Deception comes with the territory of a spy drama like Homeland. But the ceremony that opens “Why Is This Night Different?” illustrates the dangers inherent in following all-too-familiar traditions without seeming to fully understand their purpose. This week leans heavily on tropes and conventions of the spy genre, which is to say that the twists don’t feel justified, the plot beats are too similar to those that occurred last week, and Carrie’s (Claire Danes) most recent abduction is frivolously handled.
The opening scene, in which Saul (Mandy Patinkin) and Allison (Miranda Otto) share a Passover supper in Germany with the Israeli ambassador, Uter (Allan Corduner), exists solely to allow Saul and Uter hypothetically banter about how the U.S. would overthrow Syrian president Bashir al-Assad. (They can’t talk about it directly, as Saul continues to insist his country and agency no longer have an interest in such global meddling.) A few scenes later, Allison and Saul are embedded within a private medical clinic in Douvaine, Switzerland, where they’re surreptitiously attempting to convince al-Assad’s right-hand man, General Youssef (Igal Naor), to stage a coup so that the U.S. can help him fend off ISIS.
On paper, this is a cleverly plotted bit of spycraft, with Allison masquerading as the clinic’s director so Youssef’s bodyguards don’t realize he’s being approached by the C.I.A., let alone being coerced, but because the sequence is shot entirely from Allison’s perspective, the stakes are never particularly high. At best, it serves only to further exemplify the callousness of the U.S., which basically uses the ongoing kidney transplant that Youssef’s daughter is receiving to strong-arm the general. As Saul celebratorily puts it: “He knows he’s fucked. Means he just might cooperate.”
No concern is extended toward Youssef’s daughter, or the general’s request that the U.S. shelter his family for the duration of the coup; like the little boy Quinn (Rupert Friend) kidnapped last week in order to draw out Carrie, a family is just a pawn to be leveraged. True or not, the more Homeland highlights these practices, the more inured audiences become to them, until the revelations of how far America will go to protect its interests are old hat and no longer shocking.
To some degree, this is also true of Carrie’s scenes, since Quinn tells her that, despite thin evidence against her being a traitor, the C.I.A. has put her on a kill list: “Somebody somewhere, likely very senior, wants you dead.” The difference is that Carrie is used to emphasizing the personal over the political. It’s a shame, then, that she’s dragged down by Quinn, the current albatross of the series. It’s true that he disobeys orders in helping Carrie to fake her death, on account of his feelings for her in previous seasons (which haven’t been shown at all in the Berlin years), but when Carrie asks why she’s being targeted, Quinn insists that he not only doesn’t know, but doesn’t want to know.
This sort of casual characterization is where Homeland is at its worst, for it leads to false scenes that exist only for dramatic purposes and cliffhangers, as with Quinn’s “abduction” of Carrie last week. Given their history, could he not have simply warned her without putting her in a chokehold, injecting her with a sedative, and then zip-tying her to a single bed?
Even Danes’s exceptional emotional work is somewhat tainted by her character’s ties to Quinn, a blank cypher of a character. When it’s Carrie on her own, failing in her attempts to record a final video message for her daughter before going on the run, the acting is outstanding. There’s plenty of nuance in Carrie insisting that she’s not abandoning her daughter, and implicit in her saying, “I know how that feels, and I would never do that to you,” is her still unresolved issues her own mother. There’s an entire struggle in the caesura between two tenses—the actively fighting “I’m doing everything I can” and passively resigned “I did everything that I could.”
But instead of allowing the camera or the audience to linger with Carrie, Quinn (and the overall plotting) forces her to rush through, and only moments after she’s said her goodbye—which feels like mere moments after groggily waking up tied to a bed—she’s demanding that Quinn take her to his dead-drop so she can have a final confrontation with Saul, if that’s really who was behind the kill order. It took Carrie far more time to stubbornly decide to pursue the truth and not to safely accompany the During Foundation back to Lebanon after the roadside assassination attempt in “The Tradition of Hospitality,” which indicates that the unseen needs of the writer’s room is dictating actions more than character motivation alone.
This forceful pacing also impacts the episode’s climax, which now seems all too coincidental and forced. After a terse ambush/shootout at the dead-drop location, Carrie discovers (by redialing from the assassin’s phone) that Allison, Saul’s current lover, was most likely behind the hit. It’s not a terrible twist, but after years of 24 and Homeland, it’s dissatisfying, a deus ex mole-ina that uses a surprise betrayal to reset the stakes, rather than to build on what’s already been established.
Many shows manipulate their audiences like this, but the execution in this instance feels crass, especially since this occurs at the same moment that General Youssef’s plane explodes as it departs from Switzerland. This is either too heavy-handed or coincidental, even if it’s meant to demonstrate that Allison is acting on behalf of Israel. (Uter had mentioned to Saul how little he trusted Carrie’s conversations with Hezbollah and how much his government outright opposed any further regime change in Syria.)
“Why Is This Night Different?” feels like an overly complicated table-setting episode, especially given the way Homeland merges its other two subplots. Journalist Laura Sutton (Sarah Sokolovic) meets with a new hacker, Sabine (Janina Blohm-Sievers), in order to reconnect with Numan (Atheer Adel), the hacker who first leaked her the C.I.A. documents. The disappointing revelation here is that Israel may just be a stalking horse, with Russia being the true villain. That’s a bit of a generic choice, especially when it’s demonstrated through the brutal garroting of Numan’s colleague, Korzenik (Sven Schelker). Such is the stuff of big-budget Bond films or campy military dramas like Strike Back. Homeland has carved out a niche for itself with more introspective and close-to-home affairs, and while the violence and political machinations are welcome, it must keep the emphasis on its characters.
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