Homeland, Episode 304: "Game On"
Original airdate: October 20, 2013 on Showtime
Spoiler warning: This page contains descriptions of events in this and previous episodes.
When Showtime's Homeland debuted in the fall of 2011, critics were extremely enthusiastic—91-level enthusiastic, making it the highest-scoring new series that year. By the end of that first season, it was widely praised as one of the best shows on television, and the show went on to win four Emmys for the season, including best drama. That critical support carried over into the start of season 2 96, but something changed midway through that sophomore year; by the end of last season, critics were calling the show "a mess."
Many critics, however, were willing to give one of their favorite programs a chance to regain its footing heading into the current (third) season, and reviews for the first few episodes of season 3 77 ranged from somewhat disappointed to cautiously optimistic. Whatever optimism remained, however, was dissipated by more recent episodes, especially last night's hour and a final scene that revealed that many of the previous events of the season were a hoax. However, a few critics feel that this week's twist actually represents a welcome step in the right direction.
What exactly has gone wrong with Homeland, and are things looking up after last night? Here are comments from a variety of TV critics, writing after viewing this week's episode, "Game On":
Huffington Post's Maureen Ryan has been one on season 3's biggest critics:
"Sunday's episode wasn't just iffy in certain areas and truly awful when it came to the young lovers on the run, it was disappointing in ways that may have serious implications for the future of the show. 'Game On' wasn't just a one-off episode that didn't work; it came across as the unfortunate culmination of a series of bewildering decisions."
At HitFix, Alan Sepinwall is also fed up with the Dana storyline—among other problems:
"Even the great showrunners often have blind spots ... But as we pass the one-third mark of 'Homeland' season 3, I'm beginning to fear that we have a show made up of nothing but blind spots. ... There is absolutely no reason we need to be spending any time in an episode, let alone this much, on Dana's overwrought, poetry-reciting escapades with Leo... but if the show around her was strong, I would just roll my eyes and move on."
Many critics reacted negatively to this week's big reveal, including Sepinwall:
"Why is 'Homeland' playing this game with the audience? It was one thing to keep Brody's motives opaque during the first season, as that year was designed as a cat-and-mouse game where the biggest question was whether Carrie was right or crazy (or both). We're past that point now. We know Carrie. We know Saul. We know about their relationship. You build on that and you explore it; you don't do narrative sleight of hand that doesn't entirely make sense."
At TV.com, Tim Surette is left angered by last night's episode of "The Show Formerly Known As Homeland":
"My head is swimming in an ocean of emotions, and they run the gamut from homicidal rage to curious excitement because the reveal that Saul and Carrie secretly planned all the garbage of Season 3's first four episodes is both good and bad for the show. But let's be clear on this: It's mostly very bad."
NPR's Linda Holmes finds also finds that last night's twist was more trick than treat:
"While this twist is fun, in its way, it's also problematic. It's not quite as bad as 'it was all a dream,' but it has discouraging similarities to "it was all a dream. ... There's a fine line between a flourish and a trick, between the delicious feeling that you've been had in the best way and the unpleasant feeling that you've been, for lack of a more elegant phrase, jerked around. Homeland has been at times very good at the former. Last night felt a little more like the latter."
At TV Fanatic—normally a generous grader—this week's episode gets a mere 1.5/5 stars from Dan Forcella:
"There were many problems with 'Game On' as an hour of television. The boring escape by teen lovers, Carrie's personality reaching new heights in how grating it can be, and the babbling that Saul continued to spout about money and Iran all made up a less than outstanding episode of Homeland. It was the show's idea of misdirection or 'tricking' the audience that was the real issue though."
