This Homeland review contains spoilers.
Homeland Season 8 Episode 3
Up until tonight, the final year of Homeland has very much felt like it was setting a table: How is Carrie Mathison after her mental break in the captive hands of Russians? What could compel Saul Berenson to put her in the field so soon after such trauma? And why would she get to stay?
The answers were: better but not great; the necessity of preserving Afghanistan War peace talks; and Yevgeny and the gosh darn Russians are up to something again!
It has been interesting, and forced us to reconsider the American legacy of the early 21st century in the years after 9/11, which like it or not has constantly had Afghanistan at its center. However, it hasn’t necessarily been riveting television either. Tonight that changed for the better in at least one of its two developing plot threads, and it might not be the one you expected.
While Carrie discovering the events during her missing months, and getting “operational payback” on the bastard who stole them, seems like the stronger thread on paper, it was the Shakespearean power plays of the Taliban that turned out to be the first story beat to lift the tension of Homeland Season 8 above a simmer. This is all the more remarkable given the series was obviously risking much in a potential repeat of season 4’s belabored capture and torture of Saul Berenson and his illustrious beard.
I of course didn’t doubt that Homeland would play Saul’s fall into the grasp of Haqqani differently than the past, but I did not predict it would become tonight’s lead story. Yet here we are with the beleaguered but strangely regal warlord taking Saul in as first a prisoner and then, perhaps a little incredulously, a trusted advisor of a sort. Representing two voices from the old guard that helped define the last 20 years in the War on Terrorism—CIA intelligence and religious extremism—they made for an odd pair that also smoothly played the “enemy so old they become a friend” trope.
With that said, it is perhaps too absurd that Haqqani allowed Saul to wander around his compound in Pakistan, even getting to witness his showdown with wayward son Jalal Haqqani. But I suppose Saul is our eyes and ears as a TV audience into the melodramatic breakdown between father and child.
For there is no better description to the introduction of Jalal (Elham Ehsas), an arrogant young man who is the most youthful of Haaqni the elder’s four sons—and the only one left alive. He also, not so surprisingly, worked with Pakistan’s ISI and the duplicitous Tasneem in the plot to kill his father in last week’s motorcade assault. Hence his introduction as a man at prayer, but also in a state of apprehensive waiting. While on his knees, he waits for Tasneem, he awaits confirmation, and he ineffectually expects his moment as leader of the Taliban. This is a loaded plot in which the son schemes to murder the father, but it is not unsurprising, for either television or reality.
While the traitor in Haqqnai’s midst being his son is the height of dramaturgy, the fact is if a leader of a group as militant as the Taliban became old or wizened enough to seek a negotiated peace, a younger generation of fighters would seek to depose him. It’s why the plot of season 8 has so far been a small flight of fancy to think one man could speak for all the warlords and guerrilla fighters who view the American armed forces as occupiers who stole their medieval government.
Nevertheless, Numan Acar is a superb enough actor to bring great weight to the line, “We’re just strong enough never to lose, and just weak enough never to win.” This dialogue is uttered when he has a rope around his son’s neck and is holding a gun to his head.
We, like Saul, watch the drama unfold, fascinated at the power dynamics between generations, and in a culture where every movement is judged by whether it foretells weakness. And, indeed, a father who will not kill his treacherous son nor forgive him—he rather banishes him from sight—does not appear like the fiercest lion at the top of the pride. So the idea that he’ll be able to hold the Taliban at the table, even after agreeing to the parameters of Saul’s peace deal, appear unlikely.
Still, we get one night of pretending like everything is going swimmingly. Saul is released less than one full hour of Homeland after his kidnapping and he is even reporting on his major success to an enthusiastic President of the United States. Yep, President Warner is back—and rather miraculously with David Wellington in tow. (This is another concession to television storytelling that the man who was compromised by a Russian agent still gets to be White House Chief of Staff or any sort of advisor to the next POTUS.)
Carrie is invited to hear the good news, as well as suggest that President Warner begin selling the peace deal with the Taliban by flying to Afghanistan in a show of strength. And yet, as Carrie, Saul, and Warner bask in the win, all the seeds are there for their destruction. For starters, Warner picked as his vice president a veritable Aaron Burr: a political rival who apparently isn’t even waiting a year to mount his political campaign against the guy who elevated him to VP. I’m not sure how the political optics of that would play in any context, but he clearly will begin the bellicose partisan rhetoric that any type of deal with the Taliban is a bad one and tantamount to treason.
This element is heartily believable considering we saw such stupidity occur in the real world when the Iran nuclear deal—which by all accounts was working and brought Iran to the table while allowing Western oversight of their nuclear operations—was jettisoned for partisan rhetoric by a POTUS who has no concept of comprehensive Iran policy. This, by the by, has resulted in a recent missile barrage on a U.S. base while on the precipice of war.
All the apparently power hungry vice president will need is a pretext, and somehow, in some way, Carrie will become the political lightning rod which provides that excuse. Tellingly, they allowed it to be her idea for President Warner to come to Afghanistan (what if he were not able to return?), even as only Saul has full confidence in her. Consider that she did not know Saul had been taken prisoner by the Taliban. Nay, she was kept in the dark by Mike Dunne, who aided her in what he considered at worst a wild goose chase—and at best an excuse to blackball her as a Russian asset.
As has been established this week, Mike does not believe for an instant that Carrie is innocent in Yevgeny’s presence in Kabul, and he only helps her as far as he can to create a noose to slip around her neck. Jenna Bragg, meanwhile, is suggested to be a BFF-styled honeypot trap for Carrie, albeit Carrie remains standoffish and Jenna’s allegiances between Carrie and Mike appear to waver. Nevertheless, Carrie never knew her mentor was in peril—just as she doesn’t know her place in a web of intrigue in which she is the star.
Once she does meet with Yevgeny he creates a situation where no one can hear them talk, but in which he also controls all the questions and their limited answers. Rather than tell Carrie why he’s in Afghanistan, he instead turns it around, suggesting this is a sort of reunion between old friends. He also acts affectionate while revealing that he saved Carrie from apparently trying to kill herself. Afterward they allegedly took long walks outside where she told him about almost drowning Franny.
The series and Yevgeny are positioning him, for the time being, as a friend, but Carrie and we would be fools to believe it. While I wholeheartedly believe he prevented her suicide (her garbled flashback confirms as much), it is only because she was an asset delivering actionable information. If she cannot remember telling him about her greatest shame of almost drowning Franny, then she also could have just as absent-mindedly told him about the Afghan asset who still was mysteriously murdered a few months ago.
Homeland is throwing red herrings left and right if they want us to think she could’ve had an emotional connection with the man who took away her medication, or a Russian who tried to meddle in our elections. Oh, he is red, alright, and he is the villain of the season. He is trying to manipulate Carrie with lies about getting her back on a medication regiment (which she does not remember), and he is going to use her vulnerability to try and get to President Warner in some way. When that happens, Mike Dunne will throw her under the bus faster than you can say David Estes.
Tonight we begin to see more of the dangerous frame Carrie might find herself during Homeland’s final movement, but there is a morbid satisfaction in watching the pieces come together at a slow boil. It’s so intriguing, I can even overlook how randomly underwhelming Max’s subplot of being a regiment’s “lucky charm” has been in his final year on TV.
More of everything else, and less of Max as the captured leprechaun, please.