After half a season of my dedicated and prolonged complaining about Homeland, the show has somehow managed to turn around an episode that completely works for me. If you examine it closely, “Gerontion” still has plenty of problems: There’s cheesy dialogue, recycled plot points and Saul’s fervent and nonsensical insistence that the Javadi operation will bring about the salvation of the entire Middle East in addition to giving the CIA an advantage in Iran. Even so, I didn’t mind. For one thing, after a half-dozen episodes’ worth of midlife crises, pregnancy scares and killer boyfriends, this episode focused almost entirely on honest-to-goodness spy work. And for another, it seemed to work much of the gratuitous misery porn of the past six episodes into a well-crafted statement about the emotional cost that spy work entails.
Let’s start — as Homeland very rarely does — by turning our attention to Carrie’s unfortunate CIA colleague, Peter Quinn. He’s a hardened assassin. He is also, by all appearances, a fairly nice and thoughtful man. Sure, he shoved a knife through Brody’s hand as an interrogation tactic last season, but it’s well-established that, on Homeland, Nicholas Brody cannot have a conversation with any given stranger for more than 15 minutes without getting himself tortured. Thus far in Season Three, Peter Quinn has shown himself to be one of the only CIA characters left with a functioning moral compass: He shamed Saul for sending him on a needless mission that killed a child and blamed himself fully for firing the shot that killed said child. Before Saul and Carrie revealed their long game a few episodes ago, Quinn threatened to quit the CIA altogether over Saul’s apparent betrayal of Carrie. And now that Brody’s trapped in Caracas, Saul’s embroiled in a plot line that renders him increasingly unlikable and Carrie’s family is languishing wherever concerned families go once they’ve undermined their daughters’ commitment hearings, Peter Quinn seems to be the only character on Homeland who treats Carrie Mathison like an actual human being.
So naturally, in this episode, Quinn winds up confessing to a murder he didn’t commit in order to save Saul’s bacon. When Quinn arrived at the scene of Javadi’s killing spree last week, he was not only too late to save the victims: He was caught on a security camera outside their house, thereby making him the only suspect. (He is informed of this by Dar Adal, who confronts him while he’s getting out of the shower. Quinn inexplicably refuses to clothe himself for the rest of the scene. Personally, I was charmed by Rupert Friend’s commitment to making steely tough-guy faces whilst in the nude; there can’t be many things worse than finding an angry F. Murray Abraham in your house, but having an angry F. Murray Abraham staring right at your Undercover Operations region has got to be one of them.)
If the police investigate the case too thoroughly, they may find out that Javadi was in the United States, at which point he’d be detained as a terrorist and Saul’s operation would be blown. Therefore, after local police investigators have been assured that the murders were a matter of “national security,” and told that Quinn was involved on behalf of the CIA, Quinn rescues Saul’s plan and claims credit for killing Javadi’s ex-wife and daughter-in-law.
The investigators are nauseated by what they assume to be Quinn’s brutality. Quinn was nauseated by those murders, too. But he sits there, and he allows those men to believe him guilty and to be disgusted by him. He may not face any legal consequences, but it’s clear that the experience itself is horrifyingly painful. And yet he goes ahead. Because this is his job, and doing his job often requires sacrificing his emotional well-being.
It’s essential that Quinn takes the fall for Javadi’s crimes because Saul’s plan, it turns out, is to make another Brody out of him. Javadi will be killed if his embezzlement from the Revolutionary Guard is ever made public, and so rather than having him tried as a terrorist, Saul hopes to blackmail Javadi and turn him loose in Iran as a double agent. In Saul’s view, if the American government imprisons or executes Javadi, his organization will replace him with someone else who uses the same brutal tactics, and the cycle of violence will continue. If Javadi works for the United States, Saul has some way to control that cycle of violence, and perhaps even a way to end it.
But Javadi is not nearly as cuddly and pliable as Nick Brody. And so, when Saul assigns Carrie to the task of making sure that Javadi gets out of the country safely, Javadi immediately begins playing her. First, he tries to take advantage of Carrie’s resentment and vulnerability, claiming that he only approached Carrie because Saul’s treatment of her was so brutal: “The abuse you went through, what Saul did to you to get me here — even I have never done anything so cruel.” When that doesn’t work, Javadi hones in on an even bigger sore spot. After letting Carrie know that he’s confirmed Brody’s innocence in the Langley bombings to Saul, he also tells her that he can help her locate the man who set Brody up.
Up until now, I’ve been critical of the show’s commitment this season to torturing Carrie Mathison. Some of these plot twists haven’t just been savage — they’ve been completely over the top. But there’s something powerful and interesting about how Javadi uses Carrie’s well-earned rage, trauma and grief as leverage. I do believe he’s the only character to refer to her treatment in the hospital as “abuse,” although I’ve been calling it that all season long in these recaps. She’s intensely vulnerable, and when Javadi offers her a chance to set her life right again — not to mention a chance to reunite Brody with EmBryody, which is what I will be calling her imperiled fetus from now until someone with better taste in puns comes to stop me — it’s completely reasonable that she goes somewhat off the rails and calls in Quinn to help her locate the man who set up Brody.
But Carrie’s not the only one, for once, who’s facing the trauma dished out by her chosen profession. In this episode, we see the devastating impact that the CIA has on every person who works there. Translations expert Fara has to watch as her colleagues set Javadi free, although she believes he’s a monster and wants nothing more than to see him locked up. After Quinn pulled the trigger and shot a small boy earlier in the season, he’s now been driven to give a false confession of murder. Saul is slowly losing his soul — and may well lose his job, too, now that soon-to-be Director Lockhart’s found out about the Javadi operation, which relies upon exactly the kind of messy, human, Cold-War-era tactics he’s been ordering Saul to abandon. Not one single person at the CIA has escaped unscathed or unharmed from their work; everyone has to give up something that matters, whether it’s freedom, dignity or simply their own ideas of what justice looks like.
Watching Carrie suffer all season long has been painful because she seemed like a punching bag for the writers: No matter what, no one was ever having a worse day than Carrie Mathison. But in the picture set forward by “Gerontion,” she’s just one more suffering person. Her pain appears special and singular because she’s Homeland’s main character, but in fact, this episode shows that suffering is part of the cost of doing business in the CIA. Everyone is paying a high price, and if Carrie loses sight of that, or focuses on herself rather than the mission, she may play right into Javadi’s hands.
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.