Homeland season 6 episode 1 review: Fair Game

The Homeland season 6 premiere is more prescient than ever as an intelligence community and a new president cross paths...

This review contains spoilers.

6.1 Fair Game

Not since perhaps its first year has a Homeland season premiered at a more appropriate time. Debuting in the shadow of Osama Bin Laden’s death, which had in turn released a massive cultural sigh of relief after the anxiety that haunted the Bush years, season 1 of Homeland came out a time when Americans were taking some perspective on the incomprehensible tragedy that was 9/11, and deciding they wanted to turn a page as the Obama era came into full-swing.

With its freshman effort, Homeland provided a gripping and incredibly smart reflection on why the intelligence community, and the U.S. as a whole, could not let go of the shadows of the War on Terror. So here was Carrie Mathison to bear the cross of our apprehensions for us. Yet strangely, as the relatively cynical worldview of Homeland proved justified following the collapse of Syria and the rise of ISIL, the Showtime series still became increasingly removed from its early verisimilitude, shrinking last season into a storyline that didn’t feel that far removed from 24, another espionage series largely influenced by executive producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon.

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But now, in a world that feels upside-down with an American president-elect having taken office while being alleged to have been compromised by Russian kompromat, the histrionic spy games of Homeland suddenly seem far more urgent and real, and the meagre Western stability regained over the last eight years seems as though it’s going to break at any moment in another string of terrorist attacks. So there has never been a better time in the show’s history for Carrie Mathison to return.

Like many, I smirked at Homeland season 6’s apparent miscalculation of world events with its fictional incoming president clearly resembling Sec. Hillary Clinton more than her orange-haired rival. But even if that seemed misjudged, the growing tension between a PEOTUS and CIA that dovetails the end of the premiere has a chilling immediacy. Heck, it might even be less dangerous than our reality since President-Elect Elizabeth Keane hasn’t accused Dar Adal of being a Nazi. Not yet, anyway.

Thus with a show timelier than ever how does Homeland season 6 stack up as an hour of entertainment right outside of the gate?

For the most part, Fair Game is exactly what it says: fair. As with all post-season 3 storylines, it resets the board by ignoring or walking-back what happened the previous year and jumping to its next headline-ripping plot, albeit with one noticeable exception this season, which might be its strongest asset beyond the aforementioned transition team vs. intelligence community drama. And the name of that lingering anguish is Peter Quinn.

Season 6 is taking some bold and unexpected moves by turning Rupert Friend’s Quinn into a character who’s transitioned from master assassin with PTSD into a painfully real depiction of a wounded warrior robbed of his life. Friend has always been an underrated talent on Homeland, but this year looks to really let him dive into reinventing a character whose selfless (or self-destructive) heroism from last year has turned into a waking nightmare of tragic proportions. While I more than grimaced at the dialogue exchange wherein Carrie and Quinn both ask the other to “let me go,” there was nothing overtly funny about what has happened to Quinn.

Admittedly, in some ways the series is returning to the wounded war hero trope that made Brody so hauntingly gripping in the first three seasons. But however much Brody suffered from his scars, he was still somehow the man who left suddenly returned like an undead revenant—altered but the same. The Quinn we know is buried under there in season 6, but his neurological injuries from season 6’s poisonous toxins are so extreme that the frustration of him being unable to break out of it is gnawingly unique for this series. Brody resisted the thought that he might still be the same guy underneath until it was too late. Quinn is that man, but he never will be able to bring him fully to the surface again.

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That irony allows the episode gravitas as it examines the many ways we culturally ignore or exploit veterans who’ve been wounded or destroyed by the Middle Eastern wars. Quinn is used for his disability cheques by corrupt orderlies, prostitutes, and thugs, and is perceived as mostly an ambivalent burden to all others. It is through the grace and concern of folks like Carrie that keep many of these vets from winding up abandoned on the street. And too few have their own Carries.

It’s a poignant and uncomfortable can of worms season 6 has opened up. I hope to see it continue to be explored fully.

