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Is there any drama on television better at turning shit into sugar than Homeland? The only consistent thing about season five is its inconsistency, its pattern of jolting back to life in the most suspenseful, thrilling way after appearing to wander aimlessly for two or three episodes. After the tight and tense “The Litvinov Ruse,” Homeland went slack in “New Normal,” long enough to give the Carrie and Quinn ‘shippers reason to believe and deflect some heat from Allison so she can play an active role in the final two episodes. “Our Man In Damascus” is a fine return to form, and it also exemplifies why Homeland is such a tricky show to write in its fifth (and forthcoming sixth) season. Homeland has always been two distinctly different shows occupying the same hour, and ideally there’s harmony between the two, but that harmony has become harder to achieve as the show ages.

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Homeland can feel like inessential bullshit one minute, then like the most riveting show on television the next, because its subject matter allows it to upshift from an engrossing, if aimless character drama into a fifth-gear thriller at a moment’s notice. That flexibility comes with as many risks as benefits, which explains why Homeland hasn’t always felt like itself in season five for reasons beyond the uncharacteristic European setting. The truth is that actual intelligence work, as far-reaching and consequential as it is, isn’t particularly interesting to watch as a television show. AMC’s Rubicon was euthanized after a single season in large part because its relatively grounded and realistic depiction of intelligence work didn’t make for a satisfying and fun screen narrative. By contrast, 24 is one of the most popular and influential television shows of the past 20 years, and while there’s nothing remotely realistic or grounded about it, it’s fun as hell. Homeland occupies the midpoint between those two extremes, which enables it to be rudderless in one episode and at Mach speed in the next.

The transition from its contemplative side to its rollicking side is where Homeland always trips up, and how viewers respond to one of the show’s more action-packed episodes depends on how forgiving they are of the wave of contrivances it invariably rides in on. Season four had the same bumpy transition, and as thrilling as is “13 Hours In Islamabad,” the price of admission is a willingness to accept that breaching a U.S. embassy in Pakistan is as simple as walking through an unsecured secret tunnel. Most of the time, Homeland is the type of topical prestige drama to which plausibility, logic, and consistent characterization are vitally important, but it will sacrifice those qualities at a moment’s notice in favor of action and suspense. I was fine with that trade-off last season, because “Islamabad” is a rousing episode. The secret embassy tunnel is a bit clumsy, but a narrative convenience is ultimately forgivable if it moves the story in a satisfying direction, not unlike Carrie’s screensaver sleuthing this season.

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Wobbly characterization is harder to abide, and season five has made a lot of questionable choices in that regard. I’m still not crazy about having Carrie elect to go off her meds in “Super Powers,” because even though there are people with bipolar disorder who avoid medication because they see value in their manic flights, Carrie has never been shown to be remotely conflicted about how the medication is affecting her and has only described her condition as a menace she’s been fortunate to keep at bay. She has taken her pills faithfully since the pilot, and she’s a damn fine intelligence officer when she’s medicated. By contrast, during the brief hiatus from the meds, Carrie didn’t accomplish anything beyond pissing off Jonas and getting abducted by Quinn. But that’s a minor quibble compared to the the dumbing-down of Dar Adal, a character I fear I’ll never be able to take seriously again despite F. Murray Abraham’s confident performance. Dar’s actions in “New Normal” help set up the chess board for “Damascus,” but at the cost of the character’s credibility as a shrewd, high-ranking agency professional. Referring back to the pilot again, Carrie’s campaign to out Brody as a jihadist began when she saw him on TV and noticed his fingers twitching rhythmically, a possible signal to his handlers. Homeland has shown characters using barely perceptible signals and gestures as tradecraft since its very first episode, so it’s basically insane to have a scene in which Dar takes an embattled Allison in with him to question Ivan and allows her to hover behind him and coach Ivan on his answers.

