Friday, October 25, 2013

Making a case for Dana Brody

No previously acclaimed show on air receives as much vitriol as Showtime's Homeland does.  It premiered in the fall of 2011 to rapturous critical acclaim, with some even positing that it was ushering in the new Silver Age of drama.  Yet even then, there were some jitters that came along with the praise.  After all, the show was from former 24 writers, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, so people were always wondering how long Homeland could sustain itself before flying wildly off the rails, as they believed the former did.  Whether it's due to actual quality or self-fulfilling prophecy, almost everyone has been having an increasing amount of problems with Homeland as it closes out the first act of its third season.  And a large subset of those people who have soured on the show use Dana Brody, the teenage daughter Nicholas Brody, as a conduit to channel their frustrations with the show as a whole.  It's not hard to do this because she's the furthest away from what the show feels like it's about -- the CIA, terrorism, and identity in the age of constant surveillance.

But what's the real root behind these complaints?  I don't want to make any assumptions, but the internet largely has a problem with women and teenagers, and Dana happens to be both.  That's not to say that people wouldn't still hate Dana if she was a guy, but there's an uncomfortable "who cares about this dumb teenage girl and her dumb teenage girl problems?" vibe to a great deal of the criticism of her storylines.  Even if it isn't driven by closeted sexism, Dana is such a realistic depiction of a teen -- moody, mumbly, singularly-focused -- that it's easy for people (particularly those far removed from their teen years) to find her infuriating.  The one exception to this "everybody hates teens" theory would be Mad Men's Sally Draper.  As a whole, the internet generally loves her and wants to see more plots surrounding her, but I'd argue that it's because she didn't start out the show as a teen and we only get around 3 episodes per season that really focus on her at all.  People may say they want more, but if she got as much screen time as Dana did, I'd imagine more people would grow to dislike her too.  Either way, I'm staking my claim on this terrain and launching a defense: Dana Brody is the best character on Homeland.

That might be blasphemy to say about a show where Carrie Mathison exists, but for as much as Carrie was once one of the most original and complex characters on television, it's gotten to a point where it feels like we're just getting a greatest hits collection (both in terms of the writing and Claire Danes' performance).  What beat in Carrie's story this year hasn't been hit three or four times before?  Dana, on the other hand, continues to impress on both fronts.  She never feels inessential to the show, despite what some fans might say.  Homeland has always been about the mixture of foreign and domestic drama, and Dana is such an important piece to the latter that the show would feel less complete (not to mention less interesting) without her.  It certainly doesn't hurt that Morgan Saylor is a terrific actress, who just gets better every year.  There's alot of pouting and stammering involved in her performance, but she sells the reality of it.

Back in season 1, when she was the emotional center of the Brody storyline, playing a crucial role in Nick deciding not to set off his explosive vest in the bunker housing the vice president, there weren't too many Dana haters.  It's only in season 2 where people really started to hurl invective in her direction.  The "Dana and Finn hit somebody with a car" development really rankled viewers, who felt that it was a ridiculous story turn.  And sure, it was kind of bizarre and unnecessary, but it all tied into the idea of moral relativism that the show was exploring, particularly in that middle chunk of season 2.  Season 2 focused on projecting the flaws and crimes of the larger world onto Dana.  She realizes just how unfair things are and is the only one to speak up about it, because her and Finn's parents are too wrapped up in privilege to bother doing the right thing.  It's a risk to go through with a storyline that's idiotic on a pure plot level in hopes that it'll land thematically, but it's one that season 2 mostly nails because of how high-stakes the emotions are.

We picked up this year where things left off, as Nicholas Brody has been accused of being behind the Langley bombing at the end of season 2, and this season shows the twin sides of the fallout -- bureaucratic and emotional.  Everyone is trying to put the pieces back together, but the problem is that not all the pieces are there anymore.  For the CIA, it's that pile of rubble where the edifice of their headquarters once stood, a haunting reminder of the attack.  But for Dana, it's more personal -- the giant hole in her life exists in the form of her father, the presumed terrorist.  She's just been let out of a mental health clinic in the season 3 premiere, and we quickly learn that it's because she tried to commit suicide in the months between seasons.  Where Homeland usually tries to draw parallels between Carrie and Brody or Dana and her parents, this year we've gotten a few between Carrie and Dana.  Dana's circumstantial mental illness is contrasted with Carrie's biological mental illness, and the latter is committed just as the former is released.  Dana's stories wouldn't work if they weren't so resolutely intent on being in her head space.  These first few episodes have featured so many intimate closeups of her just thinking, with either nothing in the background or the rest of the world blurred out of focus.

Her arc this year also fits in with the themes of confinement that the writers are playing with this year.  These themes are the clearest in "Tower of David," which alternates between Brody and Carrie in their own prisons (Caracas and the psych ward, respectively).  But with Dana, her confinement is more abstract.  She may be free from the care center, but she finds herself suffocated in the suburban world, where her whole family is associated with a national traitor.  "Game On" continues this idea even further.  Take a look at the scene where her and Leo visit the military location where her father was first shipped off to Afghanistan.  The two of them are looking in on this enclosed space, but the camera rarely shows it.  Instead, the scene is framed so that it looks like they're the ones who are behind a fence.  It's no coincidence that this occurs in the very same episode where Carrie discovers just how much the CIA could ruin her life if they wanted to.  Both women are trapped by forces far greater than them.

As I mentioned above, there's been alot of grumbling about how this Dana storyline is a completely unrelated diversion, and I just can't agree.  Listen, I'm not a huge fan of how Leo intersects with it all (even if it is realistic for a teenager to base their life around a romantic prospect), but it's totally in line with the themes of the season, and serves as a quiet emotional reflection of the higher-stakes storylines happening elsewhere on the show.  With the Carrie's development occurring more like a circle than an arc, and the CIA material taking a while to really rev up, the Dana stuff was the most compelling plot of the season until the twist at the end of Sunday's episode (a topic best saved for another blog post).

That's not to say that season 3 of Homeland isn't a strange one -- it is.  It's messy and lumpy and bizarre, but in the most fascinating ways.  Between Carrie spending most of these episodes in the psych ward, Brody stuck doing heroin in Caracas, and the latest reveal of Saul playing a long game with his opponents and the audience alike; this is the kind of devil-may-care storytelling that led to some thrilling moments early in season 2.  It's also the same type of writing that set up what would eventually cause the second half of that season to haphazardly spiral out of control.  Everything is still up in the air for season 3, and it has equal chance of landing either way.  All I'm saying is that on a show that strains credulity at every turn, the Dana material is the only thing that consistently feels real and grounded.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that all the Dana hate is unwarranted, although I too am not a fan of the adventures of Dana and Leo (partially due to Sam Underwood's previous involvement on Dexter), but I thought Dana's attempted suicide and the way that all blew up in the bathroom scene was tremendous.

    Overall Dana is definitely the best of the broken Brody family characters, and I hope she continues to be an active part of the show as the season continues.