Homeland "All About Allison" Review: Back to Baghdad

Homeland S05E08: "All About Allison"


Flashbacks are often a crapshoot, especially when shows don't normally employ them or are hoping to use a big flashback episode to explain a season's worth of questions and conflict. Homeland ticks off both of those boxes, which made me a little hesitant to sit down with "All About Allison," an hour intended to reveal all about the conflicted, traitorous woman at the center of Season 5's trouble. As I wrote about last week, the show has done a magnificent job of evolving into a ripped-from-the-headlines "24, but for smart people" this fall, but the number of important events that happened off-screen or in the past has made for a muted emotional impact that doesn't match the verve found in the plot twists. While Miranda Otto's great performance has carried Allison—and thus Homeland as a whole—the character's vague motivations have dragged in an otherwise efficient, smart storytelling approach. 

The good news, then, is that "All About Allison" lived up to its title, enabling Homeland to tell a solid and important episodic story about the character's past corruption and her present search for any semblance of salvation. Functionally, this episode sought to "reveal all"—to provide the necessary context for Allison's dealings with the Russians, her pitting Saul and Dar against one another, and her poisoning of the kill list in hopes of removing Carrie, her former colleague in Iraq, from the equation. It accomplished those goals, and then some, finally sketching out Allison as a human being more than CIA Boss Lady. In my mind, it's that second part that was much more important for the rest of Homeland's fifth season. 

This is one of those times where a summary is necessary. Prior to this episode, we knew that Allison and Carrie worked together in Iraq, presumably before Carrie faced all that trauma explored/referenced in Season 1. We also knew that Allison had a deal with Krupin and the Russians that dated back a significant amount of time. "All About Allison" filled in the specifics of these facts, turning the clocks back to 2005 and Carrie's initial arrival in Iraq for the spectacular mess that was Operation Iraqi Freedom

The crux of Allison's move toward corruption was not a spectacular moment but rather a relatively low key one. Burned out from leading a misguided, slapdash attempt to democratize a war-torn area and charmed by her asset Nazari (Darwin Shaw), Allison agreed (at least in principle) to run away with Nazari and his stolen $8 million—only for the cunning man to flip on her, presumably for more money. Given that she could have faced treason charges by the U.S. government, Allison seemingly had little choice but to partner with Krupin, who appealed to her careerist goals of moving up the CIA hierarchy. 


There's probably more to it than that—especially given what Carrie discovered at the end of the episode, but stand by—but this was an essential story for Homeland to tell. Not only did it explain why Allison was operating the way she has been all season, but more importantly, it established who she was in 2005 that pushed her to consider running away with Nazari's money in the first place. 

The most crucial scene of these Baghdad flashbacks was not Nazari's last-second doublecross of his would-be lover and daiquiri-drinking partner, but rather Carrie's first meeting with Allison, where the latter, exhausted by the dead ends of her position, couldn't help but gush about taking a vacation. There, Allison's entrenched cynicism contrasted perfectly with Carrie's naive enthusiasm to do good work, and also told us a little something about Allison as a person. She wasn't necessarily evil, or looking to screw the U.S. because of some larger vendetta. Nope, she was simply burned out by the post-9/11 circumstances in Iraq, as I'm sure thousands of people were at the time. That nothing good seemed to be happening in Baghdad at the time made it much easier to consider living the jetset life with Nazari—or fleecing him for everything he stole from the U.S. in the first place. 

Despite everything that Allison has done throughout the first seven episodes of this season, and whatever else came before, this reveal did what all great flashback reveals do: made the audience reconsider some of the assumptions they had about a presumably villainous or treacherous character. I'm not sure Homeland wants us to stop thinking of Allison as the key antagonist of the season, but these flashback sequences combined with her present day decision to spare Carrie's life from the Russian sniper further suggested that she's far from a cackling, monologuing villain. 


