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Homeland Season Premiere Recap: Keepers of the Sacred Flame

Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson in Homeland Mandy Patinkin in Homeland

After Homeland’s last season got mired down in the romantic relationship between Carrie and Brody, I was relieved not to see America’s favorite sexy terrorist in this episode. But fortunately, Homeland’s doing something more interesting than simply minimizing liabilities, at least in the early going, in a third season that has a lot of work to do to earn back its sterling first-season reputation.

The show started out exploring the idea that events could turn the people who take the greatest risks to defend America into enemies capable of doing it mortal harm. After the attack on the CIA that ended the show’s second season, the battlefield has moved from Gettysburg tailor shops to Congressional hearing rooms, and the key battle’s being fought with words rather than bullets as the CIA mounts a fight for its own survival. And given how the stakes and terms of engagement have changed, Homeland has made an intriguing switch. Once the only person in the CIA who saw a serious threat to the country, Carrie Mathison, who’s off her medication and giving erratic testimony before Congress, might be the biggest barrier between her agency and its return to normalcy — if, in fact, that’s what the CIA actually deserves.

Tracy Letts was quickly promoted to series regular on Homeland this season, so we’ll probably be seeing a lot of Sen. Andrew Lockhart. Unpleasant as he may seem — and he’s based on House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa — there are a lot of legitimate questions for him to dig into that we, as viewers, would like answers to as well. What’s up in the air is whether Lockhart knows enough to ask them.

As viewers, we know Brody didn’t put the explosives in his car, or move the car close enough to the auditorium where the memorial service for Vice President Walden was being held, and it sure would be nice to know how the attack was carried out. But because Lockhart believes that Brody acted alone, he can only focus on what seem like lapses in agency security, including how Brody could get that level of explosives onto the CIA campus, and why the agency trusted him in the first place. That latter question is a perfectly legitimate one to ask, and if Lockhart knew what we’ve learned over the past couple of seasons about the agency’s pursuit of and handling of Brody, he’d have a crew of Congressional colleagues ready to dismantle the CIA, brick by brick, with their own bare hands, even if they were joining him for very different reasons. Carrie and her colleagues have broken the law to spy on Brody, stabbed a sitting Congressman, carried out what could plausibly be considered a honey trap on him, blackmailed Brody to try to turn him against Abu Nazir in a way he clearly couldn’t handle, and given him autonomy that seems to have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people, if only because the CIA didn’t inspect his car carefully.

Saul Berenson, now acting director of the agency, has the unpleasant job, as a result of all of this, of effectively running a counterintelligence operation against Lockhart to distract him from the truth. Saul bows to overt political realities in ordering the coordinated strike that takes out the financiers and other minor players in the attack on the CIA — his operations director Dar Adal is right that the agency needs an impressive display of competence so Saul can at least blunt Lockhart’s accusations of incompetence. But the real game he’s playing is a deeper one that operates by the rules he described to his wife Mira in their conversation about the nature of the CIA. “We’re not assassins,” Saul says. “We’re spies. We don’t kill our targets if we don’t have to. We trawl for them, we develop them, and then we redirect them, against more important targets.” As useful as that is when you’re operating overseas, it’s an even more effective strategy for bureaucratic infighting, where you know your enemies personally instead of from briefing papers, and where you can get directly inside their heads.

And that’s precisely what Saul does when he makes the decision to give Carrie over to Sen. Andrew Lockhart, distracting the man who’s “had a hard-on for us ever since Abu Ghraib” from the substantive story with a sexy one. Like Issa, on whom he’s based, Lockhart’s job is to generate scandals that will play well in the press and harm the opposing party. While it would be more explosive for Lockhart to prove that the CIA recklessly endangered national security, he’s a couple of crucial pieces of evidence away from locking down that accusation, and he’s stuck discussing it in a closed hearing rather than in front of the press. When Saul hands Carrie over to him, he’s offering Lockhart a sure thing, and one that Lockhart can talk about publicly.

Whether Saul intends it or not, his attempt to take responsibility for Carrie’s lies is a brilliant tactic, because it convinces Lockhart that Saul’s trying to distract him from the real issue, which is Carrie’s deception. Watching Lockhart breeze past a chance to nail the acting director of the CIA to a wall for failing to properly rein in an obviously unstable employee and ask (visions of future Sunday talk show bookings twinkling in his eye) just how bad a girl Carrie really was, is a brilliant critique of how scandal-driven oversight proceedings in Congress have become. And the operation accomplishes everything Saul needs it to, making him look like a viable partner for cleaning house at the CIA, neutralizing anything Carrie might say to anyone by making her out to be a sex-crazed nut, and diverting the investigation away from the real mistakes the CIA’s made along the way.

