Everything about this week’s episode of Homeland, “Better Call Saul,” suggests that the writers couldn’t restrain themselves from winking at audiences. To begin with, there’s its pop-culturally referent title, which calls a quite different series to mind. Then there’s the overly cute way in which the series appropriates the in-the-headlines “Je Suis Charlie” as “Je Suis Gabehcoud.” And then there’s the snarky way in which last week’s ramifications are recapped through lazy exposition: The day after the explosion, Allison (Miranda Otto) stands on the airport runway and tells Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) that “Someone betrayed us,” to which Dar Adal snaps back: “You think?”
In the very next scene, Carrie (Claire Danes) arranges a covert meeting with Astrid (Nina Hoss) in the hopes that she can identify the gunman who tried to kill Quinn (Rupert Friend). “I’m not doing this for you,” Astrid says, taking the photo. “Yeah, we’re clear on that,” Carrie grouses back, which seems quite unprofessional from the supposedly dead woman who’s literally just put her life in the hands of a German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) agent. Worst of all, however, are the multiple times in which the camera lingers on Allison’s barely repressed smile as she—overtly, now that the audience knows she’s working with the Russian SVR—leaks the precise information to Saul (Mandy Patinkin) and Dar that will put them at odds with one another.
For a series about spies, there’s practically no subtlety on display throughout “Better Call Saul.” Carrie, trying to disguise her identity with nothing other than a bad wig, is able to brush right by Saul, while he’s being surveilled, in the lobby of his hotel—and Saul, in turn, is able to recognize the signal she slips under his door and to spryly jog through a service exit and then through the hotel’s kitchen so as to reunite with his former protégé outside. The one mystery of the episode stems from what exactly Quinn is hallucinating as he feverishly, mulishly sneaks away from Jonas (Alexander Fehling) so that Carrie’s good-intentioned lover doesn’t blow Carrie’s cover in calling him an ambulance.
Bleeding out in the dark by a river, attempting to zip-tie himself to a concrete anchor so as to drown himself and make it look like he’s got some sort of cover story, a religious stranger walks by and intervenes: “Only God is permitted to give life and to take life.” For Quinn, a character who’s been so adrift, it’s a much-needed salvation, but the framing and dialogue of this sequence makes it all seem so literal. The scene ends with Quinn feebly attempting to throw himself into a dumpster—a reflection of his own sense of self-worth measured against those he cares about, like Carrie.
The lengths to which Quinn is willing to go to protect Carrie are perhaps meant to demonstrate his undying love for her, and that’s partially reciprocated when Carrie reluctantly agrees that Quinn should go to a hospital, even if that compromises her recently faked death. They secretly love each other so much, the series seems to suggest, that they’re willing to beg their current romantic partners to pull strings on behalf of one another, but none of this works because of how shallowly all of these relationships and secondary characters are sketched. Jonas, for example, is too much of a gentleman to be anything but concerned for Quinn when he’s alone with his rival, while Astrid is utilized as mere plot device—a woman who bends the law slightly in order to identify the man who shot at Quinn: Vasily, a petty gangster who had recently started freelancing for the SVR.
But the more these dots are connected, the less satisfying the whole picture turns out to be. If Carrie’s intuition is to be trusted, the SVR has been trying to kill Carrie on account of some sort of damning detail that only she would’ve picked up on in the leaked C.I.A. documents—even though Allison knows that Carrie’s no longer with the bureau, and wasn’t the one responsible for putting the files into Russian hands in the first place. (No, that was motivated—as most evil things are—by greed.)
If the episode is at all satisfying, it’s in watching Dar turn on Saul. C.I.A. protocols and American “security” are funny that way, as no amount of loyalty shields you from paranoia’s pointing finger, and Dar is practically forced to order surveillance on Saul on the thin suspicion that Saul’s connection to the Israeli ambassador, Etai Üter (Allan Corduner), might have somehow compromised him. Likewise, Saul is forced to suspect Etai, his old friend, given all the coincidences that Allison has put at his disposal. Saul’s suspicion of Etai is literally the thing that causes Dar to suspect Saul, and the whole thing feels like something out of a Joseph Heller novel: “We didn’t murder the general you never met to discuss the coup that you weren’t planning,” Etai says, the only man willing to cut through the bullshit that so much of this episode is embroiled in.
On the whole, though, there are too many irksome scenes, like the one in which Numan (Atheer Adel) films a “call to arms” for his fellow hacktivists to march on the Russian embassy—and they actually do, demanding answers about the disappearance of Numan’s weasel-like friend. (Remember: This is the same hacker who couldn’t get his countrymen riled up about the surveillance Germany was conducting on its own people.) There’s also the one where Allison surreptitiously parks her car alongside that of her Russian handler, Ivan (Mark Ivanir), only to then pass a calming cigarette back and forth between them. (They might as well have simply hugged one another in public for all this so-called secrecy.) It also seems odd that Allison comes across so fragilely and in need of comfort at all, given that she’s seemed on the verge of gloating in just about every other close-up.
As Saul rules out the political operatives who couldn’t have had a hand in last week’s explosive assassination of General Youssef, he tells Allison that “the simplest answer is almost always the correct one.” Comically amusing as it may be to watch Homeland misdirect its heroes with an array of complex and unbelievable motivations, it’s narratively frustrating. Sometimes the simplest settings are also the correct ones for a show itself, and right now, Homeland is too wrapped up in its own allure to deliver on the story it started to tell in previous weeks.