Tonight on Homeland, 11 weeks of boiler room tension reached its crescendo, epiphany, and that point where all the cards were laid on the table. Finally, the cloak and dagger drama related to the “mindfuck” that is U.S.-Pakistani relations would pay off, especially after the last episode’s agonizing cliffhanger.
Did you notice any of that? Because as far as I could tell, we watched a very special road trip hour of filler. You know, it’s that one in so many dramas when our protagonist goes on a detour (this time to Missouri) so as to procure some profound sense of Lifetime Channel self-discovery. In this case, it was finding the long lost mother nobody should care about on an off-day, much less post-terrorist attack Carrie Mathison. But this is how Homeland chose to end its fourth season. I suppose if you wanted a twist, it couldn’t gotten more unexpected than this.
To be fair, I do appreciate the level of respect and appreciation Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon chose to shower on the late great James Rebhorn. An always-charming character actor, Rebhorn was in many respects the unsung hero on the domestic side of Homeland’s best and worst days (seasons one and three, respectively). Whereas every other character, both professionally and in private, were having subplots spin into constant crisis mode, Papa Mathison was the Rock of Gibraltar.
Thus unexpectedly beginning the season four finale on the day of his memorial service was a pleasantly noble surprise. The tribute that Carrie paid for her father felt as if it might be related in some ways to the actor himself, and the uncharacteristically cheerful eulogizing wake afterwards at her sister’s house is the kind of meditative humanity that (in theory) separates Homeland from its espionage brethren. Besides the cliché of Peter Quinn taking his consistent cues from Henry Fonda of always being there when needed, it spoke volumes to all the characters that Carrie, Quinn, and Saul would let Lockhart in his final hours as CIA Director sit at their table. He screwed up beyond words and is the bane of everything these three stand for, but he is welcome to get drunk after spending only a week in Islamabad.
But that wasn’t just the end of our beginning, but the actual beginning of the most lackluster season finale that I can think of this side of Dexter Morgan showing up with a beard.
For 10 of the last 11 hours, Homeland was about the pressure cooker of frayed relations between America and her erstwhile ally, Pakistan. This is the country that’s harbored Taliban forces that have gutted American lives and interests during the “war season” in Afghanistan for well over a decade; a nation that inexplicably had Osama bin Laden living in a mansion at Abbottabad just down the street from a military academy; and it’s a country that has entered real world headlines recently to terrifying results with the government’s seeming inability to diffuse militia forces—to incomparably tragic results.
Homeland chose to dramatize that with a carefully laid string of dominos, quietly falling one right after the other into a Benghazi styled attack on an American embassy that remarkably came out of nowhere. There were lukewarm sideshows like Carrie sleeping with a teenager, but it ultimately served what was a fairly clever centerpiece: the execution on the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.
In that time, we had characters like Khan and Tasneem, practical ISI counterparts to Saul and Carrie, albeit far more functionally competent. There is also the dangling thread of Dennis Boyd, a pathetic traitor who folds like plywood under the smallest amount of pressure. He has the ability to finger the ISI as being directly in connection with the Taliban that attacked the U.S. embassy, including with a character whose face we know (Tasneem). And then there is of course Dar Adal, the CIA boogeyman that was spotted in a car with Haqqani (Bin Laden 2.0). Any of these plot threads could have been pulled judiciously for a revelatory season four finale, which further built upon their mere existence from a narrative stand point. In other words, prior to the finale, Khan’s only role has so far been to offer Carrie Mathison a professional and courteous counterpoint in the ISI. While a believable extension of her job, his role should still after so much development have a storytelling payoff, especially since the penultimate episode ended with his arms around Carrie. Right?
Wrong. Basic requisites for competent storytelling are thrown to the wind, as is seemingly the entire Islamabad subplot, since nobody even wants to talk about it. Something went bad? Oh well! Carrie would much rather focus on her maternal drama, and the Dar Adal cliffhanger turned out to be just another false flag.
