This Homeland review contains spoilers.
Homeland Season 8 Episode 11
The character of Carrie Mathison is on trial in the final hours of Homeland. Yes, I am speaking about the arraignment wherein she is being thrown under the bus via ludicrous charges. But there’s also a second trial that the ending of Homeland is more acutely pivoting on: Do her good intentions and self-sacrifice cultivate more harm than good? And is the system she represents so heroically on television actually succeeding at anything beyond spinning deadly spy games to their natural, isolating outcome?
On the first point, much of tonight’s episode, “The English Teacher,” feels like what we’ve come to traditionally expect from latter day Homeland with its emphasis on ticking clocks and spectacular White House ineptitude that could result in global catastrophe. In this context, Carrie Mathison is being turned into a scapegoat for the U.S. government. Beginning the episode in handcuffs, she is again a step behind the rest of the world as she learns that the CIA agents she got arrested in Islamabad became cannon fodder for another terrorist with an itchy explosives finger. Her lawyer—the always welcome Chris Bauer—even informs her that this was days ago and Jenna Bragg is now slated to testify against her.
The FBI seems to have so severely stacked the deck against Carrie that it’s a massive mulligan Homeland asks us to believe in when Bauer announces she is going to get out on bond due largely to the strength of Saul Berenson’s National Security Advisor status. More absurd still is that the FBI would have no way to track her movements as she runs around D.C., tampering with witnesses like Jenna Bragg—who is turn leaving Walter Reade without her own eagle eyed feds escort—and then taking trips into the countryside. Considering that the Justice Department trying to peg the assassination of the President of the United States on Ms. Mathison, this is a pill so large to swallow it could choke a horse.
But down it must go given how strong much of the rest of the episode is, including the moment where Carrie is finally notified of her charges. In a secure courtroom, the judge reads off Carrie’s charges like he’s ordering dinner at a restaurant he faintly disapproves of: multiple counts of providing support to a “foreign terrorist organization,” one count as accessory to the murder of President Ralph Warner, and multiple counts of accessory to the murders of the CIA Islamabad team.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Claire Danes is terrific in this moment. Within a character she’s intimately essayed for almost a decade, she embodies patriotism to a point beyond sacrifice or self-interest; she’s someone who in every Homeland opening credits reminds us that even well into the first term of the Obama administration, she was still scarred by 9/11. “I just want to make sure we don’t get hit again.” And yet, here she is being labeled a traitor in all but name and, worse, a fool used by the Russians to hit us harder than any other single terrorist act of the last 19 years. The look of defeat and dawning horror on Carrie’s face is heartbreaking and infectious.
Perhaps there’s some indignation in there as well. Is it believable that the government, especially led by a bad faith president like Hayes looking for someone to blame would destroy the life of a career public servant? We’ve seen that happen countless times in the last three years, albeit not to this extreme extent. However, Carrie is also a woman who sounded the alarm on one of the most famous traitors in Homeland’s version of U.S. history: almost-vice president Nicholas Brody. She also saved Berlin from a devastating terrorist attack, prevented a president-elect’s assassination in a makeshift coup, and just a year earlier thwarted Russian intelligence’s attempt to undermine American democracy.
She should be outraged, as should more intelligence and government officials than only Saul Berenson. Which is why Jenna Bragg’s arc this season actually paid off. Introduced along with Mike Dunne at the beginning of the season, she seemed to part of a pair of archetypes: Dunne the condescending asshole and jealous former subordinate, Bragg the would be protégé who will carry Carrie’s baton into the next generation. While Dunne unfortunately remained one-note, Jenna’s small arc added some needed clarity to the final season.
At first I thought the Homeland writers were trying so hard to position her as a shaky heir apparent with a lack of confidence that it was a ruse by the Kabul station to manipulate Carrie, but Jenna turned out to be neither the proverbial mentee-honey pot or an actual clone of Carrie. Rather she represents the values Carrie had in the early seasons that were steadily eroded.
When Carrie came to her tonight with another seeming song and dance, it appeared inevitable Jenna would tell her to take a hike with whispers about stolen flight recorders. But then, in admittedly typical television fashion, Saul makes Carrie’s case for her while oblivious to the fact that Jenna scheduled an appointment to warn him that Carrie is actively plotting a betrayal while living in his house.
But then Saul states what should be obvious to anyone who read Carrie’s file (which appears only to have been the late President Warner and Jenna Bragg): If Carrie tells you there’s a threat or an opportunity, you listen. And for all her disillusionment, Jenna sees that and allows viewers to remember that Carrie should be receiving medals from White House administrations, not the underside of a bus. The woman who pegged Nicholas Brody and, for that matter, found Max Piotrowski while Mike Dunne was sitting on his hands shouldn’t be dismissed despite being a nightmare for any and all colleagues to work with.
And that common sense to read beyond her own frustrated perspective allows Jenna to do the right thing and buy Carrie a few days—although it seems unlikely that she could save Carrie from the wolves fully since she already told prosecutors about what happened in Islamabad—but not without adding a crucial outsider’s gaze at Carrie’s greater trial beyond the pedantic character assassination orchestrated by the DOJ.
By bringing Carrie classified information about Saul’s time in Berlin, the younger woman appears to concede that Carrie is right about the flight recorder. Even so, however, she comes to a conclusions Carrie did way back in season 4.
