This Homeland review contains spoilers.
Homeland Season 8 Episode 8
There is one scene that elevates tonight’s Homeland above its otherwise labored and overwrought plot machinations. You already know what I’m talking about. For the first time in the whole series, Carrie appears to give Max Piotrowski more than a passing minute’s consideration. Okay, to be fair she’s been obsessed with getting him back for the last two or three episodes, but that only came as a result of her asking him to stay longer by a crash site than he should to retrieve the black box.
Tonight however, she has time to wait for an ever late helicopter and body bag, and time to think about an absolution that will not come. It wasn’t just that she put Max in harm’s way for the proverbial good of the American public; it’s that she didn’t really consider the ramifications of it until he’s lying as a cold corpse in front of her. One wonders if it wasn’t even until she saw the bullet in his back last week that she understood this mission was about more than retrieving proof of a faultless helicopter crash—it was about retrieving a friend she always kept at arm’s length like a liked colleague and only a colleague.
Now that he’s gone, dying how he lived as a subject out of focus from Carrie’s gaze, she finally understands “everywhere I went, Max would wound up by my side.” It is Carrie’s reflection of grief, as well as Homeland’s acknowledgement of Carrie’s own callousness toward a friend that has been here since season 1 that gives “Threnody(s)” a much needed grace note. Carrie Mathison took Max for granted, and maybe we did as well. I even admit that last week I focused more on the realpolitik issues in my review than the threat to Max’s life, assuming that some Deus ex Machina would save him in the end.
Instead Max wasn’t even given the dignity of a close-up when Jalal brutally executed him, as if he were a piece of garbage ready for the trash heap. It was a cold but effective choice on the showrunners and director’s part, denying Carrie and viewer alike a sense of closure in this major death. Rather we’re asked to stew with Carrie Mathison about one more regret. All of which allows her to make a sure-to-be new one when she learns on Yevgeny for support. He reveals to her that despite spending months in delirium rambling about her life, she never saw once need to mention Max. Assuming that’s true, this means she forgot the man who helped her first bug Brody’s house, and then was ready to clean up the mess when they first busted him as a traitor on a wire; Max also followed her to Pakistan and watched Fara Sherazi die in front of him; Max even helped her take care of Franny, perhaps more reliably than she herself ever could.
Claire Danes’ familiar weeping countenance is suddenly fresh and heartbreaking when those tears fall on a rigid friend’s remains. This is what catharsis feels like for a failure that we’re complicit in. It’s also the type of smart writing that really reveals we’re in the final season—and thereby creates a desperate palate cleanser for the type of series finale writing that made tonight’s episode otherwise top-heavy and creaky.
The most obvious narrative derailment comes during the climax of the episode in which Carrie is seemingly reconciled with Saul only to wind up back in the arms of the Russian GRU, closer than ever. It begins innocuous enough with Saul sticking up for Carrie against Mike Dunne. Mike is ready to call her a collaborator or worse while Saul points out that, no, Carrie found Max for them while everyone else was ignoring this vital lead. Then again that included Saul, so his surprise support of Carrie here belies how mechanical and rote some of the writing tonight otherwise was.
Indeed, when the big moment comes of Saul reuniting with Carrie, he promises that he’ll back her up against charges of treason and disloyalty, and she in turn reveals that she maybe knows where the black box is and that she wisely did not tell Yevgeny about it. However, the military personnel with Saul then ignore the National Security Advisor’s protests and attempt to bind Ms. Mathison in restraints.
To be clear, Carrie has every right to be furious about this development and should be shouting bloody murder at Saul considering she has the only lead that could prevent a renewed 20 years of war (more on that in a moment). But for her first instinct to be to pull a gun on U.S. servicemen and to then run to the arms of the Russians all play a bit… convenient.
Not unlike Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones’ final season immediately construing public love for Jon Snow as a threat to her power, this is the type of plot point that on paper could work but in execution seems rushed and clumsy. Carrie would certainly know that with suspicious eyes already turned toward her for suggesting President Warner come to Afghanistan, she would be in some degree of hot water after lying about getting on a plane to Berlin and then driving off with Yevgeny. This is a man who, again, masterminded a devastating attack at the heart of American democracy just a year or so earlier.
