“The Litvinov Ruse” is the episode Homeland’s fifth season has been slowly, steadily, sometimes frustratingly building toward. It’s a natural extension of everything that led up to it, and yet it still feels like a corrective to a season with too many countdowns and too few launches. It’s also completely worth the wait. After “All About Allison,” even with only four episodes left I wasn’t prepared to take for granted that the pace was about to pick up. After all, Homeland has never been a show with predictable or traditional rhythms, and it probably never will be. Season four built to the shocking reveal of Dar Adal consorting with the enemy, then immediately shifted to Carrie and Quinn’s romantic feelings and Carrie’s attempts to make nice with her estranged mother. There was nothing to suggest that the Allison reveal would kick the season into high gear, but luckily, it did.

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The Dar Adal reveal from season four is important to the episode because it’s so integral to the story of how a rift formed between Carrie and Saul, a wound that is just beginning to heal. The last time Carrie and Saul were at odds, it was when a kidnapped Saul was pleading with Carrie to let him die if the alternative was to make some humiliating video disavowing the United States. Carrie kept Saul alive and got him home, but his ego remain bruised and Dar Adal offered him the opportunity to put a bandage on it. Sometime in the future, an aggrieved Carrie blocked Saul’s bid to become CIA director, leaving their relationship irreparably broken. Or so it seemed. “Ruse” begins by applying some salve to Homeland’s most important relationship. Esai explains to Carrie that while it’s true that both of them were heartbroken after the events in Pakistan, Saul’s heart was broken more and has taken far more time to heal. Then Carrie walks into the same room with her mentor and father figure, asks him for a hug just by saying his name tearfully, and he’s happy to oblige. Carrie and Quinn’s interactions in “Why Is This Night Different?” were moving and affecting, but Saul and Carrie will always be Homeland’s most shippable pair. As always, they’re meeting under less than ideal circumstances, but this show never makes more sense than when they’re of one accord.

Saul and Carrie find themselves in a very familiar situation, though Saul is in a pair of sensible wedge pumps and Carrie is in a pair of impeccably buffed loafers. This time, it’s Saul who is in bed with a strawberry-maned turncoat. When Carrie presents her admittedly thin screensaver-based evidence of Allison’s treason, Saul is reluctant to buy into her theory, but Carrie doesn’t think much of it. This, after all, is the Saul she’s always known. He was no more gung ho about going after Nicholas Brody, and he only relented because her unorthodox methods yielded actionable intelligence. If Saul didn’t have a personal, emotional investment in Allison, he probably would have tried to shut down Carrie’s investigation of her barely-there lead before it began. It’s precisely because Saul is emotionally invested that he’s willing to reach out to his BND contacts, who are still smarting from the embarrassment of the leaked documents, to ask them for help with an operation to smoke Allison out. He tells Carrie that he doesn’t believe Allison’s a traitor because he doesn’t want to believe it, and the quickest way to get back to living in a world where he hasn’t been sleeping with the enemy is to spring the trap on Allison and give her a chance to acquit herself.

From there, the episode begins to resemble a role-reversed version of “New Car Smell” (coincidentally, the episode that introduced Peter Quinn), with Carrie helping to oversee an investigation into the smooth operator who seduced and destroyed Saul. Saul is now the beleaguered CIA agent trying to wriggle back into the agency by proving his lover isn’t what she appears. He shows up at Allison’s door, telling her he has no choice but to defect to Mossad, but wants to say a final goodbye before setting off to Tel Aviv. “I was asleep for 10 years,” Saul tells Allison. “You woke me up.” The delightfully ambiguous line is followed by a shot of Allison sound asleep while Saul creeps out of bed to outfit her cell phone and handbag with monitoring devices.

