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This Season of Homeland Proved It Doesn’t Need Carrie’s Mental Illness to Be Interesting

Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) in Homeland.
Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) in Homeland.

© Showtime

Homeland has often seemed like a yo-yo: Sometimes it’s up, sometime it’s down, and often it gets tangled. Like a yo-yo, it has also, at times, seemed like a sorry excuse for a bit of entertainment. The late-stage Brody years were a bunk yo-yo that wouldn’t rise, and just hung, pathetically, down, down, down, refusing to learn a new trick. But over the last two seasons, the post-Brody years, Homeland has successfully walked the dog, pulling itself up from a seemingly inert state, making itself over as a moderately less ambitious but reliably rousing and thoughtful spy thriller. The fifth season, which finished last night, caps off two years of relative consistency: If the show still yo-yos, it’s on purpose, not because of a lack of control.

The most recent season of Homeland started improbably enough. Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) was out of the CIA, living in Berlin, working for a German foundation, and she needed to be pulled back in. After discovering someone was trying to kill her, Carrie intentionally went off her meds to achieve the state of mania in which she believes she does her best work. Homeland has never stated it so clearly: Where Superman has super strength and speed and X-ray vision, Carrie Mathison her crippling, enlightening bipolarity.

But despite this early gambit, this season ended up being proof that neither the show nor Carrie need her insanity to be interesting. In the grips of mania, Carrie has an insight, but then she recovers her sanity and in full possession of her faculties, single-handedly foils a large-scale terrorist plot by a matter of seconds. This plot, which involved sarin gas and a Berlin train station, was resolved minutes after the finale began. The swift resolution of this would-be attack seemed a sign, as with Carrie’s quick dip into craziness, that Homeland now recognizes its genre obligations—each season will contain some very high stakes, some big thrills, some unhinged Carrie Mathison—without sinking under the weight of them. The last 50 minutes of the episode were left for the show’s perennial, though less rousing concern: consequences.

Carrie was not this season’s only major player. Her colleague Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend), trying to protect Carrie, wandered gunshot through Berlin, falling into the hands first of a Good Samaritan doctor and then the doctor’s not-so–Good Samaritan terrorist neighbors, who eventually tested their sarin gas on him. Meanwhile, Carrie’s old colleague, Allison Carr (Miranda Otto), the current Berlin station chief and paramour of Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) was revealed, in a well-executed jolt, to be a Russian agent. Carrie—of course—realized this before anyone else, but Allison seemed, for a while, to be Carrie’s equal. If Homeland is, in its way, a superhero show, this was the season that Carrie fought her evil doppelganger. Allison, like Carrie, is a blond, female super-agent with a close bond with Saul and a big secret. She even, like Carrie, was willing to cause herself immense pain to get the job done, shooting herself in the shoulder.

Carrie, Saul, Quinn, and Allison’s stories all collided in the thwarted train station attack, which claimed no civilian lives, but still left a lot of collateral damage. Qasim, a member of the terrorist cell with a conscience, dies stopping his cousin from gassing hundreds of people. An American journalist hell-bent on exposing German and American flouting of civil liberties is bent to the will of the German intelligence services, lying about a dead man, to save the life of a living one. Allison recovers from a gunshot wound in a Russian safe house that’s also a site for human trafficking, climbs into the trunk of a car heading for Russia and the fortune she turned double agent for, only to be killed in a spray of bullets at the border—a hit not just ordered but witnessed by Saul, who would rather see her dead than in custody. And Peter goes into surgery for a brain bleed—perhaps caused by Saul and Carrie’s premature attempts to wake him, in the hopes he had intel on the imminent attack—and comes out with very little brain activity.

Towards the end of the episode, Saul begs Carrie to return to the CIA. Carrie refuses. She’s done with that life. She has no insight into what terrorists will do next. It’s a testament to Danes’ acting, more than anything else, that her refusal seems remotely authentic. There’s a Season 6 of Homeland. Carrie can demur all she likes, but she and Saul will be working together again, as that, and nothing else, is what now defines a season of Homeland.

In the episode’s final moments, Carrie walks into Quinn’s hospital room, barricades the door, and puts his pulse monitor on her own finger. In shows like Homeland, when you don’t see a character die, it’s often a sign they are not dead. But Quinn almost certainly is. The cheesy last second glow of white light, is, I think, meant to prove it. I think the reason the camera cuts away before Carrie disconnects Quinn’s  breathing tube, or does whatever she is going to do, is because showing it would invite too much debate about its merits, and from the show’s perspective, it’s not debatable. Carrie saved the life of hundreds of people she didn’t know, but she couldn’t save the life of her friend. All she can do for him is end it.