You know that moment in this week’s installment of Homeland where Carrie Mathison takes off the polygraph equipment and ends her big “job interview” with terrorist mastermind Majid Javadi, and Javadi’s all “What. Are. You. Doing?” That’s kind of a familiar sensation after watching this episode, isn’t it? For both good and bad, “Still Positive,” directed by Lesli Linka Glatter from a script by Alexander Cary and Barbara Hall, threw curveballs left and right. Some of them landed right in the strike zone, but others beaned the proverbial batter.
Let’s start with the strong stuff. Turning the tables on Javadi so quickly – I mean, like, what, within ten total minutes of screentime from when she was initially abducted by his goons? – was one of Homeland‘s trademark plotting masterstrokes. Ever since the pilot, which revealed the truth about Brody when most other shows would have drawn out the is-he-or-isn’t-he guessing game for nearly an entire season, Homeland‘s surprises have frequently come not from doing something totally unexpected, like the reveal that Carrie and Saul were in cahoots about her mania and hospitalization, but from doing an expected thing far, far earlier than expected. Think back to the first half of Season Two, when Saul discovered Brody’s martyrdom tape and Carrie busted and turned him all within the first few episodes. It was clear Carrie and Saul were gonna drop the hammer on Javadi at some point; doing it in literally her first meeting with the guy was a fresh, fun take on the way spy games usually play out.
What’s more, it gave Carrie the chance to do something she hasn’t done in forever: swagger. She’s spent pretty much every moment since flipping Brody back to the side of the U.S. in Season Two in some kind of distress: captured by Abu Nazir, covering for Brody’s involvement in Vice President Walden’s death, flattened by the Langley bombing, helping Brody escape, deliberately experiencing a manic episode, getting sold out by Saul to Congress, spending time in the psych ward, pretending to sell out her country to Iran, running around trying to find Dana Brody, getting kidnapped by Javadi’s minions. Sure, the whole scheme with Saul showed she’s still a brilliant operative, but her brilliance hinged on being unhinged. Here, it was demonstrated by her coolly stopping her own polygraph test and methodically telling one of the most skilled and dangerous intelligence operatives in the world that she’d beaten him at his own game. She even got some good jokes in at his expense, like when she told him they were going to have to leave together: “Now?” “You can finish your cigarette.” Smoke on that, Javadi.
And at first it seems that Javadi will be similarly enhanced as a character by this development. We’d already heard that he was more of an opportunist than a fanatic, having transferred his loyalty from the Shah to the Ayatollah when he saw which way the wind was blowing. Saul’s story about Javadi’s betrayal of four of Saul’s informants cemented this opportunism in brutality, but still, Javadi’s a far cry from a true believer like Nazir. His behavior after discovering that Carrie had tricked him – applauding her with an elegant “Brava,” nervously smoking his cigarette, asking about how long she and Saul had been working on this with something approaching awe, calling Saul by his first name to begin with – further conveyed the idea that, his bosses and his methods aside, this guy isn’t a world away from the CIA. Certainly he’s got more in common with a guy like Dar Adal, who at that very moment was busy switching his own allegiance from Saul to Senator Lockhart, than he does with the devout Nazir.
But Javadi’s subsequent suburban killing spree undoes a lot of that hard work. Not because it’s implausible, which is frequently the main problem with the actions of Homeland‘s villain characters – it’s not that hard to believe that in nearly 35 years, a high-ranking Iranian intelligence official could have tracked down his defector ex-wife. Nor simply because it was brutal – Homeland‘s renewed commitment this season to depicting violence as horrifying, from the mosque massacre in Caracas to this repulsive outburst of domestic violence, is welcome in a genre that could easily devolve into dubiously bloodless shoot-’em-ups.
No, the problem with Javadi’s murder of his wife and daughter-in-law is that it makes him a mere monster. As both a glib political opportunist and a gleeful killer of women whose only crime was not wanting to have anything to do with him, how is Javadi ever going to get anyone in the audience to see his side of things in the slightest? Even Nazir had the genuine trauma of the loss of his son and the simple beauty and peace of his religious faith (the prayer-based aspects of it, of course, not the bomb-based ones) going for him. The idea seems rather to be that it’s Saul, Carrie, Quinn et al who are made more complex and conflicted by their involvement with a guy like this, by their cover-up of his crimes, but not including the man himself in that complexity is a wasted opportunity. It’s also a politically dubious move: Homeland‘s done little to erase the impression that it takes the same dim view of Iran, and the same paranoiac assessment of its hostile intent and capabilities to make good on it, as your average Cheney.
It’s a shame, in part because Homeland could really use an unimpeachable storyline right about now. I don’t care how funny the image a drawer full of positive pregnancy tests was – and it was pretty freaking funny – but giving Carrie a pregnancy plot to handle on top of everything else was this show at its soapiest, and most baffling. (Though I guess it explains how she remembered the address of her red-headed one-night-stand: She’d have to find out where to collect child support.) And the Dana material is as inert as ever: The well-meaning religious busybody at the government office who intrusively asks to pray for her and her family was a fine little detail, but not enough to make this Lifetime-movie storyline worth the screentime. If only the whole family could change their names, move in with friends, and stay out of our faces.
Last Week: Carrie’s Class Act