenly the world looks more dangerous than ever and Homeland’s depiction of the (American) intelligence world looks highly relevant. 

But then for some people, the War on Terror never went away. And this is essentially what this season seems to be all about, the effect the WoT has on ordinary lives – Peter Quinn’s repentant soul, Carrie’s increasing narcissism, the pilot who dropped a bomb on a wedding, the Pakistani youngster whose family was killed that day, and so on. The main dynamic of this episode is that all the main characters start the episode in one place and end it in entirely different places. This is particularly true for the fate of the Islamabad CIA station chief, Sandy Bachmann. So where was everybody is at the start of the episode?

(1)    The episode starts in Afghanistan but then moves to Pakistan, where most of the subsequent actions happens. However, film shooting took place entirely in South Africa.
(2)    Carrie is the Kabul station chief, having turned down the cushier Istanbul job. She has left her baby (remember him?!) in the care of her infinitely patient sister, Maggie.
(3)    Saul is working for a private contractor (sort of like Blackwater?) but seems to be exhibiting withdrawal symptoms from not doing true intel work.
(4)    Peter Quinn is severely disillusioned with the dirty business of intel work but serving the American Ambassador to Pakistan anyway.
(5)    Sandy Bachmann (Corey Stoll from House of Cards, where he also dies) – a new character, the CIA station chief in Islamabad.
(6)    Ayaan Ibrahim (Suraj Sharma from Life of Pi) – enjoying himself in a wedding before the Americans drop a bomb on it. Ironically the central event in this episode didn’t even involve drone.

I hope this episode puts to bed the question of “is there Homeland without Brody?”, because this ‘reset’ has allowed Homeland to respond to recent events, rather than being locked into the anodyne Brody family storyline, which sucked the life out of the plot. Instead, the new cast list feels tighter and more directly linked to the action, whereas the Brodies were only indirectly linked to the action. Every minute with them was a minute lost in the main plot.

In summary, this episode was about 20mins of thrilling, balls-flying-in-the-air TV and the remaining runtime being the slow build-up of relationships, office politics and family lives. The writers clearly didn’t know what to do with a non-CIA Saul, so they used him as a cipher for some of their observations and criticisms of the War on Terrorism:

(1)    War strategy – the US has been fighting with short term goals, which is why it is doomed to repeat its failures.

(2)    Drones have dehumanised the war on terror, with Carrie becoming increasingly desensitised to the carnage.

(3)    Every drone strike has a personal cost – to Aayan, Carrie, the pilots who helped carry it out, etc.

"There were a lot more people in the farmhouse than we thought."
The episode starts off with the botched assassination of a major terrorist (botched because a lot of innocent people died) and the fall-out from this debacle. The episode then engages in setting the scene for Saul and Carrie’s home life until it shifts into top gear with a magnificent finale (which I look at in more detail at the bottom).

As usual, Homeland’s strengths lie primarily in fleshing out the heart-pounding action and intelligence machinations you see in films like Zero Dark ThirtyThe control centre/bombing sequence was efficiently executed, ending in an anti-climactic silence as they watch an explosion on TV. Then they have cake.

For once, Homeland also spends time with the other side, the young and callow Ayaan Ibrahim. He spends much of the episode in tears, which is understandable given that his entire family has just been blown to bits. His character is the only one whom I can’t fully place yet, although perhaps Homeland is setting him up as part of the War on Terrorism allegory: the innocent boy who becomes a terrorist in response to the wanton destruction of his homeland by American might.

Bachmann: “Those guests put themselves at risk by associating with him”
Then we see the other end of the sausage machine, where the US Ambassador to Pakistan, which is sort of the political wing of the security establishment, gets into gear and calls the Islamabad station chief so that they can 'spin' these events for media consumption. The Islamabad station chief has an evidently “realpolitik” view of these events: the 40+ civilians were collateral damage, pure and simple.  Some foreign relations are defined by security concerns and the US-Pak relationship is one of those.

An issue that is already becoming evident is the uneven detail – the sets look great, but then there’s a goof-up in the language: people in the Afpak tribal region speak Pashto, not Hindi/Urdu. Presumably, because filming took place in South Africa, all of the ‘brown’ actors they were able to recruit were South African Indians, who could only speak Hindi/Urdu. Badly.

Then the crucial event of the season happens - Bachmann's identity is revealed by an anonymous tip (his source?) and so soon after the Haqqani bombing, this is basically a death sentence for him. So Sandy finds himself in the centre of the city with a bullseye on his head. I love this sequence, but there are threads you could tug at. For example, how could the mob be SO bloodthirsty such that even when Quinn starts picking them off with his handgun, none of them even flinch? Aren’t ordinary Pakistanis terrified of attacking an American diplomatic vehicle, much less murdering an official? Are we to believe that Pakistan is full of jihadis who are perfectly willing to die just to kill the American CIA chief, who will just get replaced by somebody similar?

Anyway, the locals come after him, but Carrie and Quinn arrive just in time. Phew. But wait...then this happens.

First off, the execution of this scene is technically brilliant - every extra is in the perfect place and the facial expressions, though slightly cartoonish, are entirely "on message". The scene sets up a truly hellish scenario and gives literal meaning to "besieged". There are furious young men on all sides of the jeep and they are out for blood. Sandy calls for back-up.

Suddenly, Carrie doesn't look so composed - the battlefield is not her area of expertise. The crowd manages to break through the windows and opens the car door. Strangely, nobody is trying to open Carrie or Quinn's door. There is a breach and a couple of guys grab hold of Sandy Bachmann. As for Quinn, he's had enough - shit is about to go down.

Suddenly somebody swings for Carrie's window, but Quinn's having none of it. Just look at the bloodspatter...

The situation is now out of hand and basically, Bachmann "belongs to the mob now". In the 2nd panel, you can see on Quinn's face the resignation when he realises the game to save Bachmann is over. Carrie, for some reason, thinks they can still save Sandy. But no.

Finally, Quinn and Carrie make their getaway, leaving Sandy to be kicked to death by the mob. As they are leaving, backup arrives, too late by half. The look on their faces says it all. Homeland is at its best, connecting moments of kinetic energy with its characters state of mind: Quinn's face in the last panel brings to life all the disillusionment and disappointment he experienced with his line of work, in season 3. In a strange way, it's only with this bloodbath that Homeland finally connects with its subject matter.

Carrie and Quinn have differing reactions to this set of events, as Carrie thinks they could've saved Sandy and Quinn doesn't. Quinn was flabbergasted by the futility of what they'd just done, while Carrie just views it as part of her job. This is why she's a station chief and he's just a tired soldier.



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