Capsule Review: Locke, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Hitman: Agent 47

For this latest entry (which is pretty late), I assembled a trio of testosterone-led films that I’d be arguing about. The first two movies are quite divisive while the last is ultimately dismissive (sorry friend). Don’t get me wrong about Locke; it showcased the dramatic sensitivity underneath Tom Hardy‘s foreboding masculinity, but I’d rather see him unconfined and unhinged in more dynamic settings (cc: Mad Max: Fury Road). And while Kingsman was rapturously enjoyed by many, I find it to be unconscientiously gratuitous. As for Hitman: Agent 47, the suspenseful fifth season of Homeland is much more satisfying*. This set of reviews is not particularly rosy but for the sake of cinematic exploration, here are my critical thoughts.

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LOCKE (2014)

Film critics are on board in director Steve Knight‘s minimalist dramatic thriller about an accomplished family man’s doomed evening drive (where he basically lost everything he held dearly via phone calls). In this constricting yet immersive acting vehicle, Hardy occupies the driver’s seat throughout the film’s duration. LOCKE provides a powerful showcase for Hardy’s subtlety as a person whose family and working relationships were strained by a life-changing commitment. Guilty as he may be, he attempts to forge compromises among his duties as a construction manager (determinedly giving instructions to his proxy for tomorrow’s crucial delivery), a husband (contritely admitting to his wife about a brief affair) and a soon-to-be father (patiently calming the mother of his unexpected child over the phone); thus revealing a flawed yet moral character who bears accountability against the odds. Such entanglements inhabit Locke’s boxed environment but there’s no turning back at the highways of London. A sense of claustrophobia creeps in the limited framing of the film’s setting, much like the feeling of the loss of breath when one makes drastic decisions. LOCKE offers an infrequent incision to the male psyche where willpower is tested by external challenges (literally). Locke’s frustration and desperation are apparent but that does not falter his dedication as a man of honor, despite his extramarital mistake. In the end, he reaches his destination; the viewers may not know what happens to him after that eventful night but after accompanying him all through the ride, we are left assured of Locke’s fortitude that will drive him forward.

Rating: 3.0/5.0

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KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2015)

A pugnacious spectacle with unapologetic coolness, KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE could be the type of film fanboys are gushing for. Its arresting action sequences and glitzy spy craft lure an ephemeral entertainment with a youthful appeal, courtesy of gutsy newcomer Taron Egerton as Eggsy. But few minutes in, tossed with delirious mischief and airy sophistication, the British-American action film serves a fleeting escape from the mundane, juvenile life – made astray from a conscionable and responsible story-telling. KINGSMAN is consistent on its streak of ruthlessness that comes out as darkly comedic but numbing. While only a fictional medium, it feels disconcerting to derive amusement from violence, especially when rationality plucks viewers on the absurdity of young daredevils flirting with danger and reality taking a bite on the terrors that are bigger and more relevant than SIM card-triggered world domination. The young cast delivers on dynamic physicality, particularly Egerton and bladed hunch-woman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella). The attempt to humanize its characters (Eggsy’s canine moral decisions, Colin Firth’s sentimentality as the veteran Galahad and Samuel L. Jackson’s likes and dislikes as the main antagonist), however, do not quite resonate when the film is suited in an unrealistic facade of misguided, remorseless fun. KINGSMAN got the spunk, charisma and attitude to spawn a sequel for its new-found fans, but it lacks the sobriety in establishing why its irreverence should matter.

Rating: 2.5/5.0

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HITMAN: AGENT 47 (2015)

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The only reason why I watched HITMAN: AGENT 47 is because of Homeland‘s Rupert Friend. Without him, I do not have any regard on this unremarkable reboot. Bland characterization and dulling visual effects populate an aimless script that only goes with the flow of the purported action. Some scenic Singaporean spots and dashing Audis steal what already is the short attention span that the audience can only invest to. The dialogue, particularly, is lethargic as director Aleksander Bach attempts to compensate via kinetic sequences where Agent 47 (Friend) is made conspicuous in his signature red tie at the sea of black and white opponents. This video-game adaptation could possible stay true to its title; perhaps 45 more remakes are needed to create the ideal Hitman film. But in the cinematic landscape crowded of cold-blooded yet compelling fighters, a subpar movie that re-introduces an unimpressionable contender would be easily forgotten.

Rating: 1.5/5.0

*TV Review of Homeland Season Five will be coming up. Soon.

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TV Review: Homeland S04E12 “Long Time Coming”

If there’s anything Homeland has taught me over the course of four seasons, it is not to make expectations. Because it just keeps on thwarting them — be it the conventional standards of television or just my fickle theories about the show. Weeks before the finale, I was speculating on how Homeland will package itself in its fifth season and how the late casting of the Mathison matriarch will enrich Carrie’s side of character drama. I once said that Homeland, post-Brody, will be focused on a new villain per season (like 24), instantly assuming that Carrie and co. will defeat terrorists; while the mom-storyline would deepen Carrie’s personal story as long as it is integrated to the season-long conflict. Watching “Long Time Coming” made me realized the futility of these theories because the show continuously defies them, for better or worse. Ignoring the misstep on Carrie’s mom, the S04 finale proves that Homeland isn’t just audacious on hacking off characters but also its stealth of subverting expectations even if you think you’re already familiar with the show. Lacking the conspicuous explosions and whiplash of the past season finales, “Long Time Coming” is a delicate and cunning maneuver for the show moving forward. It may have painted mixed feedback after the initial viewing but once its gutting final scene sinks in, it will make you realize that the clever anti-climatic closer is dedicated to the show’s discerning viewer.

 

To be honest, “Long Time Coming” had the same effect on me as E10’s befuddling belt scene. But E12 was the grand culmination of character arcs that made me cheer for it more. To borrow words from critics, the finale was quiet (set in the serene suburb) but disquieting; it finds Carrie, Saul and Quinn settled back in the States after the nightmarish stint in Islamabad but being home became unsettling once the larger picture loomed before them. Some would say that the finale’s featured twist was actually not having a twist at all and that last week’s reveal of Dar Adal was a blindsiding narrative push. But for me, I award the stupefying twist of the season to Saul who successfully betrayed every ounce of compassion he earned during his Taliban ordeal. Saul’s desperation in scoring a CIA comeback tastes like bile because his actions led to bitter consequences. It was his self-righteousness that entangled him with terrorists and trickled to the annihilation of 36 Americans whom he’s now willing to bury just to plant himself back to the Agency. I still don’t understand why Dar is so ardent in securing Saul’s tenure, to the point of negotiating with Haissam Haqqani in exchange of the video which is the only impediment to Saul’s imminent return. Does Dar have a hidden agenda in helping to reinstall Saul? Their team up is an interesting set-up that rattles the restored dynamic between Saul and Carrie. I, for one, wasn’t looking forward on seeing Saul back in Langley but I am amazed on how the writers shifted angles on keeping him relevant this season: he was initially pushed away by Carrie from her orbit and becomes the emotional torque at the middle of the story and burns the bridge and build a new one pillared by his relentless ambition in the last episode. It’s vague if Saul is smeared by power he was conferred in S03 (though he made it clear before that he wasn’t the politicking type) or he simply wasn’t the man who he seemed was as Carrie’s former touchstone. I came to think that Saul the bear is actually an opportunistic predator who pries himself to the CIA just to serve his own self-interest. In the end, it was not Dar who’s playing the con game after all, but Saul. His S04 journey trekked from sympathetic to frustrating yet it was very effective. The searing final sequence of him and Carrie staring at each other was a muted yet potent moment that punctures what was the patched wound before the finale. I am cautiously optimistic of Saul’s position next year but I’m certainly looking forward on Mandy Patinkin and F. Murray Abraham who deftly slither as the Agency’s sly old timers. They’re an excellent foil against their protégés but apart from the spy stuff, there’s a lot to be talked about between Carrie and Quinn.

 

After 32 episodes, the kiss (that finally sailed the ship) has arrived and for those who are scratching their heads on the suddenness of Carrie and Quinn’s romance, you aren’t paying attention in the past three seasons. It was definitely long time coming in the show’s private psyche, aside from the domestic conflict arising in Carrie’s mother. Homeland became far-fetched and laborious when it concentrated on Carrie and Brody’s romance but I believe that her relationship with Quinn better serves the show thematically. More than just the serial adventure of patriotism, what differentiates Homeland from its contemporaries is how the characters are treated as human beings, making their actions inherent on who they are and not just dictated by any plot device. At some points in the show, Carrie, Quinn and Saul were flustered in herculean conditions as they defend their country. But in the end, they are just normal people longing for the normalcy of home that their vocation stripped from them. Maybe one of the reason why I liked the flawed “Trylon and Perisphere” is it exposed the ugly humanness of its characters, from Carrie’s post-natal depression to Quinn’s PTSD. “Long Time Coming” is patterned in E02’s DNA, although it brought together Carrie and Quinn a wistful chance of a normal life together. Islamabad was a grave chapter in their lives but the beauty of it is that Carrie and Quinn weathered the worst and that battlefield cemented their relationship as they encountered each other’s demons. Because of his job, Quinn has become a wanderer drifting on whether to quit or not, yet he found his chance of a home in Carrie. But their midnight romantic revelation was an ill Cinderella moment as they were lured back to their CIA shoes. You just have to hate the timing of it all. Carrie and Quinn’s romance may have ended in a cliffhanger but I’m in the minority who liked it, basically because I find it hard to imagine their possible arrangement (these normal people are made extraordinary by their jobs). And in an ill-advised move for the finale, Carrie still has an unresolved demon to face that make her stall her next move on Quinn – her mother.

 

Frank’s funeral (in a loving tribute to the departed James Rebhorn) wasn’t just the catalyst for Carrie and Quinn to finally release their feelings for each other. Before the burial, her estranged mother Ellen (Victoria Clark) tried to reach out to her daughters. Maggie was welcoming, much like my anticipation upon learning of Ellen’s integration to the story since the Mathison patriarch passed away. It turns out that my reaction would be the same as Carrie’s — uninviting and crusty on her mother’s return. The least engaging part of the finale, the mother-daughter scenes were cold and melodramatic that don’t hit the emotional punch of Carrie’s teary discussion with Frank and Maggie in “The Star”. To echo a fellow viewer, Ellen could have been a means for Carrie to acknowledge her daughter, parallel to their reconciliation. Regardless of the outcomes, Carrie and Ellen were similar in submitting to their impulses that led them to abandon their children (the former escaping through work while the latter in her many dalliances). But Carrie has grown now. Maybe she doesn’t need her mother in order to reengage with Frannie (events in Islamabad could have made her long for her remaining loved ones at home). Instead, Carrie realizes that she can be loved despite her condition because it’s not her shared illness with her dad that drove her mom away but Ellen’s weakness. For Ellen to be used as a plot device to enlighten Carrie’s blossoming relationship with Quinn makes me think that she isn’t much of a significant role unlike Frank in Carrie’s life. What happens next is just ‘too little, too late’.

 

Like Saul, I am also fascinated on how the writers fleshed out Quinn’s character this season (and kudos on Rupert Friend for his layered performance and one of the MVPs this season). Before, Quinn was no more than an observer (looking through distant eyes) and Carrie’s sympathizer. Although the audience were made known a part of Quinn’s past (his child), we only knew less about him except for his evocative feelings for Carrie. His bigger role in S04 was well-earned (in my opinion) as we discover the man separate from Carrie. During the mid-season, I was wary if I would still like the Quinn who gradually emerged onscreen – impatient when patience was needed more, gauche when the good cop would be more effective and unstable when his composure could shut the detonator down. But Quinn is equally flawed like Carrie and together they make a more complete picture of the restless search of one’s personal permanence in the impersonal world they live in. Underneath the typical coldblooded assassin, Quinn became the show’s moral compass who ironically is lost on his own – his déjà vu of quitting the CIA is as normal as his ragged breathing. He finally found a finite reason of leaving through Carrie but beneath his grand gesture of offering a life with him, Quinn has an insecure heart that crumbles when he’s rejected of loving the woman who thinks she can’t be loved. Quinn was ultimately driven to go black once again as his desperate attempt to get out and stay out was shattered by Carrie’s ‘no’. This resolution becomes the midpoint of a meandering yet conniving episode that ends with the three storylines wrapped altogether: Ellen leading to Carrie’s realization of wanting to have a life with Quinn but his suspicious absence led to her discovery of Dar and Saul’s plan, en route to a destabilized personal and work dynamics for S05.

