“All that suffering and nothing changes.” Homeland’s degree of success as a critique of American foreign policy has varied wildly over the last four seasons, but this one devastating admission almost made up for all of its stumbles. At its best, and in this scene in particular, the fifth season opener served as a nuanced, morally shaded exploration of the war on terror, and may have set us up for the most socially conscious season yet.
We open on a German church service, in which Carrie is waiting patiently to be fed the body of Christ (or, as I called it when I was a kid, “butter Christ” [kht: True story. Also she thought the roof of the church was Heaven.]). Her expression is genuinely serene without being overly pious as she accepts the sacrament, crosses herself, and returns to her pew. We wait for this scene to become part of an undercover assignment, but it never does. Her newfound religion is never mentioned again in the episode, which is a credit to the writing. “Finding God” and becoming disingenuously devout is often an all-too-convenient shorthand for actual character development.
The next scene is another bit of misdirection that serves to indict the audience and/or apologize to the Arab community for past wrongs. It introduces a Middle Eastern man with a furrowed brow who is taking some sort of transportation, holding a mysterious bag on which the camera hones in. This is Homeland, so he’s about to blow something up, right? Wrong. He gets off the train and walks to a seedy club, where he’s admonished for being late. Okay, so he’s going to a sketchy meeting with some other terrorists, right? No, he’s walking through the club to join a nerdy white man in the back room. This scene consciously evoked harmful stereotypes about Middle Easterners for the sole purpose of subverting them, and it was kind of great.
They place captions on what looks like a jihadi recruitment video in order to turn it into an invitation to a giant gay orgy (“Cum join us!” “No penis too small!”) and hack into the organization’s website to post it. They laugh at their slightly homophobic humor, because they’re twelve. The CIA station in Berlin finds them in cyberspace and can immediately tell that they’re not jihadi, so they ping them. (Is this something the CIA would do? Probably not, but whatever.) The boys figure out that the people on the other side are probably government from the security of the server, and try to hack in. This is believable enough, but less credible is that they actually get in, and cause a genuine security breach by stealing over a thousand CIA files. Seriously? There’s an explanation for the breach later, but it’s thin, and I can’t really believe the CIA is this incompetent.
Carrie drives Franny to nursery school on a bike and teaches her to speak German, and it’s adorable enough that we can assume all plans to drown her are tabled for now. Franny looks approximately three years old now, which means that some two years have passed since the fourth season finale. It also means that we no longer get to look at that baby who looked so much like Brody it gave me nightmares, but the cute little girl’s red hair is still sufficient to remind us of him. It’s Franny’s birthday, and Carrie tells her that she’ll see her “soon.” In a few months, maybe? The next time she needs illegal medication from her sister? No, “at your party!” I can hardly imagine Carrie finding the selflessness to be a good parent so neatly, but I suppose two years can be long enough for drastic personality change. We’ll see.
And developed she has, as the former Queen of Drones is no longer working for the CIA, but for the bleeding heart During Foundation. The building is sterile, grayscale, and corporate, and Carrie walks in with the stride of someone who knows she’s sold out but has no compunction about it, moral or otherwise. Her boss, Otto During, and a generically handsome redhead tell her that there’s a glut of refugees coming into Lebanon from Syria, and a crisis is brewing at the border. They are headed to the refugee camp in Lebanon with “some additional security,” and Carrie is the first of many people in this episode to point out that they may need more than a couple of hired guns to brave a bonafide war zone, but Otto is undeterred.
Quinn! Oh, how I’ve missed you. He’s holding his hands together tightly in his lap like they’re about to fall off. His despondent profile is drenched in shadows, and he’s staring out into space with a bad case of dead eyes. One shot and we can already see that he’s even more tortured than usual, poor thing. Dear old Dar Adal welcomes him back after being on the ground in Syria for the past two years, confirming how much time has passed since last season. “We’re all eager to hear about your experience there,” he says, and Quinn looks away to hide his withering stare/emotional turmoil. He begins the debrief reluctantly, practically whispering until Dar asks him to “speak up,” and I just want to give him a hug. (Ugh, I’m such a groupie.) He’s been heading up a special ops program, and they’ve been “busy,” although a belligerent bureaucrat points out that ISIL is still flourishing, and all of the killing is not necessarily adding up to anything. “Is our strategy working?” asks the bureaucrat. “What strategy?” Quinn spits. “Tell me what the strategy is, and I’ll tell you if it’s working.” Ouch. There’s an indictment of American foreign policy if I’ve ever heard one. [kht: I dunno, considering Quinn’s answer is “Burn up Ar-Raqquah and turn into a psychotic secret assassin,” I’m not sure the CIA looks so bad here!]