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It isn’t until Carrie, Saul, and the BND are well into their operation that Carrie finds out the deeper significance of this for Saul. Even after Allison learns there’s a high-ranking SVR agent seeking millions and asylum status in exchange for valuable intel, she doesn’t melt down. Instead, she exchanges flirty texts with a gentleman caller and has sex with him in the kitchen before they’ve had a chance to taste their take-out dinner. Saul can’t stomach the scene, and that’s when Astrid makes a ribald joke that exposes the truth. Carrie is sensitive when she finds out Saul and Allison were involved, a reasonable reaction considering her past, which she obliquely reminds him of. But just like Saul’s heart was more broken by Carrie’s betrayal than she was by his, it’s arguable that Saul is more sensitive to the ramifications of the investigation into Allison than Carrie was to the investigation into Brody.

On one hand, Brody cost Carrie her mental stability and potentially ended her career, but on the other hand, the true horror of a betrayal like this for an intelligence agent is the awareness that your ability to read people isn’t what you thought it was. Brody was a prisoner-of-war who swept into Carrie’s life like a whirlwind, and the circumstances surrounding his arrival set off her alarm bells from the beginning. Allison, meanwhile, is a CIA veteran who undermined the agency for years without raising anyone’s suspicions. That leaves plenty of blame to spread around, but if anyone should have been able to pick up on something out of the ordinary, it’s the man who spent his nights with her and observed her when she was presumably at her most relaxed and vulnerable. Saul would have a completely different narrative around something like this than Carrie would. Carrie was heartbroken, not to mention deeply concerned that the man she loved was trying to kill innocent Americans. There’s no immediate risk of human life here, there is only the risk to Saul’s ego. But that’s enough, because as Carrie learned the hard way when she wound up at odds with Dar Adal, Saul can bear almost anything except public humiliation.

Allison’s steely demeanor has made her a bit inert, even after the tarmac explosion scene revealed her as a steady-handed operative. But she comes off much better in “Ruse,” which exposes some interesting psychology behind the character. All season she’s been hyperventilating in her covert meetings with Ivan, insisting that they weren’t doing enough to ensure that Carrie doesn’t stumble onto whatever secret they’re ultimately covering up, thereby revealing her as a double-agent. Ivan has mollified her with Russian pet names and assured her that everything will work out in their favor. But when Allison scrambles to a secured SVR safe house, it’s Ivan whose nerves need soothing. Allison, as it turns out, is one of those people who can handle the storm, but absolutely hates the calm that precedes it. When the authorities are bearing down on the safe house, she reclaims her calm demeanor and tells Ivan this isn’t necessarily the end for them. She concocts a too-credible story about how Ivan is one of her assets, and how the raid essentially undid years of work she had built. It’s a terrific twist that elevates the character and makes me really excited for the final three episodes.

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The only thing I’m not excited about, as usual, is the Quinn plot, which continues to drag on as Quinn’s life is threatened yet again when he’s made the guinea pig for a Sarin gas attack planned by the terror suspects released from Plotzensee Prison. There’s so much to like in the episode, I wish there wasn’t so much to dislike in Quinn’s story this season. The fact that Quinn just so happened to fall into the hands of the terrorists released as a result of the CIA security leak is already a stretch. And all it means is that yet again Quinn’s life is artificially endangered. It’s definitely difficult to watch Quinn’s body seize up in response to the gas, and at least the imminent Sarin gas attack lends some much needed urgency to Quinn’s story. But I’m really not thrilled about the way these season has used Quinn as a human pin cushion immediately after selling me on the idea of a romance with Carrie. It’s a bit too manipulative, and just at the point where Homeland is beginning to feel smart again.

Stray observations

  • Saul knew the surveillance operation was going to a bad place as soon as he saw her send the “smiling devil” Emoji, the most unambiguously randy of all the Emojis.
  • I almost Googled Sarin gas attack footage, but I just don’t have it in me. No thank you.
  • Astrid is one of my favorite characters now. I love that she has kind of become the show’s deadpan sense of humor, a role Dar Adal has been sharing with her this season.
  • I’m really irritated that Carrie (and to a lesser degree, Saul) have done so little to find out where Quinn is considering the last time she saw him, he had escaped from his hideout gutshot and in imminent danger. Are Carrie and Quinn a thing or aren’t they? Because so far, Carrie has only asked about Jonas.

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