"Previously, on Homeland . . ." Hearing that simple phrase in the dulcet tones of Mandy Patinkin can make me as twitchy and shifty-eyed as Nick Brody after a video chat with Abu Nazir. I mean, okay, I'm still on board with the mission, but it's murder on my nerves and sometimes I wish I could just hide in a cabin somewhere, you know?
This week, those three little words gave me a very different feeling. After all, previously on Homeland we got the game-changing revelation that the entire season so far – that Carrie had gone off her meds and started leaking to the press, that Saul sold her out to the Senate and approved Dar Adal's plan to have her involuntarily committed, that ultimately Carrie was willing to betray CIA secrets to Iranian agents in exchange for freedom from the mental hospital – had been a ruse cooked up by Carrie and Saul to lure the mastermind of the Langley bombing out into the open. As divisive as it was daring, the twist made both logistical and emotional sense to me, and was the kind of deep-cover mindgame that drove the show back in its Nick-and-Carrie cat-and-mouse glory days. Now my only worry as that "previously on" montage played was whether this week's episode would screw it up.
For the most part, it didn't. Named after the bit of spycraft that served as its centerpiece, "The Yoga Play" played it relatively cool, allowing the major players to deal with the new status quo in ways that coaxed out their character and advanced the plot step by step. Saul, Carrie, Quinn, Dana, Jessica, even returning (and sorely missed) supporting spies Virgil and Max made moves that made sense and paid dramatic dividends.
Saul's subplot was the standout, revealing a man in way over his head as he tries to singlehandedly hold the CIA together, and hold the people who nearly killed it responsible. Ironically, it's that latter goal where he's having the most success, in precisely the capacity for which he holds his job in the first place. His scheme with Carrie worked (and if you've got problems with its plausibility, I'll simply direct you to Breaking Bad's entire fifth season; you're entitled to coast on lucky coincidences as long as your material is making your exploration of your characters and themes stronger instead of sillier), and involving Quinn in its continued execution was a smart way of taking a loose cannon and pointing it in Saul's preferred direction. Saul's a brilliant spy.
He's just not much of a politician. Perhaps because he's so laser-focused on Carrie and his new nemesis, Majid Javadi, he completely whiffs on the breaking news that he's lost his bid for becoming the CIA's permanent director to his primary political adversary, showboating Senator Andrew Lockhart. Homeland staged Saul's humiliation in the oddly intimate setting of a goose-hunting blind, then made the move official during an evening cook-out in which the after-dark lighting was hilariously, unnecessarily sinister – some of the show's cleverest staging in some time. And if that weren't intelligence failure enough, Saul comes home early from his bad trip to discover his wife Mira wining and dining a handsome Frenchman at his own dinnertable.
Piling screw-up after screw-up on the guy even as his big plan with Carrie continues to roll on unimpeded was as bleakly funny as Homeland has gotten since Brody's black-comedy forest follies with the suicide-bomb tailor back in Season Two. Indeed, Saul's scenes were studded with laugh lines, from Quinn's conversation with Mira about Saul's duck-hunting get-up – "Saul's just getting dressed." "What as?" – to Saul's own sardonic assessment of his evening with the White House chief of staff Mike Higgins (played by the amazing William Sadler) – "Thought you'd run out on me." "While I'm having so much fun?" Just watching Saul slumping around his house in full sad-sack mode following the guess-who's-coming-to-dinner bit with Mira was a hoot.
Carrie's material was more methodical, a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other attempt to keep herself in play with her target while still having the freedom to go off script – in this case, to help locate the missing Dana Brody. Calling on her fretful but capable sidekicks Virgil and Max, Carrie fakes a yoga appointment and sneaks out the back door to rendezvous with an FBI frienemy who can help locate Dana while avoiding Javadi's mercenaries. Besides being an effective little mini-thriller, the sequence made the uncomfortable suggestion that Carrie was only able to pull her plan off thanks to the clear-eyed confidence she gained from going off her meds. Homeland's suspense setpieces work best when they skip the action-movie theatrics and focus more on how everyday activities can be used as the cloak in "cloak-and-dagger," and that's why the yoga play played so successfully. Compare and contrast with the rote home-invasion and "so, we meet at last" supervillainy that ended the episode.
Yes, the weakest part of Carrie's storyline, unsurprisingly, is the part involving Javadi himself. Another world's-most-wanted terrorist mastermind traipses right into the United States undetected to oversee his plans personally; another highly trained, completely indistinguishable terrorist goon squad inexplicably roams Washington, bigfooting our counterintelligence agents with impunity. Homeland's portrayal of terrorists as unstoppable geniuses and super-soldiers able to strike anywhere at will has long been its weakest point, in terms not only of plausibility but politics. If these guys really do have tentacles everywhere, then is any surveillance-state overreach unjustified in response? (That's to say nothing of the idea that Iran would be willing and able to team up with al-Qaeda and have someone on its government payroll bankroll and execute a massive attack on the American homeland – a Dick Cheney fever dream that thoroughly otherizes a complex country.)
But at least Carrie's side mission of intervening in the hunt for Dana paid off by helping to curtail that goofy-ass storyline. (Admittedly, having the star of Romeo + Juliet talk about Romeo & Juliet was pretty funny.) At long last, Dana wised up that her psych-ward dreamboat was just another in a long line of men willing to lie to her to stay in her good graces, from the vice-president's odious hit-and-run son to her own turncoat father. Watching her dress down, freak out on, and run away from that kid was a deeply satisfying payoff to a subplot that was more perplexing than engrossing up until that point. So too was watching Jessica personally plead to Carrie for help: Between the affair and the mania and the multiple cover-ups, we in the audience may have forgotten that Carrie was the lone voice in the wilderness crying out to Jessica that something was wrong with her husband, but Jessica herself sure hasn't, and watching her sincerely thank Carrie was gut-wrenching.
So what will we get after the next "Previously, on Homeland" clips wrap up? I'm hoping the nonsense with Javadi is kept to a minimum and the triangulation between Saul, Carrie, and Quinn gets cranked to eleven. Carrie and Quinn have a connection that's at least as magnetic as Carrie and Brody, since they're not just driven and broken by their work, they're actually working on the same side. Two dynamite exchanges spell out the emotional stakes here, first between Carrie and Quinn – "I'm not sure I like being watched over by you, Quinn." "I'm at a safe distance." – then between Quinn and Saul – "She's on her own, Saul." "She's always been on her own." Deepening the relationship between these complicated characters could give Homeland a genuine second wind that will last long past the twist's last gasps.
Last Week: Carrie That Weight