Homeland may be a lot more clever than season three's initial episodes suggested.

The first three episodes of the season seemed to be ramping up conflict between unbalanced CIA agent Carrie Mathison and newly minted CIA Director Saul Berenson. The dispute between the formerly close characters felt contrived — a weak ploy for drama in a show that was flailing without the purpose of its earlier seasons driven by enemies like Brody and terrorist mastermind Abu Nazir.

As it turns out, the dispute really was contrived — by Saul and Carrie.

The fourth episode, "Game On," revealed the ploy in the final few minutes. It's a genuinely fascinating and surprising moment, with Carrie showing up at Saul's house at night after spending five hours to get there unseen. "It worked, Saul," she says as she approaches him on the back porch. "They picked me up this morning.... I did it just the way you said."

"You're an amazing person, Carrie," Saul replies, breathless. "Amazing."

Then they hug, tear up, and confide. Saul calls her brave and offers to make her tea. She explains the recent manipulations and becomes undone with the memory of the psych ward. "You should have gotten me out of the hospital, Saul. You shouldn't have left me in there."

Let's get this straight. Carrie's whole jump off the deep end this season? Going to reporters, the problems with meds, everything? All hyped up, along with Saul's public campaign to shame and marginalize her. The twist feels a little far-fetched, and raises myriad questions about how this deception has played out.

But I'll give Showtime this — Homeland just got several times more interesting.

The goal of this deception — apparently cooked up by Saul and Carrie together — was to get her a chance to be pulled into the terrorist cell responsible for last season's devastating Langley bombing. Mujeed Javadi, the Iranian mastermind funneling money through Venezuela, is troubled by the death of his six colleagues (the ones the CIA killed earlier this season) and wants, as his lobbyist underling Leland puts it to Carrie in his sales pitch, "to pick your brain from time to time, to put you on retainer." Leland and his lobbying firm partners are the slick cover for the Iranian villain. They're handsome and polite and travel in style as they whisk Carrie to an elegant mansion and, without naming names, imply that Javadi wants to hire Carrie and leave her "compensated handsomely," passing her several $100 bills to inspire her. She presses for meetings with the client in person, not with Leland or anyone else (again, as planned with Saul, she later reveals in conversation with him).

Leland, snake oil slathering his every word, plays up all Carrie's supposed fears. He tells Carrie the CIA is trying to "controversialize" her, to leave her destroyed, a pariah, a nutcase whom nobody will believe. At the time, it's hard to argue with him, because it's the narrative arc that's seemed to play out all season: Carrie versus an unjustly paranoid CIA. Leland and his associates arranged for her temporary release from the psychiatric treatment earlier in "Game On" and promise to make the release permanent.

"Let us help you, Carrie," Leland whispers, with birds chirping in the scenic backyard of the mansion. "We're very good at it."

But that whole narrative has been a sham, apparently — although a sham limited to Carrie and Saul. How else to explain so many scenes from prior episodes? Saul's CIA lackey Dar Adal doesn't seem to be in on the ruse. Carrie's sister and father also serve as dupes, most likely. Season three has given us many scenes of Saul telling Dar Adal to persecute Carrie and make her seem crazy. In this very episode, Saul tells Dar Adal to "handle" the Department of Justice papers that prevent Carrie from leaving the psych ward and leave her "designated as a national security threat," as a judge told her at a hearing. It's this bold move on the CIA's part that finally prompts Javadi's handlers to arrange Carrie's release, as they proposed doing earlier this season when she rejected them.

This revelation gives different meaning to Saul's visit to the psych ward earlier this season. He apologized to Carrie; she spat, "Fuck you, Saul," back at him. But the apology was for putting her through the playacting, and her response betrayed the emotional toll the process took on her.

In earlier episodes, Carrie did seem truly upset at Saul's actions and paranoid about the CIA. The premiere's concluding shot showed Carrie's panicked tears at Saul's testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee implicating her misbehavior. Did she know then? One mystery Homeland should answer is when exactly she began plotting with Saul. Did he pull her aside after that? A careful rewatching of the season may provide a different shade of understanding to many scenes. What previously seemed meaningless and manufactured may have redeemed value, with this hidden plot line undergirding, explaining, and strengthening certain scenes.

That said... Really? Talk about playing the long game. This deception is an extraordinarily dubious proposition. In what universe is it plausible to predict that Iranian handlers will attempt to turn a committed Carrie into a double agent? Perhaps we're supposed to credit the prescience of Saul and Carrie's super-instincts here, but it's a stretch.

Aside from the Saul-Carrie business, "Game On" devotes some time to the usual extraneous parts. Once again, there's plenty of attention heaped on distraught Dana Brody, who helps her lover Leo escape his own psych ward. We learn that he may have killed a younger brother, and it's obvious that nothing will end well here — but the ongoing question is why anyone should truly care. There are also several scenes showcasing Jessica and Mike worrying about what will happen, to little real end. And of the one prominent member of the Brody family — Nicholas, who finally appeared last week suffering in Venezuela — we see nothing. Oh well.

Homeland still suffers from basic believability problems, but "Game On" has at least managed to restore the thrilling entertainment that earlier seasons delivered. Bigger threads are now beginning to take shape. Obviously there'll be some connections between Nick Brody's Venezuelan nightmare and the millions Javadi seems to be laundering through the country. Carrie may soon find herself face to face with the Iranian terrorist if her lies continue to find believers. And Saul is dedicated to getting Javadi into an interrogation room.

Let's hope we see a scene like that soon. Then we may get juicier answers — such as, finally, learning how and why Nick Brody was implicated in the Langley bombing.

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