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SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading if you have not seen “A False Glimmer,” the Dec. 20 season finale of Showtime’s “Homeland.”

The fifth season closer of “Homeland” takes us to a place we’ve never been before — deep into the emotional heart of Carrie Mathison’s darkness.

The action that threads through this season finale is not the ticking time bomb of a sarin gas attack — that threat is neutralized in the first 10 minutes of the episode. Carrie runs into the path of an oncoming train and unloads her gun on the terrorist hell-bent on destruction. All in a day’s work for our super-spy. But she’s not done running head-first into danger.

See More: ‘Homeland’ Director Lesli Linka Glatter on ‘Emotional and Potent’ Finale

The cliffhanger this time is where Carrie’s heart will take her after yet another traumatizing series of save-the-world events. “Homeland” deftly avoids feeling too repetitive by shifting the dynamic to Carrie’s emotional state, which goes on quite a roller-coaster ride in this hour. The fact that “A False Glimmer” maintains the breathtaking pace of a thriller is a credit to writers Liz Flahive, Alex Gansa and Ron Nyswaner and director Lesli Linka Glatter.

But in this episode in particular, it’s the work turned in by Claire Danes, who never ceases to impress with her dexterity, that makes the whole thing tick. There is not a glamour shot in the episode. Carrie is shot to look like hell — lines and crevices on her face, blotchy skin, eyes sunk into dark circles and tangled hair. Even when she’s wearing Jonas’ sweatshirt and little else, she doesn’t come off as a sexy so much as scattered and desperate.

The land mines that explode along the way in this episode include the death of Peter Quinn, which hits “Homeland” fans where it hurts no matter how clear it had become that he would not survive this season; the humiliation of Saul Berenson, who is reduced to begging Carrie to come back to work for him; Jonas dumping her after reunion sex, because Carrie crazy is just too crazy for a single dad with a kid; and the bizarre proposal from Otto During that sounds more like a joint venture pitch than an expression of love. Even as Otto was awkwardly began to profess his obsession-slash-affection for Carrie, I still thought there was a slim chance he was about to lash out at her for something deep in the past — maybe she accidentally bumped off his wife or brother or something.

Ever the thorough operative, Quinn writes his own death-scene script for Carrie in the letter that Dar Adal hands her over his comatose body: “I guess I’m done, and we never happened.” Those words will rattle around in Carrie’s head for a long time to come, no doubt, along with the fact that Quinn actually tried to convince her to run off and leave the savage life behind a few seasons back. And that nagging fact that she kinda-sorta abandoned Quinn in his hour of need. To make matters worse, Carrie and Saul pushed the doctors in last week’s episode to rouse him in order to in find out what he knew about the attack, even as they warned her it could lead to a cerebral hemorrhage, which is in fact what finished him off. Ouch.

All she can do at the end is alleviate the suffering. Quinn would hardly want to exist as a vegetable in a hospital bed. When she pulls the plugs, so to speak, the room is bathed in a white light — or is it just a burst of sunlight? Is the “False Glimmer” of the title and Quinn’s letter the potential that Quinn and Carrie once had to be happy but couldn’t execute? Rubbing salt in the wound, Adal tells Carrie Quinn’s backstory of being a 16-year-old Baltimore street kid who was recruited in part because he had a boyish handsomeness. “He was a natural from the start,” Adal tells her with little emotion.

Carrie is more introspective about her own wants and desires that we’ve ever seen before. She’s angry when she gets a fairly raw brush off from Jonas. “I actually opened myself up and let you in,” she says to him, incredulously. Once he’s made his intentions clear, she’s not giving him the satisfaction of a hug to part as friends. “No, no, no. I don’t want that. I won’t allow it.”

We see Carrie displaying a burst of empathy toward those that she has typically identified as the black hats in the fight against terror. She recognizes Qasim’s humanity, right down to thanking him for saving Quinn from the sarin gas and whispering what was presumably a prayer in Arabic over his dying body. Qasim’s statement “Allah will help me find the words” to derail his cousin’s deadly plan land at a moment when some in the U.S. have seriously suggested banning all non-U.S. Muslims from entering the country in the name of security.