 

“Long Time Coming” is like a simmering kettle left on an alighted stove. Not only did I appreciate its red herrings for S05 but it also provides a realistic finish for the show’s most resonant season. War was not won in 14 years, even most implausible in just one season. Carrie and co. lost and the audience has to accept the stillness of it. At the end of the day, Homeland is more than just a macroscopic look in geopolitical tensions and international espionage. As sappy as it sounds, ‘home is where the heart is’ and for Homeland, the heart will always be Carrie and her cathartic journey of acceptance and redemption. Praises will never stop pouring on Claire Danes’ masterful and wholly portrayal of a woman who has grown so much in the show’s four seasons. On the other hand, Homeland won’t ever escape the scrutiny of its political setting but like the critics, I find myself wondering about the show’s future creative execution. Will Homeland ever be Homeland again? The show has unpredictably evolved from what it was four years ago, an intimate psychological cat-and-mouse thriller that transformed to the predators and preys of the bigger fight against terrorism. Homeland catered to the many facets of the thriller genre but it will be best remembered on how it balances the action, suspense and intrigue to its core character story. No other show is given such a narrative leeway than Homeland and I put my faith on the writers on where they want to see Carrie, Saul and Quinn next season, along with the new antagonist. The development of their arcs was terrific; who would have thought that Saul can be Carrie’s adversary and Carrie’s careful confirmation of her reciprocated feelings for Quinn? While the S04 didn’t check on the Boyds and their Pakistani counterparts (a short snippet on Tasneem Qureshi shows that she’s in a league more powerful that Aasar Khan), I hope S05 could bring them back, one way or another, as the fifth season could be an opportunity to widen the spy circle with new characters (that the show excellently casts) with questionable allegiances, just like Brody was, but this time in tighter and more nooses (pun intended).

 

Final notes:

  • Thank you for reading my recaps! I’ll be back to business once S05 airs in 10 months but if you’re interested in reading my instantaneous thoughts, just can check out my blog: myhoneyisfilm.tumblr.com
  • My favorite episodes in the season are “From A to B and Back Again”, “Halfway to a Donut”, “There’s Something Else Going On” and “13 Hours in Islamabad”.
  • Quinn will be successful on his open-ended mission. Just don’t how long a time jump S05 will make.
  • The season beginning and ending with Carrie inside the car, jazz playing, where she was a passenger on her auto-piloted mission and lastly her hands on the stirring wheel yet lost — is one of the show’s most powerful images.
  • The Kiss. Enough said.

TV Review: Homeland S04E11 “Krieg Nicht Lieb”

To be honest, Homeland S04’s penultimate episode wasn’t exactly how I imagined it to be. Haissam Haqqani should be dead by now, thus closing the Kabul-Islamabad chapter so that the finale will be more at home on the unresolved character drama among the show’s triumvirates. But like Peter Quinn’s watery-eyed frustrations, I was left hanging. I was ready to be blown into bits once he detonates the pipe bomb (though Carrie Mathison’s presence made it implausible), only to be doused in disbelief after the gaping involvement of his former boss, Dar Adal. Not only did “Krieg Nicht Lieb” felt like a filler episode, the conspiracy behind Dar is a questionable catalyst on the events in Pakistan; the extent of which threatens a quicksand that could vanish what Homeland remarkably built in its stellar fourth season. It also mined a confounding hole that added to the piling issues the finale has to patch. Despite my reservations on the shocking twist, the better half of E11 is the emphatic toast to the tremendous growth of the show’s two spy leads. Homeland will always be hinged on the love for one’s country, but seeing Carrie and Quinn embark on their patriotic missions (together or apart) have been fulfilling because of the genuine relationship they cultivated. Wherever this may lead (Homeland inured me from unhappy endings), I am still on board with this two. But before I revel in this beautiful partnership, let me first address the elephant in the room who made his startling comeback (without doughnuts for everyone).

 

Showed alongside Saul Berenson in an unaired scene (Dar’s dialogue about ‘people first before the mission’ was a foreshadowing in Quinn’s botched operation), F. Murray Abraham was in the title credits which I thought was for the Previously clip (but Nazanin Boniadi wasn’t credited so…) but I was completely surprised to see him inside Haqqani’s car (insert Andrew Lockhart expletives here). Carrie and the soon-to-be replaced CIA director were totally uninformed of Dar’s connection to Haqqani. Dar’s late reveal raises an inferno of questions that crowds the season-long conflicts the finale has to resolve. I’d like to believe that he is untainted of any Taliban connections and his rendezvous with Haqqani is official (which Lockhart pertained to Carrie in their long distance call). But if the CIA doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, what is Dar’s participation with Haqqani all about? Is he brokering a treaty of sorts or is it just a setup for a final terrorist takedown? Dar’s addition in the Pakistan plot doesn’t tell yet when did he jump in, making his timetable very critical in the season-long story. The worst juncture would be Dar’s involvement right from the beginning (in Sandy Bachman’s murder) which would be a manipulative ploy that collapses what S04 had thrived in rebuilding itself from the rocky past seasons. If Dar plays that game, everyone is reduced to pawns for his grand puppetry, including Saul whose capture could have been also part of the plan. I may sound exaggerated in speculating Dar’s involvement but throughout his history in the show, Dar hasn’t been a transparent character I could count on. Despite backing up Saul in S03, Dar is cloaked in nefariousness, and heading the CIA’s shadow department makes him more opaque. Translated onscreen, F. Murray Abraham is beguiling in the one-sided persona and it will be thrilling to see him back with a meatier role for the finale. Gods and Gansa be good that Dar only began talking to terrorists after the U.S. embassy attack (it could have dissolved diplomatic relations but that doesn’t close the door for the black ops director to step in). But what is Dar Adal’s endgame? He doesn’t seem to poise himself as Lockhart’s successor (nor help Saul reclaim the directorship) but why did he take part of whatever the covert higher-ups are planning? And what did he get in exchange? This twist should better lead to somewhere reasonable. It makes me wonder how his protégé would react if Carrie breaks in the news. But judging on the E12 promo, Quinn’s all set for the mission Dar has in store for him.

 

And now we talk about Quinn, whose storyline this season impresses with a turnaround of renewed purpose from the resigned and traumatized assassin he was in the start of S04. It turns out that he many times wanted to leave the CIA, as divulged by his German embassy lady friend (with benefits) who helped him logistically for the mission. Quinn’s love-hate relationship with his job is already history (Copenhagen 2008 was just a journal entry). Even before, I firmly believed that Quinn wouldn’t easily quit the Agency but now I pity him since he’s more straddled with his occupation that has become his mere identity. Maybe E12 could be Quinn’s last mission as his finite chance for vengeance, unless he changes his mind again. What’s intriguing is the audience discovers this piece of Quinn’s puzzle along with Carrie who encounters the hit man for the first time. She may not be as informed as Astrid on Quinn’s behavior but Carrie knew him too well that he won’t detonate the bomb as long as she lays herself in the line. The Carrie-Quinn phone conversation during the riot reminded me of the Carrie-Brody courtyard scene in “Big Man in Tehran”. But while the latter recharged the chemistry between the two actors, the former talked through the most organic relationship in the show. Over the course of two and a half seasons, Carrie and Quinn’s intimacy leaped the professional boundary and comfortably nested on the personal strings between them. The writers are not in a hurry (which is a good thing) as they continue to explore what these two can bring out to each other; in E11’s case, a reversal of roles (see “A Red Wheelbarrow” for reference). This time, Carrie tries to rattle sense back to Quinn as she pleads him not to press the detonator. Quinn grudgingly obliges, the second time he does since he agreed in returning to Islamabad (shout-out to Rupert Friend for his restrained performance). This episode surprised me on how much Carrie emphasized (at least seven times) in bringing back Quinn. Could this be the emergence of unrecognized feelings for her colleague or acceptance of a battle she/they lost? The pronouns lost me on what Carrie wants to say but surely there is no I in ‘team’ (if you get what I mean)?

 

A part of me is still unconvinced that Carrie does love Quinn (please don’t persecute me yet) but there need not to be an evidence aside from what E11 presented. First, she tried to reach him after learning her father passed away. Second, even the grim news didn’t immediately eject her from Pakistan because she has to leave with Quinn. If “Geronition” saw Carrie needing Quinn’s help in clearing Brody’s name, “Krieg Nicht Lieb” stressed how much she needed him in her life. Maybe Carrie doesn’t realize those feelings yet but it’s affirming that she reciprocates Quinn’s affection and declare it through their own language. I wasn’t able to write a lengthy recap on “Shalwar Kameez” but the one thing that turned me off is how it forcibly drilled on Quinn’s feelings for Carrie that he himself has yet to acknowledge. E11 worked for Carrie as how E03 worked for Quinn but the difference is that Carrie is making professions of not leaving and losing Quinn to other people, not the other way around. Maybe Carrie felt responsible because she reinstalled him and has to beg him out of Pakistan. Nevertheless, her investment in Quinn’s safety and welfare comes inherent of their characters’ journey, unlike how some critics complained of Quinn sudden developed feelings for Carrie. Romance aside, E11 also served as a parallel for Carrie and Quinn as they reengaged themselves to people outside the ops room. Quinn wore his old clothes in Astrid’s apartment while Carrie donned her maternal instinct for her daughter.

 

In one of the show’s most heartwarming moments, Carrie’s brief video call with Frannie hints on how a loving mother she can be. In what was a nightmare nine episodes ago, Carrie is not afraid of her own child anymore. Losing her father would be instrumental on making her realize the significance of becoming a parent, especially in her situation. I guess I’m more open on the prospects of adding motherhood in Carrie’s résumé. Perhaps the endgame is for Carrie to be successful single parent (which feels too good to be true for this type of show) but the writers don’t shy from the challenges it confronts Carrie (like post-partum depression), making the maternal arc more humane and realistic as possible. Pakistan also provided an eye opener for Carrie in the kids department through the boy wearing the bomb vest in E09 and the young Aayan, although the flashbacks in E11 was unnecessary, ruining Carrie’s deathly impulse as she falls into Haqqani’s procession. I also learned not to trust her with a gun so the entire scene of her targeting Haqqani felt futile. Tossed with a touchy Aasar Khan, I thought Dar’s reveal could have been played differently. But the image of Dar seated at the back of Haqqani’s car captured what he had been all along – a behind-the-scene, furtive player holding the reins of the curtains in the season-long opera.

 

The S04 finale is going to be the heaviest in terms of the numerous loose ends it has to close to appease viewers during the 10-month long hiatus. Aside from the dangling career futures of Carrie, Saul and Quinn, E12 has to address the burgeoning Carrie and Quinn relationship (it has to, goddamn it). Not to mention Carrie’s more specific concerns regarding her daughter, Frank’s funeral and the return of her mother. How about a closure on the Boyds and the ISI? E11’s late reveal on Dar also complicates the season’s war zone. “Krieg Nicht Lieb” doesn’t tailgate the accelerating action of “13 Hours in Islamabad” but detours to a higher stake, like a slingshot aimed at the higher target. I’m growing more anxious in knowing what is long time coming. Homeland’s finales have a certain notoriety in delivering an emotional roller coaster and I’m eager to know where “Long Time Coming” will rank among “Marine One”, “The Star” and “The Choice” (in descending order). I’m ready to become undone next Sunday. Are you?

 

Next Episode: “Long Time Coming”

TV Review: Homeland S04E10 “13 Hours in Islamabad”

Bullets, blood and belts reigned on Homeland’s lashing return after its two-week hiatus, ricocheting the action inside and outside the embassy that defined the season’s epic battle and closes the grim hour through genuine character moments and a harrowing set-up of its season finale. Time matters the most in “13 Hours in Islamabad”; how the seconds dreadfully dissolve to lifeless bodies as Haissam Haqqani rushes the embassy commandos in turning over the treasured CIA intelligence; how the (10) minutes of inaction left the Americans mortally suffering from the bitter medicine as ISI agent Tasneem Qureshi insinuated; how it took the eponymous torrid hours for Peter Quinn to snap back to the assassin he vehemently hoarded to finish the mission; and how the days counted into Carrie Mathison as the sanctified voice of reason, becoming the anchor of her team at such sinking moment and perhaps the lighthouse for another who has gone rouge. Regardless of allegiances, “13 Hours in Islamabad” is a climatic collective effort that propelled everyone at Carrie’s orbit on their own circles and let their fates be decided. The blistering results were reminiscent of “The Choice” where each character has his/her defining moment moving forward but E10’s not yet the end despite how catastrophic the aftermath is. Definitely worthy the (agonizing) wait, “13 Hours in Islamabad” is the most alive that Homeland has been since S01’s adrenaline-fueled paranoia, not just by the suspenseful kinetic kickoff but also the emotional flurry of every character until the closing minutes. Leaving plenty of fatalities, it’s tough to be optimistic of what Carrie and Quinn could do to win the unkind war but my hope for S04 sustaining such exhilarating momentum in its last two episodes is ever alive and kicking.