As for Carrie herself, Otto is as clumsily written out of season 6 as he was awkwardly shoehorned into season 5. If there was a reason for this character to be in the series, it remains a mystery. Ms. Mathison, meanwhile, is working for a non-profit out to help those victimized by the intelligence community and abuses of power in lieu of the PATRIOT Act and our current surveillance state (just wait until Trump’s America inevitably takes a more authoritarian form, Carrie).

Carrie working as a “bleeding heart” is a development that was first signalled last season. I am still not entirely sold on this character dynamic for her given her arc and passions from earlier years, but we’ll go with it since it drags her into the first thread of season 6: the one with Sekou Bah (J. Mallory McCree) standing in as a knotty ethical question about free speech in the 21st century—a time where innuendo and implicit brainwashing can be mass communicated from any home with a smartphone.

Sekou is intentionally left in a mist of zero-visibility. Is he just a kid who’s angry about obvious U.S. foreign policy hypocrisy or is he another Anwar al-Awlaki in the making? (And some would say al-Awlaki was also a wrongfully vilified man, which only further muddies this conversation… especially because those people are wrong.)

The ethical question opened by McCree’s new character is an intriguing one. The importance of the First Amendment is seared into my mind, but as a New Yorker, seeing a kid idolise Faisal Shahzad, the attempted Times Square bomber, makes my blood boil. This admitted cultural uncertainty is pivotal for season 6, because it will return to the doubt that elevated the first two seasons, as well as parts of season 4. For the tough questions to work, Sekou should never be anything more than a dumb kid oblivious to the kind of dark, malevolent forces he is summoning—and whether Americans will tolerate them in order to preserve their Enlightenment ideals.

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Invariably, this will get wrapped up in the larger story of a presidential transition, which like Quinn’s struggles are immediately more captivating than the show’s challenge to thread the needle for Carrie post-CIA. As aforementioned, President-Elect Keane appears to be from an alternate universe vision of America where Hillary Clinton was elected president. But Hillary is actually a hawk, and Elizabeth Marvel’s new presidential candidate is something else together; like her Heather Dunbar on House Of Cards, Marvel’s onscreen politician is a true believer. She is a liberal of her convictions and didn’t just talk about winding down wars like Sen. Barack Obama—she literally wants to hold the CIA accountable for their failings during the Bush years that apparently cost her son his life.

The CIA could point out that it was really the president’s men pressuring CIA analysts to make ethically uncomfortable stances—a viewpoint expressed by the Valerie Plame biopic Fair Game, for the record—but they’d rather have shadowy clandestine meetings in sure-to-be smoke filled rooms.

This twist of U.S. senators gathering in the middle of the night with high-ranking spooks to calculate the political downfall of a presidential administration in transition plays both to Clinton and Donald Trump acolytes. For Clintonians, there was nothing about FBI Director James Comey’s actions that didn’t reek of political-meddling when he “updated” Congress about reopening the investigation into Sec. Clinton’s emails less than two weeks before the election. Sure enough, with fewer than 48 hours to go until election day, Comey further revealed that there was nothing new in the emails discovered on the computer of a disgraced Anthony Weiner. However, whatever damage it did was definitely done.

On the other side of things, apparently the FBI overlooked inquiries about an unverified and potentially terrifying report from an ex-MI6 agent on Trump’s ties to Russia—which could indicate a treason on the scale of fictional character Majid Javadi’s actions in Homeland season 3—but others in the intelligence community were not so dismissive of the Trump accusations. After Trump continued to discredit intelligence communities in this country, the unverifiable yet scandalous accusations become not-so-inexplicably public.

Whether or not there is a publicity war being waged against the president-elect by our intelligence community is almost moot right now, because Trump seems to think so, hence the “Nazi” tweet.

In which case, it is hard to imagine how Homeland season 6 can write a more compelling and grandiose conspiracy against a new president than what is being written in the press about our real 45th. Still, the fact that it will go there makes Homeland its most prescient to date. As it turns out, we need Carrie Mathison more than ever now, and that ending signals that instead of the show having to lower its rhetorical tone, we’ve all begun speaking it.

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That in itself makes season 6 fascinatingly ripe with possibilities. It also allows this relatively gingerly-paced premiere to be more gripping than it otherwise could have been. Please Homeland, predict what other kind of implausible twists that 2017 will have for us next!