All season long, I’ve been waiting for the episode of Homeland that would make me forget all of the silliness sown last season and this one, for the episode where I would just stop thinking about the show intellectually and simply reinvest in it on a story level. Watching TV critically is great, but it can also be a trap, particularly if you’ve lost faith in what a show is trying to sell you. How refreshing, then, to be able to reconnect with a show you thought had lost you and get back into its rhythms and vibe, no matter how peculiar.
Was “Still Positive” that episode for Homeland? Not quite, but there were whole sections where I more or less lost myself in the narrative, thanks to some smart scripting by Alexander Cary and Barbara Hall, to say nothing of some lovely, restrained direction from Lesli Linka Glatter. It was an episode that almost, almost managed the blend of personal storylines and spy stuff that this season has been attempting with elegance and precision, and in the moments when it didn’t nail that mix, I was generally intrigued enough by all that was going on to wave off any concerns I had for after the episode. Even the Dana storyline was better than her adventures with Leo, and it was correctly slotted into the C-story range, which meant we got very little of it. I have one big concern with this episode that took me out of things, and there are the lingering concerns about how some of the season’s plotting is adding up, but this was the first episode all season to make me feel reasonably okay about the direction the season is going in. I still don’t dare bet on whether this will end in awesome or awful, but at least it feels like we’re headed somewhere I’m interested in going.
A big reason for this is the show’s renewed commitment to making Saul Berenson the male lead of this show, the counterbalance to Carrie Mathison. I go back and forth on whether what the show is doing is character assassination or merely uncovering layers of the character that weren’t always clear to us in the previous two seasons, but either way, Mandy Patinkin is playing the hell out of it. “Still Positive” situates us in the middle of a terrible, no-good, very bad day for Saul, and Patinkin beautifully shows us how thoroughly he represses his anger. Mira is hanging out with Alain, a guy she met and apparently started having sex with in Mumbai? No big deal. Carrie diverts from the plan to bring in Javadi immediately? Fine! The operation goes south and results in two innocent women losing their lives? It’s time to stick to the protocol and get everybody out of there. But when he has Javadi in his sights, when all of this anger comes bubbling up underneath his skin, he does the only rational thing and punches him in the face.
The last shot of this episode frames Saul as the man you don’t quite know. Looking up at him from Javadi’s perspective, the camera gives him almost god-like power, but he’s also half-wreathed in shadow, the man we once thought of as paternalistic and warm, increasingly revealed to be a casual user of people insofar as they’re tools he can manipulate before tossing aside. We’re meant at once to be asking if he’s pushed too far into this darker side of himself in pursuit of Javadi and if this was who he always was and we were just blinded to it because the first two seasons focused so much on Carrie’s pursuit of Brody (in all meanings of that word). It’s a little bit of an over-obvious moment—an antihero’s face is half hidden in shadow?! Tell me more!—but Glatter still pulls it off beautifully, and the look on Patinkin’s face is inscrutable. There’s fury in there somewhere, but there’s also a sense that he’s working yet another plan on yet another target, that he’s channeling what anger he actually feels to work over Javadi even more thoroughly, like a great method actor who only feels things when he needs to onstage and then bottles those emotions up when he steps backstage.
This season, by and large, has been interested in pulling the rug out from under the audience about what it thought it knew. A few weeks ago in some comments section somewhere, one of you was discussing how the season’s big twist didn’t work because a big twist like that (i.e., one that reveals everything you’ve been watching was a lie on some level) works better if the audience’s primary response to the events prior to the twist was outright confusion, rather than either boredom or intense sympathy for the lie that’s being sold (the two primary reactions to the story of Carrie in the psych ward). So the big twist mostly just made the boredom crowd wonder why they’d had to watch everything prior and the sympathy crowd wonder if the feelings they’d been asked to feel were all for naught. I feel, in some ways, very similarly about the big twist involving Carrie in this episode (about which more in a bit), but I think that the revelations about Saul have been a good example of how a show can have its cake and eat it too.