 

Straight from the horrendous headline, Homeland staged its fictional version of the 2012 Benghazi attack. U.S. Ambassador Martha Boyd’s life was spared (unlike her actual counterpart) but the 36 American lives lost included Deputy Station Chief John Redmond and young CIA agent Fara Sherazi. Introduced as the bitter and inebriated supposed-to-be successor, Redmond proved to be reliable, as punctuated by his memorable one-liners (“I’m a spy, I know shit.” in delivering Dennis and “I’m with you.” at Carrie during the prisoner exchange). I also like his honesty to her back at the ops room in “From A to B and Back Again”. Meanwhile, Fara just joined the foreign stint; her willingness to learn that tests her idealism was a refreshing perspective from the callousness around her. But her brief shelf life didn’t live up to her character’s potential (Fara’s plate is an opportunity to address a new spin to the typical Muslim roles of the genre). In trying to reason out her death, maybe the catch in the shocking twist is that Fara wasn’t supposed to be there and her being a Muslim who has ties with the CIA irked Haqqani. The grisly siege is destined to produce victims of war out of Fara, John, and the others — the necessary damages which also echoed Aayan’s anticipated but equally devastating death. A part of me retorts that the writers don’t want to develop another female character aside from Carrie. But in the end, the embassy attack is a glaring evidence that Homeland doesn’t balk on taking risks (no one is safe except for the show’s current trifecta) and the war on terror will always be accompanied of irreversible casualties.

 

Martha also stood out in the episode by juggling her responsibilities as the steely diplomat and the wretched wife. No matter how flawed her relationship is to CIA Director Andrew Lockhart and Dennis, together they were symbiotic in fleshing out their characters. I enjoyed watching Martha and Lockhart wrestle their clashing political, diplomatic, and military views which are more reflective of real bureaucratic struggles than the cartoonish charade of warring CIA directors in S03. On the other hand, Homeland produced one of its most confusing and disturbing scenes as Martha consented on Dennis’ final attempt to do the right thing for her. (At first I was bewildered) but discovering his cowardice made Dennis more unbearable and disgusting as painted by Martha’s signature sneer. Death is too merciful for Dennis; he deserved whatever treatment he’ll be indicted back in the U.S. As for Martha and the salvaged Saul Berenson, I have no idea how they’ll thrive when they return, but that’s not to say E10’s conclusion is finite for them. The Carrie-Saul dynamic was rekindled and so much potent this season while there’s more beyond the cigarette talks Carrie and Martha share. Contrast to the scorning public’s impression that she’s a sociopath, Carrie is most involved with the people around her in S04. Her relationships with colleagues, assets, and Pakistani equals were the driving force of the story; directly or not, she moves everyone from their one-dimensional inertia. That’s also to mention the rapport she has built with them, particularly Lockhart whom Carrie comforted after swallowing his own dose of culpability by surrendering the CIA assets list in exchange of Fara’s life. It makes me think of what would Carrie have done if she was in Lockhart’s position (since she’s the only one capable of making pragmatic decisions during highly stressful situations) but like her drone strike order in E06, it was a tough call. The domino effect of fallibility will just prolong their unstable footing in Islamabad, thus the President’s order of retraction from Pakistan. But Carrie can’t go home just yet. Because Quinn.

 

S04 can be dissected on the medium-term conflicts other than Carrie’s, whose arc is the season’s backbone. The first three episodes opened a bigger role for Quinn experiencing PTSD and tried to release himself from the agency, only to be brought back in by Carrie. E04-E06 created an asset out of Aayan whose arc was concluded by a shot in the head. E07-E09 effectively integrated a captive Saul back to the heart of the story. Quinn was sidelined in the middle episodes but for the last quarter, the wheel stirs back to him as he attempts to single-handedly kill Haqqani. Rupert Friend becomes the reliable action man in E10 but aside from showing off his assassin moves, he becomes reinvested to the mission. Haqqani stabbing Fara was Quinn’s tipping point (much like Aayan’s death to Carrie’s) and he was unstoppable, being swift in entrapping Taliban-infested ISI guards. The writers struck again their penchant for role reversal; Quinn tries to make sense out of Carrie’s auto-piloted drone royalty in the first two episodes while Carrie stays behind to return Quinn who’s more dangerously charged as the military man he was in the final two episodes. As foreshadowed by his speech in “About a Boy”, Quinn’s patriotic crusade will just earn him more enemies in the likes of the ISI (the hunt headed by Aasar Khan). How deep Quinn will dig himself into the rabbit hole and how he’ll be able to excavate himself are the burning questions in “Krieg Nicht Lieb” (and possibly E12). The similarity of Carrie and Brody’s conversation in “Goodnight” and Carrie and Quinn’s in “13 Hours in Islamabad” is chilling, but the difference is that Quinn doesn’t need to be saved (and if he does, he wouldn’t want it to be Carrie). I’m glad that the show’s finally unveiling the pre-S02 of Quinn and E10 was just a glimpse of it. Being the inured individual performer he was, Quinn probably has his tools and methods planned out, maybe including his own extraction plan. It would be interesting how Carrie would react to this unleashed version of Quinn and how her approach would be if she joins him, if not their usual ‘fighting fire with fire’ dalliance.

 

Next week’s penultimate episode cages Carrie and Quinn in the most perilous predicament together. Will Quinn succeed in taking down Haqqani? Will Carrie return to the U.S. alone? Perhaps E11 would follow closely the structure of “Big Man in Tehran”, with stakes soaring on its volatile characters. Homeland holds an impressive streak of riveting episodes in its second half. The first 20 minutes of “13 Hours in Islamabad” matches the taut cinematic level while the other half embraces the ensemble in their last ditch for preservation. A gripping fusion of tremendous pay-offs and delirious set-up, E10 was an excellent showcase of action, suspense, and drama that only Homeland best delivers. Here’s to hoping that “Krieg Nicht Lieb” would be kind to whatever heart-stopping scenes it has in store. But I’m not complaining.

