A review of tonight's "Homeland" coming up just as soon as you let me pick my moment...

"I'm sorry I've become this person. But I have." -Aileen

After a plot twist-intensive, bumpy installment last week(*), "Homeland" is back on much more solid, fascinating ground with "The Clearing," which brings back Aileen from season 1 as both a great spotlight opportunity for Saul and a nice parallel to the story of Brody.

(*) Full disclosure time: with Sandy closing in on the Jersey Shore on Monday, I raced to watch and review last week's episode in the event I would lose power for a long time, and by the time I was able to relocate to a better location later in the week, I had so much other work to do that I never found the time to revisit the "Homeland" review. In a normal week, I'd have set with the episode a while longer and written a better review that also better articulated some of the problems I had with it, particularly the terrorist ninja assault on Quinn's team at the tailor shop, which felt like it existed outside the intersecting set of storylines that would fit on both this show and "24."

Brody and Aileen are both all-American types who, for different reasons and under different circumstances, wound up working with Abu Nazir. Both have suffered great loss as a result of that decision: Aileen's husband was gunned down by the very organization they were a part of, Brody endured years of physical and mental torture and later had to murder his partner (for the second time, as far as he was concerned). And both are now deeply unhappy with who and what they've become as a result of their choices: one a literal prisoner of the government, one figuratively. Aileen spends 23 hours a day in a cell, and never sees the sun. Brody now is caught somewhere between Roya, Walden, Jessica, and Carrie, and none of his decisions are his own. Brody spends much of "The Clearing" dealing with other people's assumptions about who he is — he's deeply shamed when his Vietnam veteran host Rex suggests they have things in common — and when he chooses to take Dana to tell the cops about the hit-and-run, he for a moment gets to be the man everyone believes him to be: decent and honest and willing to sacrifice for the greater good. But he can't even do that right, because helping Dana — who is all but begging for the opportunity, because she was raised (mostly by Jessica) to have a moral compass that the Walden family lacks — turn herself in would screw up his deal with the CIA. Brody gets to see the sun, gets to swim in a rich man's pool, but he's no freer than a woman who would slit her own wrists rather than spend another day in solitary.

Credit where it's due: the hit-and-run story that we've all been grumbling about for the last couple of weeks turned into something much more interesting than I was expecting. It's not a source of blackmail, not about secrets and lies, not about Finn finding a way to blame Dana for it, or any of the other soapier twists on the story. Instead, it's a situation where all the important parties, teen and adult, know exactly what's going on — Finn Walden most of all, in a scene that doesn't make him more sympathetic, but certainly makes him more human — and know the roles they're supposed to play in this legal farce.

While secrets and betrayals certainly have their place in a thriller like this, the most memorable scenes tend to involve characters communicating openly with one another — or, in the case of the lake house confession scene from "The Weekend" (which, like this episode, was written by Meredith Stiehm), at least seeming to — because the jumble of emotions has a lot more power when everyone knows what's what. Take the scene that gives "The Clearing" its title, where Carrie turns up on the outskirts of the fundraising party so she can handle her asset and make him feel better about himself. It's a scene where Brody is fully aware of what she's really doing there, and yet her mission and his knowledge are complicated by the very real, very heated attraction the two have for each other. Brody may not love Carrie the way she loves him, but her mere presence seems to alter his brain chemistry, calming him down in a way he can notice, but neither can entirely explain, until finally he gets frustrated trying to figure out what percentage of the kiss is real and what's just spycraft, and storms away. A fantastic scene, and one where nobody had to lie because nobody can figure out exactly what's true to begin with.

I had briefly wondered if Finn's fatalistic attitude at the party suggested he was going to kill himself rather than deal with his father's wrath. Instead, our suicide is Aileen, who can't stand confinement — nor the person she's become — one minute longer. I might question whether a problem prisoner would be allowed to hold onto Saul's reading glasses in that circumstance. What I will not question is the rapport between the two characters, or how Mandy Patinkin always rises to the challenge whenever "Homeland" briefly turns Saul into the main character. When Saul Berenson gives you his word, Patinkin makes it clear that you can take that word and hold it close. And whatever issues I had with the method of Aileen's suicide went away the moment Saul went into that room and tried to figure out why someone would do this, and how he could have been so blind to the possibility that she would. His grief in that scene should once again shame every Academy member who didn't nominate him last year.

A great, resonant, character-focused episode. And no ninjas to be found.

Some other thoughts:

* Quinn discharges himself from the hospital, Tony Almeida-style, but at least a week has passed in this case (because of the "24" format, Tony had to recover from his gunshot wound in only a few hours), and at least it's clear that Quinn is an absolute mess who should be back in his hospital bed. At least he's doing better than poor, off-camera Galvez, who's practically being talked about in the past tense.



* Not sure I entirely buy that the operation would still be able to be so low-key after the Gettysburg massacre, even with the scene where Walden scolds Estes. Wouldn't the very loud murder of six federal agents in a quiet tailor shop be huge national news demanding a very big and public response?

* It's a small world in Hollywood: Rex was played by John Finn, who played the lieutenant on "Cold Case," which was created by Meredith Stiehm.

* Mike is an idiot, but at least he gives Carrie an opportunity to articulate how she feels about Brody to someone who can relate.

* The horrible party guest who kept asking Brody about his captivity inadvertently kept him from going in the pool in the daytime, but at night, with no one watching, he got to go in the very clear, very bright, very empty water and enjoy the first moments of peace he's had all season. Gorgeous scene.

* I saw this episode before I watched last night's "SNL" spoof of "Homeland," so I don't know yet if that sketch has now ruined Damian Lewis for me, or if I'll be able to watch him without paying attention to the size of his mouth. For those of you who watched "SNL" before this episode, was it a distraction?

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com