Critic's Notebook: 'Homeland' Season 5 Finale Favors Emotion Over Action or Politics

One group of fans will be wrecked by the finale, but others may simply shrug.
Claire Danes and Sebastian Koch of Homeland'

[The following article contains spoilers for the Sunday, December 20 finale of Homeland.]

No feeling about a TV episode is ever universal, so it would be wrong to say that the fourth season finale of Homeland was universally reviled, but there was a large swath of angry viewership that didn't understand how the series' action-packed comeback season could be concluding with a quiet, character-driven meander through Carrie's backstory. Surely there were fans who enjoyed this change of pace, which filled in details more illuminating for Claire Danes' ongoing performance than for anything featured in future episodes of Homeland.

As last week's penultimate episode concluded, it looked like, if nothing else, Homeland showrunner Alex Gansa had learned a lesson and the fifth finale would be explosive. After all, we had a potential poison gas attack underway in the Berlin subway system and, if that weren't enough, Russian mole Allison was at large. Oh, and Quinn was still in bad shape (again) after Carrie was willing to risk his life on a futile attempt to get information out of him.

Things were going to happen! This was going to be the finale we all needed and desired!

Ultimately, it ended up being the finale that only one group of Homeland viewers needed and desired and they're probably crying, emotional wrecks right now, so allow me to begin by saying, "I'm terribly sorry for your loss."

Back to that in a minute. There were, as I mentioned, big things that had to occur in this finale and they occurred with anticlimactic speed and strange disinterest.

We began with the pending Sarin attack, but with Quasim trying to plead with his cousin and Carrie firing her gun wildly and dodging an oncoming train, nothing ended up happening. There was no tense countdown or unfolding action set piece. Carrie got lucky, just as she got lucky last week when nearly killing Quinn did nothing and she stumbled onto the information she needed courtesy of a character many fans had probably totally forgotten about from earlier in the season.

For viewers, this didn't offer much, but it was so stressful for Carrie that she went back to Jonas' apartment and took a nap and then had sex with Jonas and then broke up with Jonas, because there was so little urgency in this finale. It wasn't as bad as having conversations about late-night lasagna at a funeral  see last year's finale  but it was like somebody said, "Let's not forget that Carrie started this season with this handsome lawyer and we didn't exactly close the door on the relationship after they went out to the country and Carrie went off her meds and freaked him out." Because if they hadn't closed that door fully, it would have been really strange when Otto Düring poured Carrie a glass of wine and proposed a Germanic sex-altruism-marriage pact wherein they changed the world, in bed.

"I want a partner, someone who knows the world for what it is and also knows it must be made better. Someone to share my life with," Otto said. Carrie was confused. Viewers were confused. It's hard to imagine us returning in Season 6 to Carrie Düring, Badass Philanthropist, but I guess it's possible.

The night's other looming source of drama was Allison's whereabouts and Saul's need to get the woman who had fooled in him in the most intimate and professionally embarrassing of ways. You'd think, "Nobody interrogates like Saul, so he's gonna get that information out of Ivan and then he's gonna go to town on Allison and we're going to cheer." Nope. Saul offered Ivan witness protection in Jackson Hole and that was pretty much enough. And why wouldn't it be? Jackson Hole is very nice and Saul promised Ivan a stipend. With that information, Saul and his team were able to get Allison's whereabouts and detour her escape car and shoot it to bits. Wait. No final showdown with Saul and Allison? Nope. Darnit, I had money on somebody spitting in somebody else's face. And no resolution for Fake Russian Tilda Swinton? Nope.

These were things that were marginalized in the finale, because the finale was really about setting up Quinn's third or fourth death this season and attempting to make this one slightly more resolved than the first three, when he was bleeding out in the streets of Berlin or ailing in a terror cell's back room or foaming at the mouth and twitching on the floor from a lethal dose of Sarin gas. My initial read on this season after three episodes was that the season was about saying farewell to an old concept of Carrie, but instead it was about saying farewell to Quinn over and over and over again.

When it became obvious that killing Brody off was a necessity, the Homeland writers knew they were OK because a subset of fans had already decided, with very little prompting, that Quinn and Carrie were the couple the show was leading to. This was never defended by the show or, in my opinion, by chemistry between Danes and Rupert Friend, but it seemed to make sense because Carrie and Quinn were dark mirrors of each other. They'd each done bad things that only the other could truly understand. I get that, even if I never saw any sense to a romance there. At all. And even this season, Carrie risked Quinn's life for nothing last week in bringing him out of his coma and then this week, after thwarting a terrorist attack, rather than going and napping at the hospital at Quinn's side, she went home, slept with her estranged boyfriend and  broke up with him before going and learning that Quinn had had a major brain hemorrhage and might not recover and would certainly have major brain damage. 

"Did I do this to him?" Carrie quivered. Nobody just said, "Yes, or at least you and Saul did." But Carrie eventually took her place next to Quinn and put moisturizer on his hands and got Dar Adal to narrate his backstory and got Quinn's "In Case of Death" note, as every Carrie/Quinn 'shipper in the country had palpitations. 

"Carrie... I guess I'm done and we never happened," the note began. More palpitations. "I wasn't allowed a real life or real love. That was for normal people."

The note added, "With you, I thought maybe, just maybe. But I know now that was only a false glimmer."

The note closed, "I loved you. Yours, for always now, Quinn." And a divine light from out the window fell on Quinn's sainted head as another angel was called to heaven, or somesuch.

And if Carrie/Quinn catharsis was what you required from the finale, you were satisfied, if emotionally wrecked.

And that's fine.

But what if you wanted more? What if you felt this season had teased you to need more?

What if you read all of those stories about the show's topical prescience this season and read all of the interviews with producers talking about the solemn responsibility they took this season in treating these serious real-life events? If you thought that this season was interesting because of the ISIS/Syrian orphans/Islamic militance of it all, the finale just shrugged and quickly moved on. Saul tried to woo Carrie back to work and promised her autonomy -- proving once again that nobody remembers anything that Carrie has done over the years for longer than six months -- and they hemmed and hawed a bit about how the world had changed, but it didn't mean much. You might have felt that saying the right buzzwords this season gave Homeland renewed relevance and that ADRing a line mentioning the Paris terror attacks made it timely, but the political hollowness of the finale was a reminder that even when Homeland says the right things, its interest in the substance of those things is similar to when The League used to make fantasy football references that felt intriguingly ripped from the sports pages even though the show barely cared at all about football. There were moments people this season paid lip-service to things of import, but the finale was Carrie choosing between her boss, her boyfriend and her ghost lover and nothing more. That's where the show lives, not in doing justice to info from the President's daily briefing and not in keeping viewers informed on real events.

When I reviewed the start of the season, with the "Super Powers" as the last episode sent on screener pre-premiere, I said this felt like Homeland was bringing things full circle, that all of Carrie's demons were coming home to roost. That was a red herring as well, though it didn't need to be. Carrie's "Did I do this to him?" moment could have been crucial. It should have been crucial. If anything has ever made Carrie break down entirely, it ought to have been that. Instead, we skipped forward four days and spent more time with Laura, one of many one-dimensional 24 characters who populated Homeland this season.

As one-two acting punches go, Danes and Mandy Patinkin will always be near the top of the television heap and they can carry even a season that kept Carrie and Saul apart for all too much of the time. And whether you liked the off-her-meds episode or last week's race against the clock or Quinn's Sarin not-quite-death, Homeland often proved that it can still deliver a pulse-racing episode. But follow-through, either dramatic or emotional or intellectual, seems harder to come by and probably most fans no longer expect it, especially from finales.