There is plenty of lip-service paid to Carrie having closure on how her parents’ marriage dissolved; it was the fault of her mother’s own mental hang-ups, as opposed to her father’s, thereby justifying for Carrie that a normal life with Peter Quinn is possible. But since neither of them seem likely ready to settle down given their dispositions, and that the show would be over if they did, it was all only so much wasted breath when the focus should be on why Dar Adal committed seeming sedition.
Saul asked that very question for the most anti-climactic moment in recent premium cable memory, and the answer had all the vagueness of “eh, the CIA gets into bed with bad actors all the time. What is the big deal now?” Generally speaking, Dar Adal would be correct, as moral clarity for an organization that aided Osama bin Laden once upon a time is surely not a prerequisite.
However, before this review devolves into a manifesto about American imperialist cynicism, I should also note that at the time of Bin Laden’s training, Soviet Russia was at the forefront of American intelligence’s collective mind, and that after Bin Laden was linked to multiple U.S. embassy bombings in east Africa during 1998, he became a major target for assassination. This is because dealing with unscrupulous actors is one thing—even if they had previously worked against American troops (look up some of our tribal allies in the U.S. Iraqi surge for more)—but cozying up with a man or organization that has openly and publicly declared war on you and then slapped you in the face before the whole international community is another thing all together.
Do I believe that Dar Adal or the CIA would like to have a hand in a Taliban puppet for after the U.S. exit from Afghanistan? I’d go so far as to say that real world plotting has gotten a lot further than the Homeland writers room’s foresight. Nonetheless, the character of Haqqani brazenly and publicly murdered over 30 Americans including U.S. diplomat staff and CIA operatives for all the world to see. If you shoot a cop, there are consequences.
In no world approximating reality, does the CIA get in bed with America’s all new boogeyman less than a full weekend since blood spilled out on a U.S. embassy floor. At least not like this.
If the show had any guts to stand by this lazy 24 contrivance, they would have at least had Dar Adal commit to it like Burt Lancaster in Seven Days of May. Lockhart is weak and a politician. The CIA needs a Company Man, an old patriot who knows how the spy games are played like himself (or at least Saul). So, he orchestrates this FUBAR to fall on Lockhart’s shoulders.
It would have been just as preposterous as what we got, but it at least would not insult the viewers’ intelligence by suggesting that Dar Adal was operating on standard intelligence protocol or that he could find Haqqani less than 72 hours after three dozen Americans were slaughtered by the man’s hand. These sort of negotiations could not have been sealed in only a few days for a top level spook to be sitting in the same car with Haqqani. So either Adal knew about the attack or he shouldn’t have been there. But Homeland chooses to have its cake and eat it too by displaying Dar Adal as having a greater handle on mystical properties than Daenerys Targaryan. He can magically appear at will where the story needs him in Pakistan to make brisk deal-cutting that serves to set up season five without offering any sort of closure or follow-through on 11 hours of build-up for season four.
Are we going to ever hear about that list of American contacts and CIA assets from all over Pakistan and Afghanistan that Haqqani stole? That would set the agency back decades and would be a far bigger intelligence embarrassment than the terrorist attack when everyone they ever talked to on the frontlines of our last remaining war ends up dead. Yet, the chances of that returning in season five with any genuine significance is as likely as finding out what the hell ever happened to Javadi from season three.
This is lazy, lazy, lazy writing that buried a news lead at the bottom so Carrie can spend a little time on staking out her feelings. The payoff for last week is essentially a 30-second final cliffhanger where Carrie discovers that Saul will go along with it, because he is getting Lancaster-ed to the top job again.
That’s great for Saul, but this new plan, as well as the episode, gave Carrie (and viewers) the shaft. We’re expected to care next season about a morally compromised decision by Saul that will leave Carrie on the outs again while knowing of a gray figure high up in power (sounds familiar). But frankly, if it all builds to the nothingness that was the season four finale, then Homeland should have saved enough extra rope to keep Brody company a year ago and been done with it.