At the beginning of its series finale, Homeland reminded viewers about the show it used to be. There was Brody (Damian Lewis), a man broken by one traumatic experience after another, taping his explanatory message before his botched suicide bombing attempt at the end of Season 1.
By the end of the finale, Homeland underlined what the show had become. There were Carrie (Claire Danes) and Saul (Mandy Patinkin), two people who experienced their own traumas, including some inflicted on one another, communicating halfway across the world via slipped messages in the spine of a book.
The contrast was stark. The old Homeland was an undeniably more electric thriller, an energy the last four or five seasons have only occasionally tried to revive. But while the Carrie and Brody relationship served as the spark that fueled that energy, the show explored a more complex — if more subdued — relationship to drive the action with Carrie and Saul. It's hard to say that later Homeland is "better" than those chaotic early years, but mentor-mentee friction between Carrie and Saul was worth sticking around for. And "Prisoners of War" was, above all else, a satisfying pay-off to that relationship.
For a show initially built on characters' wild decisions and misdirects, the episode played out in relatively straightforward beats, picking up where the last few episodes have left off.
Quickly, to summarize how we got here: In the aftermath of another U.S. president's death and a failed peace agreement between the U.S and the Taliban, Carrie and Saul were again stuck in the middle of increasingly hostile forces. Once Carrie listened to the flight recorder of the president's downed helicopter and discovered it to be legitimate mechanical failure, she and Saul tried to convince the new commander-in-chief to avoid swift action against those falsely taking responsibility in Pakistan. But Carrie's longstanding, uh, sketchy record didn't grant her much purchase in a new White House or among newer CIA operatives — particularly given her ties to Russian agent Yevgeny (Costa Ronin). By the time Carrie convinced Saul of the true nature of the president's death, the Russians revealed their true plan: get Carrie to convince Saul — with force if necessary — to reveal his decades-long asset (Tatyana Mukha) deep within the Russian infrastructure in exchange for the flight recorder.
"Prisoners of War" thus pitted Carrie and Saul against one another for a final time, and, notably, there were no bombing attempts, armored convoy crashes, or even firefights in the episode. The closest it came to an action sequence featured an office chair blocking a door and a suicide-by-gun off-screen (R.I.P. to Saul's backchannel asset). Instead, the finale drew tension from the procedure of it all, as Carrie first acquired drugs to take Saul out and psyched herself up to use them — though in perfect Homeland fashion, her plan didn't go smoothly.
The most powerful scenes book-ended the attempted poisoning, with Carrie and Saul having it out about the same thing they always have it out about: loyalty, duty, trust. Both can justify any decision through those prisms — whether they're being loyal to one another, the CIA, or their country. In this case, Saul refused to give up his asset, who he believed central to containing Russia's emergent influence. Carrie, desperately hoping to avoid killing her mentor but also trying to avoid a likely life sentence in prison for her latest round of supposed traitorous deeds, wanted to justify her actions by ensuring the public knew the truth about the copter crash and preventing more war in Pakistan.
Carrie prevailed, sort of. She got access to the identity of Saul's asset and the Russians did reveal the true nature of the crash via the flight recorder. But it seemed to have cost Carrie almost everything. She had to flee to Russia, away from her daughter and sister, and away from Saul. She became what Brody became — a traitor. And so, like Brody, Carrie tried to explain herself, the only way she knows how: by, seemingly, linking together years of deadly intelligence operations, blending it with her personal story, and creating a book out of it called Tyranny of Secrets. (Carrie turned her insane life into content, and we simply have no choice but to stan.)
Two years in the future, Carrie seemed content as a pariah and traitor in Russia, while Saul seemed content in some form of quasi-retirement. Until, naturally, he received a galley copy of Carrie's book, with a secret message tucked in the spine about a potential backdoor into Russian weaponry. Mentor and mentee are now, officially, retired agent and asset.
Carrie and Saul went through so much over the course of the series as they worked to justify one decision after another as morally righteous or for the good of international security. They convinced themselves that they were loyal to one another, even when they clearly were not, which eventually allows them to come back together like this. Their entire relationship is real, but is also part of the operation. Maybe the final result was Carrie's plan all along and maybe not, but it doesn't matter. There was really no other way for Homeland — at least this version of Homeland — to end.