 

Next Episode: “Krieg Nicht Lieb”

TV Review: Homeland S04E06 “From A to B and Back Again”

What happens in the situation room, stays in the situation room. But for us, it was one-heck of a Homeland entertainment.

 

The first half of Homeland’s tensely unraveling fourth season was concluded by its most suspenseful and breathless episode. It’s the second straight week that the remnants of Brody’s ill-fated arch were exhumed (sorry for the pun). But while “About a Boy” undressed Carrie’s emotional scars, “From A to B and Back Again” drilled Carrie’s excruciating chest box that the next episode (formidably entitled “Redux”) is an eruption upsettingly due. While Homeland doesn’t retreat on flashbacks to anchor its dramatic gravitas, Aayan ambling the same tight rope Brody trudged in S03 shoved Carrie to her breaking point. The similarity of their situation and how it dissolves to the distressing aftermath of Carrie’s failed operation was the risk the show purposefully took. Killing a character that the viewers had grown sympathy and proceeding with a “Quinn-tervention” rather than wiping the target was a gamble to start the season’s second half next week. But for anything else to be argued (which I’ll discuss later), “From A to B and Back Again” is a stupefying showcase of Homeland’s assets: the suspense of merely watching an operation spin out of control; the shock despite the hint of foreshadowing; and the superb performances that fleshes the strata of its characters.

 

Before delving to the core of S04E06, director Lesli Linka Glatter and writer Chip Johannessen deserve a shout-out for an exhilarating midseason episode. Glatter also directed “The Drone Queen” whose final minutes was intensely mortifying but she topped it in “From A to B and Back Again” as the simultaneous scenes in the situation room, the Pakistani countryside and the binding drone visual climaxed the serial espionage the show best delivers. Television has its own way of spoon-feeding what viewers must feel but for Homeland, it allows us to be critical of the thematic consequences and our own emotions from the mere viewing of the situation in the situation room. We’d seen Carrie Mathison and company in their surveillance at home/office/rented room, on the ground, and their bird’s eye view of a high-risk operation. From privacy issues to the conundrum of drone strikes over collateral damage, Homeland cunningly disengages a rhetoric of burning questions arising from yet another fractious situation. One can only gape and ruminate on the possibilities of the helpless fall-out if Carrie, Saul and Quinn switched places. Devastating as it was, “From A to B and Back Again” is a satisfying midseason conclusion that ushers a darker second half.

 

Aayan Ibrahim’s days are numbered from the moment he was captured by Carrie’s drone… and she watches remotely when his terrorist uncle killed him. He was the living reminder of the season’s central theme on the amorality of drone strikes and with him dead, the rueful juxtaposition of collateral damages became starker. Aayan’s final days were a painful foreshadowing (the prayer, phone call, ride to the other side), considering that his final moments closely resembled that of Brody’s in “Good Night”. All the same, Aayan’s eventual demise was gut-wrenching. Unlike Brody who had peacefully accepted his fate, Aayan was completely naïve of his imminent destination. The duplicitous betrayal by a family relative and a woman whom he just confessed his ill-born love was just shattering for a young man who had only been used as bait by both parties. An unconsciously victim, Aayan is just a boy after all – restless yet desperate, wary yet trusting. After orchestrating an ambush at the safe house (to my surprise), Carrie successfully prodded Aayan to contact and meet Haissam Haqqani but the terrorist is a step ahead by revealing a distraught Saul Berenson. Bidding his gratefulness to his nephew, Haqqani rewarded Aayan a headshot and as Carrie wrestles in control of an opportune drone strike, Peter Quinn galvanizes to shake her senses. “It’s Saul down there. Saul…” he pleads against her rigid willingness to sacrifice her mentor for the mission. That’s how the show segues from one fallen collateral damage to an endangered another.

 

It’s unclear how Haqqani decided to take Saul with him when he met Aayan. Could it be that ISI agent Tasneem Qureshi quickly relayed Dennis Boyd’s gathered evidence from the safe house? If so, the ISI is slyer than it appears — protecting a terrorist, staging an ambush of a CIA Station Chief and now, kidnapping an ex-CIA director. Or it could be that only Tasneem’s allegiances are in question. (SPECULATIVE) Recall that she confirmed to ISI General Aasar Khan in “About a Boy” that Saul was Carrie’s mentor. How would Haqqani discover that and use the same word to Aayan? Seeing Haqqani’s decoys slipped away onscreen is a frustrating fall-out that Carrie’s (first physical demonstration) venting of her anger was an understatement. But she contains herself in the last minutes, all the more alerting a tormenting manic episode that she has not yet unleashed for more than six months.

 

But the burning questions remain. Would Saul want Carrie to proceed with the drone strike, knowing that it will be the end of him? If they trade places, would Saul order the command knowing Carrie’s in danger? If Quinn had not stopped Carrie, will she still be hailed as The Drone Queen because of the successful mission or rebuffed on letting an American citizen, more notably an ex-CIA official, killed under her watch? Even before Saul appeared, Carrie was determined to strike despite Aayan’s presence. Will the reception of the drone outcome change if an innocent young Pakistani with familial ties to a terrorist or Saul was the price to pay? Homeland continues to knead its viewers as some found a new angle of condemning Carrie’s impetus on her call. I’d argue that taking the shot was the right operative move though the extent of Carrie’s descent to the rabbit hole could ultimately make her a monster that Vice President Walden and Abu Nazir were, regardless of who becomes the collateral. (But maybe that’s also the same reason why Quinn intervened, to prevent Carrie from doing to Saul what Haqqani did to his own nephew.) Losing Saul on the process would also reprieve him of the inquiry and/or torture that the Taliban has in store for him. Yet there’s no reason for killing off his character. Like Quinn opined, the emotional and psychological contentions crawl out. How could Carrie let her mentor-father figure be killed along with the terrorists? Had she not thought of the guilt and the emptiness that happens after? It’s hard to imagine the consequences of Carrie and Quinn’s (who also has his share of indecisions this episode) choices and viewers are left to deliberate the ending. I’d rather rationalize the scene and see how it plays in the season’s second half.