What I mean by this is that what we’re seeing this season doesn’t directly contradict anything we’ve known of Saul in the first two seasons, but it adds depth and shading to his character, meaning that we can go back to those seasons and question why he’s pushing his agents into places where he knows they might fray and pull apart. Saul was the steady center of those two seasons, because the show needed a steady center and knew the audience would be just as likely to find it in Mandy Patinkin’s comforting, bearded face as it would anywhere else. But in season three, a season that despises steady centers as inherently antithetical to the show’s setting, Saul becomes just as eaten away by the spy game as anyone else, and his actions, which might have seemed straightforwardly heroic at one time or another, are increasingly interrogated by the show and the characters within it. It’s not just that he believes in a different kind of spycraft from Lockhart; it’s that the kind of spycraft he believes in chews people up and spits them out, and he’s too often the one doing the chewing. It’s a fascinating direction for the show and the character, and “Still Positive” succeeds almost entirely because it finally turns the primary focus on Saul and Patinkin’s work.
Because let’s be honest here: Making Carrie pregnant reeks of desperation on the part of the writers. It’s a thing you do when you have a female lead and you don’t know what else to do with her, the kind of play you pull out in season seven or eight, when you want to win a few sympathy points for that character and get her one last big Emmy tape. Doing it to Carrie at this point in time makes no sense and just makes her stay in the psych ward even more unbelievable. Either no blood work was ever taken on her at all, or Saul arranged to have her blood work swapped with that of a non-pregnant woman, which means that he knows she’s pregnant, but isn’t treating her any differently at all. Both of these options are silly. I can sort of see the appeal of this storyline. A pregnant Carrie trying to decide what to do about the fetus she carries inside of her, one that’s been heavily dosed with lithium, could be a compelling storyline in some other season. But it feels like way too much to heap on the character this season on top of everything else, to say nothing of how now we get to wonder if it’s the child of the guy she slept with in the premiere or Brody’s. (It has to be the guy she slept with in the premiere, right? She’d be four months along now if it were Brody’s, and I just don’t think even Carrie would choose to ignore it for that long. I’d much more buy her having an abortion, then having second thoughts after, than any of this.)
I won’t lie. There are places where the knowledge that Carrie is pregnant adds some intrigue to the proceedings, like when she’s in the house Javadi’s ex-wife shares with her daughter-in-law and that wailing baby almost seems to be her inner monologue. (By the way, when she picks up the child, Claire Danes reveals herself to be a baby-handling pro. Not every actor—even one with a lot of kids—can translate natural baby-handling skills to their onscreen work, so props to her.) But in the moment we discover that pregnancy, the whole thing seems like just another shock piled on top of so many others this season, as if the show’s primary storytelling method has become not telling us what we need to know upfront, so we can parse characters’ emotional reactions and inner thoughts, but withholding information so it can pull a fast one on us later. The former is just good storytelling; the latter can work in some circumstances, but if it’s done too often, it starts to feel like the storytellers are just cruel. Carrie being pregnant didn’t give me enhanced sympathy for the character or her situation; it just made me roll my eyes at how the writers were trying to manipulate me.
On the other hand, the episode’s two C-stories—Dana changes her name so that she’s no longer Dana Brody, then leaves home, and Dar Adal taking a meeting with Senator Lockhart—both fit nicely into the episode’s larger themes of self-definition. I’m still on board with Dana storylines, so long as they inform how the Brody family is dealing with the absence of Nick, so this was a nice little return to the form I thought the story found in the first two episodes of the season. Dana, no longer with Leo to define herself by, has to start making some decisions on what kind of person she wants to be going forward and decides that needs to be someone who isn’t defined by her father at all. I’m not entirely sure I buy Jessica simply letting her daughter go like that, but the show seems to have completely lost sight of who Jessica is at this point, so that’s not hugely surprising. Dar’s meeting with the senator is less interesting in the grand scheme of things, but I like the way that the show continues to hint at Dar having some plot he hasn’t yet revealed to anyone (and maybe not even to himself). If you’re going to hire an actor to play someone who’s playing all sides of a conflict, you can do a lot worse than F. Murray Abraham, who made being one of the Fruit of the Loom guys feel filled with vague and horrifying portent.
