When Homeland’s fifth season began, it seemed as though the finish line was the pre-Berlin status quo, with Carrie back in the CIA fold, teamed up with Saul again, and perhaps in a position to explore a romantic relationship with Quinn. Who even knows if that would be a satisfying outcome for the story (it probably wouldn’t), but there’s a certain formlessness about season five that would make an outcome like that comforting, even if predictable and totally implausible. At seven episodes into the season, Homeland still feels like three separate shows that generally share the same agenda but have complicated, dysfunctional relationships between them. The show is often about the tepid accords and suspicious interactions between rival intelligence agencies, but the show’s disparate storylines are beginning to echo that dysfunction despite projecting harmony.

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“Oriole” doesn’t get Homeland any closer to tightening up its too-loose plotting, but it’s a relatively action-packed episode, and one that begins to answer some of the season’s pressing questions. The biggest of those questions is who made an attempt on Carrie’s life in Lebanon and why, and while Carrie already surmised Russia’s SVR was behind the attack, she wasn’t privy to the reason why Russian intelligence would want her dead. The answer is in the leaked documents retrieved for her by a panicked Saul, and Carrie spends the early part of the episode combing through the files in search of clues.

Carrie stumbles on a brief passage about how one of her CIA assets had made an attempt to contact her— it identifies her using the handle “Oriole”—but failed to do so, a development the SVR wasn’t terribly worried about due to her “pariah status” within the agency. With Carrie out of the intelligence mix and working for Otto Düring, the Russians assumed the threat had been neutralized until Laura Sutton, Carrie’s prickly colleague, managed to get a hold of leaked documents and place them within Carrie’s grasp. She’s able to make contact with her contact, codenamed Touchstone, who informs Carrie that Abdul Nazari, an Iraqi lawyer thought to be dead, is actually alive and living a quiet existence with his wife in Amsterdam. Carrie, who is holed up with Düring in his palatial estate, heads to Amsterdam to talk to Nazari and find out why he faked his death, and why keeping her in the dark about his status was important enough to the SVR to warrant the Lebanon attack.

Every episode of this season has moments that feel like Homeland at its best, but those moments feel more fleeting than ever. I’m enjoying the season, but there’s a nagging sense of torpor setting in even as the plot appears to gain momentum. Part of that has to do with the mystery of the SVR’s interest in killing Carrie to protect these documents, which is arguably too mysterious. In “Parabiosis,” Carrie explains the dire situation to Saul, who calmly says “Want to tell me why the Russians give a shit whether you’re alive or dead?” His callous indifference is fueled by his seething anger at Carrie, but there’s also a good amount of skepticism behind the question, which is fair because not much about this story feels intuitive. The attempt on Carrie’s life requires a ton of exposition, and because the season is driven by her attempts to figure out what happened in Lebanon, the writers are holding a lot of their powder. They’ve got a dozen episodes to plot out, so no one can blame them for parceling out that story, but the pace doesn’t feel like Homeland, which earned its once-sterling reputation by being brisker than its peers.

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The story that feels like it’s moving the fastest is Saul’s, which begins with him under Dar Adal’s thumb as the agency interrogates him about escaping the building with the leaked documents. An increasingly anxious Allison convinces Dar to let her question Saul back in Saul’s hotel room, which seems like a ridiculous concession to grant to someone whose loyalty is potentially compromised, but Dar allows it all the same. Saul, still under the impression that Allison is on his side, tells her Carrie is still alive and busy combing through the documents that will eventually lead to Nazari. Saul is in a position unlike any he’s ever been, as are Carrie and Quinn, and because Mandy Patinkin is such a terrific actor, it’s hard to complain about any story that forces him to approach his performance in a different way. But like the rest of the season, Saul’s story sounds better on paper than it plays on screen.

Allison is the one who links Carrie and Saul, which has long been the case, but “Oriole” makes the dynamic between the three of them all the more treacherous with both Carrie and Saul under the impression Allison can be trusted. That’s pretty interesting by itself, but I can’t help but think it would be more interesting if Allison’s psychology was a bit clearer. “Oriole” opens with Allison meeting Ivan to discuss her brewing paranoia over Saul’s behavior, Dar’s suspicions, and how it all affects the potential of her being caught and prosecuted. Ivan calms her by reminding her she’s been doing this for years, seducing convenient men and using them to accomplish her goals. The SVR is high on Allison, says Ivan, who tells her the top brass is envisioning her rising to CIA director one day, which would be a coup considering how much of an intelligence breach she’s already accomplished over a long period of time. But Allison doesn’t have quite enough agency to be the villain the season desperately needs. She makes all the necessary moves, but it feels like Ivan is pulling her strings, and his explanation that she enjoys the long con isn’t enough to clarify what Allison is getting out of any of this.

“Oriole” upshifts when Carrie arrives in Amsterdam and reconnects with a contact who dies helping her tail Nazari while Ivan’s SVR goons are also trying to catch up to him. Carrie barely escapes a reconnaissance mission in Nazari’s home when a pair of armed agents pops up. Anytime Carrie has to make a daring escape, Homeland feels like Homeland. It’s just odd how few and far between those moments have been lately.

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Stray observations:

  • Carrie may not wind up back at the CIA when all is said and done, but she’s certainly no longer welcome at the During Foundation. Otto thinks she’s unbalanced, which…y’know. That’s not unfair.
  • Jonas still wants to reconcile with Carrie, but that seems most unlikely. He’ll never understand her lifestyle.
  • Quinn has agreed to escort the terrorists he happened to stumble upon down to Syria in the storyline I’m least interested in.
  • Laura never stops being awful. No matter how many times she’s told that these documents are leading to people’s deaths, her default setting is “Everyone needs to know everything immediately all the time.”

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