Well, the time has finally come to discuss Homeland’s lone lodestar of honesty, Dana Brody, and the myriad ways her father’s choices are slowly depriving her ability to make her own.
Response to Dana and Finn Walden’s hit-and-run a couple of weeks ago has been mixed at best, but this episode will hopefully quell some of the dissent brewing about the utility and realism of the storyline. It’s a hackneyed plot choice, to be sure, but if the writers of Homeland have proven one thing over the first season-and-a-half of their show, it’s that they excel at taking plot developments that should be manifestly stupid and turning them into gold somehow. They don’t always succeed, of course, but I think this episode more than justifies the hit-and-run incident by showing how intimately Dana’s own moral struggles mirror her father’s, and how dependent she is on him to be an example to her. But unfortunately for Dana, she couldn’t have picked a role model worse than her father when it comes to honesty and morality.
Brody’s not entirely morally bankrupt, but as this season has progressed we’ve seen him develop into an increasingly self-interested character. Self-interested may not be the right word: that would suggest that he takes any pleasure in his selfishness, or that he is beholden to a weighty ego. In fact, there’s probably not another character on Homeland who hates himself quite as much as Brody does – and that list includes Carrie, which is saying something. But without the self-annihilating motivation of avenging Issa’s death that drove him last season, Brody has found himself increasingly strangled by the mundanity of the American political machine, and increasingly beholden to any number of outside forces – from Roya to Carrie to Walden – who are refusing to allow him any sort of control over his own life. Carrie observes to Quinn, midway through the episode, that Brody wants to have a sense of that control, and that they should endeavor to give it to him – but there’s no way for them to even conjure up the illusion of such a thing. They’ve got him by the throat, and he knows it.
But nobody on Homeland has any control, not really. Control is something that systems enjoy in this universe, not individuals. Nobody gets to do what she wants. Brody wants to do the right thing for his daughter, but the Vice President’s political ambitions combined with the CIA’s operational security prevent him from doing so. Carrie wants to throw herself at Brody but can’t because it would compromise her professional position and the success of their mission. Mike wants to rat Brody out and get Jessica back but can’t because the CIA is telling him to “Cease and fucking desist.” Saul wants to make life a little better for Aileen but doesn’t have the power to do so. And Dana wants probably the simplest thing of all of them: she wants to tell the truth. But Dana’s world is not her own anymore, and she has no control over her actions. Her life and her personhood are now secondary to what the CIA deems to be in the interest of national security.
Homeland’s moral universe has always been ambivalent at best, and this episode is no exception. We feel palpably the injustice of Dana’s situation, because – as Spencer Kornhaber persuasively argued in a piece I linked to last week at The Atlantic – she is the youngest and most innocent of the implicated characters, and her inability to make choices is not a result of her own actions but those of her father and her father’s twisted network of co-conspirators. And Aileen’s dehumanized state – spending twenty-three hours a day in a windowless room will do that to a person – is also tragic, as is the expression of impotent rage on Brody’s face when Carrie tells him that, no matter how much he wants to do the right thing for his daughter in letting her take responsibility for her actions, he simply can’t do so right now, is heartbreaking.
But the fact remains that Aileen and Brody did make choices that led them to their present states of captivity, physical and metaphorical. They were both deeply involved in terrorist organizations, and when they were found out either fled, in Aileen’s case, or lied repeatedly to law enforcement, in Brody’s. Brody is a sympathetic character because the circumstances that precipitated his involvement in Abu Nazir’s cell make that involvement understandable: he was physically and emotionally abused for years, and was essentially brainwashed by his captors. But he did, at some point, make a choice. He chose to strap a bomb onto his chest, and crucially, though he seems to have forgotten this minor detail, he chose to flip the switch to detonate that bomb. It didn’t work, luckily for him – but he still did it. He made the decision to kill those people, and went through with it. He doesn’t get to be in control anymore. The simple fact that he’s living his life outside a cell like Aileen’s – or six feet under – is a blessing.
And that right there is, really, the core of the moral queasiness of the show. Brody and Aileen’s transgressions were not monumentally different, morally – and yet he is at a fancy pool party while she’s stuck in solitary. He may not be pleased with the lack of control he has in his life, but he doesn’t (yet) feel that the only way for him to take that control is by slitting his wrists. There’s no reason why he should live and she should die, just like there’s no reason the woman Finn ran down should die while his parents should life, just like there’s no reason that Finn and Dana should get away with murder when so many other stupid teenagers do not. The world is not fair. It’s just not.
But we know that, even if we don’t always like to think about it. Brody and Carrie and Saul – and especially the Walden family – know this very well, though they might find it enraging. Dana’s plotline is necessary because she doesn’t know it, yet. She reminds us that morality isn’t actually a complicated thing: as she says, it’s pretty damn simple. It just doesn’t win out most of the time. And watching her discover this is like discovering it again ourselves, as if for the first time.
Odds and Ends
It must be said: how great is Morgan Saylor (Dana Brody)? She is really, really great. Finn: “I’m not a sociopath, here!” Not something you ever want to have to say. (He’s more of a sociopath in training?) Brody’s been less and less appealing recently, but I think that can pretty much be explained by the many and varied ways he hinted at how much he hates himself this week. This more public recognition he gets, the worse he feels about it. This can go nowhere good. As I said on Twitter earlier tonight: this show could be 90% Carrie and Brody making out and then angsting about it, and I would have no complaints. Zero. Zilch.