“Oriole” opens with vertiginous overhead shots of a spiraling stairwell, and the tortuous feeling they evoke aptly sets the overall tone of the episode. The woman quietly scaling those steps is Allison Carr (Miranda Otto), a double agent working for the Russian SVR, on her way to meet her handler, Ivan (Mark Ivanir). Director Lesli Linka Glatter uses slightly off-center shots to accentuate Allison’s unease and panic, and to keep her tense and isolated for as long as possible, but it’s all clearly being done by design, to generate empathy, if not sympathy, for a woman who Alex Gansa’s scripts have revealed next to nothing about. But there isn’t actually anything tortuous, or even torturous, about Allison, and the harder Otto tries to show something that isn’t there, the falser the performance feels.
Homeland’s first season excelled due to the way it portrayed Nicholas Brody as more than a double agent; he was grounded (perhaps too much) by a return to his now foreign-seeming family, and a mess of indecision and conflict, the result of several years of imprisonment and torture. Allison, on the other hand, is as clear cut as she seems, with no apparent motivations beyond the pride and ambition she briefly lets slip when Ivan reassuringly points out that no agent has ever penetrated the C.I.A. as deeply as she has. As Shakespeare put it: “The lady doth protest too much.” That’s because Homeland, a series rooted in the art of intelligence—of proving things based on a clear chain of evidence—can’t actually reveal the majority of things the writers are telling audiences about Allison.
Regarding Allison’s constant state of peril, Ivan notes that “Both of us know you love it—without it, you’d be a beached fish, dying of too much oxygen,” and she agrees, with the lame caveat that “It’s the getting caught part I’m not so crazy about.” That speaks directly against the hammy panic attack that Allison had earlier in the episode: a drowning woman, dying of too little oxygen. There’s no middle ground for her: She’s either shown to be a nervous Nellie when she’s around Ivan, or absolutely efficient, as in the way she not only manipulates Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) into allowing her to “interrogate” her boss/lover Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), but uses this act to prove her “loyalty” to Saul. In the process, she confirms her worst fear: that Carrie (Claire Danes) isn’t only still alive, but in possession of the C.I.A. documents Allison tried to kill her for.
The writers either need to relegate Allison further to the sidelines or figure out a way of complicating her. She may as well be the evil twin of Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend), seen here trying to help the would-be terrorists he stumbled upon in last week’s episode, “Parabiosis,” cross the border into Syria via Turkey, so that they can fight for ISIS. Both are plot-moving cogs, the sort of lazily characterized operators found on case-centric procedurals like CSI, for which any warm body capable of exposition or action will do. They’re too methodical and on point to let an ounce of humanity slip into frame, and this makes them tedious to watch.
That’s why the show’s renewed focus on Saul’s exploits—after sidelining him for so much of last year’s season—is working toward Homeland’s advantage, and why Carrie has always stolen the show. They’re both unpredictable and, accordingly, human—or as Ivan puts it: “I don’t care how brilliant she is, she’s not a fucking magician.” By focusing on human fallibility, Homeland distinguishes itself from shows like 24 and Strike Back, especially in the case of Saul, who, rather than return disgraced to Langley, contacts his old friend Etai Uter (Allan Corduner), who breaks him out of C.I.A. custody. When Etai asks him where they go from there, Saul replies simply, honestly: “I don’t know. I’ve never defected before.”
What’s important isn’t that every character has a rigidly plotted master plan, but that they act in a believable fashion when they face adversity. Laura Sutton (Sarah Sokolovic) may be an unpleasant, odious journalist who ignores the direct consequences of her brash actions, but at least her insistence that Carrie allows her to leak the C.I.A. documents that she’s reacquired is consistent with her goals. There’s something satisfying in the fact that even though he and Carrie have broken up, Jonas (Alexander Fehling) attempts to visit her at the manor of his employer, Otto During (Sebastian Koch)—not because he’s looking for something more, but because he still cares about her well-being. And when During suggests that “We made a mistake hiring her” and informs him of his plans not to renew her contract, despite the fact that he’s been helping her, the scene gains extra weight from the fact that During might be trying to sabotage Jonas’s relationship with Carrie, or to ensure that Jonas’s feelings for Carrie are genuine, and not mixed up with their mutual employer.
There are dozens of ways to read this scene, but that’s only because, earlier in the episode, During had an opportunity to speak to Carrie about her breakup with Jonas and to reveal that he’d had a similarly grounded relationship with his first wife. In other words, the writers armed During with a history, which gave Koch room to choose actions, rather than to simply play at them. By contrast, Otto and Friend always seem boxed in by the often out-of-leftfield decisions of the characters they’re playing.
Ultimately, this is why Homeland’s choice to ground Carrie with a child and a functional relationship is paying such dividends. Season one’s Carrie—whom we saw an echo of when she went off her medication in “Super Powers,” goaded into it by an act of terrorism—would have worked tirelessly through the night to pore through the 1,316 document-thick haystack that Saul smuggled to her. Season five’s version takes During up on his offer of coffee, recognizing the need to take a break, and confesses to him that she’s genuinely hoping that she doesn’t find anything, that it’s all just a giant mistake she can safely walk away from.
Sadly for her, she recognizes a codename in one of the documents—the titular “Oriole”—that a former Iraqi asset named Samir Khalil (Makram J. Khoury) once used for her. Season two’s Carrie would have felt vindication and relief at this, to have her suspicions about why the Russians tried to kill her in Lebanon and Germany confirmed, but his wearier version of Carrie tells Samir the reason he couldn’t get in touch with her was because “Oriole had flown the coop.” (The ruthless ruefulness with which Danes uses the past tense demonstrates why she’s so electric in this role.)
The action sequences that follow as Carrie travels to Amsterdam to follow up on Samir’s belated information (about a supposedly dead agent who’s very much alive) are well-handled, but they’re beside the point. Whereas 24 would be driven by the Russian plot, Homeland simply uses it as a means to a greater end—to say something about these characters, their intelligence, their trust. If one needs any further proof that Carrie is human, let it be with the ominous way the episode ends: Carrie, having narrowly escaped a Russian ambush at the expense of the old friend (Ori Yaniv) driving her around, races back to Berlin, and, seeking help, calls Allison, the very woman responsible for that ambush.
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