Category Archives: Film/TV

Donald Rumsfeld: the known unknown

I finally had the opportunity to watch Errol Morris’ latest film, The Unknown Known, last night. In the tradition of Morris’ earlier work on Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, The Unknown Known features a Donald Rumsfeld who speaks directly into the camera, confronting his interviewer and the audience head-on. This he does with the characteristic self-assuredness long associated, for better or (mostly) for worse, with virtually the entire George W. Bush administration.

The film’s title is borrowed from one of Rumsfeld’s most famous statements, initially spoken at a Department of Defense briefing on February 12, 2002:

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

The title of Errol Morris’ film, then, refers to the omitted fourth category: unknown knowns. Although he chose, in his public briefing, to leave out any references to this final combination, Rumsfeld indeed ruminated on it later on. In an internal memo, or “snowflake,” to his staff in early 2004, Rumsfeld wrote:

There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. There are unknown unknowns. But there are also unknown knowns. That is to say things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.

At Morris’ request, Rumsfeld reads this memo aloud in The Unknown Known, the audio of which was repeated several times throughout the film. Each time I heard it, it grated on me: wasn’t it all backwards? An unknown known isn’t something you think you know that you actually don’t, but vice versa: something you don’t know that you know. Stranger still, Rumsfeld describes it correctly in the film itself, without acknowledging his opposite characterization in the 2004 memo.

Towards the end of the film, after repeatedly teasing the audience with this uncorrected interpretation, Morris finally raises the discrepancy with Rumsfeld. The former defense secretary, after asking Morris to display the text of the memo onscreen, subsequently reads it aloud, slowly, as if listening to the words for the very first time. (Earlier on, he’d told an incredulous Morris that he had yet to read the infamous “torture memos,” citing his lack of legal training as justification.)

Upon completing his recitation of his own memo from a decade before, Rumsfeld pauses for a moment, then says:

Yeah, I think that memo is backwards. I think it is closer to what I said here, than that.

This was, in its own way, the crux of the film. Although Morris neglected to prod Rumsfeld in the aggressive manner of an investigative reporter, “his questions” — to borrow David Denby’s line — “lead the Secretary to nail himself.” Donald Rumsfeld, steward of one of the most disastrous foreign policy eras in American history, swats away a fundamental philosophical error — one with enormous, fatal, and long-lasting implications for the United States, the Middle East, and beyond — with a metaphorical wave of his hand.

It is this very nonchalance that most strikingly contrasts Rumsfeld with McNamara. Where, in The Fog of War, McNamara revealed self-doubt and even regret for his role in the outcome of the Vietnam War, Rumsfeld’s performance is gripping for his utter detachment from the events that followed the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq.

It is as if the entire output of his tenure as Defense Secretary were simply an academic experiment he’d conducted in order to satisfy his own intellectual curiosity. (In one portion of the film, Rumsfeld demonstrates his obsession with the minutiae of semantics when he quotes a memo in which he asked his staff for the definition of the word “several.”) The tragic aftermath of his decisions, it necessarily follows, is just as theoretical, a reality thoroughly abstracted from the parallel one in Rumsfeld’s head. When Morris asks him if the United States would have been better off avoiding the Iraq invasion altogether, Rumsfeld replies: “Well, I guess time will tell.”

The statement bears a superficial resemblance to George W. Bush’s repeated assurances that he is comfortable waiting for history to judge his two terms in office. But beware the misleading comparison: it is nothing of the sort. Bush’s trademark is his unwavering belief in himself and his decisions (his memoir is called Decision Points): when he emphasizes his patience in the face of criticism, it is with the self-satisfaction of a man who knows himself to be right and the rest of the world wrong.

Rumsfeld, by contrast, appears not to care one way or another. Right or wrong, he is too concerned by theory and process to let a little thing like consequences trouble his conscience. That those consequences are now, and have long been, the embodiment of a “known known,” leaves one to wonder just what Donald Rumsfeld knows about anything at all.

