The third season of Homeland has been a kind of meditation on the merits and and demerits of espionage, a thematic venture that sounds much more promising on paper than what’s been offered on screen. Part of that disappointment stems from the fact that the writers haven’t really come up with a point of view on the subject: one week Saul is the voice of reason for railing against the increasing devaluation of human relationships in spy work, the next week it’s that same kind of relationship that jeopardizes an operation. The show’s debates have become sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Last night’s episode, “Gerontion,” is a continuation of this season’s unfocused jumble of ideas. Take, for example, its attempt at staging a debate between the moral relativism necessary to work with evildoers versus the ethical imperative bringing those evildoers to justice. “We should try [Javadi] for what he’s done,” says newbie analyst Fara, referring to the Iranian intelligence official’s role in funding the Langley bombing. Later in the hour, Quinn gets uncharacteristically introspective, declaring, “I just don’t believe it anymore…that anything justifies the damage we do.” He still feels guilty over killing that kid in Venezuela, which is good, because he’d be a sociopath otherwise.
The episode makes perhaps its smartest point through one of its most out-of-the-loop characters, the Bethesda PD captain in charge of Javadi’s ex-wife’s investigation. “[Carrie] said all I need to know is that this is national security,” he explains to Quinn. “I’m just trying to understand this shit that you [CIA] people do. This shit that we’re a party to because we pay taxes.”
Fara, Quinn, and the BPD captain are united in their indignation and fatigue at the intelligence agency’s tactics — and they make thoroughly convincing points. But of course their objections are steamrolled over by Papa Bear, framed to be the smartest guy in the office not only by masterminding the seeming cooperation of Javadi, a former rival and and an important asset, but also by locking his future boss in a conference room and shutting the lights off to let Lockhart know once more that the senator is now quite literally in the dark about what happens at the CIA.
For Saul, intelligence begets intelligence — not justice. When baddies like Javadi (or Brody) are nabbed on this show, they’re turned into informants, not over to the courts. The pattern is interesting to watch as it plays out because it demonstrates the endlessness of the spy game — a cycle of catch-and-turn, catch-and-turn.
But is it a tactic worth continuing in the future? Homeland refuses to answer. Maybe I’m just being impatient; the writers might answer later in the season. But it also feels quite possible that the show will either drop these questions entirely or continue in the muddled ideological quagmire it’s been stuck in so far this season.
It’d certainly be interesting to watch Saul taken down a peg. Papa Bear’s a great character, but he’s meant to be an Old Reliable for Carrie, and it’s time the show mixed that up a bit — a plot development the show always gestures toward, but a character leap it never actually makes.
The season has been hitting hard on Saul’s age: he tells Javadi, “For years, we toiled in back rooms, you and I. We toil while shallower men held the stage waiting for our time to come, gradually understanding it never would. Now it has, unexpectedly.” In aligning himself with his corrupt rival, Saul’s certainly coming into his own as a moral relativist. Remember his chilling words about the Langley massacre: “When that bomb went off killing all those poeple, many of them my friends, my first thought was not revenge. It was ‘something has to change.’” Even more scarily, Papa Bear laps up his evil henchman Dar Adal’s flattery: “You don’t have explain yourself. you are the Acting Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.” Meanwhile, his wife seems to have left him — at least in her heart — for a younger man.
But if Saul is still fighting the Cold War, the show hasn’t shown us what comes after — probably because watching Carrie sit in front of a computer for hours isn’t as interesting as her running through Beirut in a headscarf. And Carrie, despite being of a younger generation, is Saul’s protege, and thus defends his tactics to her colleagues. In order for the show to tells us that something’s old, there needs to be a something new. Homeland needs to tell us soon what that something new looks like, because right now we’re watching Papa Bear count his gray hairs.