Homeland Was at the Height of Its Powers With This Week’s Episode

Photo: David Bloomer/SHOWTIME 2014
Episode Title
There’s Something Else Going On
Editor’s Rating

Well, that was terrifying. Leave it to Showtime's best terrorism-themed thrill ride (outside of Californication) to wring as much suspense from whether Saul will take a phone call from his wife as it does from a missile attack. See, a lot of people mistakenly favor the first season of a TV series because they confuse their own thrill of discovery with a show's peak entertainment value. But sometimes a series finds new peaks four seasons in when it can truly capitalize on the emotional bonds we've formed with its characters. That's what's currently happening on Homeland, which is, for my money, the best season of Homeland yet. This season has brought us enough consecutive killer episodes that that statement shouldn't even be controversial, and this week's episode was the season's best yet. Equal parts moving and stressful, "There's Something Else Going On" was one gracefully written hour of television. Homeland at the height of its powers.

The obvious centerpiece plotline this week was the hostage exchange between the CIA and the Taliban (and their obvious allies in the ISI). From those tense opening moments of Quinn looking disgusted while signing the Taliban prisoners' discharge papers, to Saul's captivity alongside the boy that would become his suicide-bomber escort, to every little complicated aspect of the exchange itself, the episode was shrouded in a fog of unease. I hadn't given much thought to how such a seemingly simple exchange might actually unfold, but if there was one takeaway from this episode it's that even between high-powered, experienced organizations an operation like that is constantly on the brink of deadly chaos. Carrie's harried radio exchanges with the ISI woman, Quinn's control-room drone-surveillance, near universal nervous glances — all contributed to an almost unbearable sense of danger. And that was before Saul sat on the tarmac and begged to be killed before any exchange could take place.

I've said this about other scenes this season — that's just the kind of season it's been — but one scene in particular this week stripped Homeland down to its very essence: Carrie's crouched, anguished plea to an obstinate Saul to get up, stand up, and reject death as his only option. These two next-level actors have never been better as their back-and-forth concisely spelled out the entire premise of the show. Saul was ready to give his life for his cause while Carrie pleaded with him that there was a better, smarter, presumably less death-filled way to achieve their objectives. In fact it was her reminder that Saul's attempted nihilism mirrored their enemies' own that finally seemed to change his mind. But even though he did cave to Carrie's pleas and continue with the hostage exchange, it's hard to deny that he's been changed by the experience. The shame and self-loathing on his face as he decided whether to talk to his wife on the phone was heart-wrenching, but the facility with which he suddenly shrugged them off and regained a businesslike demeanor was downright chilling. And that was before the first missile struck.

Homeland has wrung more terrifying, emotional shock waves out of basic explosions than Michael Bay's entire résumé. Again, the whiplash between interpersonal tension to actual, physical violence is a Homeland trademark, so when Saul and Carrie's convoy approached the Embassy, only to be destroyed from above, we should've seen it coming. Carrie herself had openly hypothesized that Haqqani was planning something bigger than a hostage exchange, but the almost existential terror of missiles-from-nowhere underlined the randomness of the danger they'll always face. Had a drone been hijacked as payback? To what extent is the Pakistani government complicit with Haqqani's Die Hard–esque attempts to take over the U.S. Embassy? That's a question to be answered next week, right after we find out if Carrie and Saul are even still alive. (My guess is they are, but don't quote me on that.)

In a smaller-scale plotline that was very nearly as effective, Carrie pursued Khan's tip that Dennis was their mole. While Lockhart questioned Khan's intentions, Carrie immediately set about getting Dennis to 'fess up. But just when this episode had us believe that her attempts were faltering and that Dennis's wife was going to ruin Carrie over these supposedly false accusations, Homeland revealed that this was another bit of its trademark misdirection. As it turned out, Ambassador Boyd was fully on Carrie's side and had only been pretending to be a good cop so that her husband would admit what he'd done. Then, after almost an entire episode of blanket denials and playing dumb, Dennis heard the missiles land and had a sudden change of heart. The look on Ambassador Boyd's face as her husband finally came clean was as relieved as it was rattled: He admitted he'd told the ISI how to enter the Embassy through secret tunnels, and that's exactly what Haqqani was doing that very moment. Definite good-news-bad-news situation.

It's straight-up hard to believe there are still four more episodes of mayhem left to unspool, as these past two have felt positively finale-like. But that's a lesson Homeland knew and perfected long ago: We're too savvy as viewers to put up with the old model of back-loaded twists and narrative sucker punches; they have to be parceled out almost continuously across all episodes. "There's Something Else Going On" proved that Carrie was right to look past short-term issues and worry about the long-game, but it's also a tip-off to the viewers that we should be doing the same. Like a particularly clever renegade terrorist, Homeland loves to stay a few steps ahead of us, and I truly appreciate that. It's hard to predict where the rest of the season will take us, but that's the point. We can't! Let the thrill ride continue.