That Saul’s move is inspired doesn’t make it any less painful to watch Saul sell out his old protégé. Homeland isn’t a visually flashy show, but there was something awful about seeing Carrie watch Saul touch a match to the fuse of her career on the same couch where he’d once sat with her, showed her Brody’s suicide tape and given her the gift of her sanity back. And what’s even sadder about the break in their relationship is that it’s hard to say Saul is wrong to make it.

Given Carrie’s feelings of personal responsibility for the September 11 attacks, it’s not surprising that, once again, she’s self-flagellating over the attack on the CIA. “It was my responsibility to try to track [Nazir’s] whereabouts and anticipate his next move,” she explains to Lockhart. “If you’re asking did he outsmart me, yes he did. If you’re asking will I ever forgive myself, no, I won’t.”

But the sense of guilt that seemed touching and tragic in Homeland’s first season comes across as curdled and self-regarding now. Carrie’s reckless behavior means that she’s out of the action, testifying before Congress and obsessing over leaks to committees and the press rather than actively assisting in the investigation of the CIA bombing. And her insistence that Brody is innocent, what her lawyer tartly refers to as “a minority view” is unhelpful both because it’s not what Congress wants to hear from her (and given Brody’s involvement in Walden’s assassination, Lockhart and his colleagues are correct to be suspicious of him and the Justice Department’s offer of immunity to him), but because establishing Brody’s innocence doesn’t necessarily prove who is guilty of the attack or bring them to any sort of justice. That’s the question that actually matters, but Carrie’s so caught up in Brody, and in her own sense of importance, that she’s minimizing the contributions of her colleagues to the War on Terror, and losing perspective on how to prevent a subsequent attack.

Once upon a time, Carrie was Cassandra, a person who saw the world with terrible clarity, but who was ignored because of David Estes’s personal resentments towards her, and later because of bias against her mental illness. Her marginalization seemed like an injustice. But over the two seasons that we’ve come to know Carrie, it’s become hard to tell if she could ever really reconcile her sense of her own brilliance and the need to follow the law, and effectively work within a large bureaucracy. Carrie may treasure the insights she reaches when she’s manic, but those states make it impossible for her to launch compelling defenses of her theories and her analytical work. To her father, she blames her Lithium for blunting her sharp eyes, but that seems like more of an excuse for losing herself in her affair with Brody and dreams of a new life at the expense of constant vigilance. Medical treatment for her bipolar disorder, just like legal restrictions on surveillance, are yet another thing that Carrie’s too good to abide by.

That sense of superiority is exhausting and it comes with very high costs along with the benefits. Carrie’s rush to the Brody home may have convinced Dana to call her father just in time to prevent his suicide bombing in season one, but it didn’t stop Brody from killing Vice President Walden in the second, and enjoying the experience — after he’d started working with the CIA. If Saul’s decided that Carrie isn’t worth the trouble she causes the CIA, we’ve reached a point in Homeland’s run when it’s difficult to blame him for thinking that way.

There’s a similar contradiction in the analysis the counselor at Dana’s recovery center gives Jessica, and his criticism of her for failing to see that Dana might be suicidal. “Dana’s gesture is a kind that we don’t often see: clear-eyed, no substances distorting her judgment,” the therapist explains. “She meant it.” But if Dana wanted to die, rather than hoping to be stopped and comforted, of course it would make sense that she’d conceal her intentions from her mother and brother as best she could.

Homeland’s made the case over and over again that the decision to visit destruction upon yourself, or on other people, or both, is hugely unpredictable. It’s no more reasonable to ask Jessica to know the recesses of her daughter’s heart than it is for Carrie to expect herself to be able to foil every attack on the United States. But where Carrie sees that expectation as a natural outgrowth of her sense of her own brilliance, Jessica recognizes it as the cruel and self-defeating advice it actually is. She wants to do her best, asking the discharge counselor how much she has to watch Dana, and trying to create a comfortable environment for her daughter at home. But, like the CIA, Jessica’s facing up to the gap between the expectations put on her — in this case, that she’ll continue to provide her daughter with extremely expensive treatment without health insurance or an income — and the reality of the resources she has to work with.

“We are pragmatists,” Dar Adal tells Saul, advising him to seek wins where he can. “We are not keepers of some sacred flame.” But the homeland, whether it’s defined as a nation or a family home, has always had a sacred status. And both Jessica and Saul are facing up to a reality that Carrie may never be able to accept: that the pragmatic thing to do is to admit that you might not always be able to keep those sacred spaces entirely safe with the resources you have and given the values you hold. Sometimes your only option is to redo the bathroom or rebuild over the crater.

Photo: Kent Smith/Showtime