Mostly, though, this episode was the one that brought things all back to Saul, particularly in that terrifying sequence in which Javadi invaded the home of his son and daughter-in-law, the latter of whom had never met him, and killed both her and his ex-wife in a scene of surprising and stunning brutality. There’s never been anything quite so dark or horrifying on the show before, and the episode doesn’t try to hide what Javadi does to these two women. He even gets brought to the CIA safe house while still wearing clothes soaked in the blood of the women he’s killed, a constant visual reminder of the horrible things he’s capable of in his quest to rob Saul of any of the small advantages he got over Javadi in the wake of the fall of the shah of Iran. The more the show sells a history between Saul and Javadi, the more I buy that Saul was able to hatch this insane plan to draw out the Langley bombing mastermind, which is a good thing.
But also, I’m impressed by how the show’s focus on Saul manages to accomplish the goal of skewing away from the sorts of slam-bang moments that drove so much of last season and focus more on the human cost of intelligence work. The works of John le Carré are a stated influence on the show this season, both in the way the “twist” nodded toward The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and in the way that the show is more interested in these people as human beings asked to do awful, brutal things. For as much as Carrie needs to remain the center of the whole show, Saul is a more appropriate center for a le Carré homage. He’s a man out of time, still fighting old wars in a world that’s shifted on to new terrors. And he’s at once darkness and light. He cares about things, but he’s not afraid to toss them overboard if it means that he’ll get the advantage for even a millisecond. It’s easy to side with him in his entirely theoretical argument with Lockhart about using humans for spycraft versus using machines. It’s to the show’s credit that it’s willing to show us how horrible using those humans can be when you’re one who’s been caught in the middle of one of his plans.
- Standard disclaimer that I’m still a bit concerned that the Carrie and Saul plot effectively makes Saul omniscient, though the show has done a good job of undercutting this so far. I’m also willing to go with it to see what the payoff is, but the payoff better be fantastic.
- That scene between Saul and Mira felt like it could have been another personal conflict that didn’t really need to be so close to the center of the episode, but it ended up being surprisingly heart-wrenching and beautiful. Mira saying that she was happier having Alain around was just about the last thing Saul needed to hear, but I liked seeing how quickly he bottled that anger and put it on his shelf.
- I really liked that scene where Dana changed her last name and the guy at the government office asked if he could pray for them. It made for a nice little slice of life, as opposed to her running off on an intergalactic crime spree, or whatever that was supposed to be.
- Question time: Would the “Carrie’s pregnant!” story have been better without the drawer full of positive tests? I’m inclined to say yes. It wouldn’t have been another giant reveal in a season too full of them, though it might have made Carrie seem blinded/stupid. Then again, that shot of the drawer full of tests was kind of lovely in its own weird way.
- Every time Quinn’s in a scene with Carrie, his inner monologue reads to me like an eager puppy who just wants his owner to reach down and pet him. “CARRIE! I am here, Carrie. I love you, Carrie! Let’s go outside and play fetch! Oh, it would be ever so fun!”
- Also in on the deep cover operation now: Nora and Max. I have no idea why Virgil’s not around, but I presume he’ll drop by soon enough.
- Still no Brody. Gutsy choice on the show’s part. I hope it knows what it’s doing by keeping that card dangling out there this long, though I admire it for keeping this many balls in the air.
- I watch a lot of violent TV, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen something that got to me as much as Javadi taking the bottle to his ex-wife’s neck. I mean goddamn.
- The adventures of Chris Brody: