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A shocking, horrifying act on Homeland aims to build empathy for the indefensible

Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) makes a horrifying choice in last night's Homeland premiere.
Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) makes a horrifying choice in last night's Homeland premiere.

Around halfway through the second hour of Homeland's fourth season premiere, there's a moment so horrifying some critics theorize it could singlehandedly turn viewers off of a series they've otherwise followed through the highest highs and lowest lows. (And there have been some low lows.)

Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) — always a borderline unpalatable character, thanks to her terrible decision-making and poor life choices — is bathing her estranged infant daughter. After a momentary slip, she contemplates, then appears to facilitate, letting the child drown, before quickly coming to her senses and pulling the baby out of the water. The child lives, but she, perhaps realizing she's not fit to be a mother, leaves her in the care of her sister for the foreseeable future.

There's no question that the scene is unsettling. It visits territory that even most TV horror series fear to trod — and for good reason. Fewer and fewer things remain wholly black and white in accepted TV fare, but infanticide would seem to remain immune from shades of gray. But it's not as if showrunner Alex Gansa, episode writer Chip Johannessen, and episode director Keith Gordon don't intend the scene to horrify us. They absolutely do.

The question, then, is why a series would choose to have its protagonist engage in such fundamentally irredeemable behavior. Why would it risk having viewers turn against that character once and for all? The scene isn't superficially exciting or enthralling. It's just dark, grim, and hard to take. So what's the reasoning behind it?

There's any number of answers here, but three stand out.

Storytelling and character development

The first of those is a simple storytelling one. For the season of Homeland to progress, Carrie needs to be working as a CIA station chief in Pakistan. That's where the action is, that's where the rest of her team is, and that's where most of the other story lines are taking place. However, the child that Carrie conceived with her now-dead lover Brody last season was going to need to be dealt with eventually. (Whether the show would have been better off never having Carrie get pregnant in the first place is ultimately up to you.) The question of what would happen to Carrie's daughter, then, was never going to be easily solved. The child certainly wasn't going to go to Islamabad. Carrie becoming an absentee mother while stationed in hostile territory, retaining no maternal bond with her child, would not be sufficient in loosing her from the burden of fictional motherhood and our expectations of same.

And that leads to the show's second reasoning: character development.

Before we venture down this rabbit trail, let's take a moment to examine why we're having this conversation at all. Coming on the heels of the golden age of the antihero, audiences are practiced at looking the other way when it comes to the protagonist's ugly treacheries. Tony Soprano suffocated his kin with his bare hands and ordered the deaths of many others. Walter White may say everything he did was for his family, but that included killing an associate out of convenience, poisoning a young child, and letting a woman die through his immediate inaction. Al Swearengen may be a charismatic businessman looking out for what's best for Deadwood (and himself), but those ends at one point lead him to seek to kill an orphaned little girl. Yet these examples asked us not just to accept these characters or look the other way, but to understand and, indeed, embrace them. Champion them. Want to be them. Why is Carrie different? Why is there fear this incident will turn viewers off from the character forever?

The expectations of motherhood

To this day, even with the advances of feminism, all women are seen as mothers (or pre-mothers) until proven otherwise. It would never have been enough for many viewers to see Carrie as someone who was uncomfortable around her own child or someone who intentionally distanced herself.

Just try researching mother-child bonding. It will turn up plenty of websites brimming with advice on how, even if you aren't feeling that special bond immediately, someday that connection will kick in, and your inborn maternal instincts will come online. A few advice-givers will admit that sometimes the bond never forms, and there are far fewer still examples of the phenomenon in the art we consume.

The most significant recent example is the novel (and eventual film) We Need To Talk About Kevin, wherein the protagonist details the lack of connection she felt for her son from day one, a situation that never righted itself, and may or may not have led to the devastating actions he took as a teenager. And now there's Carrie, who could never be free from the audience expectations, best encapsulated in the form of her sister, that someday, somehow, she must find a way to incorporate her daughter into her life and find something nurturing inside of herself, without the show going to the most extreme of extreme measures. But we know Carrie well enough by now to know that connection is unlikely to be forged. We tolerate emotionally unavailable fathers in our pop culture, after all — why is it so much harder to contemplate an emotionally distant mother?