Death of a newsman

Like everyone else, I too mourn the impending demise of America’s favorite faux-anchor, Stephen Colbert. (Here I refer to the character; the man will, presumably, live on.) Unlike so many others on late-night TV, Colbert is left oddly without a protégé. Even The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart — the closest thing Colbert has to a peer these days — returned from a hiatus last summer only to find his replacement, John Oliver, being popularly crowned as his successor. (Oliver now has a new show on HBO, but he’s still my odds-on favorite to return when Stewart eventually bows out.)

Colbert, meanwhile, occupies a rarified air all his own, a Bill O’Reilly facsimile for all of us who despise the real one. Which leads me to wonder, half-seriously, if that’s what all of the handwringing over his departure is about in the first place.

As I’ve written before, the idea of Stewart and Colbert as Heroic Liberals has always been more myth than reality. There is little evidence to suggest that either of them truly desires a progressive transformation of Stateside democracy: a little tax reform here, a little less voter discrimination there, sure. But one rarely gets the sense that the duo’s comedy informs their activism, rather than the other way around.

Indeed, Stewart’s passion has not aged well. He won early accolades for his righteously indignant takedown of CNN’s Crossfire, a program with a premise so stupid that the hapless network couldn’t resist reviving it late last summer. Then in 2010, The New York Times made the dramatic comparison to Edward Murrow after Stewart successfully advocated (with evident feeling) for healthcare funding on behalf of 9/11 first responders.

But where Stewart’s satire cut viciously in the Bush years, his Obama-era humor has begun to feel almost formulaic. In January 2010, Stewart’s timid interview with torture memo author John Yoo was so universally panned that he apologized for his performance the next night. His later conversation with Donald Rumsfeld wasn’t terribly better (“I feel like we’re on the porch drinking lemonade,” Stewart remarked).

Colbert, on the other hand, didn’t initially enjoy the same reputation for edgy confrontation (although his 2006 speech at the absurd spectacle that is the White House Correspondents Dinner remains a masterpiece of the genre). But where Stewart has occasionally been known to throw a knockout punch or two in person (Jim Cramer springs to mind), Colbert’s victims are largely crucified in absentia. In between, he had his head shaved by a U.S. Army general on a base in Iraq.

Two years ago, Steve Almond took a long look at these two comedians and threw up his hands:

Our high-tech jesters serve as smirking adjuncts to the dysfunctional institutions of modern media and politics, from which all their routines derive. Their net effect is almost entirely therapeutic: they congratulate viewers for their fine habits of thought and feeling while remaining careful never to question the corrupt precepts of the status quo too vigorously.

Our lazy embrace of Stewart and Colbert is a testament to our own impoverished comic standards. We have come to accept coy mockery as genuine subversion and snarky mimesis as originality. It would be more accurate to describe our golden age of political comedy as the peak output of a lucrative corporate plantation whose chief export is a cheap and powerful opiate for progressive angst and rage.

His frustrations are certainly valid. But more to the point, it seems to me that Almond’s expectations scooted far away from reality. It’s one thing to excoriate the audiences of Stewart and Colbert for their complacency, and quite another to assume that they share Almond’s progressive ideals. For that matter, it seems even less justifiable to assume the two guys peering into our living rooms from behind their news desks four nights a week are all that different from most of the people staring right back at them — that is to say, mainstream urban America.

If Colbert’s upcoming exodus to late-night network TV feels like a betrayal, it’s a curiously one-sided one. It brings to mind my gradual realization, during my mid-teens, that the inveterate hatred I felt for the New York Yankees was not shared by my idols wearing Red Sox uniforms, who routinely exchanged jokes with Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter as they made their away around the infield diamond and, all too often, later donned the pinstripes themselves. Turns out the Sox and Yankees were not nearly the polar opposites I’d always supposed, and that they had more in common with each other as pro ballplayers than either of them had with me. It seems to be taking all of us a little longer to reach the same realization about our comedians.

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House of Cards: Welcome to the spectacle

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By its very nature, House of Cards invites discussion. It entire first season was foisted upon us all at once last February as an early Valentine’s Day present: a tale of escalating palace intrigue that culminated, in Episode 11, with the shocking (and somewhat absurd) murder of Congressman Peter Russo. Season 2, which was released — en masse, once again — to much fanfare on Friday, provoked even larger ripples online, eliciting the ritual thinkpieces, interviews, and meta-analyses.

