Critic's Notebook: 'Homeland' Ends on Its Own Terms, for Better or Worse

Did Carrie prevent a nuclear war? Did Saul avoid the ultimate betrayal? And how long before Showtime reboots this long-running, Emmy-winning favorite?
Sifeddine Elamine/SHOWTIME
'Homeland'

When it comes to the conclusion of Showtime dramas, I like to draw a very clear dividing line: If somebody became a lumberjack, it's bad. If nobody became a lumberjack, maybe it's not necessarily good, but … at least nobody became a lumberjack.

Nobody became a lumberjack in Sunday night's Homeland series finale.

Do I personally buy the place Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon — with series MVP director Lesli Linka Glatter — steered things in this conclusion to the eighth season? Maybe not. But they do. The reality is that Gansa and Gordon have always been more convinced by Carrie Mathison's (Claire Danes) nobility and professional excellence than I have.

Look at Saul's (Mandy Patinkin) speech to Jenna (Andrea Deck) in last week's penultimate episode.

"I'm not exactly sure what she did do or didn't do or what mistakes she made," Saul told Jenna, who became Carrie's whipping girl at several points this season. "There's always some. But everything she does, everything ... is because she never loses sight of what's important. And honestly, she's the only person I've ever known I can say that of."

Saul swayed Jenna with that speech, and of course he did, because as much as the writers believe in Carrie, Saul may be the only person they believe in even more. So if Saul says something, you know that he means it, and you know that the show thinks he's right.

I don't. Or maybe I don't think it's relevant. Carrie has always been doggedly certain that she's correct and she's never lost sight of what she thinks is important. That's not the same thing as what Saul said. It never has been. Jenna quit the CIA after stalling on Carrie's behalf because she was so wrecked by the idea that she had blood on her hands from the safe house team that Carrie used her to betray. If Carrie had ever applied the same mathematics to the amount of blood on her hands, she would have retired 50 or 60 times. Probably more.

The number of people who died because of Carrie's certitude is somewhere between dozens and hundreds, and in every instance, she could sit down with you and explain that if 12 people died because of her actions, she saved 13; if thousands of people died, she saved tens of thousands. Heroic people died under her watch. Powerful people died under her watch and Carrie basically never looked at the long-term ramifications of anything she did. She did what she was sure was right and went on to the next thing.

Even Jack Bauer, who had basically the same mindset, was more effectively haunted by the things he'd done, even if that haunting usually came into play only in season premieres and finales.

Last week's episode set Carrie up to do the one thing the show could possibly deem unforgivable. "Kill Saul," Yevgeny Gromov (Costa Ronin) told her, aware that by the show's calculus nothing could be more damning — but also aware that by Carrie's calculus there was a reasonable prospect that killing Saul would be an appropriate price to get the name of Saul's Russian source and give that source to Gromov in exchange for the helicopter flight recorder that might contain information that would prevent a nuclear war.

Of course Carrie didn't kill Saul. Should she have? By her logic, probably. She poisoned him. She begged him for a source he wouldn't give up, because Saul is capable of thinking about both the big and small picture in a way Carrie never has been able to. Then she left him under the watch of a hunky Russian kill squad that instead became a Russian babysitting squad as Carrie magically teleported to Israel and got Saul's sister to give her the flash drive Saul gave to his sister in the event of tragedy.

I'm not completely sure of the logic here. What if Saul hadn't given that drive to his sister? And why did the heightening tensions of the real world pause for Carrie to make that flight to Israel? Basically, Carrie got lucky. And Saul had to listen to his trusted source — who apparently had been behind every major intelligence break in the past 30 years and was basically the only American intelligence source in Russia — kill herself to avoid going to the Gulag.

