Early in this week’s episode, fresh off last week's pick-me-up course of Ibogaine and a whole lot of macho bonding with his brother Marines, we meet up with Nicholas Brody in Iraq, near the border he hopes to cross into Iran. Brody’s doctor, who is apparently as good at impromptu barbecuing as he is at delivering experimental medical treatments, hands him a chunk of the meat. “Medium rare,” he declares. “Pretty fucking tasty, huh? The secret is to relax the goat before you cut its throat.” It may be true that deceiving the goat means that anxiety won’t seep into its meat during the final moments of life. As the two men will sadly learn before the end of the episode, just because an animal or human doesn’t see its death coming doesn’t mean that the creatures in question don’t end up dead. But on a larger scale, this episode of Homeland is a reminder that the means and the ends are deeply related to each other. Even if you come through a series of disasters “still in the game,” as Carrie puts it to Saul, those disasters can still fester and spread poison.
I’m glad that Homeland was smart enough to include those disasters, and a clear acknowledgment of Carrie’s compromised decision-making; even if she insists her fetus isn’t Brody’s, I’m not sure she’s telling Quinn the truth. The calm with which Saul laid out his plan and bargained for a chance to succeed at it last week drove me more than a little nutty given how far-fetched it was, and how dependent on a series of extremely small chances all playing out. But given that we’re committed to the scheme — though unlike Sen. Lockhart, we’re fortunately not required to hope that it ends well — at least Homeland has the decency to acknowledge the odds on Saul’s gamble.
It’s a small thing, but one of Homeland’s smartest moves this season was to give Brody’s Marine minders actual personalities. When things happen to them, we feel bad, not something I can say for the bland C.I.A. dude in Saul’s black-ops bunker. Our investment in them, even if it’s minor, adds a dimension to the frantic debates in the control room.
If Brody was the only man on the ground we knew, it might be easier to accept Mike Curtis’s suggestion that the small convoy of Marines be hit with a drone, and their deaths covered up with this excuse: “We just found an Al Qaeda cell trying to smuggle America’s most wanted terrorist into Iran.” In fact, if Brody were the only person at stake, Curtis’s suggestion might have seemed like both smart — if cold-blooded — geopolitics and character fatigue. But instead, we’re worried for the guy who tells Brody, fighting against the pain of a severe leg injury, “I don’t have any kids, dumbass. I was focusing on small talk because you’re being a fucking baby,” and that lets us weigh things other than Saul’s supposed genius or distaste for Lockhart’s smarm.
It’s a sign of how cynical and bloodthirsty Homeland has made me that the best thing the show could possibly do now is have Javadi send Brody back to Saul and Carrie in a body bag. Keeping him alive was, as Phil Maciak put it in the Los Angeles Review of Books last month, Homeland’s “original sin.” The show has contorted itself in any number of ways to try to turn its vice into a virtue. But what Homeland needs right now isn’t a tortured soul, or an antihero. It needs a big, juicy, hammy villain who presents a credible challenge to Saul and Carrie. And Javadi’s an even better candidate than the necessarily inscrutable Abu Nazir ever was.
It’s not just that he’s obviously brilliant, which he is. It’s that he’s a perfect counterpoint to Saul and Carrie’s styles. Javadi may have been caught in Saul and Carrie’s trap, but once he understands what’s happened to him, he appreciates their play with the relish of a connoisseur. And, in it, he sees what his captors couldn’t acknowledge: Saul’s sadism and Carrie’s masochism. “The abuse you went through ... even I have never done anything so cruel,” Javadi told Carrie three episodes ago. Javadi may be nasty where Carrie and Saul think of themselves as empathetic and even kind, but his cold pursuit of emotional aims, including his bloody slaughter of his ex-wife, is an important contrast to Carrie and Saul’s emotional heat.
Saul may be confident that he’s got Javadi under his thumb. But now that Javadi’s back on his home turf and has stripped Brody of his backup, he seems like the only person on Homeland capable of untangling the web Carrie and Saul — and Homeland’s showrunners — have spun over the preceding three seasons. He knows the real identity of the Langley bomber. He knows that Carrie’s illness and incarceration were a ploy, and has at least a sense of what Saul’s plans are. And while Saul and Carrie are depending on the fragile Fara and her uncle in Tehran, Javadi’s got millions he could put towards an escape plan, and ammunition to shame the U.S. that could do an awful lot to make up for his embezzlement. It’s actually sort of remarkable how few consequences Saul and Carrie have faced with their collaboration for Brody so far. It would be nice if Javadi turned out to be the bet that didn’t pan out, given how far Saul is ahead of the house.
Homeland’s spent a whole lot of its run with hide-and-seek between Carrie and Brody as its game of choice. If the show has ambitions to reclaim its intellectual mantle, and to give us a look at the motivations and operational style of a regime in the news for its conflicts with the United States, Homeland would be wise to shift its focus to a chess match between Javadi and Saul. That’s a game, after all, that you can’t play without the kinds of sacrifices Homeland balked at making three years ago.