Instead, these moments allowed the show to return to a familiar but useful critique of the U.S.'s foreign policy, and war in general. Allison is, much like Brody, a product of miserable circumstances, horrible decisions from world leaders, and bureaucratic lunkheadedness. Like Brody, she's responsible for her own actions in the aftermath of those cruddy circumstances, but this is a woman who found very little satisfying about her work in a trying time, tried to escape, and has been dealing with the consequences for a decade. Unfortunately, "dealing with the consequences" means regularly having people killed, suppressing information, and trading state secrets, which in the world of television means that Allison will ultimately be viewed as a troubled villain-like character. Nonetheless, I appreciate the contextualization offered up by the Homeland team here. It doesn't quite retroactively remove my frustrations with other episodes, but it explains with a purpose. That's all you can ask for with a flashback.

It helped that the episode made some palpable connections between Allison's troubles and Carrie's present conflicts. Though Carrie has, on more than one occasion, gone off book or ignored direct orders, it's unlikely she'd ever walk down the path of corruption that Allison has over the last decade. However, Carrie is growing more weary of her life in the intelligence world. She's already dropped out of the CIA because of what the job does to her mental state and her ability to mother her child, but the events of this season keep reminding her that she's never, ever truly out of the woods. 

Allison too was desperate to remove herself from such a bad situation—and her life wasn't even in danger. We're probably meant to understand that Carrie is more committed to the cause than Allison ever was, but she's still come a very long away from the enthusiastic, passionate operative that she's shown to be in the 2005 flashback. This job, and this world, eventually wears on you. Some turn to the proverbial dark side, some get lost in the grey area because they're so fried, but very few leave in any functional state. 


Of course, given that this is still Homeland, its 24-esque characteristics still reared their head at the very end of the episode. After numerous wonderful scenes between Allison and Carrie in the past and the present, the season's biggest moment, at least plot-wise, featured a tired and sad Carrie looking at Nazari's laptop. How did Carrie discover Allison's involvement in Nazari's survival? By the sudden appearance of his SCREENSAVER, depicting him at Banana Jack's, Allison's post-Iraq dream location. That's right ladies and gents, super spook Carrie Mathison just saved herself, and maybe the world, because of a screensaver. 

On one hand, good lord a screensaver. Who even has screensavers in 2015? Is that still a thing? And if so, why isn't everyone's screensaver still the Windows mazeHomeland just can't not be silly in important moments. On the other hand, you folks know that I'm always going to support moments that feature Carrie using her brain to put things together, and there's something very fitting about a tiny detail like that being the thing that sinks the long con that Allison has been running on Carrie, Saul, and the rest of the CIA. It tracks with this season's concentration on the smaller scale intelligence gathering and espionage. Still. Screensaver.

For a season that's been more methodical and calculating than explosive and charged, "All About Allison" was a fitting Big Answers Are Here kind of episode. The flashbacks to Carrie and Allison's time in Iraq featured no major deaths, no gunshots fired, and no attempted bomb vest assassinations. Instead, it showcased the remarkable impact of war and less than stellar American policy, two hallmarks of Homeland from the beginning, on an intimate, personal, but ultimately long lasting level. 

Although we really have no clue, I get the sense that stories like this one, with people making panicked decisions in monitored hotel rooms, after months and years of struggle, are more familiar to the intelligence world than the endless barrage of bullets and bomber vests (recent events notwithstanding). And with episodes like this one squelching some of the more obvious problems with the season, Homeland is primed to close the season on a very, very high note.



NOTES


— Saul didn't actually want to defect, but instead buy Carrie some additional time. Okay then. That plan didn't really work. 

— Speaking of botched plans, Quinn spent the majority of this episode in the back of a truck with his rebel "buddies," only to be conked on top of his head, tied down, and back on his way to Berlin—along with some explosive material. Good job, good effort, dude. 

— Having lied to Carrie about a conversation with Jonas, it does seem like Düring just wants those two lovebirds to break up for good. Why, I'm not entirely sure. Someone else needs to be revealed to be evil, probably, so the money is still on Düring. He's being far too helpful to Carrie at this stage in the game. 

