“Shalwar Kameez” is a story in three smiles: one knowing, one exhilarated, and one conspiratorial. As Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) arranges her pawns in an international chess match just now beginning to emerge, Danes wordlessly lifts an otherwise lackluster episode that finds Homeland’s narrative stalled. Though the “The Drone Queen” and “Trylon and Perisphere” seemed like the start of a slow burn, “Shalwar Kameez” reads as an apology for the unruly melodrama of past seasons; it’s as drab as the diplomatic offices, shadow stations, and university classrooms in which it takes place, chasing realism into boredom. By hour’s end, with the revelation that Sandy Bachman’s murder was premeditated, Homeland returns to a simmer, but the real promise of “Shalwar Kameez” is in Carrie’s Cheshire grin.
Saul (Mandy Patinkin) arrives in Islamabad to find Carrie in the midst of a political wrangle at the Embassy, as her surprise elevation to C.I.A. station chief forces her predecessor’s allies and adversaries to adjust. U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Martha Boyd (Laila Robins) tacitly questions the promotion and defends the embassy lockdown inhibiting Carrie’s investigation; the station’s rank and file test her authority from the outset, particularly sexist drunk John “Young Lady, Let’s Have a Chat” Redmond (Michael O’Keefe). Saul’s appearance undermines her further, like a father intervening in a playground spat, and it doesn’t help that he’s so chummy with Ambassador Boyd, his former fiancé. This internecine drama, such as it is, feels halfhearted. Thus far, Redmond’s an unworthy antagonist, and Carrie evinces little interest in winning the station’s respect. (A flash of paranoid genius usually does the trick.) Nevertheless, Carrie’s détente with Saul over “the tyranny of secrets” suggests a renewed alliance. He pegs her strategy exactly, and her lip-biting smile says more about why they’ve stuck together so long than any heartfelt monologue: He’s the only person left who really gets her, and she knows it.
Carrie violates the lockdown and ditches her security detail (not to mention Pakistani intelligence service surveillance) to rendezvous with staunch Mathison loyalists Fara (Nazanin Boniadi) and Max (Maury Sterling), who’ve established a secret operation to turn Aayan (Suraj Sharma) into a C.I.A. informant. After a brief moment of delight (the gang’s getting back together!), the subplot segues into tedium. Fara, posing as a British journalist, bungles her attempt to win the young man’s trust, but with nothing more on the line than her own competence, their awkward exchange musters none of the excitement to which Carrie alludes when she warns, “It’s a seduction, Fara, there’s no way around it.” That said, allowing Carrie to cultivate the contact eventually pays off. She’s at her best when backed into a corner, and the desperate, duplicitous gambit by which she tricks Aayan into taking her card is quite something. In quick succession, she wails like a dying woman, pretends to hear a noise beyond the door, and offers him passage to the United States or Britain, culminating in the sighing, chuckling second smile of a woman whose greatest asset is her refusal to take no for an answer.
Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend), at Langley for a psychological evaluation, wants out of the agency, but of course when it comes to spy games it’s never so simple as that. “I controlled myself for 12 fucking years,” he tells his interlocutor (does this character have a name? who is the actor?) as the enigmatic Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) looks on via closed circuit video. “Once is all it takes,” she replies flatly. Her suggestion that he chose to save Carrie during the attack on Sandy, out of romantic attachment rather than strategic calculation, no less, sends Quinn further into his raging tailspin, an accusation Adal repeats when he shows up at Quinn’s apartment a little later. In addition, last week’s apartment manager returns, likely for the last time, in a series of developments that once again left me deeply ambivalent. There’s a lovely, easygoing moment between them, sharing a bottle of Schnapps by the pool, which suggests Quinn’s ability to acclimate to normalcy, and the fact that they’re still sleeping together would seem to indicate that she’s more than an outlet for his unaddressed trauma. But then he proceeds to treat her like shit as she cleans his squalid apartment, and the only thing that prevents the whole thing from shading into the worst of clichés is a half-smile of his own, perhaps an acknowledgment that he wasn’t good enough for her anyway. “Whoever this Carrie is,” she says on her way out the door. “She’s a lucky girl.”
Maybe this was the point of their uncomfortable dalliance all along: Carrie and Quinn deserve each other, both wrung out by too many dead drops, traitors, killings, and lies to have a meaningful relationship with normalcy. After all, it’s Quinn’s own paranoid, Carrie-esque obsession with YouTube video of the attack on Sandy that leads to the third smile. Searching for evidence that Sandy could have been saved, Quinn discovers a man with an earpiece. “We never had a chance,” he tells Carrie on the phone, before she convinces him to return to Islamabad. Carrie’s third smile is wrapped up in the same thrill of the chase, both romantic and strategic, that Homeland once deployed to such fantastic effect, and despite the staidness of “Shalwar Kameez,” I took it as a premonition of the high drama to come. “You’re the hardest person in the world to say no to,” Quinn remarks. Homeland’s greatest asset is Carrie, refusing to take no for an answer.
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