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Homeland Recap: The Show’s Best Episode Yet!

Claire Danes is an excellent actress. Whether she’s strutting through an interrogation room in heels or collapsing in solitary tears, her work on Homeland has been the best of her career — or at least since she was dyeing her hair red and staking out Frozen Embryos rehearsals like a pubescent Pamela Des Barres. But Carrie Mathison, Danes’ CIA analyst character, may be an even more accomplished thespian. For her, sliding seamlessly between roles isn’t just a matter of career continuity or professional acclaim: It’s a matter of life and death.

Just last week, Carrie packed on a surprising amount of charm in order to engineer a clandestine meet-cute with her long-term target: sneaky Sergeant Nick Brody, a man who washes his hands more often than Howie Mandel in a toilet factory. Now she has to lacquer on the smile even more intensely: Not only is she forced into close proximity with Brody yet again — in a CIA safe house for the observed interrogation of the lone survivor of the Afghan raid that rescued the ginger Judas — but this time Carrie is on the wrong side of the cameras. One slip in front of Saul or David Estes and Carrie could be sent packing to Timbuktu. (Actually, we’re gonna need a better metaphor: In the world of field agents post-9/11 that’s probably an elite posting.) But coolly professional is just one of the multiple personalities Carrie is forced to don during “Blind Spot,” last night’s outstanding fifth episode of Homeland’s first season. (This week it was announced there would be a second. Here’s hoping it’ll focus on Carrie’s pursuit of another duplicitous English actor struggling with an American accent, as stretching the Brody business into year two would be equivalent to Killing it.) With her absentminded father (an excellent James Rebhorn) who downs the same crazy pills as his daughter and curses freely at both his favorite baseball team and the CIA, Carrie must be composed and patient. With Virgil and Max and the room full of junior operatives, she needs to be unflappable and charismatic. And, hardest of all, when she’s with her beloved nieces she has to be tender and heroic, Brave Aunt Carrie, responsible for saving the world, not caught up in the emotionally hysteric throes of saving herself.

Brody, of course, is dealing with his own multiple personalities. But if things are deteriorating rapidly at home — leaving Mike to take young Chris to his blue belt ceremony is a familial faux pas that might require its own Lawrence O’Donnell interview — his sleeper mission seems to be progressing just swimmingly. As Carrie tries to keep things copacetic between them at the interrogation, Brody is busy battling memories. The captured guard in the next room is the same man who beat him with a baseball bat covered in barbed wire and urinated on his face. (Props to director Clark Johnson for the excellent use of the underutilized “piss cam”!) And even if Brody’s desperate attempts to gain access to his former torturer were as transparent as Mike’s ice cream social with Jessica, it still made for riveting television. First, because he was so ready to sell out everything he supposedly holds dear — family, country, self-respect and manhood — to get what he wanted from Estes. But also because it adds even more psychological weight and damage to Damian Lewis’s character. Could Brody actually have it both ways? Could he have smuggled the razor blade into the safe house both out of terrorist obligations and because by doing so he could, at last, exact fatal revenge on the man who mistook his head for a urinal cake?

Of course, this sneaky dispatching of the Agency’s only remaining witness just as he was about pull a Harold and reach for the purple crayon isn’t the only setback suffered this week. It seems Brody was also able to warn off Professor Raqim and his American Lady Macbeth from their death house near the international terminal: After Virgil is able to pull the address from a sneaky sweep during undergrad office hours, Carrie raids the place too late. They now know who got the Hawala money, but not what the hell they’re planning on doing with it. With such an enormous opportunity blown, Carrie needs Saul more than ever but her beardy mentor isn’t exactly having a VH1 sort of week himself. His lovely wife, Mira, returns from a month in Mumbai only to be left at the airport with a bouquet of flowers in her hand when Saul is called into work. Then, when he finally does make it home, she gives him a long and seemingly justified speech about needing a better life, one that doesn’t revolve around him and his crushing obligation to Langley. Before Saul can even make a counterargument about why she shouldn’t trade Bethesda for the slums of the subcontinent, Carrie shows up at his door. She wants to go straight to Estes: It’s time to put the focus on Brody out in the open before it’s too late. But Saul, the man who apparently once spent three months in a Far Eastern prison (Hey! So did Carrie!) and “stared down” Uday Hussein, hesitates. And Carrie, at the breaking point already with more than half the season to go, calls him a “pussy.” (Patinkin is absolutely tremendous in this scene, as he has been throughout: Few other actors could bring such a captivating blend of gentleness and steely competence to what initially seemed to be a background role. And certainly none of them could pray in Hebrew so effectively — or intone “previously on Homeland” as if he were quoting underappreciated bits of Deuteronomy.) Back at her apartment, she dismantles the Lester Freamon memorial wall of evidence and loses the battle against her chemically calibrated emotions, collapsing into tears before seeking solace — and lightly chilled Tempranillo — at her sister’s place.

Homeland was good up until now, but “Blind Spot” kicked it up a notch to great, finally hitting the sweet spot between network-procedural tension and the psychological brinkmanship of the best cable dramas. In order to save the day — and her nieces — solo Carrie will have to find some sort of phone booth to duck into: Her previous, less superheroic identities aren’t going to cut it anymore. Which is why the ending of the episode was so effective. There was no big reveal, no tease of action yet to come. It was merely Carrie, sitting on the top step of her sister’s house, looking more alone than even the recently deceased Afsal, back when he was shivering with artificial cold and suffering at the hands of a heavy-metal fan with an itchy finger on the pause button. In trying to catch a traitor, Carrie may have betrayed her closest ally. And so, undermedicated and unable to sleep, she’s left with the one persona she’s the least comfortable with: her true self.