And yet, despite the ill-advised shortcuts the writers took to get to “Damascus,” the result is one of the best standalone episodes of Homeland in years. The show is never more alive than when its characters are working to prevent an imminent terrorist attack, the type of story Homeland hasn’t told since its second season. Because “Damascus” is exclusively about the Sarin attack in Berlin and the intelligence community’s attempts to thwart it, the episode is laser-focused, lean, and suspenseful. “Damascus” suffers from the same contrivances as the episodes preceding it, but when the show is in thrill-ride mode, it overpowers such left-brained considerations like 24 before it. It’s a more than worthwhile hour of television, but it couldn’t have happened without the goofy story choices that led up to it. Loving Homeland at this stage of its life cycle means accepting that it will be smart, subtle, and restrained, then suddenly become brisk, brash, and dumb in the most exhilarating way possible, and sometimes a character’s integrity might have to be sacrificed to aid the transition.

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When Homeland wants to go full-24, it puts the job in the hands of 24 alum. “Islamabad” was a reunion of sorts for Homeland co-creators and former 24 writers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, who hadn’t shared credit for an episode since the season two premiere. “Damascus” comes courtesy of writer David Fury, who spent five seasons on 24 and worked on the second season of Gordon’s Tyrant, but has never written a Homeland episode until now. It’s no surprise the episode puts Carrie into Jack Bauer mode as the rogue former agent who is the only person standing in the way of a devastating attack on civilians. She’s channeling her inner-Jack from the earliest scenes, suppressing her emotional ties to Quinn in service of the greater good. As relieved as she was to see that Quinn survived the Sarin trial, she’s not conflicted about jarring him out of his coma long enough to coax a tip out of him, even at the risk of killing him. When that doesn’t work, Carrie immediately leaves Quinn’s side to chase down a lead. “I can’t sit here and do nothing,” Carrie tells Saul. It would be more than “nothing” to sit beside a comatose agent who could conceivably wake up at any moment with actionable intelligence, but Carrie can’t resist the field. She comes across emotionally detached from Quinn, but that’s fitting considering Carrie has never been willing to put her romantic feelings for Quinn before her work. Given the experience she had with Brody, no one could blame her.

Carrie’s investigation leads her to al-Amin, the Hezbollah commander who helped her secure During’s safe passage to the refugee camp, then to the good samaritan who patched Quinn up after he limped away from his hideout, and ultimately to the train station where the Sarin attack is about to take place. The journey isn’t exactly seamless, as once again key developments come when Carrie just so happens to notice something useful. It’s another example of the Bauering of Carrie Mathison. Carrie has always been driven by strong instincts and theories that make her unpopular at times, but are seldom wrong. An earlier season would have likely shown Carrie investigating her suspicions in a much different way, using the CIA’s sophisticated tools and robust resources. But Carrie’s no longer with the CIA, so she’s gone from mostly instinctual to purely instinctual, much as Jack Bauer is during the many times he finds himself working without the support of his agency and has nothing more to go on than his gut and whatever lucky breaks he catches. Carrie notices a clean-shaven Qasim on the escalator and charges after him, disappearing into the darkness of a subway tunnel with her gun drawn.

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Meanwhile, Allison is calmly maintaining her house of cards, and the character has never been more interesting. I’m fascinated by the idea of Allison as a person whose fear of the unknown is so intense that she’s a quivering mess when there are potential negative consequences looming overhead, then becomes relentlessly focused and resourceful once those consequences actually appear. It’s still insane that Allison would be free to maneuver around with nothing hindering her except a bodyguard who’s no more than a doting puppy in a tailored suit. In any event, Allison gets her latest and final command from the SVR, which is to do everything within her power to ensure that the Sarin attack goes off as planned. She’s hesitant to go through with it and is horrified that the SVR didn’t step in sooner to prevent the attack, another indication that Allison has never been a zealous traitor. She’s just an officer who never fully bought into the agency’s approach to its work, and her fierce survival instinct kicked in once Ivan pressured her into their illicit arrangement. After convincing Dar to let her run down the professor linked to the attack, she shoots him and Curtis after extracting the location of the attack, then shoots herself and misreports the target to buy the terrorists some time. The next time Saul gets his hands around Allison’s neck, he’ll likely make them count.

