Among its other intellectual ambitions, Homeland has always had a fondness for poetry. Last season, Jessica Brody described the family’s garage as “like the wreck of the Hesperus in here” without knowing that the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem she’d referenced was particularly apropos. In the poem, a father ties his daughter to the mast of a ship during a storm, but his attempt to save her from the elements he never should have exposed her to in the first place is a pitiful effort; her body washes up on shore after the storm. It’s a narrative that, although Jessica couldn’t possibly have predicted it at the moment, foretells Dana’s fate at her own father’s hands. Brody made her a target and abandoned her to face the consequences he’d brought to his family. Ultimately, Dana is only able to survive by destroying her own identity to keep her body sane and intact.
This year, the poet of Homeland’s choice is T.S. Eliot, and the reference is more subtle: “Gerontion,” the title of this episode, appears to be borrowed from the poem of the same name. And although Homeland doesn’t reference “Gerontion” explicitly in the text of the episode, Eliot’s meditation on old age is both a perfect summary and a reminder that the deceptions Saul and Javadi practice by trade are not so different in form from the emotional compromises many of us make in the course of a life. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now/History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors/And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,/Guides us by vanities,” Eliot writes. “Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices/Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues/Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.”
This episode of Homeland is about both those “cunning passages,” and “impudent crimes,” and it ties them together in a critically important question, whether you work for the CIA or live outside it: How do you decide to trust when you’ve been repeatedly betrayed and manipulated? “Don’t tell me what I am and what I’m not,” Javadi tells Saul once he’s in the custody of his counterpart and former friend. “Well, we’re both old men. No disputing that,” Saul tells him. “It’s the curse of old men to realize that in the end we control nothing. So we lash out.”
But the fun of “Gerontion” is that these two men do control a great deal, and that even their lashings out are significant. “Thanks to you, I stand at the center of things. You put me in power,” Saul explains to Javadi, betraying a bit of pleasure that he couldn’t possibly share with anyone except his ancient adversary. Saul couldn’t possibly express such a sentiment, to acknowledge that the Langley bombing was in any way good for him, to anyone else. But it’s absolutely true that, as much as he’s carried the job in public like it’s accelerated his aging, Saul enjoys the opportunity to run the CIA as he sees fit. And his tenure as acting director has become even more precious to him now that Saul knows his time in the post is limited. None of this means that Saul isn’t horribly distressed by the loss of 219 of his friends and colleagues, but the opportunity to shove shallower men off the stage, or to play them like puppets while they stride confidently across it, isn’t one that Saul intends to relinquish lightly.
Similarly, Javadi may have very few choices about what he does with the rest of his life, given what Fara, Saul, and Carrie have dug up on him. But even with one leg broken by a rat trap, Javadi’s dangerous, and not just because he came up with a plan that gave him the time to murder his ex-wife and daughter-in-law. In the CIA’s custody, he susses out Saul’s doubts about the identity of the Langley bomber, and the fact that Saul is concealing those doubts. And once Javadi knows that Saul and his colleagues won’t be able to resist itching this question, he gives them plenty to scratch.
It isn’t just who built the bomb that’s at issue, Javadi points out to Carrie, preying on her need to be the smartest person in any given situation. “Who handed him the keys?” Javadi prompts Carrie to wonder about who moved the car into position. “Don’t tell me you never wondered. I bet you wonder all the time.” And I bet that her attempts to follow up on the suggestion that the bomber is living and in the United States will divert at least some of Carrie’s attention — and as a result Saul’s — from what happens after Javadi lands in Iran.
Javadi and Saul may have almost four decades’ acquaintance to learn each others’ styles and weak points. But as their behavior, and Dar Adal’s, in this episode indicate, becoming masters of the game they play by profession doesn’t mean they’ve resolved the questions of morality and loyalty that dog their work.
Javadi, who had Saul’s agents brutally murdered in Tehran to ensure his own political survival, tells Carrie that even though the play they ran together was “classic Saul,” he ultimately didn’t see through their deception because it was beyond the bounds of what he saw as the rules: “The abuse you went through ... even I have never done anything so cruel.” Saul, though his conversations with Lockhart ought to have taught him otherwise, attempts to use rationality to convince him of the wisdom of his operation with Javadi. When it doesn’t work, Saul resorts to a dirty trick that produces one of the funniest moments that Homeland, a particularly humorless drama, has ever put onscreen. He locks Lockhart in a black-box room, turns off the lights, and tells a secretary, “Senator Lockhart managed to get himself locked in the conference room. Can you get Facilities to let him out?” If the real truth won’t work on Lockhart, Saul’s happy to manufacture one of his own. And Dar Adal, a man who ought to know a thing or two about when and why fealty fails, has enough chutzpah to tell Peter Quinn, “You’re my guy, Peter. I recruited you. I brought you up ... My point is that entitles me to a certain amount of forthrightness from you.” In all of these circumstances, getting good at the game isn’t the same thing as acquiring wisdom.
No wonder the detective who’s investigating the Javadi murders tells Quinn in frustration, “I’m honestly just trying to understand this shit you people do. This shit we’re party to because we pay taxes. This shit ... You fucking people. Have you ever done anything but make things worse?” Or as Eliot puts it, “What will the spider do/Suspend its operations, will the weevil/Delay?” It may be Saul and Javadi’s time. But having to take the stage, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to either man to do anything but move relentlessly forward.