There’s sometimes a point with certain artists when you realize there’s one recurring flaw in their work that wrecks the rest of it entirely. It can be anything: A novelist who overuses one specific word in the wrong way, a screenwriter who keeps introducing magical pixie-like waifs as lead female characters, an actor who turns out to express raging ultra-conservative views in his downtime. The important thing about the flaw, though, is this: Once you notice it, it begins to warp the way you see everything else that artist has created. And unfortunately, this is starting to be the case for me and Homeland.
I watched two seasons of Homeland as a fan. Yes, its politics, including its uncritical acceptance of government surveillance of private citizens, frequently irritated me, but it was a whiz-bang spy thriller. If I could get past the “Batman will save Gotham by tapping all of our cell phones” bit in The Dark Knight, I could accept that Carrie Mathison planned to save the nation by watching Nicholas Brody and his wife have sex. But now that I’m watching with a more critical eye in the third season, it’s become increasingly apparent — never more so than in this episode, where a man shoots his daughter-in-law in the head and stabs his ex-wife in the throat with a broken bottle, and we get a pregnancy-in-peril twist — that this show really enjoys torturing its female characters.
To be fair: In previous seasons, it also enjoyed torturing Brody, which leveled the playing field. But he’s gone, and now it’s just domestic violence and miscarriage scares all the way down.
In “Still Positive,” we do finally get a plausible reason for Carrie’s emotional torment throughout the hospital play. It would appear that she didn’t stop taking her bipolar medication due to guilt over not foreseeing the Langley bombings; she stopped taking it because she was pregnant, and lithium is dangerous for a pregnancy, particularly one in its early stages. Though the hospital setup allowed her to ingratiate herself with Javadi’s network, it also required her to take the lithium again, in high dosages, while being monitored. So, now we know why she was distraught enough to bash her head into the mirror while unseen by anyone relevant to the deception. But, aside from the irritating fact that the show answered the question of “how can we help Carrie evolve beyond her relationship with Brody” with “give her a Brody baby,” this twist answers most of that plot line’s Carrie-torturing questions and leaves us worried about whether her pregnancy is still healthy, without (so far) giving us a convincing reason for why she, or Saul, would willingly endanger her welfare to that extent.
Meanwhile, we get a good, hard look at one of my least favorite seasonal arcs: The Continuing Emasculation of Saul Berenson, Grumpy-Pants At Large. I’ve covered Saul’s alarming personality decay in this season before—in yet another example of poor character work on Homeland’s part, its answer to “what shall we do with our most lovable character” was apparently “turn him into a jackass who screams at his female subordinates” — but, more and more, we’re learning that Saul has gone to the Jerk Side because he feels personally and professionally powerless. Last week, Saul learned that he’d been passed over for the CIA directorship, which went to Lockhart — who is still, for the record, spouting melodramatic villain dialogue like “no more Brodys! No more Carrie Mathisons,” tragically unaware that Carrie just made one more Brody while he wasn’t looking — and came home to find his semi-estranged wife on a date with another man. In this episode, Saul learns that his wife is in love with said man, just before the Javadi operation goes to hell in a handbasket.
Saul’s plan, it turns out, has been to flip Javadi using the CIA’s knowledge of his embezzlement from the Revolutionary Guard. At first, it seems to go relatively well: Carrie extricates herself from Javadi’s lie detector, reveals the plan, and gets out of the situation intact with Javadi on her side. However, Saul and Javadi have history; they’re former colleagues, and when Javadi began working for Iran, Saul extricated his wife and son to the United States. To express his feelings on this matter and strike back at Saul, Javadi skips out on a planned meeting with Carrie, locates his ex-wife, and goes on his aforementioned killing spree.
It’s brutal; it’s frightening; it features, more graphically than I had ever hoped to see, what it looks like when a man tears a woman’s throat open with a broken wine bottle. He’s eventually located at the scene of the crime by Carrie and Quinn — in a scene that makes sure to grab for poignancy by having Carrie fret over the daughter-in-law’s now-motherless baby — and brought back into custody. And Saul, having had just about enough of failure and disappointment, punches Javadi hard enough to knock him down and leave him bleeding.
So here we are: With a season in which Saul, the humanist, the empathizer, the rock on which this show used to stand, is a guy who beats up his prisoners for the sake of personal vengeance. In theory, I understand Saul’s darker, crueler behavior this season as a response to extreme pressure and frustration. I even feel for the guy. But in practice, Mandy Patinkin’s performance has always provided the gentle, humane counter-balance to the show’s brutality; he’s still playing the heck out of these new, harsher scenes, but losing him as a reliable source of warmth has been so jarring that I have trouble feeling empathy, or even patience, for his character, even though the show clearly expects us to do so.
And, when combined with Homeland’s increasingly punishing approach to its female characters — particularly in Carrie’s plot line, though I’m not forgetting that a woman had to have her throat gouged out in order to provide fuel for Saul’s bad mood — Saul’s story feels like yet another narrative that prizes a man’s all-important midlife crisis over and above the safety, or sanity, of the women in his life. That’s been standard fodder for many a prestigious TV show, but the best examples have always lacerated and deflated those male characters, rather than pouring unqualified sympathy upon them. For this to work, we’d need to be encouraged to genuinely dislike Saul, but the show keeps wavering between vilification and pity. Honestly, I don’t need to journey into Saul Berenson’s heart of darkness. I just want my whiz-bang spy thriller back.