They really went there. Showtime's signature thrillers Homeland and Dexter each flipped the metaphorical switch — in Homeland's case, literally; with Dexter, breaking down a wall we'd been waiting to happen for some time — in pivotal finales that leave a big void on Sundays.
Saving the best for last, let's start with Dexter. The finale was 95 percent routine, a charge that could be aimed at the season as a whole, capped by the uninspired end of the Doomsday storyline. After escaping death on the sea of fire last week, Dexter (Michael C. Hall) — apparently instantly cured from his exposure to that Wormwood toxin — next faces Doomsday (Colin Hanks' twitchy Travis) on a skyscraper rooftop during a solar eclipse, where Travis is planning to dispose of the little lion-turned-sacrificial lamb, Harrison, "the son of the Beast." In a wildly unconvincing reversal, Dexter talks Travis into releasing the adorable tyke and putting him on an elevator (?), while Travis demands Dex inject himself with his usual animal tranquilizer. Which he pretends to do. And Travis deserves to die for not seeing that fake-out coming.
Business as usual. But all of this is happening while a truly terrifying subplot is unfolding: Deb's skin-crawling epiphany that she's in love with her adoptive brother. "Is this just horribly wrong?" she hysterically asks her shrink. Who instead of responding, "Yes, Yes, Yes!!! Run away from the light!" merely answers, as TV therapists do, "Does it seem wrong?" Deb spends the whole episode walking on emotional eggshells around Dexter, hugging her shirtless brother for an uncomfortably long time after his sea rescue, then declaring, "I love you." He responds in kind, rotely, as robotic serial killers — and brothers — do. Dex is blissfully clueless how far Deb's "love" goes, and we wish we were, too. (As icky as all of this is, Jennifer Carpenter rose to the occasion, projecting despair, confusion and awkwardness in all the right measures.)
But where this leads is the turning point fans have long been itching for. As Dexter delivers the killer blow to Travis, who's strapped onto a death table back at the church, Deb walks in and finally sees the light. Her loving bro is a murderer of murderers. She gasps, as a shocked Dex says, "Oh God," reiterating the season's religious theme one last time. End scene. End season.
This is the sort of game-changing twist a long-running show like Dexter needs to propel it into its final end game, which will occupy the next two seasons. We assume Deb no longer wants to sleep with her non-blood-related bro. (Again, eww.) But will she now want to arrest him? Or can they somehow work together for the greater good? As Dex crows just before he dispatches Travis to the afterlife, "Maybe everything is exactly as it should be." Which of course is tempting fate, which is why Deb chose that moment to walk in and harsh his killer buzz. Should make for an interesting Season 7.
Homeland's dilemma in ending its sensational first season —my No. 1 pick for the TV year — was far different and way trickier: Namely, how to defuse the climactic threat of Brody and his suicide vest without feeling like a cop-out. Homeland without Damian Lewis sparring with Claire Danes in year two is unthinkable — to me, and also to Showtime — which is why Brody couldn't ultimately set off the bomb and blow his ginger head off. If this had been a miniseries instead of a continuing series, maybe. But the rules of TV, even on a network like Showtime, prevail. And I'm sure there will be some unwilling to forgive Homeland for pulling its punches at the last minute so the show could go on. Some people are never satisfied.
But did it blink, really? Brody, after all, did set off the vest, fulfilling his mission. It just happened to malfunction. And for me, if Carrie's meltdown last week ensured Danes is an Emmy front-runner, then the scenes of Brody in the bunker have done the same for Lewis. The intensity and suspense are unbearable as Brody is rushed into an underground holding area with the vice president, the secretary of defense, and other government/military VIP's after Walker's assassination of decoy target Elizabeth Gaines (whose blood spatter ends up all over the VP's face and suit, an effective symbol of the blood on his hands from the drone attack and cover-up).
Brody is shown in jittery extreme close-up throughout his ordeal in the bunker: sweat beading on his brow — everyone assumes he's sick, and his justification that he's not much of a fan of being locked up makes ironic sense — eyes gleaming with purpose. Lewis is incredible here. After the vest fails to detonate, a desperate Brody goes into the bathroom to fix it. Which he does. And with the green light blinking, the martyr is a second away from ignition, bathed in an almost holy light, when he gets the call. Not from God (that was Dexter's domain this season), but from his daughter Dana, the one who knows him best, the one who knows of his conversion to Islam, who knows something's up and something's wrong. She is convinced to reach out to her dad by a frighteningly frantic Carrie, who's carried away by cops after she confronts Dana and Jessica on their home turf.
"The world is about to end and we're standing around talking!" Carrie shrieks before the cops take her into custody. But it's Dana's persistent talking, and nagging at her dad over the phone to come home, that breaks through. This is likely to be Homeland's most controversial moment, and it is contrived and awfully convenient, not as satisfying a twist as we're used to from this taut thriller. But it does reflect Homeland's unusually emotional context, which grounds its anti-hero/hero in a real and tangible family life and marriage, a life that has pulled him back from the brink. For now.
And that's only the second act. The finish gives us plenty of reason to hope that things will be just as tense and twisty next time around. In the aftermath of the attack, Brody once again convinces Carrie that "I am not what you think I am," and her despair at their farewell (so well and wrenchingly played by Danes) sends her to the hospital for shock treatment, while Brody lays the groundwork for his next phase of government infiltration for Abu Nazir. "At the very least, I'd be able to influence policies at the highest levels," he promises his terrorist mentor, murdering his fellow soldier/sleeper agent Walker to prove his commitment to the cause. And while we ponder those implications, Saul — who's recharged his loose-cannon batteries back at the CIA — tries to rally Carrie's spirits at the hospital ("You were wrong about Brody, but you were right about Nazir"), but she tells him she's only getting worse.
In the wickedly effective cliffhanger, Carrie's addled brain finally makes the crucial connection that Brody knew Nazir's son — whose name he blurted out during a night terror during their weekend in the cabin — but before she can tell anyone, the shock treatment kicks in.
Good night, Carrie. See you next season, Homeland. Even if you didn't blow up the government, you rocked my world.
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