— Shout out to the camera for lingering on that POW photo of Brody from 2005. Always in our hearts, that crazy wannabe terrorist bastard.

— I do love that this episode was almost entirely about two badass women, with all the men kind of bumbling through lesser subplots. Suck it, dudes.

Comments (21)
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Dec 27, 2016
you are being so kind. I'm rewatching and loving ur write-ups. But man, Alison being exhausting and just, sorry, sluggish one-off character; Quinn falling it not terrorists; Saul being duped;

------- this is the saddest of TV. Talent not realized and botched. When Quinn crawled away, he crawled away witht he season. Here's hoping S6 remembers why we watch.
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Nov 28, 2015
I'm still struggling to understand why Cory or anyone else thinks this is smart storytelling. It must just be me! This is how I see it:

* After all that, Allison is found out not by super spy craft, smartness from Saul, Dar or Carrie (who are supposedly CIAs finest), but by Carrie accidentally seeing a screensaver.

* Allison's motivations? Allison wanted Carrie dead. She knew about the assassin to kill Quinn, then assumed the phone call (which Carrie made) was the assassin confirming the kill. These are the actions of a fully committed Russian (or other) agent, not someone who is helping them because they have to.

* Quinn still seems to have forgotten that Saul's setup was compromised, meaning a possible mole. He sit's with Dar and does not mention this? If he'd said 'By the way Dar, Saul's being messed with. Can't say more' most of this long-winded story would be unnecessary.

In my book this is not smart storytelling at all. Quite the opposite.
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Nov 27, 2015
One more thing: I don't see the point of Quinn when he doesn't have scenes regularly with Carrie. The Carrie-Quinn episode was really good, I finally felt some emotions this season(!) and now... nothing again. Homeland was not a show about terrorists, it was always a show about conflicting emotions. Unfortunately I don't care about Saul and Allison's relationship or Dar and Quinn's meeting. (Okay I care about Saul and Carrie.) But when Quinn "attacked" Carrie, or when he was hurt - those were the most intense moments!
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Nov 27, 2015
Düring - agreed. Two badass women! - agreed. Still. Screensaver - totally agreed. Best line: "Always in our hearts, that crazy wannabe terrorist bastard" lol.
But: I didn't like the pace of this episode, it was way too slow - although the flashbacks were probably necessary I wasn't really excited about them + nothing happened with Saul and Quinn between the flashbacks... Also: I don't understand why Allison went on a vacation with a man who lied to her and got her into trouble. Do you?
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Nov 25, 2015
Loved the episode overall, but bugger me, yet another awful flashback wig. Carries' hair was more or less the same, why not Alison's? Or just have it worn up? It was so obviously NOT the same texture hair. Nothing pulls me out of the story as quickly as an unconvincing flashback wig. If you MUST have one, please consult with the team at The Americans... those guys know how to pull off a wig.
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Nov 24, 2015
"Homeland just can't not be silly in important moments"

On that plot point, I disagree. Carrie wasn't rooting through the laptop files herself, so if it was just a stored photo she never would have had it called to her attention. I love that for all the years of careful treachery, a casual and innocuous comment proves to be the loose thread that will start to unravel Allison's quilt. It also plays to Carrie's innate skill of piecing together information despite her being a hot mess as a person.

Dar Adal might have the sternest stare on Earth, but each week he keeps taking other people's suggestions as gospel and not going by his gut. At first I thought he was being coy...now I'm not certain. But this show needs more Dar Adal.

I think Düring's motivation for lying was clearly established last week - Jonas is his good friend and he knows a relationship between Jonas and Carrie would end as badly as his first marriage (remember his remarks about "earthbound" and "winged" people being incompatible). I think he's trying to help Carrie move along, and in his reasoning, the white lies protect both her (safety) and Jonas (heartbreak or danger).

