Despite the implication of the title, “The Litvinov Ruse” is no trick. It’s the best episode of Homeland’s fifth season. Etai (Allan Corduner) appears briefly only so that he might not only reunite Carrie (Claire Danes) and Saul (Mandy Patinkin), but help them to reconcile. (“Both our hearts were broken,” Carrie says of the rift that developed after she refused to support Saul’s bid for the C.I.A. directorship, and Etai asks her to be more graceful: “Yes, but his is older. Weaker.”) After the two share a much-needed and heartfelt hug, Homeland jumps back to its winning formula: Carrie and Saul together, looking for evidence that a red-haired American is a traitor.
The parallels to the first season are intentional, except with the roles now reversed: Carrie points as much out when she tells a visibly shaken Saul that was once in his shoes when she became involved with Brody. While Saul doesn’t want to believe her, he knows it’s his job to do so, and so he convinces BND agent Astrid (Nina Hoss) to help them secretly surveil Allison (Miranda Otto). (This, too, is a parallel—the inverse of the season premiere, in which it was revealed that the Germans had been using the C.I.A. to cut around their own privacy laws.)
Saul also pays his lover, Allison, an impromptu visit, ostensibly to bid her farewell, but in actuality to bug her phone and purse, and the intimacy and complexity behind his motivations are what set Homeland above procedurals like Blindspot. Saul’s sincere when he tells Allison, “I was asleep for 10 years; you woke me up,” and yet able to compromise her privacy for the greater good. There’s depth to their conversation too: Allison suggests that it would be ridiculous for Saul to have been a Mossad agent all of these years even as she stands secretly accused of being a Russian agent for a comparable stretch of time. Although some of the episodes that have provided the foundation for that irony were on the weaker side, it speaks to the relative consistency of the writers’ room that there’s been character growth, and that there’s a shared history to build on.
With the surveillance up and running, the team now turns to the titular ruse, hoping Allison will incriminate herself when the BVD informs the C.I.A. that there’s a senior Moscow section chief planning to defect to America. Initially, the plan fails; instead of running to her handler, she runs into the arms of another man, a traitor to Saul’s heart, perhaps, but not to the United States: “I don’t know one goddamn thing about her, apparently.” However, after upping the ante (Astrid implies that this defector is planning to out a Russian mole in the Berlin office), Allison takes off.
The following 10 minutes operate almost like a one shot, tied together by Sean Callery’s entrancing score, with Homeland burning through seemingly every trick in the spy book. Allison uses a pre-arranged call code to signal her Russian handler, Ivan (Mark Ivanir), and then methodically disassembles and tosses her phone, constantly switches platforms and trains as she looks for any tails, and works her way to a suspected SVR safe house in a neighboring village. Through it all, Carrie and company continue to watch thanks to an overhead drone, even though the audio cuts out within the dead-zone compound, waiting for what they believe to be unequivocal confirmation that Allison is a traitor.
This is what’s been missing from Homeland over the last few weeks: signs of competence on the part of both its heroes and villains. Allison has previously been shown as a frail and fearful woman who’s been tricked into working for the Russians, but she’s obviously more invested than that; she appears fully formed in this episode as a woman with ambitious appetites (both sexual and political). Even one of the BND agents calls her “a very cool customer” as she runs, and in a reversal from previous episodes, Allison’s the one who calms down an agitated Ivan once they both realize that they’re going to be arrested. Her ruthlessness and confidence don’t exactly clarify her decision to spare Carrie in last week’s “All About Allison,” or to explain her panic attack in “Better Call Saul,” but damned if Otto isn’t absolutely convincing in the way she portrays Allison in this episode. She even goes so far as to stare Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) down after her arrest, insisting that he’s just compromised her operation. Ivan, she claims, is her agent, not the other way around.
Unrelated to any of this is the other (unfortunately) major plot of Homeland, the one in which Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) has been taken captive by ISIS, which plans to use him as a test subject for the sarin gas they plan to unleash on Berlin if their demands aren’t met. The only connection to the rest of the series is that, like Carrie, he’s forced to spend his time passively watching others, doing his best to influence them with conversation with his guard, Qasim (Alireza Bayram). Conveniently, Qasim isn’t fully invested in the ideology (he’s there only because he’s the cousin of their ringleader), and, as a terrorist by association, serves as the filter through which the writers can criticize ISIS.
Quinn convinces Qasim to watch videos of the effect sarin gas has on victims, and after seeing that, it’s much harder for him to muster up the conviction behind party lines like “Nobody’s innocent, not when you’re sending soldiers to slaughter Muslims” or “Terror is the necessary product of the Caliphate.” Whereas the playing field is level between Carrie and Allison in their cat-and-mouse game, everything’s philosophically stacked against Qasim: There’s no real argument on whose hands all the blood will be on should the West fail to cave to ISIS’s demands for the recognition of an Islamic state, and that makes the discussion hardly worth having.
When Qasim suggests that “Whatever happens is Allah’s will” and Quinn retorts, “Maybe it’s Allah’s will that you stop this,” it’s hard to interpret that as anything more than direct criticism of the so-called inaction of those who don’t rise up (at great personal risk) to fight Islamic fundamentalists. Whatever happens on a television show is the will of the writers, not Allah or any other source. There needs to be more of a reason to show Quinn foaming at the mouth after exposure to sarin gas (potentially faking it, as Qasim’s injected him with a counteragent) than the simple need for a dramatic cliffhanger.
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