This review contains spoilers.
6.6 The Return
During the past five episodes of Homeland, I’ve been enjoying both the series’ premature expectation of Hillary Clinton being the 45th President of the United States, as well as its likely unexpected prescience in predicting a new POTUS at war with her intelligence communities. However, as the smoke clears from the fictional terrorist attack in last week’s Homeland, we are clearly entering a true alternative realm of events far removed from real-life US politics.
This is actually a huge asset to Homeland, because for the first time since Brody died in season 3, I feel like the producers have a good handle on what the tone of the show is and what it needs to be. Just as season 1 had the juicy concept of a POW being brainwashed into a Manchurian Candidate type of terrorist splinter cell, season 6 is actually exploring the conspiracy theory wingnut of every political strip’s most fevered nightmare: a false flag operation. According to Alex Jones and the like, these happen pretty much every time there’s a mass shooting, but Homeland is doing a fascinating job of spreading the breadcrumbs around a far more likely scenario of “contained” collateral damage being done to undermine a president-elect.
In the process it has found in a new entry point to the series’ earliest paranoia, and in its better moments during tonight’s The Return, it even evokes Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, and that movie’s contagious fear of being watched, followed, and even targeted for assassination. If the rest of season 6 can maintain this momentum, it truly will be a return to form for a series long struggling to reinvent its voice.
The most interesting aspect of the episode, of course, is the unlikely alliance formed between Carrie Mathison and Ray Conlin. Up until now, Conlin has primarily been a self-righteous FBI prick written as thin as his sense of authoritative superiority. Yet curiously, the show made the choice of having Ray be every bit as unnerved about the shadiness surrounding Sekou’s supposed attack as Carrie is. Seeing pictures of an obvious government spook both spying on Carrie’s brownstone and then winding up at Sekou’s place of business in the pre-dawn hours before the explosion is enough to cause an inkling of patriotism and a preference for the truth to overcome ideological cynicism. In short, maybe he really is like a lot of the career intelligence officers who now find themselves leaking info left and right to raise red flags.
Conlin’s flag is likewise raised when his informant reveals that Sekou never talked with a man who is clearly too white and clean cut to ensnare an anti-American government YouTube warrior. Conlin’s dawning realization that he and Carrie have both been played by government higher-ups as patsies for something truly nefarious actually made the dynamic between them a real hook for the season.
I wasn’t surprised that Conlin ended up dead by the end of the hour. He had red shirt written all over him, but it is, I think, a mistake by the writers. As Conlin mused to Carrie on the phone, “I blame you for everything and here we are practically partners.” He used his FBI connections to trace a thread to the spook neighbour’s dummy office, some corporate and apparent intelligence shell company. Their unlikely bedfellow cooperation was a neat narrative hook about intelligence truthfinders that could’ve been used over several weeks.
But by the time he’s flashing his badge to conspiring suits, he was a dead man walking, and that was confirmed when Carrie came to his house and found he had been “cleaned out” with a bullet to the head.
The cleaners also come for Carrie, and it’s actually a tense scene because unlike last season where Carrie verged on becoming Jack Bauer by running into the Berlin metro tunnels, here she actually seemed mortal, terrified, and totally bereft of options but to flee. Her first thought isn’t to go to the press (who wouldn’t believe her) or Saul (maybe next week), but simply to make sure that Franny hasn’t been taken as leverage. I actually thought her daughter would be gone from the school, yet we were relieved only to know that the show hasn’t resorted to that heartstring-puller yet… and at least Max is now back in the series as her rock.
He’ll have to be as Peter Quinn has officially gone off the reservation. He also has his German girlfriend bailing him out of Bellevue, but that kind of last second “shock” felt more like a Dan Brown twist than the rug-pull the writers clearly intended.
Meanwhile, the hour might have been at its best when we were allowed to witness Saul perform some real cloak and dagger operations again. You can tell Mandy Patinkin relishes moments where he gets to play Saul the Spook, as opposed to the CIA’s diplomat. Finding the fawning fresh-off-the-farm agency recruit in the New York office and “forgetting” his coat so the young man can come out and leak secrets about his boss is the kind of small real-world espionage that the series has been missing during seasons 5 and most of 6. “You really were paying attention at the farm.” Indeed, he was, and can we all take that class with Saul?
Unsurprisingly, Saul sees through the New York bureau’s smoke screen and gets to the bottom of Dar Adal sending him on a wild goose chase in Israel while the false flag operation commenced. When Saul sits across from his European contact and discovers that Dar has been going behind his back with Mossad, this is the moment that reminded me of Gene Hackman beginning to proverbially look over his shoulder in Coppola’s underrated 70s masterpiece. The water reflecting on his face says what his European counterpart verbalises: you’re on the outside looking in.
I stand by my theory that Saul and Carrie will again make unlikely allies during the back-half of season 6. It’s the only way Carrie can stop the media narrative that will be swallowing her whole any day now, as well as actually getting the assassins off her back—although I think Sekou’s fate as a media scapegoat burning in effigy is irreversible at this point.
The question is how will Saul approach Dar Adal now?
In the other strong segment of the night, President-elect Keane’s storyline turned again for the better. I expected her to spend much of the rest of season 6 helplessly imprisoned in her upstate New York farmhouse, awaiting to be vilified in the media absence that Dar Adal has orchestrated. Frankly, I doubted her chief of staff ever would have made it past the literal FBI and Secret Service gatekeepers that have been instigated to keep her trapped.
But it was quite a twist that Fox News-viewing owner of the house agreed to smuggle her president-elect out and back to New York City. I especially worried since the incoming commander-in-chief looked incredibly pathetic when her keeper found her trying to steal a glance at a cellphone.
There is also something so formal and amusing about this beginning to stall semi-coup. It isn’t being executed in the bluster of news conferences, speeches, or even tweets; it’s being done with smiles by everyone, including Keane when she tells her Secret Service bodyguard over the phone that she is not running away from him—she’s simply being escorted by him back to Manhattan. “See you in New York.”
It also was a strong scene when an obvious right-leaning voter who lost her son in the Iraq War gets to confront a liberal dove president-elect who also lost a son and now wants nothing to do with the Middle East. It’s the argument between those with military history seeing the Middle East as a whole, and Iraq in particular, as an unfinished project being abandoned by the left. And the liberals see it as a sentimental sorrow being allowed to cloud the reality of unwinnable quagmires.
But it isn’t done in bombast or by either side declaring the other un-American. This is about one mother reaching another, and while they won’t agree, the former shows deference for her president, and the latter at least is reevaluating some of the rhetoric she uses to reach out to the “other” voters she did not win. It’s something we could use more of now from our current leadership and its toxic dialogue.
Overall, The Return was another impressive episode from Homeland. As a viewer who has been disappointed by most of what’s followed since season 2, and downright disliked season 5, I am beginning to see the show has finally found its footing in a post-Brody world. And as the conspiracy theories only multiply, the series will have plenty of ways to continue exploring them with its kind of political exorcism mechanisms.
If it can keep that angle, Carrie Mathison will never have been more crucial to providing a cathartic entertainment for our times.
Read David’s review of the previous episode, Casus Belli, here.