SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Prisoners of War,” the series finale of “Homeland.”
“Homeland” went out on a high note Sunday with a 66-minute final episode that was full of the elements that defined the series.
The episode, entitled “Prisoners of War,” (a nod to the Israeli series from Keshet on which this 20th Century TV one was based) was written by executive producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon and directed by executive producer Lesli Linka Glatter. It gave stars Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin a final outing that was worthy of their eight years in the spy trenches as Carrie Mathison and Saul Berenson, the CIA prodigy gone rogue and her faithful mentor, respectively.
“Prisoners of War” began with a glimpse of Carrie riding in the back of a car while the had a vision of her long-lost love, Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), in the confessional video that he left behind to explain his motivation for carrying out a suicide-vest terrorist attack at the close of season one. (That attack never happened, but the video was later used to frame Brody for the bomb plot that ended Season 2). Now Carrie was the one about to face a CIA tribunal questioning her own patriotism amid suspicions that she was involved in the downing of the helicopter.
But first, Carrie was off to a clandestine meeting with Charlotte Benson (Robin McLeavy), a Russian agent posing as a high-end D.C. area realtor (with a razor-sharp bun), for a quick tutorial on how to mix a liquid gel cocktail that will paralyze Saul as soon as Carrie can get two fingers on the side of his neck.
“Yevgeny wanted you to have the best for your operation,” Benson creepily assured Carrie.
Yevgeny Gromov (Costa Ronin), the Russian GRU super-agent who tormented Carrie in captivity for seven months during Season 7, delivered his order for Carrie to kill Saul as part of the price he set for Carrie to recover the flight recorder from President Warner’s (Beau Bridges) helicopter — the hard evidence that can prove the crash was a tragic accident, not shot down by a Taliban rocket. Gromov also wanted Carrie to serve up the name of Saul’s longtime mole in the Russian government. Season 8 revolved around a complicated effort to bring about a cease fire between the Taliban and other factions in Afghanistan and examined the realpolitik around the prospect of bad actors like the Taliban evolving into more pragmatic political organizations.
In the final season, Saul, the seasoned deep-stater CIA veteran turned White House National Security Advisor, pushed hard for Warner to pursuing the politically risky strategy of trying to set a cease-fire agreement with Taliban leader Haissam Haqqani (Numan Acar). But that got derailed in part by friction within Haqqani’s clan and the opposition to the cease-fire by a younger generation represented by his son, Jalal Haqqani (Elham Ehsas). The younger Haqqani was quick to claim falsely credit for the crash that killed Warner and his Afghan counterpart. But Carrie went to enormous lengths — and Max Piotrowski (Maury Sterling) gave his life — to prove via the flight recorder that the real culprit was a bad turbine blade — the kind of maintenance error that is humiliating for the world’s greatest power. But to do that, she also had to tangle in more ways than one with Yevgeny.
Saul’s mole was introduced in the penultimate episode, “The English Teacher.” Anna Pomerantseva (Tatyana Mukha) was the lead interpreter for Russia’s GRU intelligence agency and first met Saul in the mid-1980s when she was teaching English in East Berlin. She decided to be a pipeline of valuable information for Saul — a key source of the intelligence coups that built his career — after a group of her student-comrades were executed in East Germany because one of them defected after becoming a spy asset for Saul.
It was also in that penultimate episode when Carrie made the decision to be the kind of person who attempted to kill her mentor — her closest human relationship — because she was hellbent on preventing a nuclear conflict from breaking out between the U.S. and Pakistan under false pretenses.
While Carrie was getting her instructions from Charlotte, Saul was banging heads in the White House with White House political advisor John Zabel (Hugh Dancy), who was advising Warner’s successor, President Benjamin Hayes (Sam Trammell), on how to handle the response to Warner’s death. Hayes sent troops to the Pakistani border to escalate the U.S. military threat in a sharp turn from the tactics pursued by Warner. And Saul was warned that he’s on the outs with the new administration.
Saul explained the truth of the flight-recorder situation to Zabel for the first time and hinted at the clandestine efforts to get Russia to release the evidence. “Don’t be the shmuck who takes us to war for the second time in 20 years under false pretenses,” Saul implored him.
