The CIA prepares for the prisoner exchange that will free Saul Berenson, but Carrie Mathison suspects that there's something they don't know.

By Kat Rosenfield
Updated May 28, 2015 at 04:48 PM EDT
Showtime

Homeland

S4 E9
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Although last week’s post-show teaser irritatingly gave away the way this week’s Homeland would end, anyone who’s been watching this season had to know that it would eventually come to this, “this” being the final few minutes of this week’s episode. It was a moment foreshadowed so heavily that it’s barely even a spoiler to talk about it (although I won’t… yet.)

And yet, despite all that—and even despite the ominous reminder, right in the title, that there was something else going on—the drama unfolding in the forefront was so intense, and so riveting, that the ending still managed to be a surprise.

After last week’s attempt to extract Saul Berenson ended with his being horrifically recaptured, we open with a lineup: the terrorist prisoners who will be handed over by the U.S. in exchange for Saul’s freedom. The camera pans over these men as an agent reads off their names and their crimes, just in case anyone needed a reminder that these are bad, bad dudes. It’s no wonder that everyone involved in this transaction, from Quinn to Carrie to the soldiers standing guard, look like they’re sucking on lemons.

Although Carrie is the woman in charge of exchanging Haqqani’s men for Saul, she also has another concern: Haqqani faked his own death back in this season’s very first episode, for reasons they still haven’t been able to uncover. There must be a plan, something Haqqani set in motion long before Saul even set foot in Pakistan. What is it?

Carrie doesn’t know, but Dennis Boyd might. After all, he’s the guy who got into bed with the ISI after Sandy Bachman’s death, and the one Aasar Kahn deftly outed as the embassy’s mole last week. Unfortunately, their attempts to make Boyd talk aren’t working, although they are deeply satisfying to watch. Carrie traps him in an interrogation room and confronts him with the evidence of his crimes—as some of us had guessed, the pills he left in her apartment were laced with a potent hallucinogen—and when Boyd tries to use his status as the ambassador’s spouse to escape Carrie’s clutches, she snarls, “You are a traitor, and I am the f–king CIA.” She even threatens to have Boyd disappeared, removed to a black site and interrogated (raise your hand if you were embarrassingly excited at the idea of seeing Dennis Boyd reduced to a quivering, sniveling pile of human gelatin on the floor of a shipping container somewhere), but it’s not to be. Instead, Ambassador Martha Boyd cruises into the room, rescues her husband, and tells Carrie that her career as a government agent is over. Can the ambassador possibly be this oblivious to what a treasonous little rat she’s married to?

Answer: No. No, she cannot. Actually, it’s all a bluff, in the hopes that Boyd will be trapped by wifely concern where he wouldn’t break under CIA pressure. When Martha Boyd goes back downstairs to report that she couldn’t draw him out, either, it’s with the tiniest bit of newly-discovered grudging respect for her husband: “Part of me is impressed he didn’t fall for it,” she says.

But she has him thrown into a cell inside the embassy, anyway.

NEXT: We trade five terrorists for a live Saul.

Meanwhile, it’s nearly time for the big moment: Operation Get Saul Berenson Back. While Carrie fields a last-minute call from Mira, Saul’s wife, who begs her not to let Saul die in the name of national security, Saul is being cleaned up for yet another appearance on The Haqqani Show. This time, he sits mutely in front of the camera while Haqqani stands beside him and announces that thanks to Saul, Haqqani’s terrorist pals will soon be out of their shackles and back in action. But as Haqqani yammers, Saul makes eye contact with the one seemingly sympathetic party in the room: a little boy sitting on the floor, just behind the camera. And later, when the child begins whimpering in his sleep, Saul leans forward and whispers something in the boy’s native language that seems to soothe and quiet him.

Whatever he said (does anyone know?), it must have been pretty nice, because Saul wakes up to the little boy bringing him tea. The boy offers; Saul sips; and the whole moment is downright adorable, which makes it that much more horrifying when Saul gets into the van for the prisoner exchange and finds himself next to his new young friend—only this time, the kid is strapped into a suicide vest.

With Saul en route and the prisoners assembled, it’s time to make the trade. Carrie is in charge on the American side, with Tasneem of the ISI coordinating for the Pakistanis. And while Carrie still seemingly hasn’t caught on to the fact that Tasneem is a bad guy, she does suspect from the get-go that something isn’t right. First, she makes Quinn stay behind in the ops room to monitor the exchange from above; next, she uses a nice bit of spycraft to have an illicit phone conversation with Aasar Khan behind both their teams’ backs, literally.

