Best TV 2012: Homeland and Nick and Jess Brody’s freedom.

Homeland: Nick and Jess Brody, finally free.

Showtime, Dec. 9, 10:45 p.m.

Season 2 of Homeland was packed with tense, startling moments, many of them in motor vehicles that crashed, surveilled, went rogue, or screeched irresponsibly off. The show itself is not unlike a freeway. Subplots speed past each other until they collide; you are constantly fastening your seatbelt (terrorist Abu Nazir has landed in the U.S.!) or flipping off a reckless driver (Carrie, for the 5-millionth time, wait for backup!). So it’s probably fitting that one of the finest scenes in the series takes place in an SUV. What is maybe more surprising is that the SUV is parked—with nary a gun, bomb, or urgently vibrating phone in sight.

But that could also be why the penultimate episode’s exchange between Jess and Nick Brody (Morena Baccarin and Damian Lewis), in a darkened car, is such a beauty. Suddenly the show hits the brakes, creating a breathing space for its characters’ emotions. A SWAT team has just shot Abu Nazir after a nerve-racking chase through a mesh of underground tunnels; now we’re presented with resolution in a quieter register. And it’s this return to the human actors behind all the gunsmoke that reminds us why we watch this maddening, preposterous show in the first place. 

Because as much as Homeland is a counterpoint of terrorist and counterterrorist plots, it is also about a marriage coming apart. Jess and Nick earn our sympathy—they both want to make things work. But their stagnating relationship proves just as frustrating as the vice president’s politics or the CIA’s backbiting—as frustrating, actually, as the warped logic behind the Iraq war, since their inability to connect highlights the painful situation of returning U.S. soldiers.

Anyway, in this scene, the darkened car scene, teenage sweethearts Nick and Jess Brody try one last time to understand each other. They fail, of course: Jess can’t bring herself to hear what happened to Brody in the aftermath of Iraq—and they realize their relationship is over. Watching the last bits of the marriage fall away is a relief, though sad. It means Nick can move forward with Carrie and Jess can reunite with Mike. Nick absolves Jess of not being “big enough” to support him in the wake of his tour and capture. (“There was nothing anyone could have done,” he says.) Jess accepts that Carrie knows her husband in a way she can’t and forgives him for loving her. The point, overall, is generosity: With malice toward none and charity for all, the writers supply the loveliest ending to a spent relationship we could have hoped for.

The break-up happens right after the Brodys are released from their crazy-making CIA safe house. In this quiet scene, the show allows us to see Nick and Jess exploring what it really means to be free.