has had a couple of wheels actually lift off the train tracks this season. (Were we really buying the remote control-murder plot from the Emmy-winning series that stood firmly in dead-level plausibility for most of Season One?) But, despite howls to the contrary across the internet this week, the show hasn’t gone completely off the rails. Homeland
is still one of the more gripping dramas we have, and has delivered some top-notch television from the beginning. And I mean from the very
beginning. From, in fact, the opening credits of Episode One.
The Homeland main title sequence — a montage of jump cuts, grainy footage and superimpositions — wonderfully pulls together the back story and motivation of main character Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) in a seeming rush of a dream. It submerges us into Carrie's troubled childhood of watching terrorism on TV, and her now-adult role as a CIA counterterrorism agent. Grown up, she’s emerged as a bit of an intelligence-agent savant, but plagued with an inherited bipolar disorder.
But as loose as those fragments may seem, they're incredibly well devised. The title's main theme is the classical Greek myth of the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, showing Carrie’s target, Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), an ex-Marine and possible terrorist, standing inside the maze. (In classical mythology, the Minotaur was a cursed offspring, with the body of a man and the head of a bull, who grew to be out of control as an adult. The beast was trapped and kept in a maze it could not find its way out of.)
I mentioned the myth on the telephone this week to Chris Billig, executive producer of the project for TCG Studio in Los Angeles. Billig led the project for Thomas Cobb, the head of TCG and writer/director of the clip. Cobb and TCG have created title sequences for Weeds, Friday Night Lights, Eli Stone, and many others.
I added that while the use of the beast in the maze made sense to me in terms of the danger and invisibility of extremist terrorists, I could not finish the puzzle. Why is Carrie is shown as a child with an animal mask, inside the maze herself? It's a departure from the classic story.
Billig jumped in quickly, seemingly ready for the question.
"When we read the pilot," he explained, "it became clear that Carrie would do whatever it takes to win her battles. There's literally nowhere that she's unwilling to go. And that includes enemy territory." He added that the myth and the maze reflected TCG's idea that the Homeland pilot needed something to "imply a cat-and-mouse effect, and the labyrinth was perfect for that."
The Homeland title sequence compresses an impressive variety of devices, both visual and musical, in a scant 90 seconds. Among those are intentionally rough cuts to represent the anxiety of Carrie's job. She's a loose metaphor for the country at large, at once steeped in the mundane banal of the everyday, and wired like a cat at the prospect of swift mayhem and violence. (There are zooms of her eyes wide open and shut, trembling in REM state.)
There are reversals, both in contrast and in orientation, such as when a clip of President Obama is suddenly flipped upside down. Those evoke the unsteady world of battling domestic terrorism. It's a shadowy chess game with no real enemy in sight.
That's expressively suggested, too, in a few seconds in a tight shot of people walking through an office building lobby. This seems at once ordinary, but somehow off, and after a couple of showings, you realize that the footage is upside down, and we are watching shadows, with the legs are inverted at the bottom of the frame.
I told Billig that it had taken me some time to figure out why TCG used images and sound clips from Louis Armstrong, the great jazz trumpeter, well-known for his improvisational style in the Thirties, and up to his death in 1971. It seemed to be a parallel to the improvisational nature of Carrie's method of working, which sometimes seems involuntary, due to her disorder.
Billig agreed, saying the sound design was intentionally "frenetic and crazy and off-setting" to evoke Carrie's disorder, but added that it was initially inspired by the pilot episode. "Carrie listens to jazz as a way of calming down... She uses it to mellow out."
Billig also was gracious enough to give readers a new "TVWW Extra" into the use of the clip of Bush 41 (H.W.) uttering the famous phrase "This aggression will not stand," before the U.S. invasion into Iraq in 1990. Turns out it's the exact same clip as the one used in the Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski. Billig lobbied hard to keep it in as his homage to the Coens, since he was inspired to work in television, in part, because of his early love for their work.
While Billig said that "there are no breadcrumbs" in the Homeland title sequence that might infer an eventual plot line or conclusion for the series, it seemed to me, after we spoke, that maybe, even if inadvertently, for this season there were.
As the child-Carrie puts on the Minotaur's mask and goes into the labyrinth in the title sequence, so did the adult Carrie do the same thing, symbolically, in last week's penultimate episode. She went into the dark tunnels below the abandoned factory in her pursuit of the international terrorist character, Abu Nazir.
As Billig mentioned, she was willing to go anywhere, and do whatever necessary to get her target. And last week, she proved him right. She ran right in.
What will happen this Sunday at 10 p.m. ET, when Showtime presents the Homeland Season 2 finale? There's no telling, really -- but at least in the clever opening titles, it's guaranteed to be a-maze-ing...
12/21/2012 - Homeland, at the season finale, did not go completely off the tracks, but it lurched wildly. it's maybe just another routine TV drama with clever escapes and new adventures. But it's no longer relevant social commentary, or worthy of a national discussion. As good as the first half of the season was, you could feel the air leaking out of the balloon during the second. And the writers, left without a credible way for the plot to conclude, went to the usual bag of tricks. I might add that it wasn't a total disaster, because the finale was well directed, and of course, the acting was, and has been, first rate. But there's no doubt that the show has descended from its earlier, compelling heights. –EG