In Threnody(s), the latest episode of Homeland’s eighth season, we’re given the chance to pause, breathe, and reflect on the season so far. On the horizon, however, is the inevitable plunge into madness.
Haissam Haqqani (Numan Acar) is marched through the prison to face the firing squad. Around him, his imprisoned supporters cheer. Meanwhile, Max (Maury Sterling) is being held hostage by Haqqani’s son, Jalal (Elham Ehsas), who plans to kill him the moment his father is shot. Despite Saul’s frantic attempts to delay the execution, thereby saving both Haqqani’s and Max’s life, his efforts are thwarted by one John Zabel (Hugh Dancy), a newly appointed advisor who convinces President Hayes (Sam Trammell) that neither of the victims’ lives are worth the effort. Both are killed thanks to Hayes’ inaction.
After killing Max, Jalal takes over the Taliban during a secret meeting, brandishing the RPG he claims to have used to shoot down the Presidents’ helicopter, and promising to kill “any infidel who sets foot on our pure lands.” Through journalist contacts, Zabel obtains video of the meeting and shows it to Hayes just before he gives an address to the nation. Zabel uses Hayes’ fear and ignorance to convince him that Jalal poses a grave threat to the country, and to use the speech to stoke the fires of war.
Meanwhile, Saul (Mandy Patinkin) and a team of Special Ops soldiers meet Carrie (Claire Danes) in order to pick her up, along with Max’s body. Despite Saul’s assurances that he’s on her side, the Special Ops team has been ordered to place her under arrest. Sensing danger, Carrie runs to rejoin Gromov (Costa Ronin), forcing an incensed Saul to leave without her.
Adventures in Pacing
Threnody(s), like the rest of the season so far, is a tightly woven and well-constructed episode. However, more than any other up to this point, the episode showcases not only Homeland’s greatest strengths but also its greatest weaknesses. First, to strengths. The episode opens with Haqqani being marched to the firing line, passing a slew of other prisoners as he walks. These prisoners cheer as he passes, voicing their support. The irony, of course, is that these are Taliban prisoners, and are cheering the man as he was before he agreed to the cease-fire. He walks to a violent end, to the cheers of those who celebrate his violent past, but he will die a man of peace.
Despite Saul’s efforts to delay the execution, it goes forward after only a minor delay. The rifles fire, and Haqqani falls to his knees, still and quiet. After a moment, he stirs, and stands, as the prisoners in the cells around the courtyard cheer his defiance. G’ulom (Mohammad Bakri) orders the squad to fire again, and only then are they able to end Haqqani’s life. It’s a powerful moment, one in which a man stands against oppression. The message of his refusal to fall can be taken in various ways, and indeed, Jalal invokes his father’s defiance even as he commits the Taliban to violence once again. But for that moment, Haqqani clearly believes that sending the message is more important than its ramifications.
Another incredible moment showcases Claire Danes’ significant acting prowess. As she waits for the special ops team to come and retrieve Max’s body, Gromov asks Carrie to tell him about Max. Confused, Carrie insists that she must have mentioned Max during her captivity, but Gromov shakes his head: “No, you never mentioned him.” The moment that follows is incredible.
For a few seconds, we watch as several emotions cross Carrie’s face. Either Gromov is manipulating her, or Max didn’t really mean that much to her, or she’s selfish enough never to have mentioned him. Did she ever really know Max? Ever really care about him, even after he had done so much for her? Her emotions may as well have been written out in the subtitles at the bottom of the screen, so clearly were they written across her face. This and the rest of the scene are brilliantly acted.
These are two of many examples throughout this episode where the time allotted to the moment was appropriate. Moments like these have significant ramifications, and in order for the viewer to fully appreciate those ramifications, these moments need to be given sufficient time. In nearly every way, the team behind Homeland are masters at striking the proper balance in pacing these moments. However, there continues to be one glaring exception.
At the beginning of the episode, Carrie’s crimes (once again) seem to suddenly evaporate. Even after she screams at Saul that it was his fault Max was killed, Saul flatly forgives her, and tells her: “I’m on your side.” At the end of the episode, Carrie accuses him of lying when she sees one of the Special Ops soldiers brandishing restraints. These moments, just like most of the relationship moments between Saul and Carrie, aren’t given enough time. The rapid back and forth between these extremes in their relationship are enough to induce whiplash. As usual, Carrie’s position, and Saul’s endorsement of her position, are completely unearned.
One of the most compelling elements of this season is the clear parallel between President Ben Hayes and President Trump. Each episode brings new elements to support this comparison. When Hayes speaks to G’ulom to request some time before Haqqani is executed, Wellington (Linus Roache) does the talking, and is squarely responsible for buying what little time they get. But Hayes doesn’t hesitate to take the credit.
A perfect example of similar action from Hayes’ real-world counterpart occurred last week. A card appeared in mailboxes across the country, with large font text parading the words: “President Trump’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America.” In reality, Trump did very little to come up with these guidelines, and has continually sabotaged efforts to contain COVID-19, yet, he takes all the credit by putting his name on these cards.
John Zabel is another element of this parallel. An unqualified rando who only get to where they are by kissing up, leaving people who are actually qualified for the position on the outside looking in, just as Wellington is throughout this episode. The writing is compelling, if only because, in signature Homeland style, it so perfectly reflects reality.
Threnody(s) gave us a moment to breathe in what has so far been a fast-paced season. It also brought the deaths of two long-lasting characters. Even after this brief pause, viewers know we are only experiencing the calm before the storm. Homeland’s final five episodes are sure to be a thrilling ride.
Homeland Season 8 Episode 8: Threnody(s) aired on March 29, 2020 on Showtime.
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