As he headed out of the White House for his home, Saul ran into White House chief of staff David Wellington (Linus Roache) and asked him to set up a discreet meeting the next day with two national security reporters from the New York Times and Washington Post, as a backup plan if they need help slowing the escalation of tensions.
When Saul finally got home, he found Carrie’s older sister, Maggie Mathison (Amy Hargreaves), in his driveway asking him if Carrie was back in D.C. Saul is disturbed to learn that Carrie hadn’t checked in with her sister or her daughter, Franny, who was adopted by Maggie in Season 6.
As Maggie and Saul conversed, Carrie just slipped into her sister’s empty house to reclaim a tote bag that she stashed in a secret spot in her daughter’s closet long ago. The bag was full of stacks of cash in various currencies and passports. Carrie lingered as she looked around her daughter’s room, seeing a framed picture of herself on her daughter’s desk, as well as a sweet picture of Franny. Carrie started to leave but turned back to grab the Franny picture.
Carrie then headed back to Saul’s house. She knew from Benson that a GRU “kill team” was parked nearby, waiting for her flickering porch light signal that they should come in and finish off Saul after Carrie extracted from him the name of his Russian asset.
Saul, fuming since his meeting with Maggie, was sitting in his library with its wall of red-covered books, listening to opera at loud volume and waiting to confront Carrie. He had, after all, taken her in and got her a lawyer after she returned to the U.S. from Kabul in “The English Teacher,” following her uneasy cooperation with Gromov to locate the flight recorder after Max’s death. Not to mention his years of mentorship that preceded such a kind gesture.
“Jesus, Saul,” Carrie said as she walked in and turned down the music. Saul let her have it, assuring her that he knew she was planning to skip out. He pressed her about whether she cut some kind of deal with Gromov for the flight recorder.
“Answer me, god damn it,” Saul yelled. “I want to hear you say it.”
Carrie divulged that she was on a mission to find out the name of his longtime Russian asset. Saul obfuscated: “There’s no such person, he doesn’t exist.” But Carrie gave him pause when she shot back, “It’s a woman.” She explained how she pieced together their covert communication strategy of Anna sending Saul tiny notes placed in the spine of red-bound first edition books — the volumes that are on the wall behind them.
Saul broke and angrily told Carrie that she “permanently crippled our intelligence capability in Russia,” calling Anna the only remaining “live source” in a nation that is America’s “mortal enemy slowly but surely strangling our democracy.”
Saul was dead-set on protecting his asset at all costs, but Carrie was on a personal mission to stop a nuclear conflict from potentially killing millions.
Saul ordered Carrie to leave his house: “You’re turning yourself in tonight,” he bellowed. Carrie ran upstairs and mixed her cocktail. Saul walked in at the exact wrong moment and soon he was on the floor in a fetal position. These scenes were the face-acting Olympics for Danes and Berenson.
“No one person is worth the lives of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands,” Carrie begged.
“She is,” Saul responded.
Two burly “kill team” helpers arrived on Carrie’s signal and lifted the paralyzed Saul into his bed. They prepared to inject a lethal poison into one of his toes as Carrie leaned in to extract the name of his asset. With teary eyes bulging and chin wiggling, Carrie played every card she had.
“Everything you have ever asked of me I have done, and now I’m asking you just let me off the hook here. Do not make me do this,” she cried. “I am begging you.”
Saul did not flinch. “Go f— yourself” he mumbled through unmoving lips.
Carrie wiped away tears and told the burly guys to chill and to tell Benson that she’s heading for the airport. “I have to try,” she said, looking at Saul.
The scene shifted to the next morning, with Saul tied up in a chair in his living room while the burly guys watched him. His phone began to buzz and Saul warned the guys that people will soon come looking for him: He was late for his meeting with the reporters and Wellington in a coffee shop in Alexandria, Va.