In addition to being Homeland’s most exciting episode in ages, “Damascus” is also the episode that cements the show’s right-leaning politics. The writers have been careful and deliberate about not painting Islam with a broad brush, as shown in the scenes where al-Amin writes off the terror cell as fanatical “scum” with no grasp of the long game, and when the professor tells Qasim he’s an atheist. But Homeland is much less nuanced about the severity of the threat posed by jihadis, which Erna Richter, Allison’s new SVR handler, frames in terms so damning to the sitting U.S. president, it sounds like a reflection of the show’s worldview even when spoken by a villain. “Civilization is facing an existential threat,” Erna says. “The West needs a wake-up call. Radical Islam must be eradicated root and branch. My premier understands this. Bashar al-Assad understands this. Only your president does not.” I’d be curious to know if President Obama still considers Homeland his favorite show, but even if he drifted away along with the other former fans, he might fall in love with “Damascus” in spite of his better judgment.

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Stray observations

  • I don’t mean to understate the amount of “What the hell even?” this episode contains, but again, when the show is this exciting, it can dodge some of the scrutiny. Still, Allison working in the field? Collecting a dead drop off her windshield? Having lengthy ladies’ room meetings with her new handler? No, no, and more no. And there’s basically no way she could have staged that shootout in campus housing at a university in a major European city without an immediate police response and campus-wide evacuation. But whatever.
  • I’m also not thrilled that two of the episode’s biggest developments rely on people leaving the room to watch something on television long enough for characters to escape or commit suicide.
  • I think there’s a logical argument to be made concerning Carrie’s vacillating emotions about and inconsistent behavior toward Quinn, but I get the impression the show is still trying to sell them as star-crossed lovers, and I’m not sure that works anymore. When Marwan commits suicide, Saul, who literally just met the guy, asks Astrid for a moment to compose himself before formulating a new plan. Carrie doesn’t even take a moment to catch her breath after jeopardizing Quinn’s life. I don’t have an issue with this if it means that Carrie will always put the job first after being burned by Brody, but I do have an issue with it if the writers are going to keep trying to sell Carrie and Quinn as a viable relationship while pretending there’s no significance to the long stretches during which she acts like she doesn’t care if he lives or dies.
  • The shot of Carrie chasing Qasim down a darkened corridor is reminiscent of the final shot of “Broken Hearts,” when Carrie tries to chase down Abu Nazir before backup arrives.
  • Laura Sutton continues to be the world’s most terrible person, and if the season finale was going to feature a character getting a piano dropped on her, I’m not completely sure I’d choose Allison over Laura. Laura’s so upset about the treatment of Marwan, she goes on television and threatens to release the rest of the documents despite During’s reasonable request that she stay cool until the heat dies down. She says she’ll release the documents if she can’t speak to Marwan, which seems like a threat far disproportionate to her conditions, conditions that can’t be met now that Marwan is dead. She tells Numan to release all the documents if anything happens to her, and not to worry about vetting them this time. If there was any lingering confusion about how Homeland feels about “hacktivists,” it should be cleared up now.
  • These documents have become quite the MacGuffin. For a collection of randomly intercepted documents, they seem to have some pretty important information on them, though that’s never been confirmed. Aside from the references to Carrie and proof of the CIA’s pact with the BND, there’s been no indication that the documents contain anything else of value. Surely not every single CIA memo is the seed of an international scandal.
  • Poor Conrad. I bet when the authorities look through his jacket they’ll find an awkwardly written love letter to Allison. He was just waiting for the perfect time to hand it to her. I should channel this into some fan fiction.

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