A hush comes over the room as Quinn embraces his role as a maverick and gets a great, “Fuck it, let’s do it live” look on his face, and then the show gets back to its problematic, sensationalist roots. The terrorists have a strategy, Quinn says, they know exactly why they’re there. The “end times.” “What do you think the beheadings are about? … Do you think they make this shit up? It’s all in the book. Their only fucking book, it’s the only thing they read. They read it all the time. They never stop.” They’re working for a singular goal: to die for their faith, and usher in a world without infidels. This last point works beautifully as a commentary on the difficulty of combating fanaticism of any kind, but the rest of his speech is unnecessarily anti-Islamic.
But this may not actually be offensive in the context of the rest of the show, as it makes sense that Quinn would become jaded and jingoistic as a result of his traumatic experiences. This interpretation is supported by the rest of the scene, as Quinn first suggests that America invade Syria with 200,000 troops (because that always works), and in lieu of that, “pound Ar-Raqquah into a parking lot.” Solid.
None of the bureaucrats have the stomach to swallow Quinn’s offerings, and Dar admonishes Saul, who was responsible for prepping Quinn to play nice. Saul gives a very Saul-like answer and shrugs that Quinn”went off-book.” That’s one way of putting it. Dar is worried about Quinn, again reinforcing the notion that Quinn is sort of losing his shit. But then again, Saul says that they’ve been “sitting in a bunker, talking to ourselves,” and that it’s good for them to hear “the truth.” I’m not sure if the audience is supposed to agree with him, but I haven’t forgiven him since he was cruel to Fara about her hijab, and I’m hoping the show is with me to some extent.
Carrie and Franny are a happy little family together at her birthday party, and are joined by the not-so-surprising guest of Generic Redheaded Coworker (fine, his name is Jonas), who is Carrie’s new boyfriend. It’s brilliant casting, as Alexander Fehling looks like a more conventional, more accessible version of Brody, and with his red hair matching Franny’s, the three of them look almost eerily like a nuclear family (or actually, Carrie looks like the odd woman out, but more on that later). Jonas asks her about the trip to Lebanon, and Carrie exposits that she “took the job at the Foundation for a reason,” because she needs to insist she did the right thing by quitting the CIA in every single scene.
A reporter named Laura Sutton breaks up Carrie’s domestic bliss, both because she attempts to ensnare Carrie back into the trenches and because she seems to have some kind of awkward history with Jonas. She tells Carrie about the security breach, and as it turns out, the American government has an illegal agreement with Germany to spy on jihadi terrorists in Berlin as an end-run around German privacy laws. Carrie refuses to verify that the information is true, as it would “violate her agreement with the Agency” (so she’s some kind of consultant? Or does she mean an NDA? Most likely the former, if she still has security clearance). Carrie does a great job of appearing to be at a healthy emotional distance from the CIA, until Sutton says that she intends to publish the documents. Carrie betrays her lingering investment by entreating Sutton to hold off until she considers “the damage it could do.” We all get Snowden flashbacks as Sutton calls out the damage perpetrated by security agencies and their “illegal bullshit. What about that?” That would have been enough, but Homeland goes one step too far by having Sutton say, “You can take the girl out of the CIA, but…” Yeah, we got it, Homeland, we’re hip to your lingo now.
Later, Carrie puts little Franny to bed, and teases Jonas for hiding out while Laura was there. He apologizes for letting a “vampire” in the house, and I start to like him a little less. Never trust a guy who talks shit about his exes, Carrie. [kht: In Jonas’s defense, Laura is literally the worst.] But for the most part, he’s nice and boring, and Carrie desperately wants (or is desperately trying to want) a nice and boring life. She laments that her old life came back to haunt her, and reiterates unprompted that she “doesn’t want to be in that world. I want to be here, with you and Franny.” Methinks she doth protest too much? Jonas gently reminds her that she doesn’t have to allow herself to be sucked back in, she doesn’t have to verify secret documents or go to Lebanon. But if we know Carrie, that’s precisely her trouble. She does have to.
It’s telling, of course, that in the very next scene, she’s right back at the CIA. She meets with Allison Carr, the new station chief whom Carrie knows from Baghdad. Allison acts like a dear old friend at first, but demurs when Carrie asks her for intel on the situation at the Lebanese-Syrian border. In the awkwardness that follows, Carrie apologizes for showing up for the first time to ask for help, admitting that she “didn’t want to be one of those people who don’t seem to understand that once you’re out, you’re out.” Carr senses weakness in Carrie’s resolve to be “out,” as do we all, and abruptly switches gears to extorting information about the Foundation’s agenda, claiming that During has “burned them” more than once. Carrie seems genuinely shocked at Carr’s duplicity, and claims that she knows nothing of interest. Carr swiftly gives her a kick out the door with an ice-cold, “My assistant told you this would have to be quick,” and the warning that Saul is on his way, expositing that he and Carrie “aren’t really talking.” Again, we could have gleaned that from the warning alone.