How much more pain can be inflicted upon Quinn before he's less than fully functional for more than an hour? From his Berlin pre-trip episode he shouldn't be able to bend over without wincing, let alone have 100% of his mental capacity.
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Nov 25, 2015
What is more likely. Carrie works for a benevolent German for the last three years and shit just happens to be there and with him. Or During hiring her had to do with a non-benevolent purpose?
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Nov 25, 2015
I considered the latter, yes. They are setting up Düring to be the nicest guy on the planet, so it's possible it's a ruse, but his actions with Saul's stolen files make me think he might be genuinely benevolent. Between him and the other two German intelligence officers, they seem to be shaded as on our side but trusting our superior resources (and the ability to keep their hands clean when needed - oops!)

But who knows? America has moles, traitors and ineptitude as well as smarts and courage. We've seen selfless Arabs and cartoon evil Arabs. Even the Russian handler is shown to be a man of logic and reason interested in besting the game for personal success as opposed to a raving lunatic blindly crowing about the Motherland. If there's an overarching theme for this season, I'd say it's guilt.
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Nov 27, 2015
"but his actions with Saul's stolen files make me think he might be genuinely benevolent" - We can't be sure that he didn't copy those files...
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Nov 28, 2015
Perhaps. And if he truly were in on the conspiracy, he could have even known which were the incriminating files and deleted them from the thumb drive so that Carrie would exhaust that possibility and move onto something else. (If I were the bad guy, that's what I would have done.)

But he did try to protect Saul at the hotel meeting when he could easily have let him burn as a traitor. And he did get the files to Carrie when it would have been easy to simply "not make it to the plane on time" - a statement which neither Saul nor Carrie could challenge.

I find the inability to feel 100% conclusive about his loyalties a reflection of the intricate and complex plot, which is something I appreciate in a show.
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Nov 26, 2015
Dr,

As someone who has had to travel all around the world - in my capacity as a world-wide CEO - I think the greatest gift Homeland has given the American people (who hardly know more than their own state less the rest of the world) is a multi dimensional perspective of people in the world and how the US is viewed by people in the world.

You can't do business with non-Americans well, if (a) you don't treat them as homogeneous and (b) acknowledge that the US has a certain false morality.

Homeland has many faults. And I must admit that I sometimes hate-watch it. But the show's ability to put its cameras into foreign places - showing the good and the bad - and how American foreign policy - Pax America - might have good intentions but often destroys people and families by collateral damage, is a much needed mirror American people need to view themselves through.

I don't know for sure if During is a true philanthropist, evil or both. Just as I can't be sure what every German is. In my case, I am just using simple logic. And that's all.

I do though appreciate the smart commenters on TV.com. I wish there were more. But your comments give me hope that being part of this community is worth it.

JC
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Nov 24, 2015
Still one of the best shows around. And it's wonderfully demasking American and foreign intelligence practices.
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Nov 24, 2015
HATED it. Who cares about Alison. Our favs are split up. Show is convoluted the last 3 eps. Quinn nor Carrie talk about each other, when they've been written to basically love each other. Looks like 24, and not a good thing. First 5 were epic... last 3. I don't recognize this show. So sad.
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Nov 23, 2015
I still use the windows bubbles screensaver!
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Nov 23, 2015
Banana Joe's
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Nov 23, 2015
I'm personally enjoying the whole season so far. I'm surprised we didn't call the terrorists coming back to Berlin instead of going to Turkey, as this makes a lot more sense. And with sarin gas?
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Nov 23, 2015
Another great ep from a great season - best since season 2 IMO. 8/10.
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Nov 23, 2015
Yawn.

Poor Rupert Friend. He can't catch a break this season. Wonder whom he pissed off to get a one-note storyline?
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Nov 23, 2015
"Saul didn't actually want to defect, but instead buy Carrie some additional time. Okay then. That plan didn't really work".

It did, actually.

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Nov 23, 2015
Flashback. Called it.
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