To a lot of viewers, last week’s big Homeland twist was less an “OMG WOW” than a “Yeah, right”: needlessly straining plausibility and coming off like a slapdash way to excuse the preceding three episodes' dullness and pain.
Tonight, though, the audience received some commiseration from Peter Quinn. Told of Carrie and Saul’s plan, he’s nominally blown-away: “Fuck me … It's working?” But Rupert Friend’s glass-eyed composure relays the same wariness at being jerked around that viewers may recognize in themselves.
The task now before Homeland, both within its own universe and within the meta-universe of show and audience, is to make this slog of a season and the elaborate, cruel, self-inflicted torture of Carrie Mathison pay off.
What might that payoff look like? We got some glimpses tonight, the strongest episode of Season Three so far. But first we had to sit through the show trying to extricate itself from another self-made morass, the Dana/Leo jaunt. Who in the writers’ room finds the trope of menace-laden joyrides with edgy teenage boys, first displayed in the widely panned hit-and-run subplot from last season, so compelling? Or finds near-miss car crashes to be so dramatically interesting that we should get two in one episode?
To be fair, you can see the deeper purpose of this stuff. As I wrote last year in semi-defense of the Finn Walden plotline, Homeland is about trauma—about how worldviews warp irrevocably when terrible things happen—and Dana’s dwindling innocence underlines the deeper themes of the national-security narrative. This episode wrapped up the Dana strand pretty well for now; her rejection of Leo because he’s a liar illustrated just what it means to lose one’s innocence—it’s to lose one’s ability to forgive, to move on.
But Carrie's struggles have always offered more interesting explorations of that idea. For most of this episode, though, it felt as though we were doing less exploring than retreading. The small dose of yoga-related spycraft we saw brought up the familiar mix of emotions that accompanies any Carrie happening: yell-at-the-screen frustration at her recklessness, fascination and admiration for her gall and trickery. This time, though, she went on, as Saul called it, “a fool’s errand”; her efforts didn’t recover Dana, and she raised Iranian suspicions with terrifying consequences. (Though she did provide some of the only successful humor the show's had in ages, during the confrontation with the FBI agent: "Do you remember how Romeo and Juliet ends?") I was yelling at the screen even more when she flushed her medication away—a sign we’re soon in for another excruciating bout of mania theater.
That’s not something to look forward to. But there's reason to have hope about where the season might go from here. Homeland excels when it asks tough questions about terrorism and war; think back to the way it developed Brody’s traitorous motivations via flashbacks, or to when he and Carrie had that stunning interrogation-room conversation last season. The tension between Saul and the newly appointed CIA head should provide a well-timed restart of the show’s old debate about drones and foreign policy. Senator Lockhart's pompous, politically motivated hawkishness recalls Vice President Walden's. Maybe, just maybe, the show will engage meaningfully with bombs-away ideology this time rather than prematurely and outrageously offing its advocate.
Carrie’s kidnapping at the end of the episode made for gripping, thriller-film viewing—finally, some actual suspense! That was the it-was-all-an-act ruse, yes, paying off, putting a character we care about in an interesting situation for the first time in a while. But the real entertainment may come when Carrie and Majid Javadi confront each other. Setting aside the far-fetched nature of the Iranian deputy chief of intelligence slipping into the U.S., what we’ve seen of Javadi so far suggests that Homeland may become daringly subversive again. How could this low-key lover of hamburgers wish death to America? Here's another chance for Homeland to learn from its mistakes: by having its big bad guy be not a cartoonishly evil mastermind a la Abu Nazir but rather something more threatening—an enemy you can't quite hate.