Well, here we are. For the past three episodes, every reasonable Homeland fan has been guessing at Saul’s long game. We’ve all been waiting for the one plot twist that would make sense of the fact that the CIA’s pre-eminent anthropomorphic teddy-bear had apparently transformed into a jackass who lied about his role in Brody’s redemption, framed Carrie as a crazy terrorist-loving fuck-up on live television and subsequently imprisoned Carrie in a psych ward.
Everyone: Rejoice! Sort of. For, in this episode, Saul’s long game is revealed. And it appears to make sense of absolutely none of those things.
The point of getting Carrie stuck in the mental institution, it turns out, was to entice Majid Javadi’s network into approaching her. Javadi, for those keeping track, is the Iranian who masterminded the Langley bombing at the end of last season, and his “network” is comprised, for the moment, of the creepy law firm that approached Carrie in the last episode, at which point she told them she would never flip on the CIA.. This week, that network manages to get Carrie freed from the psychiatric hospital before commencing to play on (what they assume to be) the intense trauma of her incarceration, in the hopes that she will, in fact, turn on her employers and begin offering her spy-crafting expertise to Javadi instead. There’s a lot of moustache-twirling dialogue — “You’ll be back in county lock-up by the end of the day! Put there by the very institutions you’re trying to protect!” — and Carrie eventually seems to acquiesce. Which means that, as a double agent for Saul, she’ll have direct access to his target.
So far, so good. Until you consider that Carrie’s trauma, as far as we know, was entirely real and entirely, non-consensually, Saul-inflicted. And that’s not even the worst bit of messaging we have to wrap our heads around in this hour of television.
Homeland is leaning hard into the mental-illness material this season. And while I had originally hoped this would be a return to the relatively respectful and realistic take that made Season One so fascinating, this week, I finally had to admit that I’m getting a little tired of how Homeland relies on the subject for cheap thrills.
Consider poor Dana, for a moment. In this episode, her Puckish suitor Leo — whose TV-style sociopathy has been telegraphed since his first appearance with a series of eerie, smirking close-ups — breaks out of the psych ward and takes her on a Teen Death Road Trip. Since they’re evidently determined to make this trip as emotionally unpleasant as possible, the pair’s first stop is the grave of Leo’s brother, about whose suicide Leo admits to feeling somewhat guilty.
This could be a story about grief, about the stigma attached to mental illness — to wit: Jessica’s constant grousing about how Dana’s picked up a boyfriend “in the psych ward” —or about how some people find their way to sanity by talking through their painful emotions rather than forcing themselves to “move on.” But it’s none of those things, because back in Jessica’s plot line, it’s revealed that Leo is only in the hospital because it was a neat way of avoiding the jail time he would have otherwise served for probably shooting his brother. So, according to Homeland, not only are you not allowed to meaningfully connect with anyone in the psych ward, but forging such a connection will inevitably lead to dating a straight-up murderer. Not that Dana, reaching steadily more ludicrous levels of Twilight-y doomed gazing with the fella, knows that at the moment.
Which, in and of itself, would be a pretty icky “people with mental illnesses are subhuman” message to deal with. But again, there’s Carrie, whose upsetting ordeals at the hands of Saul are apparently meant to be absolved by a few sweet words and a hug at the end of the episode.
This just doesn’t line up with the events of the season so far. We saw Carrie losing it, weeping and feeling betrayed when Saul played the “reckless crazy woman” card on TV. We saw her lose it again out of terror at her commitment hearing. We saw her being forcibly restrained, locked up, scared; we saw her slur that “fuck you;” we saw her bash her head into a mirror out of despair.
So the question remains: At what point did Carrie become a willing participant in this particular “lock Carrie up and humiliate her” game? Because if it began at any point after she was forcibly committed, what Saul did to her was still abusive and coercive in the extreme. Having Carrie change her mind and play along with Saul, if she wasn’t in the loop all along, isn’t a touching reconciliation: It’s a woman giving a man whatever he wants so that he’ll stop hurting her. Not precisely the kind of moment that warms a viewer’s heart. And the implication that Carrie simply accepted all of that and decided that it was somehow for her own good — or for the good of the country, or Saul, or any other principle that’s proffered to alleviate the whole “being tortured by your best friend” deal — undermines the strength of the series’ strongest female character. It casts Carrie as just another crazy woman, who can’t decide what’s right for her and shouldn’t be allowed to try.
The episode does provide some light at the end of the tunnel: At the very least, Carrie will be given some more agency in the plot, and Claire Danes will be allowed to do something other than look broken in a grim hospital set. But I expect better from the show than this. In a media landscape filled with caricatures and bogeymen, Carrie Mathison was once a welcome relief: She was a character with a real-life mental illness that neither defined nor undermined the rest of her character. By contrast, this season’s willingness to mine the very real suffering of people with bipolar disorder to provide a bunch of M. Night Shyamalan-level twists and sensational scenes of women being strapped down and injected with things … well. Though the plot may keep moving, the soul of the thing is lost.
Carrie and Saul may be on the same page again, but Homeland is going to have to do some more fancy footwork to restore my respect for these characters as the season continues.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.