Carrie's nearly disastrous choice ultimately shouldn't have been much of a surprise at all. Suffering, as she has throughout the series, from often ill-managed bipolar disorder, Carrie's modus operandi has always been that of impulsive, poorly thought-out decisions. In any given situation, her judgment is liable to be addled by alcohol or medication (or both), in addition to her mental illness. From a character standpoint, the incident in the bathtub should come as no surprise at the hands of someone who, days before, gave an order to carry out a military strike based on specious information and subsequently obliterated a wedding party.

Beyond that, this baby is the living, breathing manifestation of all of Carrie's Brody baggage, from the tips of her toes to the top of her ginger-haired head. No matter how hard Carrie may try to move past the specter of Nicholas Brody, any progress would be paralyzed at the sight of their daughter. What once seemed like a way to hold him to her heart forever has proved to be just that, while also being an open, angry wound that cannot heal so long as mother and child occupy the same space.

Stretching empathy as far as it will go

These are all sound reasons to justify Carrie's unthinkable actions from the perspective of the people who make the show, at least as a storytelling decision. But justifications can only go so far to forgive a scene so self-evidently horrifying. But that points to the third reason for the scene: the show hopes to push the limits of our empathy. Take a step back from the revulsion of the scene and reframe it.

A woman who has struggled her entire life with debilitating mental illness has been summoned back to company headquarters after she made a judgment call that went wrong. Her position at the company has long been precarious, made more so because of the fact that it is likely the only thing keeping her alive. In the last year, she watched the love of her life, the only person she thought could truly understand the fractured state of her heart and her mind, not just die, but be executed in front of a vengeful mob. She, pregnant with his child, was forced to make a choice: terminate, give the child up, or cling to the last shred of her love she had left.

Despite her illness and perhaps because of her penchant for impulsive decisions, she chooses the latter. She has the child, but does not bond with it for any number of reasons. Perhaps it's because of her bipolar disorder, perhaps it's because of postpartum depression, perhaps it's because of her incapacitating grief, or, more likely, perhaps it's because of some combination of the three.

Upon arriving back at home, where she's left her infant daughter in the care of her responsible but reluctant sister, the child is thrust back into her care, and she is at a loss. This is her child. She wants to do the right thing. But what is the right thing anymore? What life will this child have with no one who truly wants her? A traitorous, deceased father; an absentee, unwilling mother; a surrogate family bound by obligation and festering with deep-seated resentment. What kind of life is that for anyone?

Maybe the best thing for her is to let her go now, like she couldn't before. Right a wrong, show mercy, move forward, protect her child from the world the only way she can see how. We in the audience can quibble that Carrie has other options — adoption, for one — but when looked at through the lens of Carrie's eyes, her choice makes more sense.

Actions that seem only selfish can often look selfless from the other side, no matter how warped that viewpoint is. Consider this: Homeland rarely utilizes point-of-view filmmaking, meant to place us literally inside a character's head. But it does here. Carrie looks down at her baby. What would it be to be the mother of this child? And, then, as her daughter slips beneath the water, we switch to the infant's point of view. What would it be to be the child of this mother? Homeland is all but daring us to identify with Carrie's decision, to push our empathy so far it nearly snaps. And then it reminds us of the horrors present in her choice, lets us see how she might consider she is doing to be somehow merciful.

But the coin drops. Carrie snatches the baby from the water and clings to her, realizing how close she came to making another impulsive decision she couldn't take back. There are plenty of reasons why Carrie and Homeland came to this point but maybe the most valuable lesson we can take from it is the understanding that for some, perhaps even for all of us, the edge is closer than we think. And that through fiction we are afforded opportunities to comprehend the incomprehensible and feel empathy toward those we might otherwise call monsters.

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