Sunday's second-season finale of Showtime's Homeland was titled "The Choice." Which could just as easily have applied to the seventh-season finale of Dexter that immediately preceded it. The ones making the ultimate choice, though, are the viewers, who must decide if they're willing to go where these dark bundles of insanity take them.
I echo Homeland's Brody when I say: "I'm in." I realize it might be hipper to join the Twitter snark parade, especially when it comes to Homeland's giant leaps of credibility-defying faith, but imagine how dull and dreary this fall would have been without this one-two punch of Sunday night high-octane entertainment.
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Let's start with the end of Dexter's remarkable comeback season, forcing impossible choices for Dexter and his sister Deb as the noose of justice tightens, courtesy of the dogged LaGuerta, who's finally seeing through Dexter's façade the way Doakes did once upon a time (with profane Erik King flashbacks to remind us). Michael C. Hall has always been masterful as the sly vigilante serial killer, but Jennifer Carpenter really raised her game this year playing Deb, an emotional wreck as she struggles with her knowledge of Dexter's true self.
Earlier, Dexter had to make a painful choice between his sister and his amoral lover Hannah (an impressive Yvonne Strahovski). To save Deb, he put behind bars "the only person in the world I don't have to hide anything from." They're still simpatico enough that Hannah promises not to out him to the authorities, but when they kiss during a prison visit, she draws blood. Ouch. Hannah takes even more devastating aim at Debra's hypocrisy regarding her brother, whispering to her before a courtroom hearing: "How do you justify arresting me and not him? Or is the law just something you make up as you go along?"
Deb is shaken. She hasn't had an easy time with this moral relativism dilemma, and things get even stickier when LaGuerta turns her investigative sights on Deb, finding new evidence implicating her in the fire at the church where she helped cover up Dexter's crime from the end of last season. "I've never killed for natural reasons," Dexter muses, as he contemplates killing the cop now threatening his sister. (This is said while he's busy offing Estrada, the bad guy who helped murder his mother all those years ago.)
In the crazy climax, Dexter is ready to make it look like Estrada and LaGuerta killed each other, while the ghost of Harry busily frets over how this act will violate their code: "How did we end up here?" "Where will this end?" Harry finally shuts up when Deb busts in, waving her gun, having to make the ultimate choice between her brother and her boss, who's waking up from being drugged and implores Debra to take down Dexter. He feigns that he's ready to meet his maker should Debra so decide, but it's Hannah he's quoting as he says, "Do what you gotta do." What she's gotta do is shoot LaGuerta, a murderous act that sends Deb into understandable hysterics.
In the aftermath, Dexter wonders in voice-over: "Is this a new beginning or the beginning of the end?" We know it's the latter, unless Showtime somehow changes its mind about next season being the last. Which I hope doesn't happen. I've enjoyed this season more than any since the John Lithgow year, but it's time to wrap this story up before it goes south again.
Homeland is also about new beginnings, once again radically shifting gears, this time explosively, to reinvent the show for its third season. During another woodsy retreat to the cabin where Brody and Carrie first consummated their risky passion, Brody wonders, "Maybe this will all end in tears." You think? Even if we weren't already aware of Claire Danes' penchant for ugly crying and mad eyes, we knew things weren't going to end happily after when Brody starts talking like a doomed lover: "We could be happy, couldn't we?" Apparently he hasn't watched this show.
The "Choice" of the episode's title refers to Carrie's quandary: Follow her heart and stay with Brody, or follow her head and rejoin the CIA. Her mentor Saul gets off the finale's best line when he declares to Carrie, "You're the smartest and the dumbest f---ing person I've ever known," astonished that she would give up her calling to let a would-be terrorist into her bed. "I know everything he is — but it's complicated," she protests.
There are other choices made in this episode. Hit man Quinn decides not to assassinate Brody after all, because like a soldier version of Dexter, "I'm a guy that kills bad guys," and he believes Brody no longer poses a national security threat. He even threatens Estes should anything happen to Brody. And with this plot now foiled, Estes chooses to free Saul from confinement. Which prompts the episode's second best line (props to Mandy Patinkin throughout): "Well, if it isn't Javert." Kudos to the Les Miserables shout-out.
Then after a deceptively quiet start comes the episode's big set piece: Vice President Walden's ill-fated memorial service at the CIA, where Brody and Carrie play hooky so they can moon at each other in her office, until he realizes his car has mysteriously been moved. Cue a shattering explosion. RIP Estes, Mrs. Walden and Finn and several hundred others, later seen in rows of body bags. (No wonder Showtime felt it was necessary to put viewer discretion advisories in front of tonight's finales. None of this was easy to watch in the wake of Friday's real-life massacre, the episodes beginning just minutes after President Obama's moving speech in Newtown.
This fictional carnage is Abu Nazir's revenge from beyond the grave — he's being dumped in the ocean as the bomb goes off — the latest in a series of wildly improbable twists inviting ridicule from those who despair whenever Homeland veers into 24 territory (like that's such a bad thing). Carrie is initially convinced Brody is behind it again — and once more, Damian Lewis has us momentarily wondering if it could be true — until he convinces her that Abu Nazir "played us all from the beginning," a suspicion later confirmed when Brody's confession tape from last year's foiled bombing attempt is leaked to the media by the terrorists. Good old unstable Carrie hops into fugitive mode, and as they somehow make their exit from the CIA disaster zone unobserved, she retrieves a stash of cash from a storage locker and procures a new ID for Brody as she escorts him across the border — the geography as shaky as the timeline by this point — and they have a tearful lovers' parting in another forest setting.
Carrie has made her choice. She lets Brody go and she returns to the CIA, where Saul greets her amid the death and destruction with a beaming grin (not unlike her smile that ended the season opener when she was back in the field). Saul is not only getting his estranged wife back, he has Carrie to help him run the devastated agency. Her goal for next season: to help Brody clear his name. Our goal, should we choose to accept it: to hang on for dear life in anticipation of what this show's fearlessly reckless producers have in store for us.
THE WHITE HOUSE MESS: More like Animal House, as NBC uses the final performance episode of The Voice to provide a powerful launching pad for a "sneak peek" of its new sitcom 1600 Penn (9:31/8:31c) — a first-family farce which is mainly notable as a showcase for Book of Mormon star Josh Gad. He plays Skip, the unflappably unlucky black-sheep son of the harried commander in chief (a wary but game Bill Pullman). Skip is a walking calamity, but also an innocent, and Gad's endearing slapstick performance is part John Belushi, part puppy dog, as he desperately seeks approval from his dad and hugs from everyone else, including his trophy-wife stepmom (Jenna Elfman, in her most appealing role in ages) and even a visiting delegation of Latin American leaders. 1600 Penn is proudly silly and very broad, as if The West Wing had been overtaken by the Three Stooges. Sophisticated it isn't, but compared to fall misfires like Animal Practice and Guys With Kids, it almost deserves a medal of honor. (I'll weigh in again with a longer review when it returns in its regular time period, Thursdays at 9:30/8:30c, on Jan. 10.