And of course, since this is television, Carrie runs into Saul as she’s leaving through the back door. Carrie puts on a brave face and tries some small talk, but Saul isn’t having any of it. They have a highly explicit conversation about all of their grievances with each other (Saul’s with Carrie, mostly, but what else is new). For people who “aren’t really talking,” they certainly have no problem talking about exactly what is bothering them. Saul was upset with her for tanking his bid for directorship, but now is miffed that she crossed over to the Dark Side of the private sector. It’s annoying that they’re saying all of this out loud, but Saul’s stated problems with the Foundation are so interesting, it almost makes it worth it. “During’s family made a fortune in World War II working prisoners to death in their steel mills. So yeah, maybe he’s got some karmic dues to pay. You? What are you atoning for?” This has enough truth to hurt, especially considering that the first scene of the episode found her in a church, and her denials of this accusation ring much less true. Saul is incensed that she would atone for “keeping America safe,” and calls her “naive and stupid” for believing that the Foundation does good work.
This scene, while clunky at times, is ultimately fascinating, because it illustrates both characters’ massive blindspots. Carrie may be right that her work at the Foundation is less morally ambiguous, but one can also see why Saul would view it as the easy way out. It’s easy to be quixotic when you aren’t taking on full responsibility for the safety of a country. And on a more personal level, Carrie is likely running away from herself and her true nature to a certain extent, although Saul is presumptuous to assume that her old life was perfectly aligned with her character.
And then there’s Saul, who has always challenged Carrie’s beliefs, but is now a full-fledged moral foil. Where Carrie is abdicating the responsibility of making morally gray decisions on a daily basis, Saul hubristically accepts the position of playing God without any qualms. He’s underground in a bunker, literally immersed in the CIA and wholeheartedly buying the party line, while she’s actively trying to come up for air and think for herself. He condemns her for turning her back on the mission, without acknowledging the value of questioning it.
Back at the Foundation, Carrie tries to tell Otto that the trip to Lebanon isn’t feasible, when Laura shows up to guilt Carrie about acquiescing to the CIA on yet another matter. Carrie complains that she’s getting it from all sides, and Laura soapboxes that Carrie “spent the last ten years killing people. It’s not enough just to stop, you need to do something.” I wouldn’t call her a vampire quite yet, but Laura’s pretty abrasive. Even I think that characterizing Carrie’s work as “killing people” is reductive, and that’s saying something. Again, it’s all a little too explicit, but the scene works overall, if only to set up the moral questions of this season. And if this new era of Homeland becomes a morality play in spy thriller’s clothing, I’ll take that over thinly veiled pro-American propaganda any day of the week.
Otto tells Carrie why he “has to” go to Lebanon: the refugees will run out of food and medicine by the end of the week, and several other rich people in Lebanon are going to write large checks, but only if he’s there in person. “It’s not a question of whether it is safe or unsafe, only whether it’s possible.” It’s an interesting moment, as the facts of the situation provide support for Carrie’s assertion that the Foundation is “doing good work,” but Otto’s sense of martyrdom could be a sign that he is, in fact, being naive and/or atoning for past sins.
At the Berlin station, Saul just found out about the leaked files, and he is not a happy camper. He won’t stop giving the death glare while the tech gives the lame excuse for the breach (they “left some cabling behind” while moving the computers to a different floor or something implausible like that), and nearly makes the poor man wet his pants. Allison confirms to Saul that the breach is just as bad as he thinks it is, and that the world will likely know about the illegal surveillance very soon.
They meet with the Germans–a man we don’t know and Astrid, Quinn’s ex-lover who works for the German embassy–with their tail between their legs, admitting that they “screwed up,” but maintaining that the surveillance should continue, as Germany’s terrorist problem is not going away. The man leaves in a huff, unequivocally dissolving their partnership, while Astrid remains, verbally agreeing with him but clearly conflicted. Saul tells her that Germany is in more danger from the jihadis in Berlin than America, and she tells them in a resigned way to cover their tracks, because she can’t help them anymore. We’ll see about that, Astrid; I’d expect her to return in a prominent role sometime soon.
Once alone, Allison complains to Saul that the Germans have lost their nerve, hilariously asking, “What’s wrong with them, these new Germans?” Saul says wistfully that they used to “fight like hell,” which once again opens the door to social commentary. The pall of Germany’s history as global aggressors hung over this entire episode in a subtle way, possibly highlighting the unpleasant truth that America might be fulfilling that same role in the modern day.