Even if proverbial handcuffs were especially insidious, she knew there’d be some ‘splaining to do and likely months of FBI interviews after the fact. Best case scenario, it was the end of her career at the CIA. Saul told her as much when he said if there was an investigation, it would “define the rest of your life.” Yet, as with her choice to leave Franny in order to go to Russia, she picked the mission over herself.
I suppose that’s the point: She’ll pick national security over her own self-interest until there is no self left to give. But she’s also a realist in these matters, so for her to be shocked at initial hostility, and for her course of action to be to dig the grave deeper by pulling a gun and then running to a literal enemy for protection, is brazenly contrived. Even if she can no longer see straight around Yevgeny, I just don’t buy this scene, which damages the whole season. Aye, Carrie’s final arc likely pivots on this scene. After that action, Saul will not be able to protect her, and it’s likely what set her permanently on the path of Nicholas Brody-styled ignominy.
I appreciate the symmetry but remain skeptical of how we got here…. And yes, Yevgeny has been playing the long game this whole sojourn to the Pakistan border, and it paid off beautifully tonight when she confessed to him she knows where the flight recorder with Warner’s last minutes on earth is located.
There was similar plotting convenience in President Hayes’ war room tonight. Obviously the new POTUS has turned out to be a weak, feckless man but such indecision over saving Max, who is being used as a hostage to keep Haqqani alive is arbitrary. While I totally buy that Hayes would attempt to stay Haqqani’s execution so as to buy some time to rescue Max, and that G’uolm in turn would ultimately ignore the request as he is a strongman whose nose all but recoils at the stench of Hayes’ cravenness, going in and saving Max is a no-brainer.
Even with the situation has 50/50 odds, this is not similar to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, as that required breaking Pakistani sovereignty with the chance of bin Laden not actually being there—a potential international humiliation—nor is it comparable to Jimmy Carter’s failure to save embassy hostages in Iran, because American voters had spent six months beleaguered by the crisis. Some polls suggest it wasn’t just that the rescue attempt failed, but that it never got close to succeeding with helicopters crashing in the desert.
The danger around Max, from a purely political point-of-view, is that he will be executed on camera, which could then be used as morale-sapping Taliban propaganda throughout the Middle East. America lived through multiple such tragedies under the past two administrations that each saw strong reelections. So even if Max had been executed in a failed attempt to save him, it wouldn’t have been on camera (or the men who were filming it would have soon been dead anyway). The political fallout of failure was small.
But it created a circumstance to drive Carrie further away from America, as the military did nothing while Max was executed, and it gave us one more reason to hate Hayes. However, there’s already enough there with him being easily manipulated by the neocons.
John Zabel, the new neocon counter to David Wellington, is an effectively smarmy personality. He obviously is a stand-in for all the conservative players who championed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and who paid no permanent political price for their blunders which they are always ready to triple and quadruple down on. Yet Hugh Dancy, who plays Zabel, appears a bit too youthful to be one of the masterminds behind the War in Iraq. In truth I wonder if he is supposed to mirror some of the new nationalist styled hardliners like Stephen Miller, who pride themselves on infecting presidential speeches with counterproductive and often racist red meat.
So it is when he convinces Hayes to react to Jalal’s baseless claims that he shot down Warner’s helicopter as the evidence to basically declare war on Pakistan, or at least totally alienate the ally. Like a certain modern president calling most Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals being surprised when Mexico will not “pay for the wall,” Zabel and Hayes have broken any sense of honest multilateralism with Pakistan for a generation with language like “a failed and duplicitous state.”
But I suppose that’s the point. This development, sadly, tracks far better than the ones revolving around Carrie at the end of the episode. And hopefully if we give Homeland the mulligan of tonight, the final four episodes can stick the landing—though for the life of me I cannot imagine any facts Carrie discovers about the crash changing the mind of an idiot like Hayes.
For this evening though, it was once again the unsung life and virtue of Max Piotrowski that gave this episode tactile meaning (and an extra star).