You’ll forgive me, then, for wading in myself. As a binge-watcher of Season 2 (I finished the finale sometime after midnight on Monday), I fell prey, like so many others, to the seductive guile of Frank Underwood as he marched his way straight into the Oval Office.

Let’s leave plot contrivances aside for a moment. House of Cards may fancy itself pop culture’s sharpest purveyor of political realism, but its broad narrative brushstrokes are nothing if not impressionistic. (Either that or I’m not nearly paranoid enough about my elected officials.)

Much of the conversation sandwiching the release of the second season centered on House of Cards‘ innate cynicism. Ian Crouch, writing for The New Yorker, for example, explained the show’s ethos thusly:

“House of Cards,” back now with its entire second season streaming on Netflix, is a show about contempt. There is contempt in the general, interpersonal sense: the politicians, operatives, journalists, and various other D.C. types all hold one another in especially expressive disregard. (Last season, Francis Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, explained his relationship to his colleagues like this: “They talk while I sit quietly and imagine their lightly salted faces frying in a skillet.”) And there is contempt in the legal sense—the plots turn on the subversion and manipulation of rules and regulations, and the breaking of laws (murder, etc.) for personal gain and professional advancement. Ethics, like feelings, are obstacles, and beneath consideration.

Crouch goes on to claim, rather convincingly, that the series saves its most ferocious contempt for its own audience: “We are the ones, after all, who tolerate and thus perpetuate the real-life theatre of venality and aggression from which ‘House of Cards’ derives its plausibility.”

As a description of the political status quo, this is certainly true. Crouch, however, clouds his thesis by emphasizing the cockiness of Beau Willimon, the showrunner whose elimination of yet another principal character in the Season 2 premiere showcased, Crouch reports, “a power trip in which the show and its main character assume parallel roles as bullies.”

While this is a perfectly defensible interpretation of the relationship between House of Cards and its enraptured fan base, it is not, I think, the most accurate one. Contempt implies strength of feeling: it is, after all, one of the telltale signs of a marriage in dissolution. Admittedly, it is often a sign of power inequality as well: the strong feel contemptuous of the weak, not vice versa. Nevertheless, contempt connotes a vigorous degree of hostility.

But it is this precise feature — red-faced rage and its emotionally-charged cousins — that is almost entirely absent from House of Cards‘ dalliance with its viewership. On this, Todd VanDerWerff of A.V. Club hits the right note:

Midway through the season-two finale of House Of Cards, Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood confronts one of the many people incredibly pissed off at him backstage at the opera. (It has to be the opera, for House Of Cards does not do subtlety.) The conversation is interrupted by a patron who exits the auditorium, presumably looking for a bathroom. They look over at her as she walks through—both seemingly miffed that she even exists. It’s a scene that summarizes House Of Cards’ relationship to the average American citizen: Everybody in this country is grist for the mill for politicians like Frank, who serve only themselves and carry out their real deal-making far behind the scenes of what’s available to the press and C-SPAN. And don’t you think you have the right to know about it. At best, you’re an irritating inconvenience. At worst, you’re dead.

Contempt is for threats; rivals, even. Contempt is what drove Frank Underwood to send Peter Russo to his makeshift gas chamber in Season 1 and Zoe Barnes to her early demise in Season 2. It is, as a general rule, the principal sentiment vaulting Underwood’s entire career past those of his peers in the House of Representatives and beyond.

But a clear line separates the contempt pervading nearly all of House of Cards‘ interpersonal relationships from its most crucial one by far: that of Frank Underwood’s with the audience. When, in the new season’s premiere, Kevin Spacey at last addresses the viewer, he gazes not directly into the camera, as is his wont, but through a bathroom mirror. As he speaks, the camera pulls in slowly until the frame edging the glass is almost completely obscured: Frank Underwood has met his reflection, and it is us.

Did you think I’d forgotten you? Perhaps you hoped I had. Don’t waste a breath mourning Miss Barnes. Every kitten grows up to be a cat. They seem so harmless at first—small, quiet, lapping up their saucer of milk. But once their claws get long enough, they draw blood. Sometimes from the hand that feeds them. For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted. Welcome back.

