After eight celebrated seasons, Homeland is finally coming to a close. In The English Teacher, the penultimate episode, the team behind Homeland delivers a stellar story, weaving the various threads through the loom into a masterful tapestry. Espionage, between people and between countries, is at its peak. Only one episode remains.
Saul puts up the bond to get Carrie released from her holding cell in Langley. Still, Carrie (Claire Danes) is determined to deliver the identity of Saul’s Moscow asset to Gromov (Costa Ronin) in order to secure the flight recorder proving no one shot down the Presidents’ helicopter, but Saul (Mandy Patinkin) continues his false claim that the asset doesn’t exist. After fellow agent Jenna (Andrea Deck) helps her do some digging, Carrie learns that Saul was involved with Intelligence in Berlin before the wall fell, and has been instrumental in major operations for decades.
While Carrie is only able to learn how Saul communicates with his asset, the viewer is shown much more. As Carrie stares at a picture from decades prior showing the back of an unknown woman’s head, we cut to a United Nations meeting, where we see the same woman (Tatyana Mukha), now much older, translating for Russian representatives. Through flashbacks, we learn that she was an English teacher for a small group of students murdered by the KGB and that she exacts her revenge by feeding Saul information.
With Carrie unable to provide any solid information on the asset, Gromov refuses to budge on the flight recorder. Carrie begs for him to “do the honorable thing” as she has done everything she can. Gromov counters: “You haven’t done everything… You can still take Saul out of the picture… Then the asset is neutralized.”
The English Teacher was exquisite. A beautifully shot, incredibly compelling, perfectly paced episode. Homeland at its best, truly. And yet, I have a difficult time reconciling my feelings on such a fantastic episode when I consider the incredible story opportunities cast aside by the writing team. With only one episode remaining, I think we can safely say the story is locked, and so are safe to speculate on what was left behind.
Weeks ago, in my review of the first episode of Homeland’s final season, I mentioned an interview with showrunner Alex Gansa, in which he mentioned that the stories of season 7 and 8 are “closely tied together.” Now, at the end of the 8th season, it’s clear that season 7, which focused on Russia, and season 8, which focused on the Middle East, in fact, have very little to do with one another, other than the character of Gromov. I’ll cover these lost opportunities here, in the penultimate review, so that next week’s review can be fully dedicated to what we all hope will be a fantastic finale.
Considering Carrie’s lengthy imprisonment in Russia at the end of season seven, mostly spent in what she called a “florid psychosis” due to her medication being withheld, many viewers assumed (justifiably) that the arch of season 8 would follow the compelling idea that she had been turned, just as Brody was in season 1. However, it seems that the idea has been completely abandoned in favor of the baseless trust and back-and-forth relationship between Carrie and Saul. While the idea of Carrie being forced to betray, and possibly even kill her oldest friend, is compelling, to say the least, the idea of her playing an unwitting double agent would have been equally so and would have provided a way to (finally) leave behind Saul’s ridiculous insistence that Carrie be continuously involved in decisions she has no business making.
Indeed, it seems as though Homeland’s writers tried to speak to the show’s perpetual character problem in this episode, during the scene in which Jenna visits Saul, fully intent on exposing Carrie’s plans to betray him. Instead, he surprises her with his commitment to being on Carrie’s side. With a few short lines, spoken by Saul, the writers attempt to justify his and Carrie’s rationale:
“I’m not exactly sure what she did or didn’t do or what mistakes she made. There’s always some. But everything she does, everything, is because she never loses sight of what’s important. And honestly, she’s the only person I’ve ever known I can say that of… When you’re dealing with Carrie, you have to do what she does. You have to decide for yourself what matters.”
Considering the monumental task, that of justifying eight seasons of Carrie’s position in Intelligence despite her volatility and her being responsible for creating more problems than she’s solved, as well as Saul’s insistence that she stay in Intelligence despite, these lines are quite effective. They don’t solve the problem, of course, but then again, at this point, the problem really isn’t solvable. At least they tried.
I also mentioned in that first review another significant problem with season 8: the choice to go back to the Middle East, and base most of the story there. Why? What was the point, other than bringing back a few fan-favorite characters from seasons past? While much of the story has been fascinating, including of course the arcs of Haissam and Jalal Haqqani (Numan Acar and Elham Ehsas) and Tasneem Quireshi (Nimrat Kaur), none of the key plot points in these arcs were absolutely dependent on location in delivering what became the ultimate story: that of Carrie being forced by Gromov to betray, and possibly kill, Saul. The President’s helicopter could have easily gone down over any other country, any other group of characters could have delivered those key points, and the story would have been the same.
Again, I’m not saying season 8, or the rest of Homeland, hasn’t been great. It has been. Indeed, basing the story in the Middle East provided some very interesting real-world parallels that were consistently the stuff of headlines before COVID-19 brought everything to a screeching halt. I’m simply lamenting what could have been. A few simple adjustments and Homeland’s greatest weaknesses, that of character position pushing at the boundaries of suspension of disbelief and the show’s racism by omission, could have been addressed.
Despite Homeland’s nagging problems, it remains a fantastically well-made series, and The English Teacher shines as one of its most exquisite offerings. The camera style in this episode made heavy use of sweeping tracking shots, evoking memories of films like Iñárritu’s Birdman, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, or most of Kubrick’s work. The camera was an intentionally strong narrator in this episode. Rather than using a handheld or static shots, as has been Homeland’s typical cinematic package, intentionally slow dolly shots were heavily featured in The English Teacher, and to great effect.
Put simply, this episode was meant to be different. It was meant to stand out. A possible reason for this intentional break from the show’s standard storytelling style may have been the fact that this, for all intent’s and purposes, is “Saul’s episode.” Typically, shows will give each principal character something of a final send-off. While we can safely assume Saul will still play a critical role in next week’s finale, this episode was clearly meant as a tribute to Saul’s character.
We learn that he is an unsung hero, involved in such intelligence operations as Chernobyl and the fall of the Berlin Wall. He’s able to use his strong skills in statecraft to convince Pakistan to give the U.S. a target on Jalal. Even if the target is a false one, it will at least help to sate Zabel’s bloodlust for a bit and buy more time for the adults in the room to come to a wise decision. Zabel tries to rub the granted target in Saul’s face, childishly not realizing that Saul was responsible for it the whole time. It’s another perfect example of the blatant idiocy and lack of understanding inherent in people like Zabel, who have no business being in Washington.
The English Teacher is Homeland at its best. While there are missed opportunities with the series, stellar writing and top-notch performances still make Homeland must-see-TV. Next week’s finale is sure to be incredible.
omeland Season 8 Episode 11: The English Teacher aired on April 19, 2020 on Showtime. The series is currently available to stream on Showtime Anytime.
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