 

The end of S04E06 sees the pendulum of collateral damage swing from Aayan to Saul. To be honest, I am conflicted on Saul’s story line this season. He was sidelined by Carrie who wants to act independently from him; he unsuspectingly walks into a trap by the ISI; and the remaining season seems to focus on his extraction plan. There are two sides in looking at Saul’s situation. First is its glaring political magnitude that will cause friction on the relationship between the CIA and ISI, hand-in-hand with their national governments. How the ex-CIA director landed to one of the world’s top terrorist group and to make matters worse, coordinated by the ISI is a murky territory that the CIA has to clear up. Second, that person is Saul and it felt melodramatic that the show’s way of keeping him integrated in the story is by making him hostage. A veteran of Middle Eastern affairs, Saul could still keep his cool while exchanging wise words with terrorists, just like his insightful table conversations in “Iron in the Fire” but I’m certainly not looking forward to see him be tortured. On the other hand, I’d like to think of Saul’s captivity as an opportunity to explore not just his importance to the overall story but his sole importance to Carrie. I’m not quite sure that S04E06 has wholly portrayed Carrie processing the double whammy of Aayan’s death and Saul’s kidnapping because her rage in the last minute was the effect of her helplessness in the failed operation. It would be a sentimental prospect to revisit their relationship that has suffered a fissure last season. How Carrie will act to save Saul could lead to repairing their relationship but it all boils down on to her realization of Saul’s significance in her life. Though Aayan’s death did have an effect on her, I don’t think it’s enough for Carrie to bring herself back to the ground. Maybe Saul would complete the catalyst she needs in order to confront herself. Aayan’s chapter in Carrie’s life has expired and it’s time to discover how Saul fits into the bigger picture.

 

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I do have one concern which I’ll leave to discuss on the next episode recap in order to validate my thoughts but overall, “From A to B and Back Again” is the reboot’s best episode to date. One of the show’s most emotional deaths, Aayan would not be as affecting if it weren’t for Suraj Sharma. That was the veritable end of the road for his character and a proper send-off as well. Don’t get too attached to a guest character but for now, John Redmond is slowly growing in me. I hope Fara redeems herself after Carrie verbally flayed her. Pity that she’s relegated to containing hefty bags for the service of her own country. As for Quinn, he’s not actually doing a good job of caring for Carrie and criticizing her actions. He deserves a certain kick on next week’s episode. The brilliance of Claire Danes is overwhelming; every episode she dazzles like a diamond with the many rough edges of an allotrope.

 

Until next time. Happy ‘duck’ hunting.

 

NEXT EPISODE: “Redux”

TV Review: Homeland S04E05 “About a Boy”

There’s a hidden gem of having to re-watch this new season of Homeland, which I haven’t done for its past three seasons. Partly because it was an era I don’t want to revisit (particularly the second half of S02 and the whole S03) chronicling Carrie in her wrenching crusade to keep the love of her life alive, only to thrust him to the front line for the greater good. For sure, the tragedy of Carrie’s character is TV’s least enjoyable entertainment but who would deprive sympathy from her? That, and the fascinating ways her oscillating familiarity still manages to shock, keeps me hooked. Specifically for this episode, a second watch granted an insightful precedent to what looks like a fierce follow-up. Contrary to its title, last night’s episode is still about Carrie, with three scenes of her as the subject of conversation and intelligence gathering. But About a Boy is not just about her, nor the eponymous Aayan; but the emergence of new complications magnifying the stakes of its next episodes.

 

Transpiring the one-day turn of furtive events, About a Boy seemed to kindle S04’s frustrating, slow-burner feel. But looking closely at the calendar, the past five episodes happened swiftly in less than two weeks, with the characters already ripe of their respective high-stakes drama. The most threatening run-in is Saul’s kidnapping at the airport, orchestrated by ISI agent Tasneem Qureshi. Echoing ISI Colonel Aasar Khan from “Iron in the Fire”, it’s neither Saul as Carrie’s mentor nor Saul the private citizen that would simmer the ongoing geo-political spy game. Abducting the former CIA director en route to the mountainous Taliban territory should raise the American alarm, thus prompting its incumbent to land in Pakistan. Triggered by Sandy Bachman’s death, the convoluted domino effect further snarls the CIA and ISI, although the Pakistani intelligence has the upper-hand this week. Desperate to return in the game, Saul unsuspectingly took the obvious bait. Judging S04E06’s promo, Carrie possibly knowing Saul as hostage will flare up the situation room. There’s a comparison on her ill-conceived capture by Abu Nazir in “Two Hats” but Saul’s situation (and how it lead to that) is more believable than the dissenting S02 scheme.

 

More of Carrie’s emotional cracks surface the day after her tryst with Aayan as she lies her way to get his sympathy, with only two more days before her cover blows. The happenings in the safe house looked like homage to “The Weekend” but with the “Redux” episode still coming up, it convinced me that Carrie and Aayan won’t be spending S04E07 together. Carrie’s half-truths about her baby’s father successfully got Aayan’s attention but to see Carrie use the personal strife she has yet to confront is another miserable occasion of how much she sacrifices herself for the greater good. Carrie’s moments of genuine emotions is questioned than believed by others, and her mid-coital breakdown is categorized as a manipulative ploy along with the blurted ballad, “I f***ing love you, Quinn. You know that, don’t you?” Carrie’s justification of her controversial means becomes Quinn’s matchstick of searing into her work ethics. Their arm-braced, heated conversation materializes the ‘push-and-pull’ dynamic Rupert Friend has twice commented. Clearly Quinn is reacting not out of jealousy but as an agitated subordinate who lost track of their target and a non-practitioner of the ‘Mathison Method’. But instead of retorting “Mind you own f***ing business”, Carrie tersely explains herself and the scene ends with a classic Carrie-Quinn OC bout that only keeps the tension between them burning.

 

Speaking of business, grumpy Quinn is paired up with Fara as they check out Haissam Haqqani’s hiding place. Quinn, ever the cheerer (remember “I’m not. You’re good.”), keeps Fara focused despite her qualms and fills her in on the spy handbook. There’s a subtle moment when Fara asks Quinn on his acquaintance with Carrie and he swallows his curt replies; the silence in between were more telling. But for a second episode in a row, Fara shows how far she’s gone from the reluctant analyst in S03. Their attempt to track the cleric’s car failed (Quinn will be more infuriated to know who’s gagged in the compartment) but in Fara, patience to a novice spy is a virtue. Curious, brave and learning, she’s fast turning into the next female spy to root for. Although Fara’s still in the middle of the ‘Mathison Method’ crash course, it’s enlivening to see her stand up for herself, especially against her teacher (a face-off I’m very much looking forward to).

