Imagine that you wanted to tell a spy story on television. You might want it to depict modern spycraft as it’s practiced at the highest levels of government. You also might want to draw stories from the real threats and players on the international stage. You’d definitely want to create tension by keeping the stakes high, perhaps even going so far to stretch the bounds of plausibility, locking the Vice President in a bunker with a suicide bomber and so forth.
That alone wouldn’t be enough. You’d need something to personalize the stakes for the characters. Imperil people they love or hold out the possibility that they might be disgraced or redeemed. Better yet, play their professional obligations against their personal entanglements. Set good people at cross purposes or let them fall in love with their antagonists. This was once Homeland‘s home turf, dramatizing all the skullduggery necessary to keep the free world afloat and placing that responsibility in the hands of an unstable CIA agent busy making eyes at a homicidal maniac.
Dozens of twists and turns later, though, Homeland has shed all the drama specific to these characters and kept nothing but the decoder rings. It started out as a drama about a CIA agent who couldn’t keep her personal and professional lives separate, but as of “Oriole,” Carrie’s personal life and everyone else’s has flown the coop. Instead, they devote everything to the chess match and cast aside the people and characters that they’ve been in years past.
For instance, it turns out that Allison Carr is not really a CIA station chief beleaguered by crisis and dual loyalties. She’s something much more simplistic: a career double agent, creating chaos in the upper ranks of the CIA in hopes of carrying out Russia’s directives from the Director’s office. She opens “Oriole” by speculating with Krupin about the possibility that Saul stole the hacked CIA documents to pass to a still-living Carrie. Until this point, Carr and her Russian handlers have believed Quinn’s ploy to fake Carrie’s death. Krupin orders Carr to confirm this theory with Saul himself, who’s locked away being interrogated by Dar Adal. She gains access by convincing Dar that Saul will only sing if she’s allowed to take him back to his hotel and continue the interrogation there. Dar succumbs to this suggestion immediately, and, back at his hotel, poor Saul just as quickly divulges his own crimes and Carrie’s new mission to save her own life with the purloined CIA documents. Having felled the twin titans of the American intelligence apparatus, she circles back to re-sex Saul just to underline the insult, and then sets the Russians on the task of killing Carrie. Krupin finally mentions the connection that the Russians are trying desperately to preventCarrie from making: the hacked information will somehow lead her to Amsterdam and “Achmed,” who will reveal to her the second half of the season!
Saul is to be sent back from Berlin to the United States to live out his days disgraced and invisible, but he arranges for a last-minute reprieve– a squad of thugs in a black van who intercept him from custody and deliver him to his friend Etai, with whom he begins to arrange his defection to Israel.
Carrie, too, has shrugged off the connections that, until recently, defined the show. “Better Call Saul” and “Parabiosis” turned Homeland upside down to bring Saul and Carrie back together, and as “Oriole” began, it appeared that Carrie would have to use the documents to pay back Saul’s sacrifice and exonerate him. Saul, as we learned, muddled through by himself, and the documents instead lead Carrie to a raft of new faces, only a few of whom she’s ever met. She’s retired to Otto Düring’s palatial manse to sift through the document dump, and she finds the critical piece: an Iraqi judge and CIA informant who had attempted to contact her at an old alias. The communiqué had never reached her, so she contacts the judge to follow up. We learn that, at the time of his original call, he saw, alive in Iraq, our Achmed. Achmed, it turns out, was a CIA asset who the Americans believed had been killed by bomb.
Carrie intuits that, in order to track Achmed down, and in order to have a few shoehorned conversations about the ethics of government transparency, she’ll need the assistance of Laura Sutton and Numan, the hacker with a heart of gold. Laura helps out by immediately demanding access to the stolen CIA documents, and Numan helps out by immediately locating Achmed in Amsterdam. Carrie travels to Amsterdam and reconnects with a contact there whom she had helped emigrate from Iraq. Given the fact that he’s driving a cab to support himself while he earns a law degree at night, it’s a near-miracle that he he doesn’t have his throat slit until the last ten minutes of the episode. Carrie manages to break into Achmed’s house and steal his laptop before she’s chased off by Russian agents. With nowhere else to turn, she calls Allison Carr and arranges to fall into her clutches as soon as she can get back to Berlin.
Quinn, lately seen rekindling the old romantic spark with Carrie and joining her quest to save her own life and ferret out a mole in the highest echelons of the CIA, instead decides to continue his sojourn among Berlin’s bustling jihadi community. The gang that he encountered in “Parabiosis” is apparently in a forgiving mood and offers a consulting position to the haunted loner and self-confessed spy who beat their former supervisor to death. They’ve taken Quinn’s admonishments to heart and plan to return to the Eastern Mediterranean to conduct their violence in Syria. They offer Quinn ten thousand dollars per week to advise them on crossing the border. As he later reveals to Dar Adal, Quinn has gone double agent: he’s taken the job in order to keep tabs on the group and for the chance at killing one guy’s uncle. It’s left to the viewer to discover the ways that any of that might matter in the grand scheme of the show.
Homeland has long wrestled with a subtext of shocking professional incompetence, but after “Oriole,” there’s little left to admire about Saul Berenson. He’s stolen classified documents and handed them over to the activist press. He’s been completely spun around by Allison Carr, facilitating not only the Russians’ hunt for Carrie but also Allison’s attempts to muscle him aside at the CIA. For Saul to spill his entire plan to Allison, then to leave the room while she texts it to her Russian compatriots, and then to let her back in that evening for one last roll in the hay before he defects from the United States is a fairly pathetic stretch. It appears that, a full season after ditching Brody The Secret-Terrorist-Congressman as a hook, Homeland is inching towards Carr The Secret-Russian-CIA-Director as a replacement, but for the fans that invested in the early seasons, it’s a disappointment that Saul was reduced to such an oaf to make it possible.
That fire-sale mentality has taken hold all over the show. Saul is a newly unemployed citizen of Israel. Quinn is fighting new and obscure terrors all by his lonesome. Carrie is investigating old business that means little to the viewer and has kept herself alive with so many crimes and betrayals that it’s unclear what elements of the character are being carried forward. Homeland has generated an impressive amount of uncertainty this season, not as drama for the characters, who seem as capable as ever of maneuvering themselves through the labyrinth, but rather about the show itself. What was so wrong with the way the show used to work? That’s asked not as a rhetorical nostalgic protest. What’s the narrative strategy here?