I’m dearly hoping Saul Berenson is not a mole. I think it would be a betrayal of the character as built so far, a twist for the sake of having a twist. And yet I’m wholly undecided—if Saul’s a mole—whether I’d rather have the show build to that twist in this fashion—giving us lots and lots of evidence that he might be—or whether I’d rather it just come out and tell us in the finale or something, leaving it hanging during the hiatus for all of us to ponder and argue over. The biggest problem with making Saul a mole is that it’s clichéd to have the mentor figure betray the pupil figure. But that wouldn’t be such a problem if the show were giving us any evidence whatsoever that Saul has reason—even completely misguided reason—to turn against the U.S. government. Instead, we’re getting a bunch of plot clues that Saul might have turned—he has a rug he seems intent on keeping straightened, and he flubs his first lie detector test—without a lot of character clues. It feels like we’re building to a twist in a vacuum.
“The Good Soldier” is an episode that makes me a touch uncomfortable—and not in a good way, I don’t think. The show has been building to a bunch of things that happen in this episode for a while, but they’re the sorts of things that could irreparably disrupt the carefully built world the show has come up with. This is an episode of big moments and big revelations—appropriate for the season’s halfway point—but every single one of those moments promises fallout that will shift the status quo by quite a bit. On one level, it’s exciting to see the show attempting to do all of this stuff at once. On another level, it’s terrifying, simply because the show could screw any one of these things up and tear the whole edifice down.
Let’s start with the part of the episode that I thought was handled fairly well. I’ve been waiting since episode three or four for Carrie and Brody to have an ill-advised hook-up, and we get one in this episode, when the two, drunk, fall into the backseat of her car and have abrupt, quickly finished sex. (Remember: Brody’s been unable to perform for his wife, but when it comes to the similarly damaged and fucked-up Carrie? He’s got no issues.) The thing I love about this show is that it rarely makes too big of a deal out of anything, choosing instead to portray everything as part of an elaborate tapestry we’re seeing weaved before our very eyes. (This is another reason the Saul stuff—which seems self-consciously shoved in there—sticks out so much.) And, true to form, the series doesn’t make a big deal out of this hook-up. Carrie or Brody never once says, “Oh God, this changes everything!” or something of the sort. Instead, they have sex, they part, and then she watches him take a lie detector test and uses her knowledge of what they’ve done to get him to show that he, apparently, is able to throw off the polygraph. (As Saul says, though, the things aren’t very reliable; he always flubs his tests, right?)
Brody lying about his fidelity to his wife is treated as a big moment, but I like that it’s this, and not the two hooking up, that gets the dramatic music and the suspenseful editing and camerawork. And I like that this scene informs the one we saw earlier. Does Carrie actually have any genuine feelings for Brody? Or is she just constantly trying to find a way to get him to crack? Carrie’s opportunism isn’t the world’s greatest character trait, but it’s what makes her good at her job. Plus, this story point gives her information that she knows to be true—Brody’s lying about at least one thing in the polygraph test—but that she can’t share with anybody else—since having sex with Brody while she’s attempting to prove he’s a terrorist would almost certainly get her fired (or worse). Homeland is good at that cable drama thing where the characters are pushed into impossible situations then have to figure out a way out of that corner, and this is perhaps the best one yet.
Meanwhile, Saul’s hoping to be transferred to New Delhi to close out his career, the better to follow Mira. At first, I thought the show was just ignoring all of the things that happened with Saul at the end of the last episode. Why was he going to India? And why did he and Carrie suddenly start getting along again? But the show hadn’t forgotten; Saul had just misread the situation. Mira’s done with him. Most of us at home got that, but Saul sure didn’t. And now that she has to be blunt, to come out and tell him that he won’t be joining her in India, he’s still clinging to the idea that she’ll be ready for him to come along after her in a few weeks… a few months… a few years. (As to why he’s getting along with Carrie, we could read this either as the two’s familial relationship asserting itself—my preferred reading—or Saul needing to keep her close to carry out whatever dastardly plot he’s a part of.) Saul’s a great character because we’re seeing the cost of a lifetime of this kind of work, and it’s incredibly wearying. Even when he wants to live a normal life, he’s not going to get the satisfaction.
If there’s something that just doesn’t work here, it’s the storyline with Aileen and Faisel. Here, again, the show seems to be trying a little too hard to fake us out, having Aileen be the one who recruited Faisel (instead of vice versa) into terrorism. Once they realize that someone other than the CIA is stalking them and aiming to kill them—a really silly plot development that doesn’t make a lot of sense—he wants to go to the authorities and share everything they know. Aileen’s got a point that even though they haven’t technically done anything wrong yet (though, again, both could conceivably be argued as traitors, assuming Faisel’s a citizen), they’d still probably get stuck in a Guantanamo-esque location. But at the same time, they’re apparently being pursued by the League of Terrorist Supervillains. Anyway, Faisel is gunned down in the hotel room the two rent, while Aileen disappears into the night. The twist that Aileen’s the one who’s really the bad guy is kind of dumb, given how little we know about her, and the second faction hunting them down is also stupid. This is the worst plotline the show’s attempted so far, and the sooner it wraps up, the better.
“The Good Soldier” isn’t a perfect episode, largely for the Faisel and Aileen stuff. And I could definitely see a point where we’re looking back at this episode and bemoaning what it did to the carefully built storyline so far. But at the same time, I’m glad the show is being bold. Just like last week—where the Saul and Carrie fight came at an unusual point within the narrative—an expected plot point in Carrie and Brody hooking up comes much earlier than we might have thought it would. The show deploys these sorts of things once it needs to, not after delaying them for episode after episode. A lot of big stuff breaks open in this episode, but it rarely feels like the show is forcing these plot points (aside from, well, you know). “The Good Soldier” proves that the show can do big plot moments as well as it can do small character moments, and if the show follows the lead of the Carrie-Brody hook-up going forward, I think we’ll be in very good hands. Just so long as Aileen exits the story very soon.
- Brody finds out that his wife was unfaithful after the memorial service for the guy he killed while being held by the terrorists. It’s a little strange that this would come out at this point—that one of his former colleagues would be so upset by who he was now that he’d blurt this information out in public—but the fallout is terrific. Also, why are they holding the memorial service for Walker this late after Brody came back? Hasn’t it been a month or so?
- That’s James Urbaniak—friend of The A.V. Club and voice of Dr. Rusty Venture—as the lie detector test administrator, Larry. I liked how he was, like, the CIA bartender, with everybody spilling their tales of woe to him.
- This is the first episode written by former Rubicon showrunner Henry Bromell. Rubicon, incidentally, had one of the best “everybody takes a lie detector test” episodes I’ve ever seen.
- Estes is back to being angry at Carrie, though he has reason, what with the way she goes over his head to get the polygraph tests she believes will prove everything.
- This interview with Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa by Mother Jones is well worth a read. They get into some of the political issues you guys have been arguing about, and they give the lie to the idea that because they worked on 24, they must be crazy torture fetishists.
- So is there anyone else the show can toy with us about being a terrorist? Estes would be too obvious, Carrie would rely too much on the show cheating, Jessica would make absolutely no sense, and everybody else is too minor of a character. That leaves Mike, and I have no idea why that would happen.
- Todd’s crazy theory corner: I wonder if the show isn’t making Saul seem like a bad guy—again, kind of out of nowhere—just because it wants to make the moment when we see that, yes, Brody is a terrorist (which I’d still rather not see, but whatever) that much more shocking.