“I’ve tried to see it like you but I just can’t,” Jenna says before announcing her imminent retirement from the CIA. “I got into this thinking I’d make things better but don’t actually believe that anymore. Now all I see is damage.” She’s speaking personally about what happened to those CIA officers, but she’s also talking about Carrie’s salvation being the trade of a stranger’s life—a stranger who is a friend of sorts to her mentor—for information. To prevent one international sin, Carrie is willing to commit a personal mortal one and condemn someone she never met to a horrible, likely excruciating death by torture.
And we’re rooting for her to do it too. The woman who walked away from the CIA at the end of season 4, saying she had enough after Nick Brody and becoming the Drone Queen, is now betraying a father figure to get a relatively innocent third party slaughtered. In a strange way, Carrie is even backsliding through the moral relativity of espionage, falling back from the War on Terror years to the Cold War. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Jenna is leaving while keeping some semblance of her soul intact, something Carrie tried and failed to do more than five years ago. Jenna is Carrie’s Ghost of Christmas Past for the road not taken. But Carrie’s too far down her own current path to turn back now.
So here we have the real measure of who Carrie is and where her mission and aspirations end. When Saul goes to New York—ducking snooty neocons who believably would be so smug to say “I was right an you were wrong” while ramping up another MidEast war—Carrie goes through his house and files, piecing together when and where Saul could’ve recruited an asset in the Kremlin. We meanwhile get a glimpse of who and what that means to Saul.
In flashbacks that sadly did not cast an Inigo Montoya lookalike, we discover Saul recruited (or was recruited by) an English teacher in East Berlin in ’87, well before the fall of the Berlin Wall. And she isn’t doing it out of greed or political motivation, but rather a personal disdain for the Russian government after they executed all of her students due to a defection. A Woman’s Vengeance, indeed.
It’s even amusing framing where the one scene where it seems like Saul lost his cool in public—dropping F-bombs at the UN in front of a Russian ambassador and a disapproving translator—is still a cold calculation by the ever rational former CIA Director. His question about what is the price for the recorder wasn’t for the ambassador, but his seemingly offended translator.
I’m still not sure if Saul wouldn’t give up his asset to avoid nuclear war if he knew this was the price. He never has the opportunity to really consider it other than Carrie half-heartedly offering it as a mealy mouthed suggestion. A translator obviously cannot effect foreign policy, but is her life worth the surely hundreds of thousands if not millions about to die? It’s hard to say, but then, in retrospect, Yevgeny Gromav never intended to gamble on finding out.
In the closing moments of the finale, Yevgeny’s real play and Carrie’s true predicament become clear. If both the CIA and GRU are aware Saul was stationed in Berlin in the 1980s, drawing a line to the linguistics school where he turned one defector is painfully obvious. Indeed, when Carrie facilitates a video conference with Gromav, at a serendipitously safe social distance, he reveals the documentation on who worked at that school at that time was destroyed in a fire during the fall of East Berlin in ‘89. And really, expecting Carrie to pull a rabbit out of a hat in a handful of days after they haven’t been able to put together themselves in 30 years was always an exceeding longshot.
But, realistically, Yevgeny didn’t want her to find the mole. Or at least only the mole; he wants her to kill Saul Berenson. If she does that, whatever mechanism Saul has in place for his mole would fall to her, and if she’s already compromised herself so much to betray and murder her last friend in the world, she will totally belong to Yevgeny, who will likely demand some type of evidence in return for the flight recorder. One imagines Yevgeny and the GRU would even deliver it in such a way so that the White House is publicly forced to see Carrie as the hero—all the better to situate their own mole who’s sold her soul to them.
This twist makes the heavy handedness of last week’s ultimatum seem chillingly logical and tactically brilliant: We don’t ask Saul because killing Saul is the true endgame. It also leaves Carrie in a literal dark place as she vanishes into the blackness of the lights fading behind her during our final Homeland cliffhanger.
As Mathison begins her final journey into night, we’re left to grapple with her choices and a sense of stomach-churning ambiguity. For the finale, it seems the series is returning to the fog of paranoia that made the series’ early seasons its best ones. While the ticking clock of nuclear war follows in the pattern of existential stakes from the last four seasons, Carrie’s inability to know who to trust or what the right decision is in the murk is why Homeland was originally so compelling in 2011 after a decade of simplistic Jack Bauer histrionics.
Those flashbacks to East Berlin games really does connect the past and present of American espionage, and when coupled with Jenna Bragg’s accusation of damage, we’re left to really question the value of Carrie and even Saul’s good intentions. While smarter and more clear-eyed than the monochromatic jingoism of the John Zabels of the world, which drag us into one generation-defining conflict after another, the attempts to make things better has still left us for decades in Afghanistan. And attempts to strike at al-Qaeda can still leave entire wedding parties slaughtered, as Carrie knows all too well. And Iraqi invasions can destabilize northern territories and a Syrian border to the point that it paves the way for ISIS and a veritable hell on earth.
Now the fallout is being made personal for Carrie. Even if we ignore that acquiescence to the Russians will make her their asset for the rest of her life, suddenly she isn’t being asked to sacrifice some stranger to the proverbial Gulag to “win.” Instead she’s being ordered to murder a friend, a father, and the single shield she has from the outside world’s daggers. He literally left her in his house—a fact he is no doubt regretting as he realizes that Yevgeny has asked a price of Carrie that she deigned not to share with him.
Given that this is Homeland, and ultimately a patriotic show, I am sure that Carrie and Saul will find some way to justify their questionable choices, just as most Americans can point to the net overall good that the post-World War II world order has accomplished, even as the military and intelligence apparatuses have their fair share of bloody hands from botched or chillingly utilitarian operations. But that Homeland is asking us to sit with this during the end of its run shrouds the whole series at shadows. And that’s where it is at its best.