We had plenty of doubts going into this season (as many people did) that the show had any life in it post-Brody; especially since, by the time he managed his exit from the tale, the entire thing had almost collapsed under all the silliness they’d piled onto the original, engrossing concept. We didn’t sign on to the show originally because we wanted to see two star-cross’d lovers screw up everything around them and cause death and mayhem left and right. We signed on because Claire Danes was giving a riveting performance as the volatile, self-destructive, brilliant, but occasionally misguided Carrie Mathison. She was, as we noted in our last review, a perfect avatar for the American war on terror. And while there are definitely parts of this season that we’re not loving or responding well to, this show’s creative team has managed to right the ship by getting back to the core concept, which is this: God, Carrie is such an asshole.
Okay, that’s probably simplistic – and definitely unfair. Allow us to unpack a little. Yes, that’s putting it a little crassly, but if there’s a theme this season it’s fairly close to that. In prior seasons, we were constantly meant to question Carrie’s mental state either way. That is to say, we were meant to wonder if she was losing her grip and trying desperately to right herself, or more on target than people realize, despite her erratic behavior, depending on the direction of the story. The question of Carrie’s mental health will always be in the DNA of this show, but we think this season is less about that and more about questioning the state of Carrie’s soul. After all, even a cynical CIA agent should pause for a second at being designated the “Drone Queen,” but Carrie laughs and dismisses the name, never even questioning whether a jokey title about your remote control killing abilities is appropriate or disturbing. This season, so far, it’s less about whether Carrie is factually correct (she seems to be pretty much ahead of everyone else so far) and more about whether she’s morally correct. Again, think of her as an avatar of the U.S. response to terror and these questions suddenly become much weightier and less personally judgmental. The morality of killing real people remotely using video game controllers is something we’re struggling with in this century – and will continue to struggle with for some time, probably. And seemingly everyone in the story is repulsed at one time or another by Carrie’s ice cold response to the many civilians who died while she was serving as the Drone Queen. Unfortunately, that’s the first of two aspects in this season’s writing that we don’t particularly like. It’s the lack of subtlety that bugs. Director Lockhart is about as cynical a politician as you’ll ever see, while Saul and Quinn are about as hardened as any CIA operatives can get, so their various “My God Carrie, don’t you even care?” responses came off wildly heavy-handed. We’d love it if the show was making a point about sexism and the expectation that women in these situations are likely to fall apart, but we don’t think they’re trying to be that clever. And besides, the show has always addressed sexism in far subtler ways, such as Carrie always having to bark an order at least twice to male subordinates in order to get them to do anything.
You could take the approach that Lockhart, Saul and Quinn’s reactions to Carrie’s blitheness is a critique of U.S. policy and its consequences, which certainly fits with the core themes of the show. And that’s probably at least partially accurate as to the intentions of the writers. But we’re also getting a slow build on the same old “Carrie is fucking RIGHT and everyone around her doesn’t trust her enough to see it” story. In other words, we’re worried that, by the end of the story we’re going to get this sense that everyone else was in the wrong to question Carrie’s response because she’s just so damn good at her job. What a maverick. Always asking the hard questions and doing what it takes. Jack Bauer in a hijab.
We’re also worried that they’ll bring her down a peg by forcing her to cry over dead people in a way that doesn’t ring true to her character, but that would be the lesser offense, in our opinion.
The second story element that isn’t thrilling us is the continuation of the Carrie-as-romantic/sexual-figure way of framing her. When she and Brody were together, the chemistry was so off the charts between the two actors that you couldn’t help but want to see the relationship go further and further. But this stuff with Quinn, while it has been set up in previous seasons, still feels tacked on and heavy-handed to us. We can get an attraction to her, but this puppydog infatuation is just weird. Having her pretty much rape Aayan this episode was painful to watch, but at least it fit her character’s history of sexual recklessness and her willingness to do anything to get the job done. Still, it’s an awful lot of focus on Carrie’s attractive abilities and romantic potential, which worries us, because the entire three seasons prior had her in a highly destructive romantic and sexual relationship that almost tanked the show. We would have much appreciated a season that didn’t have someone falling in love with or obsessing over Carrie. We get that she’s fascinating, attractive and charismatic, but they’re very close to turning her into a bipolar, female James Bond, and while that actually sounds like fun in a different kind of story, it’s miles away from how the show was first conceived.
On the other hand, we’re really loving the central story of the season and how well they’ve managed to switch gears after the last one. When we were hanging out in the vice-president’s house or watching Dayna have her latest mental breakdown, we couldn’t have been more bored with the story. It’s good to see Carrie and the team in the thick of things, so to speak. The stuff with the ambassador and her husband smacks a little too much of that same 24-style of plot, though. We think if there’s one thing that damaged the show more than anything else, it was the way it took a thought-provoking and personal look at the war on terror and kept piling up more and more narrative silliness, blowing up the CIA and killing the vice-president, turning a Congressman into an assassin and, for some odd reason, inserting a random hit-and-run into the story. What started off as a horrifyingly plausible setup (a U.S. Marine gets turned into an Al Qaeda asset) turned into a soap opera of family drama and unlikely political intrigue. We’re getting a better story this season than we expected to get, but there’s just enough questionable stuff there to make us question whether it’s going to fall into the same narrative traps as before.
[Photo Credit: Joe Alblas/SHOWTIME]