This Homeland review contains spoilers.
Homeland Season 8 Episode 1
It’s been a long time since we last saw Carrie Mathison. The vigilant premium cable bulwark against terrorism, Russian espionage, and generally bad news has been on sabbatical for nearly two years since the season 7 cliffhanger revealed her mental state had been shattered by Russian interrogators. It’s been a grim few years for her, and it’s not been a whole lot rosier for us either.
The world has changed and changed again since the last Homeland season finale, and the sometimes seemingly heavy handed realpolitik the series was once universally lauded for has by and large come to pass as reality. It doesn’t seem that long ago when viewers like myself pondered the actual plausibility of someone as compromised by foreign interests as Nick Brody inserting himself into the upper echelons of the executive branch—or that a foreign intelligence operation of social media bots could so disgruntle an entire nation. Now though many of the nightmare scenarios Carrie and Saul Berenson railed against in their fiction became our not-so-quite entertaining fact.
Perhaps that is a credit though to showrunners Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon then. For all of Homeland’s missteps over the years, and there have been many, the series was initially conceived to be a more plausible melodrama about intelligence gathering in the post-9/11 War on Terror years than the pair’s far more ridiculous and jingoistic 24. After years of reactionary fiction, Homeland arrived in the middle of the Obama presidency with a slightly more reflective cadence as it looked back at the world wrought by the 21st century’s patriots and war hawks. In the series’ very pilot, the psychic wounds of Sept. 11, 2001 were still fresh on characters and audiences alike when Carrie pleads, “I just want to make sure we don’t get hit again.” She says this just minutes after the series opened during Carrie’s last days in Iraq.
In many ways, the foreign policy mistakes of those fearful days have determined the world we have now, and shows like Homeland that were borne of this era. It’s fitting then that for the final year of Homeland, Carrie and Saul, Gansa and Gordon, return to where arguably the original sin of modern foreign policy: Homeland returns to Afghanistan.
The country that remains the site of America’s longest (and still continuing) war, Afghanistan remains a precarious situation with a government aided by American support facing daily struggle and menace from the Taliban—the militant organization and war lords still attacking the country they once ruled before the U.S. overthrew them 19 years ago. And much like our world, American apathy for the war is only piqued in Homeland when some leaders try to hasten its end.
That includes the new President Warner (Beau Bridges, credited but not appearing in this episode), who has made getting out of Afghanistan a top priority even though, as Saul helpfully tells journalists and audiences alike in one of the episode’s first scenes, it would mean the Kabul government could collapse in as little as six weeks. Hence his unenviable position of brokersing a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
By returning to the root of the War on Terror, Homeland is intentionally causing us to take stock of American foreign policy in this century and the sacrifices that’ve been made for it. And on the show, it is hard to imagine greater sacrifice than that offered by Carrie.
Over the course of the series, Carrie has been scapegoated and ostracized by her own government (twice), watched two lovers die in agony, and most recently gave up complete custody over her daughter so she could become martyred as a Russian prisoner. She has given everything for the country, the CIA, and the fear of not being hit again. But she has been hit constantly, including by a skeptical agency that is unsure they should take her back.
When the episode begins, Carrie seems to have a stable, even healthy, daily routine. Excluding nightmares of her slow mental decline and torture in a Russian gulag, she runs every day, reads, and appears on the mend. Not bad for someone who forgot half a year of her life. That’s how much time she lost, 180 days, due to the denial of her medication by Russian interrogators. Six months are completely gone. Worse still, they’re lost to one of her worst fears of “going mad.” That terror is now being held against her by the agency she’s desperate to get back to. As we learn during her latest interview, she failed her polygraph on multiple questions, including perhaps most heinously whether she gave actionable intelligence to the Russians.
She claims she never did, but as the episode reveals, even Carrie has good reason to doubt that’s true about the lost half-year. On a certain level, it makes Carrie’s choice to want to return to the agency suspect. She’s walked away from the CIA before and been happier as a result. But then you remember everything she built that happiness on: a daughter, a friend in the basement who needed help, love of her father and sister. Family. But Carrie was never one who planned on stability or sought domesticity. It coming to her was almost luck. Still, it was never her active choice.
That choice was always the mission, the agency, the fear of not being hit again. That’s what always has been her North Star, and why it’s almost as terrifying to find out her own colleagues think she’s lost it.
Thus what Saul soon does seem particularly callous. After Afghani Vice President Abdul G’ulom threatens to never release any Taliban prisoners as part of a successful peace deal with the war lords, the Taliban are threatening to walk. Off the bat, this signals how weak the Afghan government is since the vice president is undermining the authority of the country’s president and foreign minister (I can relate to the feeling of suddenly wobbly institutions), but more presently it promises to create instant chaos in a region the U.S. seeks to abandon. So Saul makes two rather stunning calls: the first is he will allow the Taliban to have back five of their 32 detained fighters and leaders languishing in Guantanamo Bay. This in itself is a shocking concession that will surely have repercussions when the White House becomes more directly involved in future weeks.
Secondly, he decides to pull Carrie out of her recovery and put her on the frontline of spy games in Afghanistan. This isn’t just because he thinks she is ready to go back in the field—in fact, he almost dares underlings in Germany to give him a reason not to—but he also does so after being told that it could decimate her recovery from the mental torture in Russia.
