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Where Do Your Loyalties Lie?

Saul Berenson, played brilliantly by Mandy Patinkin, is the nuanced, moral center of a re-energized ‘Homeland’

Rachel Shukert
November 17, 2015

After an unsteady couple of seasons, critics and viewers alike are nearly unanimous that Homeland, Showtime’s lauded spy thriller-cum-character study, has found its feet again in Season 5. The show is set in Berlin, against a backdrop of homegrown Islamic extremism—a setting that feels all the more chilling in the wake of Friday’s horrendous attacks in Paris—and idealistic/nihilistic hacktivism. Claire Danes’s Carrie Mathison is on the run from shadowy forces that want her dead—chiefly the Russians, who wield power by means of Allison Carr (Miranda Otto), the local CIA bureau chief who, in a twist straight out of FX’s excellent small screen espionage drama The Americans. also happens to be a deeply embedded Russian sleeper agent.

Old favorites are deftly reintroduced into the plot, too. Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend), Carrie’s ally and endgame romantic interest, has returned from his black ops mission in Syria to a world that views him as little more than an assassin for hire. His old boss, Dar Adal (played by the gifted actor F. Murray Abraham, who I’m always thrilled to see on screen), having somehow neutralized the threat of last season’s villain through a complicated mix of backroom politics and favor trading, has moved into a more primary role. And there are compelling new characters, as well, such as Otto During, a German billionaire philanthropist, and Numan, the Turkish-German immigrant hacker who has managed to uncover thousands of encrypted CIA documents. Together they contribute to this new, rich world.

But by far the most intriguing character of the revamped Homeland is one that’s been there from the very beginning: Saul Berenson, Carrie’s CIA mentor and father figure played by Mandy Patinkin (which, if that was all he was, dayenu, it would have been enough). Saul has always functioned as a sort of moral center of the show: he’s a force for justice in the middle of a whirl of changing allegiances and double-crosses; always loyal, always searching for the most ethical solution in a world where there are often only bad options. Patinkin’s Berenson has also always been an explicitly Jewish character, upfront about his faith, and often using principles of tikkun olam and other parables of Jewish ethics in his decision-making processes. For the first time, however, Saul’s Jewish identity has become a defining issue for the characters around him. Allison, the Russian spy who is also sleeping with him, is determined to bring him down (and provide cover for herself) by painting Saul as a double agent for the Israelis. Dar Adal, his longtime colleague, gives credence to this hypothesis, easily—perhaps too easily—citing an incident 30 years ago when Saul leaked three names of suspected terrorists to the Mossad. Saul’s weakness, it is said repeatedly, is Israel. Cue the bugging of hotel rooms, the 24-hour surveillance, the sending back to Langley in disgrace.

Just because you’re paranoid, however, doesn’t mean you’re wrong, and it’s to Homeland’s credit that it neither accuses Saul or excuses him from complicity—conscious or otherwise—with the Israeli intelligence services, specifically with Itay, a high-level Mossad agent in Berlin who is shown to be a close friend. Saul may not be working for the Israelis, but he does go to seders with them. He goes to them with shared intelligence, and in the most recent episode, he orchestrates with them his own kidnapping, and seems to be seriously considering a shared defection. It doesn’t mean he’s not a patriotic American, but he does, quite clearly, harbor towards them a kind of inherent trust that he doesn’t extend to say, the Syrians, or for that matter, the Germans. (In fact, he seems to retain a kind of distaste for the latter; one of his many complaints to Carrie, from whom he is thus far estranged this season, is that she is working as the chief of security for During, a man whose grandfather was a notorious Nazi.)

None of this is explicitly stated—unlike so many TV shows, Homeland resolutely sticks to the mantra “show, not tell”—but enough shades of gray are present to intimate that even Saul himself may not know precisely where he stands or where his deepest loyalties lie. It’s a brilliant excavation of a modern and often subconscious American Jewish dilemma, one that is constantly chewed over by left- and right-wingers alike, as well as a deftly dramatized evocation of the limitations still experienced by Jews in the American body politic: Who are you really loyal to? Does the question need to be asked? And does anyone really want to hear the answer? These aren’t the kind of questions you usually see wrestled with on a television drama. Thank God Homeland is the one asking them.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.

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