This Homeland review contains spoilers.
Midway through tonight’s episode of Homeland, “Our Man in Damascus,” it occurred to me that Carrie Mathison is not really the main character of season 5. Don’t get me wrong, Claire Danes is reliably terrific as the tortured Langley Cassandra with her constantly prophetic visions of brainwashed war heroes and SVR double agents.
However, in the penultimate episode of the season, Carrie spends much of her time retracing steps we are already (mostly) aware of from the tracks left by Peter Quinn, the Good Samaritan, and the tangentially connected jihadist terrorists.
No, the main character of the episode, at least until the final five minutes, is also who I would say has dominated the year: Allison Carr. And for better or worse, this appears to be the tragedy/triumph of one of Homeland’s most prominent antagonists. Also to her credit, Miranda Otto is perfectly on point as this unnervingly crafty sociopath.
It had not really dawned on me until tonight just how precise her brutally swift manipulations tend to be, such as how her interrogation turns into a murder spree in the home of that atheistic college professor who still believes in some form of jihad (more on that in a moment). The coolness with which Otto projects professional indifference to him while situating her bodyguard/overseer in a position to die feels as creepily genuine as the little thrill her face evokes after shooting herself in the arm and looking at his dead body. She gets high off of the desperate manipulation.
Alas, the actual manipulation that she is forced to perpetrate has symbiotically been one of the two great weaknesses of season 5. If you have been reading my reviews these past months, then you know I have never been keen on Homeland returning to the mole “well” again after the first two seasons being built around the much more fascinating and fleshed out Nicholas Brody (never mind this is 24’s laziest trope).
And indeed, the penultimate episode mostly involved Allison Carr far too easily disrupting the search for the terrorists. For example, even if her bodyguard doesn’t believe the charges, his inability to use his CIA instincts to notice the overly convenient “meter maid” ticket as a form of communication is groan-inducing. Also, the fact that another Russian operative is able to share bathroom space with her in the BND is as grating as the idea that there wouldn’t be a female guard who could stand at least outside the stall to make sure the untrusted Carr does not drive off the cliff and into SVR hands.
But all of this preposterous plotting is squeezed into here so that it can be revealed that the Russians want Berlin to be hit with poisonous gas. Apparently, they hope it will scare an unnamed President Obama into another Middle East ground war with ISIS. It’s a somewhat dubious plot point, especially how it has been dated by the Paris attacks (which were name dropped at the last minute in a post-production ADR looping in last week’s episode). Yet, I’ll go along with it because eventually any good Western espionage TV series or movie franchise has to get back to the most dreaded of enemies: those no-good Ruskies.
Still, it also feels like a missed opportunity since it was so refreshing last week to see the remnants of the Cold War get washed away by the existential threat of the War on Terror. Yet here we are: the SVR wants Berlin to be hit so hard that Obama will back Putin’s desire to (presumably) keep Assad in power while going village to village against radical extremists in a foreign land. Again. Gotcha.
The best thing about this twist is that it forces Allison to damn herself in the most Faustian way. Undoubtedly, she has facilitated the death of more than that would-be Syrian strong-man at the SVR’s behest during these past 10 years. But now, they are asking her to aid in the subterfuge of the CIA and BND’s efforts. That includes selling what small vestiges might be left of her soul when she murders a fellow American and supposed friend, as well as the aforementioned Lebanese professor.
The professor himself is also an odd duck since he is revealed to be an atheist that immigrated to Germany three years ago and has risen to the rank of tenured professor and national citizen in no time at all. Nonetheless, because of his hatred for Israel, this intellectual realist/cynic will help bomb the country that has given him a cushy life. It’s probably best not to think too hard about it, because the ball is in motion and the terrorist plot is underway.
At least, that should seem to be our focus. But looks can be deceiving since far too much time of the season’s penultimate episode is spent grinding out Homeland’s favorite axe: idealistic liberals. Yep, the worst subplot of the season in one Laura Sutton is back. I do not envy Sarah Sokolovic since she’s saddled with the most grating of supporting characters, but Laura never comes off as anything less than a latte-sipping San Francisco blogger as per the imagination of Rush Limbaugh after an especially lengthy rant.
In the face of a terrorist attack being imminent within the day, Laura disobeys Otto During and goes on TV to hold the BND at gun point with the threat that she will leak over a thousand CIA documents if her apprehended source is not immediately granted access to a lawyer. Agree or disagree with Laura’s politics, but she’s a cartoonish and boorish visage of the dreaded left and instead of heightening drama, she is merely deflating the situation.
This is all exacerbated when the said source commits suicide via a far too conveniently unlocked window. The only thing I can say about this moment is that it gives Mandy Patinkin a wonderful moment to reflect on the guilt and blood on his hands for lying to During and pushing this fellow to despair. But it is all a little too neatly dire.
But in the plus column, I will concede that I was wrong about Otto During because I spent all of season 5 waiting for him to drop this type of exact hammer. Yet if he really is as straight as he appears to be with Carrie and Saul, I really want to know why he is trying to fire her from his organization on the down low while also trusting her enough to work with Berenson.
If all of this review seems too negative, please know that there have been elements I’ve enjoyed from tonight, such as the ending. Seeing the BND raid the wrong spot (the airport as prescribed by Allison Carr) while Carrie alone follows the lead to a subway station is tensely entertaining, like the best of those absurd Jack Bauer episodes. And as she runs into the subway tunnel with her handgun at the ready, I am all but prepared for an epic showdown between her and the two terrorists who seem to be poised for a disagreement on the “terror” part of their evocation.
In the end, penultimate episodes on premium cable dramas tend to do one of a few things. They either ramp up the action toward an exhilarating finale (such as the first couple episode 11’s in Homeland’s early years), they actually reach the moment of climax a week early like Game of Thrones, or they simply tread water until finally pulling the trigger in the following week.
With the exception of Allison going The Departed on her colleagues, this was mostly treading water for the first 50 minutes. But when it did move the needle in the final moments, it was certainly compulsive television. Nevertheless, the two episodes before this were season 5’s best, so it’s shame to see that slogging sensation begin to return.
I’ll remain hopeful, however, that next week hits the gas early and it can bring some order to the chaos that has resulted from the “Allison Carr” season of Homeland.