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'Homeland's' writers owe a big royalty check to John le Carre

Homeland (tv program)Central Intelligence Agency

(Warning: Episode 4 spoilers ahead!)

A few minutes into the pivotal scene in Sunday's "Homeland" between Carrie Mathison and the mysterious lawyer for the Iranians, I turned to my wife and said: "She's setting him up." 

I don't claim any powers of clairvoyance or any special skills at dramaturgy. But I am a fan of "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," the 1963 novel that made John le Carré a household name. And this narrative twist comes right out of that book.

Readers of "The Spy" will remember that the title character, Alec Leamas, goes utterly to seed to smoke out a Soviet espionage recruiter. One is never quite sure along the way how much of Leamas' decline is real and how much is staged, but it's rather more clear than with Carrie's mental meltdown. Her decline looks completely real to the viewer as it prompts the Iranians to swoop down and try to turn her into a double agent.

The "Homeland" writers leave murky exactly when in the chronology of Carrie's collapse and hospitalization she and her boss, Saul Berenson, cook up their plot to snare the Iranians. "Homeland's" showrunner, Alex Gansa, told Entertainment Weekly that the plot was hatched immediately after the CIA bombing, which means it's been in place since the start of the current season. If that's so, I think the writers may be cheating a bit by not leaving any clues. Or maybe they've just been subtle; maybe a second viewing of the Season 3 episodes thus far would turn up a few buried tells. (Gansa didn't mention le Carré in his EW interview.) 

Interestingly, that's not the only crib from -- or let's say homage to -- le Carré in this episode. The idea of blackmailing a spymaster with evidence of his own embezzlement is the story line of le Carré's "Smiley's People" (1979). There it's George Smiley discovering that his adversary, Karla, has been diverting money from the KGB to keep his daughter in a Swiss sanitarium; here's it's Saul discovering that his quarry, Magid Javadi, has been salting away a nest egg in Caracas. Smiley's and Saul's goals are the same -- get their targets to the table.

There's nothing wrong, of course, with cribbing a storyline -- excuse me, honoring a master. And the "Homeland" writers have chosen well. "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" and "Smiley's People" date from the finest period of le Carré's career, which ran through to his best novel, "A Perfect Spy" (1986), with the only clunker being "The Little Drummer Girl" (1983). Considering how much garbage gets recycled in Hollywood, it shows that "Homeland" still aims high, and hits the target.

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email. MORE FROM MICHAEL HILTZIK

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