Back to Brody
More than anything, and more than any other work about terrorism, Homeland is about exploring the gray areas, between good and evil, between “warfare and terrorism”. The show is about forcing us to think about the real costs and rethink our understanding of the real victims of both war and terrorism. We meet Brody and we see what he is planning to do. And we’re encouraged to think: Okay, if this conservative white man from middle America can become someone who would blow himself and a bunch of people up, then….maybe, just maybe, those men strapping on vests all over the Middle East, or even those men flying planes into buildings, are also men who were led on a path of evil the same way Brody was, by pervasive systematic abuse? And maybe, part of the abuse on those men and children strapping on vests was perpetrated by someone you and I and our neighbors voted for? I don’t think Homeland ever sought to be an apologist for terrorism, they’re not trying to justify any of the evil. They just want to shine a thoughtful, intelligent light on it; a light radically different than any other treatment of the subject.
Okay, so back to Brody. Here’s where I stand: Brody was not a hero, he was a terrorist. Every fan of Homeland has heard the creators’
take on it. So everyone knows that when the writers and producers decided that Damian Lewis was too great an asset (pun!) to let go after S1, they scrambled to do something else with him. DL’s inimitable way of, again, inserting sympathy into the most unsympathetic of characters kept him in that job for two more years. But, what the creators don’t do, at least not with any detail, is spell out just how DL got everyone, viewers and creators alike, to want to keep Brody alive.
Brody was tortured for eight years. Eight years. The full import of it needs to be adequately communicated. Brody was taken prisoner pretty much as soon as he landed in Afghanistan. He spent that eight years in and out of a hole. The repetitive nature of the abuse needs to also be adequately communicated. Nazir’s first slice into Brody’s soul was to have him think he killed Tom Walker. He orchestrated the entire event, forcing Brody to keep punching and punching and punching, feeling the blood on his knuckles and splatter from his friend’s face onto his own, then forcing Brody to dig a grave for Tom and letting him watch as Tom was rolled into that hole. All that time Nazir knew Tom was alive and was going to be kept alive and be subjected, in isolation, to the same sort of breaking as Brody was.
As Nazir did all this to Brody, he would punctuate the blows with brief glimpses of mercy: the cup of water, the embrace while Brody wept, the soft merciful eyes keeping Brody from giving up hope completely, telling him that Allah loved him and wanted him to live to fight for Him. The “killing” and “burying” of Tom Walker was just one event. Insert your imagination into the subtext, and you can see repeated cycles of torture and mercy, torture and mercy, repeated for eight years. It was this system of abuse followed by the mercy that succeeded in breaking Brody. And once he was broken, the idea of exacting revenge was inserted into his mind. But, it wasn’t a straight-up brainwashing. When we see Issa die, and Brody mourn more for his death than his own father, I kept thinking that Issa was all part of the set up. That he wasn’t Nazir’s son, but just a boy sacrificed to the cause of turning Brody. But, as we know, Issa was Nazir’s son. In his all-consuming plan to wreak any havoc he could on the satan West, Nazir used the occasion of his own son’s death as a way further into Brody’s psyche. We are left to assume that if Issa hadn’t been killed, Nazir would have found another way in. But, what a genius move by the writers to have it be a child’s death that further breaks down Brody. Because that fact lends Brody a bit of sympathy, right? And the conflict within him gets that added layer.
Then there was the love story lending Brody even more sympathy. The love story that happened all on its own, no planning or prodding or subterfuge needed. That Brody was Carrie’s target and she held such strong suspicions about him had nothing to do with her falling for him. Love, morally ambivalent force of a thousand suns that it is, doesn’t care about who is agent, who is terrorist, who’s good or who’s bad.
In S1, we see Brody feel something real for Carrie. He lies to her face over and over. Yet, through the lies, we feel his real feelings for her. Yes, he actually says, that with her he’s finally found some peace. But it’s not even that, because that could be just words spoken by a consummate liar. See, we don’t need him to speak his true feelings. Instead, we have Damian Lewis showing it to us in the most magical and exquisite way any actor can ever show us anything.
Even as he has just told her he never wants anyone to know about them and the weekend they spent together, when he’s back alone in his car and he’s sure no one is watching, he leans back and shows that he’s hating that he’s hurt her.
Even as he is saying “leave me and my family alone,” when she turns and says goodbye, the realization that she may actually mean it makes him catch his breath. And again, he knows he’s hurting her and it stings. He’s shocked actually that she let him in far enough to do this to her. He’s shocked at her love for him, because, since he went to war, he no longer thinks of himself worthy of anyone’s love.
I can’t even fully describe the nearly imperceptible, subtle, gorgeous ways, DL communicates these things. You watch it once, and you feel it. But then you have to watch it again and again to really see it and make sense of it.
Folks have said that Homeland lost the spark when the writers sought to reinvent Brody in S2 and S3. The story of Brody as terrorist was turned on its tail in S2 and he became someone else: an asset, and informant, an agent for good. We saw Carrie break thru the lies in “Q & A,” and him collapse in relief that the torture of maintaining his cover was finally over. DL literally showed us Brody being emptied of the mission Nazir has injected him with. And he collapses into a fetal position, empty once again.