The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman has exhausted his trust in the show's producers:
"You can't use the camera to both deceive and to lie outright to the viewer. That's not a twist or even a trick. It's cheating. It's hackery. It's also lazy and dangerous. Gansa and his writers can claim 'twist' when it feels more like 'gotcha' to the viewer. Saying that the show will now move forward all-too-conveniently dismisses the inconsistencies of the execution in this trick and asks the audience not to go back and question what happened. "
Vulture's Alyssa Rosenberg also questions the creative team's approach:
"Homeland's a third of the way through this season and the consensus is that everything it was doing back in its first year worked. So why the change now? And can a show like Homeland that rooted its credibility with audiences in the idea that it was an honest and penetrating look at the War on Terror ask us to suspend plausibility now? To start, it would help if Homeland didn't seem like it had tried to hide its big twist in a way that made the reveal less credible. ... Most of all, if you want to pull off a twist like this, it should be fun. Fun is watching Olivia and Mellie cut each other up in a bunker on Scandal, or seeing what happens when Ron Swanson finds out that his girlfriend Diane is pregnant on a Greatest of All Time cold open on Parks and Recreation, or getting a thrill from countless shifts in alliance on the Upper East Side in Gossip Girl. Fun isn't watching Carrie and Saul continue on in the same sad and soggy wagon track that should have stalled out their careers long ago. And fun isn't feeling like a show is sneaking up behind you to bop you on the head because it doesn't trust you to enjoy it for itself anymore. "
On the other hand, not every critic was dismayed by last night's twist ending; Slate's Willa Paskin finds it a welcome change:
At Rolling Stone, Sean T. Collins (who previously described the third season as plagued by "plot holes, implausible character moments, and over-the-top Hollywoodisms marring what was once one of the smartest and most provocative shows on TV") agrees, for the most part:
"There are so many things that I like about this development—what it does for pace, future plot, character, my interest level—that I don't really care that it may not make sense."
"So yeah, the twist solves a lot of the show's recent problems. But the problem with twists in general is that they suggest that art can be 'solved' at all."
At IGN, Scott Collura likes the new development, with a major caveat:
"As needed as this was, I'm not sure this revelation entirely makes sense if you look back at the events of the previous episodes."
Esquire's Starlee Kine is also "grateful" for the reveal, even if it doesn't quite make sense given the events of previous episodes:
Entertainment Weekly's James Hibberd feels that the twist is a gamble that pays off:
"We needed it. It's helpful to realize there's a plan. And to be reminded of why we first got hooked, which came in the form of that hug between Carrie and Saul. The show needs displays of affection and loyalty just as much as she does. ... Most importantly, we need to be shown that Carrie is good at her job, which is the essential truth that Homeland was based on. The show is at its wobbliest in the moments when it fails to convince us of this. "
"What's particularly brilliant about this move is that Carrie's live-wire methods and hunches constantly test the trust and faith of everybody around her. But fans are accustomed to being in the loop, and we get to feel righteously judgmental when others doubt Carrie because we know the truth. This season, the writers gambled by turning the tables: They tested our faith and trust — in Carrie's sanity, in Saul's morality, and in the wisdom of the show's own narrative path."
(Hibberd's EW article is also worth reading for an interview with Homeland producer Alex Gansa, who reveals details about Carrie and Saul's secret plan; another such interview is available at The Hollywood Reporter).
At Slant, Aaron Riccio is also a big fan of last night's twist:
"Every sacrifice the series has made up to this point now feels redeemed."
Flavorwire's Jason Bailey is nowhere near as enthusiastic, but feels that this week's episode was a needed step in the right direction:
"There've been long stretches of the still-young season where it seemed the show's creative personnel didn't know what the hell they're doing; it's a relief to see that at least some of that seemingly aimless storytelling had a purpose after all. ... It doesn't forgive all of the season's stumbles thus far, but it helps."
At the A.V. Club, Todd VanDerWerff is willing to give the new Saul-Carrie storyline the benefit of the doubt for now, even if he still has reservations about the remaining elements of the show—namely, the Dana-Leo romance:
"The good stuff was really good, but the bad stuff… geez."
And Salon's Jen Chaney is just relieved that this week was nowhere near as terrible as the previous episode:
"Some of what happened in Sunday's episode, particularly the reveal about the nature of the Saul-Carrie relationship, may have been challenging to process. But at least it wasn't dull. And slightly illogical but not dull qualifies as a return to 'Homeland' form as far as I am concerned."
What about you?
Do you agree with the critics who have been complaining about Homeland's decline in quality? Are you sticking with the show? Are you happy with last night's twist ending? Let us know in the comments section below.