I think “Iron in the Fire” worked for a reason that was always going to be a challenge for “Homeland” in its efforts to capture the current geopolitical environment: For the first time in the show’s run, Carrie (Claire Danes) and Saul (Mandy Patinkin) are up against another intelligence organization, not just non-state actors. And the game of spy vs. spy offers dramatic advantages that a big organization’s fight against a small, diffuse cell cannot.
“Iron in the Fire” starts with the operative that Carrie dressed down in the previous episode proving his usefulness by identifying the man directing the crowd who killed Sandy Bachman (Corey Stoll) as Farhad Ghazi, a local criminal with a sideline in wetwork that the Pakistani intelligence service does not want to handle directly. That revelation sets in motion events that introduce us to the Pakistani doubles of a number of the Americans we have come to know over the last several seasons.
Saul meets with an old source, a Pakistani general who goes by the fabulous nickname of Bunny, a delightful match for the British-style club where the two men have lunch.”Tongues are wagging all over the club. Fraternizing with the enemy,” Bunny tells Saul, raising the possibility of awkwardness. “No American has set foot in here since your raid on Abbottabad.” “Do you want to go somewhere else?” Saul asks him anxiously. “No,” Bunny tells him, showing Saul that he is willing to match his American counterpart in swagger, even if he is better than Saul at keeping to niceties like suits and club memberships. “F— ’em all.”
Given that it took “Homeland” a while this season to introduce the Pakistani counterparts, I do not know that the show will have the time to take us as deep into Pakistan’s military and intelligence complexes as it has American ones. But it would be intriguing to see a clear-eyed explication of a culture that produces a man like Bunny, who is obviously cultured and intelligent, and yet says things like “Come on, Saul, we both know 9/11 was a hoax.”
Even if this is the only time we meet Bunny, and I hope it will not be the last, “Iron in the Fire” does a nice job of staging the fencing match between the two men. “It’s over, Saul. You lost. The Americans are being driven out of Afghanistan just like the Russians were. The Taliban won, and they will dictate the terms of the settlement,” Bunny tells Saul, who is asking for a connection to someone well-placed in Inter-Services Intelligence. “Well, then you can afford to be a little gracious, can’t you?” Saul fires back at him.
The meeting Bunny brokers is not as strong a scene, though the kickoff to it is a nice, unnerving set-piece, especially when viewed against the leadup to Sandy’s murder. As Saul sits reading the paper at lunch, the clientele clears out around him, and the doors are shut behind them in a very definitive manner. The staging is a strong visual testament to ISI’s reach, sending a message to us and to Saul simultaneously: Bunny’s contact is willing to be seen meeting with Saul in public, in part because the public has been trained to give ISI leaders plenty of space. Saul is not protected by any ISI need for subtlety.
Just as delightful is our introduction to Carrie’s female counterpart, who shows up at a lecture by Dennis Boyd (played, in a delightful bit of casting, by Mark Moses, who is Duck Phillips in “Mad Men”), who turns out to be both the ambassador’s husband and Sandy’s secret source of targeting information. The woman shares some of Carrie’s style: a direct, potentially seductive gaze, a penchant for rendering her marks immediately vulnerable, and the ability to make promises that carry with them a lot of fine print. “Who else would be providing Sandy with classified documents straight from the ambassador’s desk?” she tells Boyd in the middle of the lecture hall.
There is some very nice writing in the scene that follows, in which Boyd tries to convince Martha that he, at least, has to leave Islamabad to go back to a non-existent job, and both of them reveal their raw edges.
“Do you think our marriage can survive another separation?” Martha asks in a voice that suggests she would not entirely mind if the answer is no. “I think our marriage can survive putting my career first for once,” Boyd tells her, peevish. “We tried that once. You ended up plagiarizing an entire chapter of your book,” Martha responds bluntly. You can imagine her reminding him of this weakness at strategic intervals, keeping the bruise fresh. “I have spent my whole life following you around,” Boyd whines. “I’ve already said yes … I’m leaving next week.”
Watching her work, and the fact that “Homeland” functioned much more like an ensemble drama this week than the Carrie Mathison show, made the end of “Iron in the Fire,” in which Carrie moves in to seduce Aayan (Suraj Sharma), much more enjoyable than it would have been if we spent the whole hour with her.
When Carrie realizes that Aayan has been meeting with his supposedly dead uncle, his secret injects a nasty chill into their conversation at Carrie’s apartment. We have so often seen Carrie connect with potential sources by presenting herself as a fellow raw nerve end that it is a welcome relief to see her behave strategically.
When Aayan tells Carrie “I got kicked out of my medical school … Yesterday … They’re claiming I stole medicines from the hospital pharmacy. I didn’t do it. It’s a lie,” that might have been a moment for the kind of overinvestment that makes Carrie both so effective and so risky to kick in. He wants to know: “What about King’s College? Will this affect my chances of getting in?” “No,” Carrie tells him, because medical school expulsions are nothing compared to ties to a terrorist the Taliban wanted to fall off the grid. “How is that possible?” Aayan says in wonderment “I’ll make them understand,” Carrie says, and her soothing tone finally feels frightening again, instead of a sign she is a sap.
When “Homeland” premiered three years ago, its claim to be different was its sympathy for Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), and its acknowledgement that American policy could have serious blowback. But having exhausted the show’s specific manifestation of that concept long before “Homeland” found the courage to jettison Brody, “Homeland” seems to be operating on a new set of principles. America fights ugly. So do the other guys. And now that we know the battle is going to be evenly balanced, I hope it will be fun to watch.