Brody then goes into a panicked angry phase, then finally into grief over what he has lost. We see Brody contrite and expressing regret for the first time in “The Clearing”. He’s just met a man who was in the thick of Vietnam and “saw all the shit you see” and still managed to make it out, unbroken, able to make a very nice life back home, not necessarily forgetting his experience (as if that’s even possible), just processing it in a healthy constructive way. Brody sees the man he could have been had he not allowed himself to be broken. Of course, Brody is blaming himself for the torture. That, after all, is part of any torture.
It’s in “The Clearing” where we also get Brody realizing that there is only one place he can have any peace. It scares and angers him, but the only place he can ever be happy, possibly ever again, is in Carrie’s arms. We see that kiss and we see how he wants to devour her and be devoured by her. She’s his only confidante, his only hope, and the last beacon to the shore. And she’ll try her damnest to save him from drowning. Until he tells her to stop. Until he knows that no one can save him.
I think we can all agree, S3 was tough watching. That shit was dark. We saw Brody deserted, again. Tortured, again. So, why did the show pick Caracas for Brody’s exile? My read is that the creators took Brody to Caracas to show us the parallels between the Middle East and South America. Economies rich with natural resources, but mired in poverty nonetheless, thanks to the opportunistic dark side of globalization. The episode “Tower of Babel” is, of course, named for the Old Testament story where mankind tries to build a tower high enough to reach heaven and God punishes their hubris by destroying the tower and forcing man to have different languages so as never to understand each other, to be forever separate and scattered around the earth. So this hollowed out building in Caracas where we find Brody looks like it’s been bombed, but if we look closely, we see that actually it’s a victim of aborted construction. Somebody investing in a building, then losing momentum thanks to corrupt politics and the fickleness of the free market: a different kind of “shock and awe.”
The people around Brody, the victims on the ground of the ravages of the free market and their own corruption, are driven by one thing: getting paid. To me, the show went a bit overboard with the pedophile doctor. But him calling Brody a cockroach that could never be killed was again another metaphor, ie if we think of Brody as the embodiment of war itself. Alas, all this subtext of South American politics and what the tower and the doctor symbolized was lost on much of the audience I think. Who can think about such things when all we want is for Brody to know that Carrie is looking for him, moving heaven and earth to try to save him. How we ache for them to find each other again! How painful it is to see all the “I really have a second chance”, “we could be happy, couldn’t we”, “I’m in”, all those notes of Brody finally awake and engaged in having a future, all that hope shot straight into Brody’s arm as destruction, as heroin. When we finally do see him in S3, he’s disintegrated into madness and chaos.
It was painful to watch but it was the story that needed to be told to bring closure to Brody, a character who wasn’t supposed to last past S1. And the story they told in S3 was this: Brody needed to be redeemed. Killing Akbari redeemed him. And, so he was able to die a hero’s death. But this was a hero defying every convention of heroism.
Minor aside: When Damian Lewis’ character in Colditz escapes the prison camp, he’s approached by the British Secret Service to become an agent. The guy recruiting him says: “War’s a strange beast. Crushes some, makes others. I rather think you’re made for it. Devious, obnoxious, boorish, with a tendency to criminality. Perfect officer material, in fact.” The remark is obviously sarcastic and meant to be humorous. But, still kind of pertinent in classifying the various soldiers Damian Lewis has played. Neither Brody nor McBride came out “made” by war. They were both destroyed by it. (Dick Winters, on the other hand, wasn’t necessarily “made” by war either, but he did survive it and stayed strong and whole throughout it.)
Brody was always a vessel. His life as a normal human ended the day he went to war. Brody was an empty vessel for various people to put their crap into. Jessica to put her little house and family into, ignorant of the fact that he was still gone even after he came back. His captors to put pain, sorrow, loss, insurmountable destruction into. Brody reached out for faith, any faith, and maybe he found some to keep going, but mostly, he went through the motions of living. A soldier in an interminable war fueled by hate. That is the story Homeland wanted to tell. How war makes tools and puppets out of innocent people. (Band of Brothers, on the other hand, wanted to tell the story of how war can bring out exemplary courage from ordinary men, how grueling circumstances can bring the best out of people: a totally different war, story, and hero)
And when Brody killed Akbari, wasn’t he just performing yet another suicide mission? Killing Akbari was equivalent to killing Walden. In Brody’s mind (and to ours) both murders were morally equivalent. Both equally “heroic” acts. After killing Akbari, Brody was able to process it all, come full circle. He was resolved and redeemed. His time was done. And both murders were meant to end with Brody’s death.
Lest there be any doubt, tears were shed on both sides of that tenuous fourth wall that final day. Behind the scenes DL’s last day: ouch.
NEXT POST: Enough with Angsty Americans (for now), Let’s Talk about Angsty Englishmen : Soames Forsyte