Ian Crouch views this parting scene as evidence of Willimon’s arrogance:

And then there is one last shot, in case there was any confusion as to the message: a pair of silver cufflinks bearing Frank’s initials. They’d been mentioned before—a birthday gift from his body man—and, called back, they make for a funny visual gag: “F.U.” … We’ve been told, as the Times likes to say, to “commit a physically impossible act.” Frank despises most everybody—why should we be an exception?

But here Crouch misunderstands Underwood and, by extension, Willimon. “F.U.” is the precise opposite of a “power trip:” it is, rather, the ultimate invitation to an insiders’ club. It is a joke so obvious it begs to be understood, a wink that demands a knowing nod. As a sophomoric sight gag, “F.U.” is a souvenir to its audience. But as an epithet, “F.U.” is decidedly not a message to those of us who watch House of Cards: it’s a contemptuous insult for everyone who doesn’t.

From this perspective, the message of House of Cards is remarkably consistent. It is no accident that an unsubtle version of Politico — an online-only publication dubbed Slugline — serves as the most formidable opponent of Underwood as he rapidly scales the Washington political ladder. Indeed, it is only the murder of its most intrepid reporter that reestablishes Underwood’s control over his own destiny, an objective that could only be derailed by a consummate insider such as Zoe Barnes. In a two-season narrative arc dedicated to highlighting Frank Underwood’s utter mastery of his domain, the single common thread uniting him to all of his peers in House of Cards is their overwhelming collective insulation from life outside the Mall.

Indeed, the fiercest contempt in the series is reserved for all of The Others: those who believe in a democratic politics, the power of representative elections, education reform, foreign policy initiatives, the national interest. People who didn’t catch “F.U.” Simpletons, one and all.

Is anyone really supposed to care about any of the particular policy battles waged throughout the first two seasons? Do we even remember what they were? Of course not: we’re here for the spectacle. We’re here, in short, to become insiders too. It is in this arena that House of Cards excels: it masterfully inhabits the universe populated by our politicians and the hordes of journalists who mob their every prepackaged press conference and giggle over their every wayward tweet. Contempt for the real world goes without saying. We are all complicit in trading away accountability journalism for tabloid-style coverage of the daily political grind, and House of Cards is our soma.

Todd VanDerWerff neatly captures this addiction to irrelevance towards the end of his review:

Yet House Of Cards is also weirdly perfect when it comes to what it’s meant to do, which is keep viewers plowing through episodes, regardless of time spent doing so. There are just enough flourishes around the edges…that it’s possible to feel like House Of Cards has something deeper on its mind, even when it’s all but clear it doesn’t. This is sleight of hand that works much better in the middle of the binge, rather than a few hours later, when contemplating whether the plot made any sense.

VanDerWerff appears, at first glance, to be damning House of Cards with faint praise. But it is really quite the opposite: in portraying Washington as a city full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, House of Cards has in fact perfectly captured the reality of modern politics in the era of horse-race journalism.

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“The Star” bows out on Homeland‘s Season 3 finale

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Jay: So, where does Homeland go from here? Brody’s dead, Carrie’s both promoted and pregnant (with both assignments seemingly up in the air, for the moment), and the U.S. and Iran have signed a nuclear deal (in a scene that must have been shot very recently). I confess that it is difficult to imagine a scenario next season that would really keep my interest at this point.

As for the episode itself, I was disappointed, I think. I can’t put my finger on any specific flaw, other than the pervasive notion that this show has really meandered without any real objective for quite some time now. In Season 1, Homeland was about patriotism, family, and loyalty. Much of what happened that season can be analyzed via Brody’s relationships with other people: Carrie, his wife Jessica, his daughter Dana, his mentor Abu Nazir, etc.

But as Season 2 began to run off-track and then Season 3 continued the trend, I’m much less clear on what the show is “about” now. And while I’ve been predicting Brody’s death for quite some time, the fact that it’s now actually happened does raise a lot of questions as to how the series will proceed.