The whole thing was vintage Carrie. Did she prevent a nuclear standoff with Pakistan? Maybe? It didn't happen, so it must've been her! It was very helpful that sniveling President Hayes (Sam Trammell) and sniveling John Zabel (Hugh Dancy) were willing to back down when provided with facts. Nothing we saw in either poorly written character suggested they would be capable of that sort of common sense, but Carrie must've known better. Just as she must've known that the Russians wouldn't do anything too evil in the aftermath, things we never would have been able to stop because we were left with no intelligence presence in Russia. Carrie doesn't worry about things like that. Never has.

Or maybe the finale suggests that Carrie has shifted into a more retrospective mode?

After a jump of two years, Carrie is seemingly happy in Moscow with Gromov. She has an office papered with information, but rather than trying to unwrap a conspiracy, she's trying to make sense of 20 years of American policy since 9/11, policy in which she has, for better or often worse, been an active participant.

She has written a book called Tyranny of Secrets: Why I Had to Betray My Country, which you'd think would make her the most repugnant of turncoats, since the book is surely being used as Russian propaganda. But just as Saul always gave Carrie the benefit of the doubt, whether she deserved it or not, the show continued to do the same. The episode ended with Saul getting a copy of Carrie's book and, rather than tearing it to pieces (or just dropping it in the garbage), he suspects she's using the book to transfer information just like Anna did, finding a note in the binding hinting at a backdoor in a Russian missile defense system.

The show concluded with Carrie, as always, getting to have it both ways. She gets to own the errors she's made while continuing to be a piece of the system that probably continues to make those errors. Was it always her plan to go to Russia and eventually become a mole? I doubt it. But I bet Saul and Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa always had faith she'd go this way.

So even if I don't buy anything Carrie did in the finale and I certainly don't buy her pretending to make house with Gromov — nor do I buy that he would buy it — it was an entirely fitting ending from a Homeland perspective. I buy that Homeland buys that Carrie would do all these things and that nobody in Russia would suspect her and that Saul would have enough faith in her to check the binding of the book and everything else.

The finale of Homeland was true to the ethos of Homeland and even if it annoyed me, I recognize that the things that annoyed me in the finale are things that are integral to the show. This was probably the right ending, or a right ending.

A few other finale thoughts:

*** Killing Saul would have been Carrie's deepest betrayal. The show's deepest betrayal of Saul, though, was making him misuse "begs the question." There is no way that character wouldn't know better.

*** I appreciated that the episode began with Nicholas Brody's pre-suicide mission semi-confession. Those first two seasons, Carrie seemed capable of being duped and misled. Her gut might have usually been right, but she was aware she was making mistakes. The show never punished her for those mistakes, which probably fueled her unearned confidence after Brody was gone.

*** I appreciated at least an acknowledgment of Franny. No, the long-absent daughter didn't make an actual cameo, but she was there in pictures and Carrie's sister appeared and Carrie's book was dedicated, "For my daughter in the hope that one day she will understand.” There's no chance Franny will understand.

*** Remember all of that stuff about Carrie's trauma from her Russian experience and the months she spent being tortured? Neither did she by the end, I guess. Carrie always came with a certain baseline level of psychological bruising and it could always be cured by her meds. Based on how happy Carrie appears to be at the end of the episode, listening to Kamasi Washington and The Next Step, I guess she's back on her meds.

*** The finale was a good reminder of how few actual characters Homeland had left, especially after Max's death. I can't think of another show with this level of acclaim that could get to its finale and only need to give grace-note moments to two characters. Unless you cared about what Dana Brody has been up to since we last saw her cleaning hotel rooms, there were no dangling characters or plotlines that required acknowledging, apparently. Franny got mentioned. Brody had his appearance at the top of the episode and was never mentioned again. But anybody thinking we might get something as nostalgic and sentimental as a tip of the hat to Quinn or any of the other important characters from seasons past? Nah. Carrie's lack of sentimentality is the show's lack of sentimentality.

*** Danes and Patinkin were great in the finale. I didn't mention that until this late in my response because they're basically always great.

*** If I give you five years before we get a Homeland reboot or telefilm, are you taking the over or the under? The setup for a return to this world couldn't be more obvious.