“It’s an important mission,” Saul says evenly. “I’m okay with a setback.” That call both sets the stakes of this for Saul and also puts another tragic wrinkle into his and his protégé’s lives. Saul has always viewed Carrie as a daughter. It’s the reason that their papa bear and apprentice connection has proven more everlasting than any other relationship on this long-running series. Neither of Carrie’s tortured paramours, nor even her love of a daughter, could overcome her devotion to the agency and the man who trained her. Saul has shown that time and again too, but he’s also shown a cold calculating ability to live with self-loathing in order to achieve greater national security ends.
In essence, he is accepting he may have to sacrifice Carrie, or at least her mental health, all over again in order to save Afghanistan from chaos. I’m always fascinated by character beats that can instantaneously paint a familiar face in conflicting lights. This is both selfish and selfless. But once again he puts Carrie’s priorities below that of the agency, reminding us to ask, “Why the hell does she want to stay embedded with these people?”
It’s understandable why Saul wants Carrie though. In an almost forgotten footnote in the Homeland mythos, but Carrie Mathison once ran the Kabul bureau as the “Drone Queen.” Other than an opening sequence during season 4, this all happened between seasons, but Afghanistan was her beat for several years. During that time, she built contacts that could still be useful in 2020. Contacts like G’ulom. She might even be able to knock some sense into him (or lean on someone who can).
The choice, however, is a creatively daring one. I’m not alone in thinking Homeland Season 4, which introduced the Drone Queen moniker, was one of the lowest points in the series. After belying the death of Brody perhaps a season too long, Homeland was rather listless in its midlife, hitting a nadir when Carrie went the full Jack Bauer in Europe during season 5. The series has since rebounded with a renaissance about actual trouble in the homeland over the last two seasons—both presaging and responding to the Trump presidency. But by going back to Carrie’s time as a station chief in Kabul, the show is now bringing back a lot of lingering plot threads and bad blood from the season set in Islamabad, Pakistan.
In fact, a coterie of familiar faces is returning from that era. A welcome one among them is Nimrat Kaur as Tanseem Qureishi, a Pakistani intelligence officer who helped let an attack on a U.S. embassy in Islamabad. Then something of a Carrie-like doppelganger she now better resembles Saul as his counter in the stalling peace talks with the Taliban. She is not unwelcome though, given she is one of the few antagonists on the series who got the better of both Saul and Carrie—and here she offers a new and more honest Pakistani perspective on American foreign policy.
There’s also Max. Poor, sweet Max. It’s narratively convenient that his tenuous relationship with the CIA has brought him into Afghanistan around the same time Carrie is being thrown back in the field, but narrative sloppiness aside, it’s nice to see the lovelorn techie finally pursuing justice for Fara Sherazi. He will provide intelligence that lets the CIA know what the Taliban is actually thinking.
In the meantime, however, Carrie is immediately immersed in a tense situation with few friends. A pair of new characters that intrigue is Mike Dunne (Cliff Chamberlain) and Jenna Bragg (Andrea Deck). The former apparently worked for Carrie back in her Kabul days, and the latter is introduced as a potential protégé. Mike suggests Carrie take it easy on Jenna, who will be her liaison who hasn’t quite found her sea legs out here. And Jenna, in turn, asks Carrie for advice, woman to woman.
Carrie is her usual curt self when she gives Jenna the advice to stop whining. However, classic television formula suggests that in the final season Carrie will find a younger version of herself to mentor in this world: a green novice who needs a crash course in Carrie Mathison diplomacy…. but I doubt the writers’ room are going for anything quite that straightforward. We already know Mike doesn’t trust Carrie and is spying on who she texts on her phone. I think there is a strong likelihood that Jenna is not that cub scout that he warned a woman he dislikes about—rather she is going to get close to Carrie in order to report back to Mike.
It’s one possible narrative thread. But the immediate one of the night is Carrie learning an old asset who was like a friend is now dead. He was, in fact, dragged out of his home five months ago and murdered by the Taliban for cooperating with the Americans. The problem is that only Carrie knew he was an asset—she never reported him to headquarters like Saul asked. (I imagine there’s a litany of unreported assets still in the field who haven’t been pulled out.) And yet, he is dead, murdered while she was in captivity.
Suddenly, the question is whether Carrie unintentionally gave him up while in a mentally imbalanced state. Realistically, it is the only plausible solution. If only Carrie knew he worked with the CIA, and we know the Russians are knee-deep in disrupting American policy (as ever), the SVR sharing that information if only to spite the Americans seems likely.
It’s almost foregone after tonight’s cliffhanger. While waiting for her meeting with G’ulom, already rattled she might’ve given up an asset, the Russian spook who meddled in our elections, Yevgeny, comes out to shake Carrie to her core.
Thus ends an intriguing if not necessarily exhilarating kickoff to Homeland’s final run. While I remain faintly wary about returning to the Middle East for the final season given some of Homeland’s checkered history, it makes clear sense for the series.
A show posited around the idea of looking into the scars of a post-9/11 and post-Bush world, Homeland is now post-Obama too and has enough perspective to take a long look at the world it’s been dramatizing. That also includes its depiction of Arab and Islamic characters that have often been depicted as a source of antagonism if not outright terror. While Saul would be a fool to trust Tanseem an iota, her measured return suggests a need to reevaluate past mistakes, just as she throws America’s failed policy back into Saul’s face.
Most of all though, it is a place of reckoning for Carrie. Studying this region of the world was her calling after 9/11, leading her to Brody and then luring her back with career advancement after his death. It was the horrors of an embassy assaulted in Pakistan that forced her to flee the agency once, and now as she wants back in after giving so much, she must confront her own legacy as well. This could very well be an elegiac and lyrical sendoff. It also might be too early to say just that based on these few notes, but I’m ready for the series to enter its final movement.