Meanwhile, Carrie arrived at the West Bank home of Saul’s sister Dorit (Jacqueline Antaramian), who we first met in Season 6. Carrie shamelessly told Dorit that Saul has died, knowing that by Jewish tradition the body needs to be buried as soon as possible. Carrie helpfully booked a flight to D.C. for Dorit, just as soon as she recovers an envelope that Saul left with Dorit to give to Carrie after his death.
Like brother, like sister — Dorit knew how to cut Carrie to the quick when she mentioned that she really needs that envelope. “You’re just like him. Always an ulterior motive,” Dorit said.
But Carrie’s hunch was right and sure enough Dorit had such an envelope. Inside was a USB drive with a video featuring Saul divulging Anna’s existence to Carrie in the hopes that the information pipeline would continue.
Dorit made it clear that she knew what Carrie meant to the brother she believes is dead. “You lost him too,” she said.
After Dorit left in a taxi (but not before Carrie filched her cell phone to keep her from realizing the truth before she got on the plane) Carrie stayed behind at her house to meet with Gromov for the info exchange.
Carrie finally watched the video of Saul, which dates back years judging by the higher concentration of pepper than salt in his beard. In his message he noted that he left the legacy plan video with his sister because, dispite their political differences over the years, he trusted her. As if to twist the knife, he added: “In the end who you trust in this life is all that matters.”
Back at Saul’s townhouse, he realized from the burly guys’ conversation that Anna was about to be compromised. But by this time, Wellington sent police to Saul’s house to check on him, which got him out of the grip of the burly guys.
Saul immediately called an agent at the UN in the hopes of whisking Anna to safety. In the video he left for Carrie, he praised Anna for her selfless work. “She’s been spying for the past 20 years on the very heart of Moscow. Risking everything every day,” he said.
At Dorit’s house, Gromov entered to find Carrie holding a gun. She handed over the name and showed him the Saul video.
Back at the UN, Agent Scott Ryan (Tim Guinee) tried to get Anna out of the building, but her boss learned that she was the mole and sent a team of flunkies down to grab her. There was a requisite chase scene through the back stairwell of the UN, but it quickly became clear that Anna wouldn’t be able to escape from the tiny storeroom where they were cornered.
Calmly and cooly, she asked Agent Ryan for his gun. When he resisted, she asked to talk to Saul.
“I only wish I could have seen the mission through to the end,” Anna told Saul.
“I’ve never known anyone so brave,” he replied.
Saul broke down with a muffled scream when he heard the single shot.
At Dorit’s house, Carrie and Gromov watched the live news conference with Russian officials disclosing the discovery of the flight recorder. Gromov told Carrie that he was informed that Anna was dead.
“It’s the game,” he told Carrie.
But she blamed him for Anna’s death and for the end of her relationship with Saul.
“Saul loved me. He trusted me. … That’s gone now. That’s lost. Do you even know what that means?” she cried. “I don’t know what it’s like on your side but it must be very, very lonely.”
Despite this friction, Carrie and Gromov hit the road together after they realized that Israeli forces were probably hunting for them. The plan was to head to Ramallah and then Syria. There was no doubt that Carrie was now hip-deep with Gromov and the underbelly of Russia.
The story then jumped forward two years in time, finding Carrie and Gromov living together under the bright lights of Moscow. Carrie was sitting in the bedroom of a lavish apartment, in silky, sexy slip, with a cascade of styled blonde locks as she was getting glammed up for a celebratory night on the town. It was a little jarring to see Carrie this way after so many seasons of her as a lone wolf in ill-fitting, off the rack business suits.
“You’ve done a very, very important thing, Carrie. Let’s go celebrate,” Gromov said.
In a slinky bare-shouldered evening dress and heels, Carrie made a grand entrance down an expansive staircase. She darted into her office before leaving to take a look around at a familiar setting — bulletin boards full of articles, research, maps, timelines and such about American intelligence activities and the real-life figures who have made international headlines such as Edward Snowden, the D.C. tech who leaked National Security Agency data proving that the federal government was spying on the telephone records of ordinary Americans. Snowden has lived in exile in Russia since the news of his actions first broke in June 2013.