In some ways I think it would be best if they just stopped the show entirely here. What do you think? Continue reading “The Star” bows out on Homeland‘s Season 3 finale

“Big Man in Tehran:” On Homeland, Brody’s past closes in

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Sam: So, what’s the over-under on Brody making it out of Tehran alive? Or Carrie, for that matter? Does it strike you as not coincidental that the two of them are in Tehran for the final episode? It seems rather likely that one of them (dare we say both?) might end up not making it out of Tehran.

Overall, this episode felt like a giant teaser for the finale, though. The entire episode seemed like a whole lot of tension over whether or not Brody would carry out his mission. While the twists were clever, they seemed reminiscent of what we’ve seen from Homeland before: Carrie goes rogue in a foreign country, the original mission goes out of whack, and then things end up okay somehow.

We’ve harped on this before as well, but Saul really cannot be surprised that Carrie flat out cannot take orders, right? I mean, even Dar Adal can tell him that. Why they continually send someone like her into the field (and into Tehran, of all places) is just absolutely ridiculous. I suppose it helps with the storyline, I guess.

What’d you think of this episode? Continue reading “Big Man in Tehran:” On Homeland, Brody’s past closes in

Brody lives on for another “Good Night,” as Homeland Season 3 nears its conclusion

Jay: This was a riveting hour of television. And even aside from the theatrics of trying to get Brody across the Iraqi border and into Iran, the episode did well in other ways too — especially by avoiding some other pitfalls that could have easily induced some eye-rolling.

For one, I was cringing pretty hard as Carrie shouted at Brody over a secure line: I was just waiting for the moment when she’d scream, “I’m carrying your baby!” Perhaps the show’s writers realized that that would’ve truly been the moment Homeland would’ve jumped the shark. But it came perilously close.

Another nice little non-moment was the senator’s relatively reasonable behavior at the secret CIA site. You can often discern the quality of a show by the dimensionality of its heroes and villains. So the fact that Homeland has been gradually willing to portray the senator in a more sympathetic light is a good sign, methinks.

Personally, I could quibble a bit with the way that Brody’s vehicle looked like it had been utterly destroyed — occupants included — before they both miraculously escaped. But the moment actually turned out to be rather useful, as Brody’s Marine instincts clearly kicked in and he went from being a blubbering victim (as any of us would’ve been) to a man in charge instantly. I also liked the fact that Javadi killed Brody’s partner, which at least somewhat tempered the miraculous nature of their escape into Iran.

I’m a little less clear on what comes next. I tend to agree with some other predictors who are guessing that Brody isn’t actually the father of Carrie’s child — a point which she seemed to confirm to Quinn in this episode (although that could easily be a lie). On the other hand, if Brody’s fated to die this season anyway, it would make sense to have a mini-Brody born soon thereafter so as to provide Carrie some measure of solace, at least. (There, even more ridiculous theories for you.)

What did you think? Continue reading Brody lives on for another “Good Night,” as Homeland Season 3 nears its conclusion

“One Last Thing” for Brody? Flashes of brilliance in Homeland‘s Season 3, Episode 9

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Jay: So this episode may have been the best one all season. Granted, there were some pretty unbelievable parts, and some somewhat ridiculous time-warp moments (like the jarring “Sixteen Days Later” transition), but Brody’s return to the United States as a full-fledged human being (as opposed to a full-fledged junkie) breathed some life into what has otherwise been a subpar season.

Even Dana didn’t bother me as much in this episode. Alan Sepinwall hit all the right notes in his review already, among which were two important ones: 1) Dana works best when she’s in scenes with her father, and 2) Brody is almost definitely not going to survive this mission.

While I’ll probably miss him — and while the show may struggle to figure out how to move forward without him always lurking on the periphery — it’s probably about time he disappears. Even if he were to make it back alive, another season of him trying to woo Dana again probably isn’t a season worth watching.

Of course, Carrie continues to be reckless at all times, including a truly mind-blowing escape from the secret compound to take one of the world’s most wanted men to see his emotionally unstable teenaged daughter. What could possibly go wrong?

Fortunately, nothing did. But Carrie is getting increasingly hard to root for.

How would you rate this episode? Continue reading “One Last Thing” for Brody? Flashes of brilliance in Homeland‘s Season 3, Episode 9

“A Red Wheelbarrow:” Sam and I chat about Homeland, Episode 8

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Jay: Initial thoughts: not as great as all the reviewers promised. There was a flurry of Twitter activity suggesting that this episode would be a return to all things great about Homeland. But while some of the excitement returned, I’m not at all convinced we’ve reached any kind of turnaround.

