Many critics point to last season’s Emmy-nominated “Q&A” as the high-water mark of Homeland’s two-plus year run on Showtime. After a season and a half of false starts, red herrings, disappointments, and disasters, Nicholas Brody and the CIA finally sat on either side of the table and talked frankly. In this week’s “Gerontion”—borrowing its name from a 1920 T.S. Eliot poem about a 19th-century man taken out of time to assess a post-war world around him—the agency again sits across the table from an accused enemy of the state. In fact, there are a few Q&A sessions of note by the time all is said and done, none of which leave us with any real satisfaction.
“Gerontion” is probably one of the higher-concept episodes in the show’s history. Writer Chip Johannessen has gone out of his way to paint Saul as Eliot’s nameless narrator, who brings perspectives of the past into a world that has passed him by. Saul’s house, as Eliot says, is a decayed house. His wife is sleeping with another man, his agency is in shambles, and his hold on the directorship has a fast-approaching expiration date. Unfortunately, for all the intelligence of Johannessen’s ideas, this episode recalls many of the problems that have plagued Homeland all year.
More than most, I’ve been willing to give the series’ writing team credit for moving away from its third season’s mostly disastrous first third. But now that the walls are going up, it’s becoming more and more clear that the foundation for this plot—Carrie and Saul’s uh … plot—was so rotten that it has compromised this season even more than I thought.
It was my hope that the absurdities of the early episodes were behind us, but at this point so much of the season is rooted in that unfortunate beginning that it has changed the way the characters act. Through the beginning of the season, I pinned many of my complaints on the fact that Carrie, Saul and the gang were making decisions that were inconsistent with the years of development we’d experienced. Their wild swings and shallow concerns were out of character with a show that succeeded because of the complexity of their interactions. Now, they’re consistent again at least, but their new normal is a shallow and disappointingly deluded one.
Like Carrie did last year, Saul has his man—Majid Javadi—right where he wants him on the other side of the table. As the two old friends sit, Saul doggedly forges ahead in pursuit of the bigger picture—a lager geopolitical solution—and believes that getting this one piece of his disordered life back in line is worth the hell he’s put himself and those around him through. This interrogation was never going to have the weight that Brody’s did, but we simply don’t know Javadi well enough after only a few weeks to feel how important he’s supposed to be.
Once Saul’s final plan to turn Javadi into another double agent is revealed, Fara, who has gone from a timid, rookie number cruncher to an interrogator of a terror mastermind, is dissatisfied. She’s not alone. For reference, through this season’s first half—six full hours of television—Saul and Carrie lured a major Iranian dignitary across the world so they could spend a few hours with him, presenting a modicum of information that they expected would force him to work for them before sending him back to Iran.
And they were right! But while the thought of having an upper echelon asset placed in the government of a potentially nuclear nation is appealing in theory, the odds of this cover holding (like Brody’s last year) are slim at best, and the justification for Saul’s stubborn belief that his “way” will work (“You started this; I think you’ll want to be there when it ends.”) is even flimsier.
On the periphery, it’s been a slow progression, but I think we can safely say that Peter Quinn has finally taken over as Homeland’s most compelling character. While it’s unrealistic that one of the world’s great spies would allow himself to be caught on a neighbor’s ADT home security system, a crew of police sporting some of Dexter’s leftover latex gloves are asking questions. All season, Quinn has been the only one doing any real work to preserve the integrity of Carrie and Saul’s ridiculous mission, so it makes sense for him to be willing to do what it takes, including standing up to his old boss Dar Adal and agreeing to take the rap for two gruesome murders he didn’t commit.
Way back in the premiere, Quinn accidentally killed a Venezuelan child while executing a hit on one of the Langley bombing’s conspirators. It’s not at all a subtle metaphor as he washes the blood of Javadi’s ex-wife off his hands in the shower, but his growing discomfiture with what Eliot would call “backward devils” at the agency’s collateral damage is going to be something to track. As Eliot says, “To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition/I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it?”
Left with not a whole lot to do this week, Carrie’s equally uncomfortable in the little time we spend with her. She’s unable to throw her cop friend (the woman is well-connected!) off the agency’s case over the Javadi murders in part because she has to excuse herself mid-conversation to lose her lunch in the bathroom. Though the drying blood and corpses are surely stomach-turners, it’s more likely that she’s morning sick.
Her real moments of discontent come later, though, when she’s in the process of returning Javadi to his cronies and a jet back to Iran. Last week, we saw him begin to chip away at Carrie’s trust in Saul. He’s even more intent on persuading Carrie this time, and while she’s still far from being swayed, Javadi’s starting to gain more and more power over her. It’s unclear whether he’s aware of how brightly Carrie’s Brody candle still burns, but you can see the hairs on Carrie’s neck stand up when his name is mentioned. Having spilled the beans earlier to Saul, Javadi has no problem telling Carrie that Brody wasn’t the Langley bomber, and with that, last season’s cliffhanger ending has been resolved with little fanfare.
If we’re to believe him (and I do), the actual bomber is still in the United States, and his former representative Bennett can lead Carrie to him. In her twisted mind, this, of course, would exonerate Brody and give them the future together they (a former terrorist and a damaged CIA agent who has put her love life ahead of national security countless times) don’t actually deserve at all. Over the last two years, Carrie was so intriguing as the series’ face because of how complex she was; even as her feelings for Brody grew, she was still the one willing to call him out at the cabin in Season 1 or provide him false comfort to get answers across the interrogation table last year in “Q&A.” Now, she’s overtaken by her mania. Blame it on the hormones … or something.
What stuck in my craw even more than this, though, was another conversation across the table. Wearing his bright yellow visitor’s badge, Senator Andrew Lockhart sits incredulous as Saul proudly gives him a point-by-point summation of why he’s been missing so much work lately. The smugness Mandy Patinkin brings to this moment is top-shelf, A-level stuff. But as he spells out his spy games, I couldn’t help but side with Lockhart here as Saul rants about having found the key to the Middle East. Before he goes ahead and locks that up, though, he might want to see about getting the spare key to his home back from the man his wife’s been sleeping with.
“It’s the curse of old men,” Saul says to Javadi early on in the episode, “to realize that we control nothing.” All evening, though, his actions seem to be those of a desperate man who needs to maintain a hold on something. Eventually, he and Dar Adal lock Lockhart in a conference room to prevent him from calling the president and putting an end to their fun. In another setting, I can imagine that being a high-five worthy moment. But Lockhart is a U.S. Senator (for that matter, Brody was, too) and the chairman of an oversight committee. You’re not supposed to be able to do that, and it felt entirely too twee for such a serious hour.
“History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors/And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,” Eliot wrote in “Gerontion.” I’d argue that this week, Homeland’s principal characters (and writing team) stated their own plans rather dramatically, continuing the show’s third-season descent into soap operatics. Eliot’s man out of time writes that what history ultimately gives him is so confusing that it still “famishes the craving.” After another disappointing week, I’m left hungry for something better than this.