Whenever those of us who’ve stuck with Homeland all the way have been trying to persuade those who bailed early that it’s still a great show, this is the sort of episode we have in mind: brimming with thrills, espionage, and moral dilemmas. Saul is now doing his very best to avoid war, and suggests to POTUS and his advisers that he might engage in back-channel talks with Pakistan. Zabel, in repeating this idea, makes this sound like a distasteful perversion. Undeterred, Saul has an under-the-radar chat with Tasneem, which yields a possible location for Jalal. Zabel, unaware of this contact, thinks that the information came about because of his policy of threatening nuclear war. “I was right and you were wrong!”, he gloats. Saul does well to restrain himself from ripping Zabel’s stupid beard off and feeding it to him.
Any sort of lasting peace, though, still requires the evidence on the flight recorder. Carrie has been returned to America and released into Saul’s custody before being arraigned on multiple charges, including being an accessory to the assassinations of the Presidents. But this isn’t going to deter her. Aware of Yevgeny’s price for the recorder, she broaches with Saul the issue of whether he has an asset in the Kremlin, but – crucially, I think – without revealing why she needs that information. In any event, he brusquely denies it. Nonetheless, with the assistance of Jenna – once again persuaded to help Carrie – she pursues it, tracking down a man in witness protection now going by the name of Alex Surnow, a Soviet Union defector who was exfiltrated by Saul from Berlin in 1986. Their conversation is enough to confirm that Saul does indeed have a spy in the Russian camp, but not his or her identity.
Meantime, Saul storms theatrically into a meeting in the United Nations, demanding to know of the Russian ambassador what the price is for return of the flight recorder, and is sufficiently threatening to require restraining. It’s all an act, and it’s for the benefit of a particular member of the Russian party: Anna, their interpreter, who is unobtrusively able to listen to her colleagues discussing Yevgeny’s involvement. She can then, later on, pass that information to Saul using some delightfully old-school spycraft: a slip of paper jammed into the spine of an antique red book and left in a bookshop. I would love to think that intelligence operatives still communicate in that sort of way with their assets. Maybe they do.
Thus Anna tells Saul that the price for the flight recorder has already been set, and that it’s Yevgeny’s play. And all of this is interspersed with flashbacks to Berlin in 1986, and young Saul being approached by Anna, then a teacher, who wants to become an asset to the West: prompted, in fact, by the execution of her entire class because of the defection of the man who became Alex Surnow. Presumably Saul thought that this might be a way in which he could salvage something from that wreckage; and, whatever the stakes might now be, we know enough about Saul to know that he’s unlikely to burn an asset with whom he has that sort of personal connection.
Carrie, of course, is not so constrained – either by connection or by conscience – and will give up the asset if it means avoiding war. That’s a reasonably straightforward call from her perspective. But that brings us to the final, devastating scenes of the episode. She has kinda sorta worked out that Saul, in the 80s, was using his red books to communicate with someone, so she makes contact with Yevgeny to tell him that yes, Saul has an asset; but no, she doesn’t know who that is. Yet. Which allows Yevgeny to get to the point. Either the asset’s identity is passed to him; or the means by which the asset gets information to America has to be eliminated. Carrie protests: getting rid of Saul won’t make any difference, because that won’t give up the name of the asset. Yes it will, ripostes Yevgeny: Saul will have a legacy plan for handling the asset, and the legacy plan will be Carrie, who will therefore learn the asset’s identity. “Kill Saul”, he demands. As good an episode as I could have hoped for at this stage in the game.