I’m sure I could poke holes in this episode if I tried, particularly the final scenes. (Which I’ll come back to.) Taken on its own terms, though, I thought this was just about as good a series finale as long-term viewers could have wished for, particularly in the way that a number of the show’s themes were brought full circle; starting with a flashback to Nicholas Brody explaining why he thought that an apparent betrayal of his country was necessary in the interests of that same country.
Which is where Carrie finds herself at the start of the episode: as far as she’s concerned, the only way of avoiding war with Pakistan is to disclose the identity of Saul’s asset to Moscow. And the only way of doing that, assuming Saul can’t be persuaded to give it up, is – as suggested last week by Yevgeny – to kill him. It’s always worth remembering that Carrie, since the very start of Homeland, has been driven by the belief that her personal failures led to 9/11, and her desire to prevent another event with multiple casualties is always going to override any thought of the wider picture. So she liaises with Yevgeny’s contact in America, obtains chemicals which, when applied to the skin, have a paralysing effect, and arranges for a GRU kill team to be outside Saul’s house.
Saul, meantime, is making a last and futile attempt to stand the USA down from its standoff with Pakistan. Jalal Haqqani wasn’t at the attack location given to him by Tasneem last week, and Pakistan is still refusing either to give him up or to disarm its battlefield nuclear weapons. Saul demands a face-to-face meeting – remember them? Seems like a long time ago – with POTUS, and gets Zabel instead, who is entirely unwilling to listen to Saul’s third-hand account of what’s on the flight recorder. Rebarbative as Zabel is, this isn’t an entirely unreasonable stance.
Carrie then turns up at Saul’s house, tells him of the deal she’s made with Yevgeny, and makes a final attempt to persuade Saul to surrender details of his asset. What she hadn’t anticipated is that Saul sees this as part of a much bigger picture: Pakistan, he explains, is a regional problem at most, whereas Russia must be resisted, and to betray his contact would mean the final destruction of his intelligence network in Moscow. But Carrie’s not having this, administers the paralysing agent to Saul, and brings the GRU heavies in. I didn’t think she’d go through with this, I must admit; although Saul, who knows that Carrie hasn’t seen Franny since her return to the US and is therefore expecting her to leave again, clearly anticipated something happening. As Carrie pleads with Saul to give her the information she’s looking for, the GRU thugs prepare to give Saul a lethal injection. Saul beckons Carrie closer: “Go fuck yourself”, he growls at her. But… she then calls the GRU off; at least to that extent, she was bluffing.
She then flies to the West Bank to meet Saul’s sister Dorit, tells her that Saul is dead, and collects from her an envelope containing a USB stick – this appears to be Saul’s legacy plan for his asset. It’s not clear whether Carrie knew that Dorit had this, and it’s something of a Hail Mary if she didn’t know. But the USB contains details of Anna’s identity, which Carrie immediately tells Yevgeny about. Saul, by now free, has warned Scott, who is in the UN building with Anna and tries to protect her, but is unable to: the Russians close in to take Anna into custody, and she kills herself rather than be captured and returned to Russia.
However, war is averted: the Russians live up to their part of the deal and hold a televised media conference to confirm that the flight recorder exonerates Jalal Haqqani, which does at least make the question of whether Carrie’s actions were justified all along a more nuanced one. Was Saul’s loyalty to one person disproportionate? Of course, in the wider analysis this might strengthen Russia’s position. It’s all the “cost of doing business”, Yevgeny tells Carrie, which is striking, because Saul said exactly the same thing to her earlier. The episode title is ‘Prisoners of War’, which is both a nice shoutout to the Israeli show which inspired Homeland, and a pert commentary on the protagonists: Saul, Carrie, Yevgeny, Tasneem, Haqqani, all of them. All of us, maybe. All prisoners of war, doomed to go round and round in the same circles for ever.
Which takes us to the coda, and it’s a cracker. Two years later Carrie is living with Yevgeny in a dazzling Moscow apartment – presumably he was well rewarded for his exertions – and, after we get a quick look at Carrie’s new Conspiracy Wall, they go out to see a concert by the great Kamasi Washington. (Jazz again, opening the very first episode and closing this final one.) During the concert Carrie excuses herself to go to the bathroom, where she exchanges handbags with another woman. And meantime in America, Saul gets a call for Professor Rabinow – the alias he used when Anna gave him information – and goes to a bookstore to pick up a package containing Carrie’s new book, ‘Tyranny of Secrets: Why I Had to Betray My Country’. He rummages around in the spine, and finds a message with information about a Russian defence system which has just been sold to Iran and Turkey, with a promise of more details to come.
Which means that Carrie has become Saul’s new asset in Russia. Questions: does Yevgeny know? Is he playing her? Is she playing Saul? Is her book and her Conspiracy Wall part of her cover? Won’t it become obvious at some point that Saul’s source is highly likely to be the former CIA agent who is Yevgeny’s partner? Honestly, I don’t really care: I thought this was a wonderful ending to what has been a properly great TV show. If we never see Homeland again it’s been left in a good place; and if Netflix or Amazon Prime or Hulu or some streaming operation we’ve never yet heard of wants to fling money at everyone in a few years and make more episodes, it’s a perfect jumping-off point.
It’s trite to say that, in the ideal world we don’t live in, Homeland would have ended after its first season. But it’s also true to say that the biggest critics of its later years don’t actually watch it; if they did, they would know that, all in all, Homeland gracefully managed its transition from a show primarily about Brody to a show about wider geopolitical issues. Not without faults, or occasional longueurs, but overall a triumph. Well done.