[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for the “Homeland” series finale — Season 8, Episode 12, “Prisoners of War” — including the ending.]
Carrie Mathison, a spy to the end. After eight years spent within a hair on Saul’s beard of being fired, getting killed, or leaving the CIA behind once and for all, the “Homeland” finale sees Claire Danes’ patriotic-at-all-costs intelligence officer become the very thing she first set out to expose: a double agent. Given the episode title “Prisoners of War” (a nod to Gideon Raff’s Israeli series on which “Homeland” was based) and framed by Nicolas Brody’s confessional video, when Damian Lewis restates his character’s oath to defend America from threats foreign and domestic, “Homeland” constructed its ending (and full final season) around comparing Carrie to the recovered P.O.W. who would become the father of her child.
After seven months under Russian interrogation, had she, like Brody, been turned? No. But after seven years of seeing the world with Brody, through him, and after him, Carrie stopped believing in the system, in her government, to do what’s right. Season 8 saw Carrie relying on the Russians for help, and her trust was repeatedly rewarded. Meanwhile, the ill-equipped and idiotic American president (sound familiar?) kept putting her and everyone else in harm’s way, usually at the behest of his right-wing, right-hand man, John Zabel (Hugh Dancy, aka Mr. Claire Danes). Saul (Mandy Patinkin) kept trying to work through proper channels, negotiating for peace in Washington and the Middle East, but any hope of success went down with the president’s helicopter oh so many episodes ago.
All of this set Carrie and Saul on a collision course that paid off in a surprising, effective, and thought-provoking ending; one that let its two stars go head-to-head without tearing them apart or betraying their core values. “Homeland” drew enough parallels to today’s state of affairs and its original post-9/11 worldview without betraying its character-first ethos and long-view on historical crises. Trusting Danes and Patinkin, two fierce, commanding Emmy winners, to carry an episode is a good start, but the finale also relied on what director Lesli Linka Glatter said is “quintessential ‘Homeland’ scene”: pitting two people with completely opposing views, who are both right, against each other.
Only instead of it being one scene, “Homeland” raised the stakes over a full episode — with a little help from “The Good Place” (OK, OK, and Philippa Foot). Carrie, desperate to avert nuclear war in the Middle East, argues to break the vows that have dictated CIA procedure for decades: She wants to give up an asset. Saul, an old school spy and righteous protecter, refuses to give up his Russian agent. “No one person is worth the lives of tens of thousands — hundreds of thousands!” Carrie pleads with Saul. “She is,” Saul says in return. They’ve both heard this argument before, and they both know where they stand. Carrie and Saul are on opposite ends of The Trolley Problem. Carrie argues that killing one person they know is worth saving the lives of many they don’t; Saul argues he can’t live with killing the one person he swore to protect, and believes it’s better to let what happens happen. (Albeit with the caveat that Saul will try every other way he can to stop the trolley before it hits those other people.)
Erica Parise / Showtime
“Prisoners of War” sees each of them dig in their heels. Saul refuses to give up his asset’s name, even when death is a needle prick away. Carrie doesn’t actually kill him, but she uses his sister to get what she needs anyway, obtaining the agent’s name (Anna), selling it to the Russians in exchange for public confirmation the president’s death was an accident, and forcing the trigger-happy White House to stand down from its retaliatory plans. (That she also saved herself from facing trial for the president’s assassination goes unmentioned, since Carrie’s unsanctioned team-up with the Russians have already made it impossible for her to ever return home.)
Therein lies the tragedy and the hope of “Homeland’s” final coda. With the world saved, the finale flashes ahead two years for its last 10 minutes. Carrie is living in Moscow with Yevgeny Gromov (Costa Ronin), the Russian spy who helped her stop a war. She’s still working in intelligence, based on the post-it notes and magazine articles plastering her office, but she doesn’t have her daughter. Frannie remains in the United States, where her mother can’t go, and Carrie seems to have made her peace with the exchange. She took a photo with her when she was last in America, knowing she’d never be able to come back, and it sits in the middle of her desk. After years of debate over whether Carrie could have a substantial personal life, the finale posits she can’t. Frannie is gone. In many ways, she was the one person Carrie gave up to save those many strangers, just as Carrie was the one person Saul refused to let go.
As a retired, post-heart attack Saul opens his unexpected package to reveal a Carrie’s upcoming book — “Tyranny of Secrets: Why I Had to Betray My Country,” which is just wow, what a title — he pulls a message out of the binding. It’s from Carrie. She’s got intel that can bring down the new Russian defense system, and she’s going to tell him how soon. Presumably, that’s the information she gets while taking a bathroom break during a jazz concert with Yevgeny. (Carrie does love her jazz.) She’s not done. She’s not out of the life. She’s traded spots with Saul’s Russian mole, sacrificing her life in America to be a double agent in Russia and repaying her debt to Anna in the process. And that’s how she’ll live out the rest of her days: slipping state secrets to Saul, in the hopes of preventing any more international incidents.
Erica Parise / Showtime
For a moment, it could feel like “Homeland” is having its cake and eating it, too. Carrie faced her most difficult decision ever (well, other than that time she actually tried to kill Saul), and lost what she was always willing to sacrifice: her life. Saul held his ground and followed his principles, losing both of his most significant working relationships in the process. As we say goodbye to “Homeland,” these two spies just keep going. But that’s the beauty of “Homeland’s” lasting message: In the immortal words of Chidi Anagonye, “That’s what’s so great about The Trolley Problem — there is no right answer.” And, yes, this is why everyone hates moral philosophy professors, it’s also why “Homeland” persevered for eight seasons. Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, along with an excellent team of writers, producers, and directors (the latter of which was led by the great Lesli Linka Glatter), refused to provide solutions to problems without any.
Carrie Mathison is a patriot, a woman of principles, and a spy. There’s something deep within her that elevates these aspects of her identity to the forefront, and they’re not traits that can be ignored. To offer her a purely happy ending would’ve rung false. To give her a tragic one would’ve been too easy. “Homeland” wants to challenge its audience to consider impossible choices, just as its characters do, and the series found one final test to do just that. There may be no right answer, but this was pretty damn close to the right ending.
“Homeland” is available to stream in its entirety via Showtime.