 

Back in the embassy, Dennis becomes Martha’s unknowingly biggest problem as he digs dirt on Carrie’s apartment (on ISI’s orders), only to see a picture with her daughter and her supply of medicine (how the wily Tasneem will use them against Carrie, we don’t know). The Boyds are becoming the Berensons 2.0 and I do hope that Martha could finally show how fierce she is as a woman in power (having been introduced as Carrie’s equally tough counterpart) and I can’t wait to see her find out the more unforgivable crime her husband has committed.

 

Just two weeks of operations in its five episodes, Homeland takes calculated strides to unwind its season-long mystery caught between international espionage and the personal lives of its characters. About a Boy felt like a breather before the intense first-half season capper but in some ways, it wasn’t. Saul’s kidnapping will add fuel to the fire and Carrie’s vulnerability is becoming more evident… And who said the new season is a slow-burner?

 

NEXT EPISODE: “From A to B and Back Again”

Previously… on Homeland (S04E01-E03)

Nearly three weeks since its Season 4 premiere, it really felt good to be back home. Showtime’s critically acclaimed spy drama HOMELAND has never felt so reinvigorated as compared to its past two seasons. Dropping its Brody baggage (for now), the new season engrosses itself not just to a single portrait of a terrorist but to a bigger canvas of the war on terror: the grayness of collateral damage and red herrings on international relations. But for the show’s protagonist, the war on terror will always be personal. Four seasons (and counting), the show would not be as compelling as it is if not for the mercury that is Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). With a new mission and untapped dynamic(s) ready to engage, HOMELAND continues to ripple layers on Carrie’s prodigious yet vulnerable character, while it remains relevant on the conversation of terrorism, feminism, and the ugliness of reality.

 

Episode One: THE DRONE QUEEN

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Ending with a horrifying aftertaste of Sandy Bachman’s (Corey Stoll) murder, THE DRONE QUEEN is an intense first-hour that sets up the season-long conflict on the professional and political consequences of ‘checking names of the kill list’. More foreign than the new ground operations is the Kabul CIA Station chief Carrie’s rigidity and relentlessness, dejecting herself from motherhood and remorse that were conceived in Season Three. Now employed in the private sector, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) offers unsolicited remarks on war in front of his company’s potential contractors: the U.S. Department of Defense while Islamabad-based Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) reunites with Carrie, only to be guilt-driven and tormented by Sandy’s shocking demise. Brought to the core of the drone strike’s collateral damage is the new character of Aayan Ibrahim (Suraj Sharma). THE DRONE QUEEN follows the beguiling “Pilot” in HOMELAND’s adrenaline-pumped season premiere. Leaving viewers gripping on the edge of their seats, THE DRONE QUEEN holds a renewed promise of intrigue as it successfully steps out from the shadows of its former lead character and finally becomes the show that it should have been.

 

Episode Two: TRYLON AND PERISPHERE

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Supplementing the action-packed heights of “The Drone Queen”, TRYLON AND PERISPHERE is an emotional whirlpool that follows Carrie and Quinn’s return to the U.S. after the murder of the Islamabad CIA Station Chief. Forced to trespass her duty as a mother, Carrie hatched her imminent return overseas by blackmailing CIA Director Andrew Lockhart (Tracy Letts) on treason (because of Sandy’s possible exchange of intelligence). Meanwhile, Quinn tries to drown the grave reemergence of his PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) through whiskey and turned his mundane hotel room into a love nest. Carrie and Quinn’s contrasting reactions to Sandy’s death are nuanced and emphatic; and the parallels between them grew starker in Carrie’s suspenseful bath tub scene with her daughter and Quinn’s havoc at the diner. Between accountability on her misguided mission and responsibility to her daughter, Carrie chose the former while Quinn refuses to return just yet. As Carrie flies back to Pakistan as the new Islamabad Station Chief, she stares at the window (a scene similar to her car ride at the beginning of “The Drone Queen”) but she’s not as hardened as she was with her shaky “I’m fine”. Yet she suppresses it harder.

 

Episode Three: SHALWAR KAMEEZ

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HOMELAND hasn’t halted yet the tango of parallels between Carrie and Quinn as their story-lines in SHALWAR KAMEEZ becomes the yin and yang of each other. Carrie, back in Pakistan, is highly efficient in her best element: successfully convincing Martha Boyd (Laila Robins), the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan, to lift the embassy lock down; winning the ram against John Redmond (Michael O’Keefe), the Islamabad Deputy Station Chief; setting up a second station with Fara Sherazi (Nazanin Boniadi) and Max (Maury Sterling); and most importantly, getting in contact with Aayan (a charged scene that titillated Carrie’s state of play). Back in the U.S., Quinn copes through his binge-drinking and obsessive viewing of the uploaded video on Sandy’s murder after the thrice occasions of heckling the ‘Carrie card’ against him. But a crucial evidence pulls him back to Carrie and despite his finite It’s not about you in “Trylon and Perisphere”, Quinn is drawn back to her team. His final shot after the phone call perfectly captured his internal dilemma that he can’t simply escape.

Too blunt in pressuring its character, SHALWAR KAMEEZ could have downplayed in confronting Quinn about his feelings for Carrie. But contrast to reviewers who called the episode as a foundation on a possible romantic relationship, it worked for me as Quinn’s introspection in his clash of interest between preserving his humanity and helping the hardest person to say no to (the mutually exclusivity between the two is not yet proven but the succeeding episodes would). A man of few words and many of action, Quinn is made more intriguing by the choices he made (as provoked by the CIA interviewer, he chose Carrie; while in “The Choice” he told David Estes that he didn’t kill Brody because of her). But the question of whether Quinn is in love or bears genuine affection towards her as a respected co-worker still hangs and how altogether it will affect his return to Pakistan further fleshes out Quinn as one of the important individuals in Carrie’s life. However, I do hope Quinn will not just be a romantic buffer for Carrie because regardless of his true feelings, he is an interesting character: his transformation from a black-and-white assassin to a gray moral compass was cultivated well; and that will surely make HOMELAND more humane not just in Carrie’s perspective.

 

NEXT EPISODE: the spy craft sizzles on “IRON IN THE FIRE”