First of all, you just knew Carrie was going to defy orders at the motel. Yes, I get that this is completely consistent with her character, but at some point it just gets tiring. I actually rolled my eyes when she got out of the van and started following Franklin. I understand that she’s impulsive and headstrong, but at what point does it become completely unbelievable that she could keep her job after so many betrayals? Similarly predictable was the fact that Carrie was clearly not going to die, no matter how ominous Dar Adal and Quinn tried to sound while warning her from continuing.

Mira’s lover being some sort of spy was decidedly less predictable, but I’m not at all persuaded that that plot point makes any sense. And speaking of nonsensical moments, Carrie being so open with her doctor about her job (referencing the “father” in relation to her work) was an absurdly risky moment in a series in which characters are supposed to be devoted to secrecy and information security.

Slightly more intriguing was Saul’s visit to Venezuela to visit Brody. It’s confusing on a few levels, actually: why was Saul so cagey with Carrie when she asked about his conversation with Javadi? And why the hell is he visiting Brody if he knows he didn’t do it? What could Brody possibly do for Saul now that he’s been shown to have been uninvolved with the bombing?

I guess I don’t see this as much of a step forward. Do you? Continue reading “A Red Wheelbarrow:” Sam and I chat about Homeland, Episode 8

Homeland, Episode 7: Sam Lim and I discuss “Gerontion”

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Sam: As much as I enjoyed this week’s episode, why does so much of it seem like deja vu? A turned informant? Carrie fixating on “the truth” about Brody?

I feel like we know where the coming weeks are going to take us: Carrie’s going to go on a crusade to clear Brody’s name. I can hardly wait (yawn).

On the plus side, there were moments I very much enjoyed and appreciated: Quinn’s resigned conclusion after his talk with the detectives and Saul calmly walking the Senator (and Dar Adal) through his master plan and then promptly locking him in the conference room.

I’ve neglected my winners and losers of the episode thing for a few weeks, so let’s bring it back:

Winner: Saul, hands down. Nothing must’ve felt better than to lock the Senator in the conference room and then clicking the button that fogged up the glass. In your face, Senator!

Loser: Mira. I’m so tired of her pathetic character. She’s getting close to Granny-level of annoyance for me (Dana has her own scale). Just go run away with the other dude already.

Your thoughts on this week’s episode? Continue reading Homeland, Episode 7: Sam Lim and I discuss “Gerontion”

“Still Positive” that Homeland‘s still got it? Sam and I break down Episode 6

Jay: Well, the consensus — at least among the reviewers I read — seems to be that Homeland is drifting farther and farther from its Season 1 glory. While I tend to agree that this season in general has had more than its fair share of rough patches, I’m not as appalled as some of the reviewers. Not yet, anyway.

This week’s episode contained what was, for me, perhaps the single most shocking scene in Homeland history, when Javadi used a bottle to puncture to death his ex-wife, who had defected to the United States years earlier. That moment was so singly un-Homeland-like in its brutality that I almost couldn’t believe it at first.

It also raises many questions. First of all, why was Saul so hellbent on ensuring that Javadi not get into the house? This is especially bizarre considering the fact that, as Quinn and Carrie briefed him immediately after entering the property, Saul didn’t even seem to realize that Javadi’s ex-wife was even living there at the time. (Or am I getting the chronology mixed up?) Methinks there’s some more history between Saul and Javadi’s ex: something about the way Saul held up the picture of her earlier in the episode suggested a deeper backstory.

Speaking of possible romantic connections, whatever was left of Saul’s marriage is definitively disintegrated in this episode, while Carrie suddenly seems to be carrying someone’s child. The obvious implication is that it’s Brody’s, but weirdly the first guy I thought of was that rando from the liquor store in the first episode of this season. Given the way some of Homeland‘s plot twists have petered out so quickly this season, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if that happens again here.

What did you think? Continue reading “Still Positive” that Homeland‘s still got it? Sam and I break down Episode 6