Carrie meets with a renowned Imam and scholar in order to ask his help reaching the Hezbollah commander in Berlin. Hezbollah controls the refugee camp, and the Foundation needs their permission if they’re going to achieve safe passage. The Imam is reluctant, but apparently passes on her message, as a couple of men pull a sack over her head, throw her into a van, and abduct her the next time she’s leaving church. When the sack comes off, she’s in a darkened room, sitting on a chair with her wrists tied. It’s terrifying, and a little early to tease Carrie in serious danger, but Carrie seems to know immediately that she’s probably not in mortal peril, as she asks them to take off her restraints. But they refuse, because one of her captors lost two of his men in an assassination attempt on Abu Nazir. “We both have known losses,” she says, trying to emphasize that she was just a soldier in a war, but he’s not buying it. “You hunt us, you kill our families, you keep us from our homeland.” (You know shit’s getting real when they let an Arab man do a title drop.) And here comes my favorite part: “All that suffering and nothing changes,” Carrie agrees. “It’s one reason I don’t work for the government anymore.”
This softens him enough that he listens to her request for safe passage into the refugee camp. They won’t be able to handle the influx of refugees from Syria, she says, and are risking disease and starvation on a massive scale. “Our strength is our suffering,” he responds, and just when we think he might start waxing poetic about religious martyrdom, he continues, “and you provide us with an endless supply.” She tells him that the Foundation can reimburse him for any expenses, and it’s at least the third time this episode that Carrie’s tactics portray the Foundation as throwing money at complex problems. But he isn’t interested in money, as Carrie was responsible for his son’s death in Beirut. It’s painted in broad strokes, but the writers are trying to tell us that he’s not a faceless zealot, he’s a person who is fighting his enemies, just as Carrie was. She tries to depersonalize it by telling him that he’s obliged to pass along her message to the Commander, but he simply walks away.
In other news, the two most boring/irritating new characters talk on the phone. Laura is checking in with Jonas about her whistleblower article, he cagily tells her that there’s nothing wrong from a legal standpoint, but exhorts her to wait until they’ve considered the national security ramifications. “Even Snowden didn’t just leak everything onto the internet,” he says, and she responds with “it’s only the one document,” which–no. I’m not necessarily saying she shouldn’t post the article, but that logic makes no sense. The danger lies in the sensitivity of the information, not the amount of it, and she’s smart enough to know that. Jonas seems like he might have succeeded in convincing her to hold off, had he not seen strange men unceremoniously dump Carrie out of a dark car at that very moment. He hangs up on Laura to help Carrie, and she posts the article out of spite.
Meanwhile, Saul gives Quinn some sort of super-secret spy signal, and Quinn dutifully breaks into a man’s home and brutally knocks him out. When the man awakes, Quinn is building explosives and giving him a wry, mildly sociopathic monologue. While the man’s preferred explosive material, potassium chloride, ignites more reliably, Quinn prefers ammonium nitrate, because the smell of the former reminds him of “freshly mopped hallways, and hospital toilets. The visitors’ changing room at a high school basketball game.” This imagery gets to the heart of Quinn’s emotional state right now; he’s sickened by his ability to clean up messes, to neatly sanitize festering ugliness. “Two minutes to paradise,” he says, as he coolly leaves the man to die in an explosion, the clean kind of murder from which Quinn can just walk away without a trace.
And it looks like Quinn won’t claw his way out of this mire anytime soon, as he’s about to become Saul’s own personal assassin. They have a clandestine meeting in a locker room, and Quinn makes me a groupie again when he tells Saul that his target “is a martyr in Paradise, and I’m stuck here.” Saul blows right past Quinn’s existential angst and tells him that according to their new arrangement, Quinn will no longer be affiliated with the CIA, which means no support, no acknowledgement if he’s caught, and no direct contact (I don’t know, that sounds like the CIA to me). He’ll receive targets in the form of photographs in a box, and then money after proof of death. His first target is a woman who recruits kids for suicide bombings in Syria. Saul, much like a jihadist, has absolute conviction that these deaths are for the greater good, while Quinn has just given up. He’s resigned to being a trained bloodhound because he doesn’t know how to do anything else.
We end on a quiet scene with Carrie, who is profoundly lost, not least because she’s caught in a quagmire between all of these moral perspectives. She lies awake next to Jonas and Franny, both of whom are sleeping tranquilly. As far as I can tell, she loves them and wants to be satisfied with her life, but is inherently restless. She has always thrived on conflict, and that’s a difficult habit to break. She gets a cryptic call from the Hezbollah inviting Otto During to the refugee camp, and looks back over at Jonas and Franny, who are adorable and look so much like father and daughter it’s scary. We can only guess that she knows Lebanon will mean leaving them in more ways than one.
See you next week!