Back in D.C., Saul and Dorit were in the process of packing up Saul’s home. It appeared he was finally retiring from government service, but it wasn’t clear where he was moving. “Stop badgering me, I’m not moving to Israel,” Saul said, gently to Dorit.
His landline rang and Dorit informed Saul it was a wrong number, someone looking for a “Professor Rabineau.” Saul’s face fell. (We learned in “English Teacher” that this was the name Anna used to send her books, routed through rare booksellers.)
Back to Carrie and Gromov in a concert hall seeing a jazz band — a nod to the “Homeland” pilot in which Carrie was introduced as a fan of modern and avant-garde jazz. They were grooving to saxophonist Kamasi Washington and his band. Then she got up for a trip to the powder room and another woman on the floor below did the same thing. The two rendezvous wordlessly in the bathroom when they touched up their makeup and smoothly exchanged nearly identical-looking clutch purses.
In D.C., Saul went to a bookstore to pick up the package for Professor Rabineau. The store owner was in on the play although Saul flatly told him: “You can stop with the cloak and dagger. It’s all over now.”
He waited until he returns home to open the package, pulling out a hardcover book with an intense black-and-white closeup of Carrie. The title: “Tyranny of Secrets: Why I Had to Betray My Country.”
Saul stared at Carrie’s piercing eyes for a few moments before opening the book. The dedication read: “For my daughter in the hope that one day she will understand.”
Saul turned the book on its side and inspected the opening of the spine. Using his handy spymaster tweezers, he pulled out a small slip of paper with microscopic writing, the same format as Anna’s old missives.
“Greetings from Moscow, Professor Rabineau. Russian missile defense sold to Iran and Turkey has a backdoor. It can be defeated. Specs to follow. Stay tuned.”
Saul gave the book a hard stare as he’s bathed in bright light from the window behind him. Saul told Carrie that the outing of Anna would destroy U.S. intelligence operations in Russia, so Carrie, like a good soldier, was going in under the cover of becoming a Snowden-like figure to build the next-generation network of spies.
Cut to Carrie back in the auditorium sitting lovingly next to her prime Russian asset while enjoying the music. A saxophone note soared. Carrie’s head bobbed gently with the beat and a broad smile spread across her face. The screen faded to a flash of white, but the music continued as the credits roll.
The episode, at its best, highlighted how the deepest of Washington D.C.’s deep-state institutions function in real life, and how diplomacy can be easily railroaded by political concerns. Taking plenty of dramatic license, “Homeland” has always put a spotlight on how the decisions, the feints and the gut calls made by nameless operatives in the field can avert disaster and change the course of history.
From the pilot in 2011 forward, “Homeland” sought to spur viewers to think hard about a few central questions: What did America learn from 9/11? Did we overreact in our domestic agenda to wage the war on terror? And what will it take to bring an end to our nation’s longest war, the conflict in Afghanistan. (The latter question is the subject of the new Showtime documentary “The Longest War,” which Gansa and Gordon executive produced.)
The relationship between Carrie and Saul was the beating heart of “Homeland.” By all accounts, Danes and Patinkin developed nearly as a close a partnership over the 10-year time frame that they worked shoulder to shoulder as mentor and prodigy. That chemistry showed every time the two were on screen, and it was never more intense for the two than it was in season 8.
In Carrie Mathison, Gansa and his teams over eight seasons crafted one of the most three-dimensional female protagonists in TV history. Part of the “Homeland” ride was watching Carrie be very, very good at her job and get to pull off the kind of “Flash Gordon” endings that haven’t been afforded to many female leads of drama thrillers. Only an actor of Danes’ caliber could have made Carrie’s flaws, mental health struggles and crazy romantic choices real enough to makes us care about for 96 episodes.
“Homeland” has also always been excellent at demonstrating the level of kabuki theater that is often involved in international diplomacy, and the finale also put a spotlight on how the rising tide of nationalism in the U.S. and Russia and other major global players is influencing the art and science of international relations.
Ultimately, Carrie ended her eight-season run on “Homeland” as she began in the pilot: at work in the spy trade, more covert than ever and guided only by her internal radar for what was right and wrong. Because in the end, all that matters is who you trust.