Now that we know Khan isn’t evil, it’s a pleasure to watch these two working together, with tentative trust on both sides. And when Khan admits that he was shut out of the planning process for the prisoner exchange, the sense of foreboding in this scene stops humming below the surface and reaches a fever pitch. It’s so tense that when the van holding Saul appears, and a bird suddenly swoops down to land in front of it, I was sure that the bird was going to turn out to be some kind of super-sneaky CIA drone, or a homing pigeon with a bomb strapped to its back, or maybe even Quinn wearing a very effective disguise.

Instead, this is what happens: As both sides watch through binoculars, a struggling Saul is clubbed on the head and dragged out of the van. Next to him is the little boy wearing the suicide vest. Facing them, fifty yards away, are the prisoners whose release Haqqani demanded. And as they begin to walk forward, putting the exchange in motion, Saul does exactly what he said he was going to do: He refuses to take part. He sits on the tarmac. He won’t move. And when the man holding the vest’s detonator threatens to push the button and kill them all, Saul responds by calling his bluff: “Blow him to f—ing hell!”

NEXT: Despite Saul’s demands, nobody blows a 10-year-old child to f–king hell.

There’s nothing left for Carrie to do but walk right into the middle of it. Crouching by Saul’s side, she appeals to the man she knows he is—to the man we know he is, the man who sat shackled and bound, surrounded by enemies, and whispered words of comfort to a whimpering child in the dark. She points to the boy who Saul says he’s ready to see sacrificed. She tells Saul he sounds exactly like the terrorists they’ve spent their lives trying to stop.

“This is not who we are,” she says. “This is not who you are.”

And this is everything. This is it: the question that has plagued Homeland‘s characters all season long. Who are we? What separates us from the people we’re hunting? What lines do we leave un-crossed so that we can believe, as we push our buttons and drop our bombs and watch our enemies vanish in a cloud of dust, that ours is the moral high ground? And when there is no difference, when our vision of ourselves as heroes crumbles, what then?

We’ve seen this question answered in previous episodes. We’ve seen Quinn reach the limits of his own cold-bloodedness, and finally say, “Enough.” We’ve seen Fara torn between pride in her work and the reality of its results. We’ve seen Lockhart whisper, “They hate us,” as the wooly fantasy of being one of the good guys slips from his eyes completely.

And in this moment, we see Carrie wrap her arms around Saul, press her cheek to his, and tell him she wants to go home.

And what happens? Nothing. Not a single thing. She and Saul walk together to safety. The prisoners are unlocked. The little boy in the shrapnel vest stays in one piece. The CIA convoy departs for the embassy. And Saul, with his glasses restored to their perch atop the bridge of his nose, reaches for a cell phone that has his wife on the other end.

But.

BUT.

This episode of Homeland was titled “There’s Something Else Going On,” a reminder right off the bat that whatever was happening onscreen this week, there was something far more nefarious happening off it. Not to mention that on a show about international espionage, you don’t just have an underground secret tunnel inside an embassy, let alone mention it multiple times, without it eventually serving as a conduit for some invading bad guys. And yet, somewhere between the opening credits and this moment, Homeland did to its viewers exactly what its villains did to the CIA: Distracted us. Engaged us. Kept our eyes and attention fixed on the drama playing out right in front of us, even though we’d been explicitly warned from the first moment that the real story was somewhere hidden from view.

I, for one, screamed out loud when the first car exploded.

A plume of smoke rises toward the sky as everyone in the ops room scrambles to understand what happened, and I don’t often identify with Lockhart as a character, but I believe he spoke for all of us when he yelled, “What the f–k? What the f–king f–k?” And with the convoy in a smoking wreck only two blocks away from the embassy, he doesn’t waste time: He deploys the Marines to the blast site. He deploys all the Marines to the blast site.

That sound you hear is the clockwork of Hassam Haqqani’s plan, clicking into place.

Because Dennis Boyd, for whom a torturous CIA interrogation is officially too good a fate, told Tasneem about the tunnel underneath the embassy. And though he seems to have finally grasped that he’s made a grave, grave error in judgment, his confession comes too late.

The last thing we see before the credits roll is Haqqani, lit by the fluorescent lights of the tunnel, striding purposefully toward his unguarded prey.

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Homeland

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