We’ve come to expect fireworks from the penultimate episode of a prestige cable drama season, let alone the second to last episode of a series that has been running as long as Homeland. We’re primed for something big to happen, so if you started to suspect Saul Berensen would not make it to the end of the episode once we started seeing flashbacks to his youth, well, you were not alone. That didn’t happen, although the last two words spoken in the episode leave the door open to that possibility in next week’s series finale.
And here’s hoping it’s a hell of an ending, because the fireworks factory is pretty bare in “The English Teacher.” Much of the episode is devoted to Saul’s method of establishing contact with his sources, which would have been an interesting thing to explore anytime in the past eight years or so, but feels like a tremendous waste of time here. Carrie has been told that the only way to get her hands on the flight recorder is to identify Saul’s asset in the Kremlin. She doesn’t present this option to him, but instead asks whether he has such a source, which he vehemently denies. Flashback to 1986 in East Berlin, where an actor who looks more like a young Steve Guttenberg than Mandy Patinkin (though he speaks with Patinkin’s voice, a jarring choice) is held at gunpoint by a young woman.
As we’ll learn later in the episode, she is the titular English teacher, Anna Pomerantseva, who decides she wants to work with Saul when her entire class of cadets is executed for their failure to stop Saul’s previous mole from defecting. In her attempts to identify the source, Carrie goes undercover by tying her hair back and putting on glasses and drops in on Andre, Saul’s former Russian asset. Andre gives some details of Saul’s youthful heroism, as well as his contact methods, which involve the placement of a red leatherbound book. At Saul’s house, Carrie finds dozens such books, all signed and dated by Saul, which she lines up with events from the past thirty-five years that Saul appeared to have inside information about. There’s a nice bit of crosscutting that demonstrates how deeply she’s able to get inside his mind, when both Carrie and Saul are seen holding a book sideways to reveal a gap in the binding where messages are passed. But to what end, especially at this late date?
And why is Carrie able to move about so freely in the first place? Yes, Saul has an awful lot of pull as National Security Advisor (although less and less these days), but given the list of charges read against Carrie at her tribunal, her free rein to move about just plays as a plot convenience. It does lead to one last humiliation for Jenna Bragg, injured in the car bombing and returned to the United States only to be ambushed by Carrie as she’s leaving the hospital.
Their encounter has the makings of a good scene: Jenna, having observed firsthand Carrie’s “ends justify the means” approach to her job, has decided the CIA is not for her. Carrie takes no responsibility for the deaths of the Special Operatives on the bus; as far as she’s concerned, any obstacle between her and the flight recorder has to be removed, and that’s just the price of doing what she has to do. Jenna’s rejection of that approach might carry more weight if she hadn’t been presented as a fuck-up from day one. It would have been fine if the writers had made her a little naive, a bit too trusting, but they took it way too far. Jenna quitting the CIA is not a loss for anyone.
Carrie’s encounter with Jenna is part of the setup for a final scene that’s supposed to hit us like a gut punch. The problem is that her quest for the flight recorder has been rendered mostly pointless. Yes, it could prove that Jalal had nothing to do with downing Warner’s helicopter, but what does that change? Jalal was definitely behind the car bombing that took out the Special Ops team, and that’s certainly justification enough for Hayes, especially with Zabel in his ear. He’s going to bomb something anyway, and he does so once Saul gets Tasneem to supply him with a target, any target at all. Hayes gets his big moment in the Situation Room and Saul buys time to get in touch with his source, the English teacher who is now a translator for the Russian government and well-positioned to gather intel.
So it comes down to those two words: “Kill Saul.” (I really wish he’d said “Better kill Saul,” don’t you?) We’re meant to feel that Carrie has gone so far down the path of the ends justifying the means that she’ll actually consider doing this. Again, though, is this really what it’s come down to in Homeland’s final hour—the quest for a flight recorder that could prevent all-out war, even though there’s no reason it should at this point? The stakes should feel high given what’s at stake, but the storytelling is too haphazard and full of holes to deliver. Here’s hoping the finale is strong enough to turn it all around.
- What’s the appropriate ending here? I don’t much feel like rooting for Carrie to save the day, even if she finds a way to do it without killing Saul. At this point I think she’s less likely to survive the finale than he is...but I have a feeling they both will. In many ways, Homeland has been the successor to 24, and that’s a show that could never stay dead, even long after its final episode.