“New Normal” is an unfortunate title for a Homeland episode that hammers home the fact that the herky-jerky rhythms and off-pitch characterization that have plagued season five aren’t necessarily going anywhere. The pacing has been all over the place. Anytime it seems like the season is beginning to gain some momentum, there’s some kind of odd speed bump or scenic detour, and suddenly the story becomes abstract. There’s no real concept of a finish line or a specific shape that the story should take, and while it’s always wonderful to be surprised by a television show, surprises work best when the framework of the story is sturdy enough to trick you into thinking you know what’s coming. This season hasn’t had that, which is why so few of the surprises have landed. The only one that really worked was the initial reveal that Allison is working for the other side, and nothing has landed since. Not Saul’s escape or his quasi-defection, not the moment when Carrie was tipped off to Allison’s involvement by a screensaver, for God’s sake, not when Quinn went on an international beer run with a terror cell, only to find out that the beer was actually the active ingredients in Sarin gas. The season has seen a lot of interesting, provocative ideas, but they’ve been in search of a solid structure and an exciting plot.

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Pacing has been a struggle throughout the season, but “New Normal” is especially disappointing for two reasons. One is that the season’s quiet middle third came after Allison was initially unmasked, and even though it felt like the show was in neutral, it was somewhat forgivable since the writers had to lay the groundwork that would allow Carrie and Saul to catch onto her. But after Allison was arrested at an SVR safe house, it seemed there was no more need to play it safe or slow the pace. Considering how little happened in the episode and how little sense most of it makes, “Normal” could easily be one of those vaguely unsatisfying episodes from the middle of the season. But coming after “The Litvinov Ruse,” and coming so late in the season, this isn’t the episode Homeland needed to kick off a strong final push. But more than that, “Normal” requires a lot of the show’s characters to make baffling choices and behave in ways that don’t make a ton of sense other than to kick the story a few feet down the road. Weird pacing is less than ideal, but commonly forgivable. Weird characterization, on the other hand, is an infectious rot that destroys good stories from the inside out. At least one of these issues has to be corrected in a hurry if season five is going to hold onto the distinction of being Homeland’s second-least satisfying season.

The odd, inscrutable behavior begins almost immediately because so much of it has to do with Allison, who was last seen weaving a specious alibi about how Ivan was her asset, the source of the impeccable intelligence she’s been able to provide over her 20 years of agency service. Her story makes sense until you think about it for 30 seconds, at which point it begins to fall apart. Carrie, Saul, and Astrid are instantly skeptical of Allison’s story, but Dar Adal, of all people, says he has to hear Allison out and vet her story before formally arresting her for treason. Dar Adal has always been a somewhat fuzzy character, and this is the first season he’s come into sharper view, since the departure of Senator Lockhart meant the role of the top-brass ball-buster was vacant. The character fits in that role, but only as a shrewd, unflappable intelligence officer, and that version of Dar Adal doesn’t show up anywhere in “Normal.” The same guy who became convinced Saul was pulling double-duty for Mossad based on a video still of Etai at an airport and some photos of Saul and Etai talking now can’t be convinced by evidence against Allison that is about a close as you can get to a smoking gun. Why the hesitation on Dar’s part? Because Allison has been with the agency for two decades and has an impeccable record.

An impeccable record compared to whom? Saul, who was once the director of the agency, and would have taken over again had it not been for Carrie’s principled objections? Apparently Allison’s accomplishments eclipse Saul’s, because Dar takes Allison’s side almost immediately, and when Saul ratchets up his interrogation techniques (in a very Jack Bauer fashion), Dar has Saul detained. This doesn’t work for so many reasons. When Allison lobbied Dar after the document leak at Berlin station, in a desperate bid to shove Saul in front of the firing squad, Saul mocked her for being naive enough to think Dar, his long-time friend and colleague, wouldn’t carry it back to him. Well apparently, as friends within the agency go, Dar Adal is the Regina George of the CIA. The tables have turned dramatically, and now it’s Saul who can’t get a toehold with Dar while Allison gets his loyalty. In a scene that insults the audience’s basic intelligence, Dar takes Allison in with her to question Ivan after the agency learns of the imminent gas attack and allows them to make uninterrupted, unmonitored eye contact the whole time. Allison coaches him through the conversation to give herself enough leverage to convince Dar that she can be of use to the investigation. Keeping Allison and Ivan separate during all questioning isn’t the sort of advanced spy logic people learn in the field, it’s basic common sense. Dar is either savvy or he isn’t, and this move doesn’t work in his favor.

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Allison isn’t out of the woods yet, but she’s mostly free of suspicion, with even her assigned agency babysitter going out of his way to tell her everyone thinks she’s innocent while she receives signals from a friendly across the street. The Allison stuff is put on hold because of Quinn, who turns up on television after the terror cell disseminates the video of his slow, excruciating reaction to the gas. It’s all hands on deck, even if the hands are possible treasonous and could be actively thwarting the investigation for all anyone knows. Of course, the issue with the Quinn part of the story is not that Allison is involved with the investigation, it’s that it exists to begin with.

There’s quite a bit of lampshading in this episode, first with Carrie and Saul’s reactions of disbelief when Dar falls for Allison’s story, then with Carrie’s confused response when she finds out Quinn has “fallen in” with a terrorist group. But having Carrie say it doesn’t make any sense isn’t the same thing as it making sense. As a result, basically any part of the plot that relates to Quinn’s serendipitous infiltration of the terror cell feels completely unearned. It’s nice to see Carrie emotionally invested in Quinn again after nine days passing since she last saw him bleeding out in his hidey-hole. But even the Carrie-Quinn moments don’t land like they should. Carrie demands to see the full video of Quinn’s attack, which just doesn’t seem like a good plan from the outset, but it does allow Claire Danes to deploy her trademark spastic chin move. Then, after Carrie helps the BND track down the terrorists’ hideout—thanks to some algorithm she just had lying around—she and Astrid stumble upon the right place and find Quinn barely alive.

There’s a happy ending, of sorts, with Saul back in the agency’s good graces after Ivan admits the SVR’s involvement in the plane bombing, and Saul and Carrie at Quinn’s bedside. “Normal” could possibly land with some viewers, assuming there’s anyone who cares more about the Sarin attack than about Allison getting her comeuppance, but I’m not convinced there are many people like that. I’m also not convinced the season can recover from what it took to get to that lovely final shot. Once the characters become mindless pawns beholden to the plot points, it’s hard to correct the course.

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Stray observations

  • For the record, Carrie did apparently search high and low for Quinn after he went missing. None of it happened on camera, but you have to take her word for it.
  • I swear sometimes I want to leap through the screen and throttle Laura Sutton. This week she’s urging Otto During to keep one of the Plotsenzee prisoners out of police custody even though he could have material information pertaining to the Sarin attack. She even uses 9/11 and the subsequent wars as justification, making her pretty much the most awful character in a season populated by the same people who gassed Quinn.
  • Allison calls Saul the angriest man she’s ever known, and we saw a glimpse of that before when he initially rebuffed Carrie’s request for help when her life was in danger. But I don’t understand where that dude came from. Did he just turn into an asshole after his divorce?

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