Carrie ends the hour at a crossroads, but with more than two possible paths. Does she go back home to the U.S. and try to be a mother again to Franny? She hints at that a few times in the episode. Does she take Otto up on his proposal? That would keep her and Franny comfortable financially but connected to the world of geopolitical drama, albeit from something of a distance, maybe. Or does she go back to her oldest and most trusted partner, Saul Berenson, and back to the bleak-sounding, un-normal life that Quinn so bluntly described in his farewell love letter to Carrie?

Quinn’s eloquent promise to her, in the final lines of the episode, is that he will be “a beacon, steering you clear of the rocks.” But will Carrie take that mean that he means to steer her out of the CIA thug life, or that he will help protect her as she continues to fight the good, if necessarily dirty, fight? Oh to be a fly on the wall in the writers room when the “Homeland” team reconvenes in a few weeks.

As for this season’s other key players, we leave Saul bloodied and horribly ego-bruised. He’s embarrassed for being the easy mark that Russian agent Ivan thought he was all along — a vulnerable middle-aged divorcee who lost his killer instincts to his need for canoodling. “The last illusion of the illusion-less man,” Saul tells Ivan while working him over to catch Allison. He might have been talking about himself.

“Goddammit Carrie I need you,” Saul later blurts out to Carrie, after giving her tough talk to her for most of the season. The hallway chat between those two lands high on the list of classic Carrie-Saul verbal volleys. In two minutes they bravely express more of the realpolitik of the war on terror than any white paper ever could.

Saul sounds like the jilted lover that he is when she refuses his offer to write her own ticket for a CIA assignment.

Saul: “I think I deserve an explanation.”

Carrie: “I’m not that person anymore.”

Saul: “You just saved hundreds of lives.”

Carrie: “I got lucky.”

Saul: “Luck had nothing to do with it. If that weapon had gone off we’d be living in a different world today.”

Carrie: “We’re already living in a different world. The attack wasn’t the first and it certainly won’t be the last.”

Saul: “You’re being selfish.”

Carrie: “Really? Selfish? That’s what you think?”

Saul: “I think you know better than anyone how to fight these guys.”

Carrie: “That’s the thing Saul, I don’t. I have no idea.”

Saul: “Then help us. Help me. Come up with a new paradigm.”

Astrid, the German intelligence agent, is a cooly effective gurken right up until the end. She helps Carrie and Saul to their ends and twists the arm of the During Foundation’s aggressively idealistic blogger Laura Sutton into helping her explain the inconvenient death of a refugee in police custody. The woman who is so reckless in her zealous pursuit of the truth is coerced into a bold-face lie on German television to protect her hacker pal Numan and her own chances to stay out of the clutches of the FBI. Actress Nina Hoss should seriously get a promotion out of this to leading her own crack intelligence team — and perhaps a spinoff for Showtime.

Allison gets her just desserts as she’s trying to flee to Russia in the trunk of a BMW. She’s shot full of holes by a CIA team lead by Saul Berenson. The last words she hears are a falsehood from Erna (magnificently played by Stefanie Mueller), her creepy Russian handler after Ivan is taken into custody. “The next time you see sky, it will be Russia,” Erna says just before she shuts the trunk. Instead, Allison was destined to become Swiss cheese. Miranda Otto signaled Allison’s fate when she barked as the doctor in the sex-trafficking flophouse tries to stitch up her arm: “I am important.”

Much was made this season of how presciently “Homeland’s” storyline reflected real-world events, including the massacre and jolt to the global psyche caused by the Nov. 13 Paris terror attacks. Showrunner Gansa has said that the show set out to reflect what was top of mind for intelligence officials in the U.S. and Europe in 2015. But what made it stand out were the many moments of unvarnished, a-political discussion of the war on terror felt more truthful than anything that comes from the real actors in this never-ending drama. Quinn got his real last hurrah in the season opener with his now-famous scene of speaking truth to power by telling the honchos eager for good news from the front lines of Syria: “You tell me what the strategy is, I’ll tell you if it’s working.”

“Homeland” has become a part of the way some of us process the ever-present threat of a terror attack erupting anywhere in the world at any given moment — a chic cafe in Paris or a nondescript office park in San Bernardino, Calif.  We want to believe that somewhere there’s a Carrie Mathison working overtime to thwart the evil-doers. Just as important, we want to believe that somewhere there are people at work who are immune to election-year B.S. and aren’t afraid to admit what they don’t know and what they can’t predict.