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`Homeland' finale: A critical salute

December 19, 2011 |  6:00 am

Homeland

Ever since Showtime’s remarkable new drama “Homeland” began answering its own central questions — yes, former POW Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) was indeed “turned” by the enemy and no, CIA operative Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is not crazy (well, she is, but she is also brilliant and right) — the show’s biggest mystery was how, and if, it would manage to emerge from its season finale with both its stars intact.

Brody had delivered a stirring speech about the vagaries of courage during a family trip to Gettysburg, where he also picked up his suicide bomber vest, while Carrie, having gone on full bipolar wig-out after almost being blown up herself, was now a spy out in the cold. Even her beloved mentor Saul (Mandy Patinkin) seemed undone by the whiplash turn of events. How on Earth would Brody, and the show, survive its own intent?

I must admit that out of all the scenarios I considered, and I spent an embarrassing amount of time considering them, it never occurred to me that the switch would go on the fritz. There Brody was, following a letter-perfect plan, hustled into lock-down with the vice president, the secretary of State and a bunch of other bigwigs, sweaty and resolute and about to blow them all to smithereens when — click, huh? Click, click — the simple technology failed.

It was a huge and glorious cheat, saved from utter absurdity by some lovely breakdown symbolism — there were no paper towels in the bunker either — and Lewis’ almost supernatural ability to silently project the 715 types of emotion that might rise within a man who, ecstatically prepared to blow himself up, discovers he has been undone by faulty wiring.

Which he fixes, in a bathroom stall, reminding everyone that “Homeland” does share major genealogy with “24” and giving Carrie enough time (at least enough TV time) to race to the Brody home and prompt young Dana (Morgan Saylor) to call her father just as he’s about to pull the now-functioning trigger. Which he can’t do, not with his daughter on the line.

It was totally crazy, of course. Except that it wasn’t, at least not in the alternative universe of “Homeland.” Every big season finale is, by definition, a con, revolving around a big emotional event that the writers hope will both satisfy viewers and leave them hanging.

And from the moment it was revealed that Brody was indeed working for a known terrorist, “Homeland” entered an even more dangerous shell game — this character may be broken by torture or driven by a need to hold America accountable for its sins, but either way he has been, and will be, party to events that kill innocent people. Which makes him a whole new breed of lead character, neither antihero nor villain.

Throughout the season, creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa have been able to maintain the show’s fever pitch not so much through plot as through composition. “Homeland” overcomes its histrionics through nothing more or less than a remarkable sense of balance, beginning with its main characters. 

Both are damaged and focused, regretful and resolute, but where Lewis petrifies Brody, turning him into a man of roiling stillness, Danes take Claire to the other end of the emotional universe, rolling her eyes and champing her teeth like a fire-maddened horse. One alone would be ridiculous, the two together are riveting.

The finale stayed true to this particular blend of high drama and humanity. Although the season could have easily ended with the failed bombing scene, it did not. We saw the next day and the next, the repercussions stacking themselves up, the truth refusing to be unveiled in some cheap magician’s flourish because truth is rarely revealed that way.

It comes at us incrementally, and often without our noticing until it is too late.

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-- Mary McNamara

Photo: Damian Lewis and Claire Danes in an earlier episode of Showtime's "Homeland." Credit: Kent Smith 

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