Homeland: Halfway to a Donut Review

Homeland this week is called "Halfway to a Donut," but it appears to be halfway out of the ditch and is, dare we say it, suspenseful.

I really thought that I was so incredibly close to giving up on Homeland. The melodramatic writing, the generally glaring CIA incompetence depicted week in and week out, and most of all Carrie shacking up with another terrorist-lite morally gray asset again.

And then “Redux,” as well as “Halfway to a Donut,” happened. The first one Carly Jones was kind enough to fill in for me on during my absence last week. And while I wouldn’t necessarily give it the four-and-a-half stars that she did, it was certainly the best hour of season four. In fact, it was so good for the most part that it unexpectedly drew me back in. For the most part.

One of the reasons that Carrie Mathison was so likable when Homeland began is that despite all of her numerous character flaws, she was exceptional at her job. Nobody else could have pegged Brody as being a brainwashed terrorist, and her reward for being the Cassandra of Langley was that she was fired, humiliated, and forced into electroshock therapy while Brody got to climb the ladder towards the vice presidency. She was smarter than anyone else in the room, and nobody listened to her.

Now that Brody is gone and everyone in the room is listening to her, Carrie Mathison has become for most of season four (and season three) a shrieking cliché—Anne Hathaway’s emotional wreck caricature from Saturday Night Live. And the bad news for “Redux” was that just as the Saul storyline came like salvation for the fourth year, she continued her needless downward spiral that causes one to question how she could handle this post for five minutes, albeit it was now facilitated by the single worst character in Homeland history, Dennis Boyd. I don’t know what is worse: a college professor so eager to betray his country (to the extent that he fears leaving his new calling when his wife suggests they return home) or that we’re supposed to believe that he could switch out Carrie’s meds with the skills of MacGyver.

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And it’s that story thread that opens “Halfway to a Donut” with Carrie still in the arms of not-Brody, the intriguing (and TV gods willing, non-romantic) Aasar Khan. This cool customer is an ISI officer with the professionalism of Carrie on her best day, and an enigmatic quality that leads us to constantly wonder if he is actually seeking a third-way with the U.S. or if he is part of an even bigger, more manipulative spy game.

Of course, the subplot of him nursing Carrie back to health and being seemingly unaware of who “Brody” might be, one of the most famous “traitors” in world history at this point with regards to both the U.S. and Iran, is asinine. But just as Homeland finally drops it again early on in “Halfway to a Donut,” I’d like to join them in focusing on the good stuff.

…Because the rest of the episode is really damn good.

Where Homeland is finally finding a place to shine is in the duplicitous negotiations by both sides across the diplomatic tables of a U.S.-Pakistani nightmare. CIA Director Lockhart proves to be just as boneheaded as when I referred to him as being Senator McSnooty in season three; this is due to his arrogant handling of the Pakistani minister. And yet, I cannot necessarily blame him for his total exasperation. In a rather clever premium cable conceit, Homeland within scripted drama parameters is truly succeeding now at mining American-Pakistani relations in a juicily frustrating way. Who is worse for the Pakistani people, the country that drones them, or their elected government that allows and cooperates with an insurgent force that also bombs them, thereby perpetuating their drone target signs? Either way, the Pakistani intelligence community comes off as worse than the Saturday morning dastardliness of SPECTRE.

I am sure that this could also be written off as American propaganda, except that it is blatantly obvious that parties of the ISI turned a blind eye to Osama bin Laden being sheltered in a spacious house in the country, just as the Taliban walks across the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan frequently…as does their firepower. Using this national security paradox in the most dramatically television perspective possible—we saw the ISI take Saul Berenson hostage several episodes ago, and now he is in the hands of the Taliban—creates an undeniable disdain in the viewer that is shared with Lockhart for the underhandedness of their counterparts.

Then again, one could not accuse the CIA and State Department for being underhanded, since they are planning to have Saul back safe and sound for most of the episode while smiling at the table. Once again, it is left to Mandy Patinkin’s glorious beard to elevate Homeland, which it surely does when he surpasses MacGyver antics and becomes one throat-rip shy of going the full MacGruber. He escapes from his Taliban cell by faking a suicide and then strangling the guard. Classic Saul.

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The real dramatic trick of the episode is that Saul asks his protégé, while on the run, to make sure that she drone strikes him before he is captured again. She does the opposite.

After meeting with a nice pro-U.S. storeowner that gives Saul sanctuary and a gun (why not also a hat to hide his white head?), Saul is discovered by the Taliban fairly quickly in a tense, sequence of pure desperation. The CIA not realizing that ISI could pinpoint their drone notwithstanding as lazy writing, these moments are fleetingly intense and cause me to actually be unsure if Saul was going to blow his brains out or not at the end of the episode. And to top it all off, I cared.

Here was a whiteknuckled, thrilling sequence that played to the strengths of what Homeland showcased on its best days, and Carrie was neither having a mental breakdown, nor sleeping with a terrorist, nor even chewing out Quinn with audience -alienating cruelty. In short, she was allowed to do her job and placed into a difficult situation, which ended with her betraying Saul in order to lead him toward being recaptured (as opposed to suicide).

It was a well-executed set-piece that left me shocked to sense that I cared (for the first time in a very long time) about what was going to happen next.

As for Carrie’s decision? The show already summed it up pretty well when Carrie had her come to moral-of-the-series moment: “I’m finally seeing that now, there are only wrong choices.”

She just surmised what Homeland’s ambiguous morality play is all about. Well, when it’s not trying to assassinate her character, at least. I will say that from a strategic standpoint, letting Saul kill himself might be better than having him used as a bargaining chip to rebuild the Taliban’s leadership. And what happened to Lockhart’s ability to pull away Pakistan’s $2 billion aid?

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The episode ends with Khan meeting Carrie in the dead of night and finally earning her trust by throwing Boyd under the bus. Thank goodness for that. Of course, there will be an episode or two of handwringing about whether they can really believe in this ISI leak, but I doubt anyone has illusions about this not ending with Boyd going down hard and in a big way. Meanwhile, the more interesting question is what is Khan’s angle? Does he really care what Carrie thinks about him so much? Clearly, there is no love lost between himself and the anti-Carrie at ISI that had her poisoned, but this cannot just be about building bridges. There is a play here, and I’m starting to suspect he does know who Brody is after all.

Overall, it was an episode that began in last week’s ditch and then immediately climbed out to a roaring success. But until Homeland can finally find a balance between those two elements again, my enthusiasm will remain tempered. Just in case.

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3 out of 5