Homeland Season 8 Episode 5 Review: Chalk Two Down

Homeland confronts the sins of the War on Terror's past in a thrilling season 8 installment that sets the table for what's to come.

Homeland Season 8 Episode 5 Review Chalk Two Down
Photo: Showtime

This Homeland review contains spoilers.

Homeland Season 8 Episode 5

Tonight the real existential conflict of Homeland Season 8 appeared to be revealed. While Carrie Mathison has been on a journey of reclamation for years, the series wants to now grapple with the character and integrity of America itself in the 21st century. That was self-evident from the first episode that returned viewers’ attention—likely for the first time in years in some cases—to Afghanistan. It was the first major conflict the United States pursued after Sep. 11, 2001, and it continues still as our longest war.

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Going into season 8, I suspected the final season would be about a reckoning with our unending War on Terror, as well as a perhaps overly optimistic vision of finding peace. The final season appears dedicated to both aspects, but in the ashes of President Warner’s helicopter crash from last week, it appears Homeland’s interests have much less to do with war than they do with the American psyche… particularly in a time when facts hardly matter.

Last week I made an assumption that President Warner and the Afghan president’s chopper was shot down by Taliban forces loyal to Haqqani’s wayward son. After all, we did see the Taliban obliterate the second helicopter. However, the danger of assumptions turns out to be crucial in “Chalk Two Up,” an episode that brings to mind current debates about false information, fake news, and how presumptive policy can just result in more tragedy. Are we really any better in 2020 than we were in 2001 and 2002 when American policymakers used 9/11 attacks as an on-ramp toward generational Middle East conflict?

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Saul Berenson, played ever so gruffly yet affectionately by Mandy Patinkin—like the perfect inspirational professor you never had—articulated this point when he begins the episode practically choking on the hoarseness of these thoughts:

“The vice president just said it doesn’t matter what actually happened,” Saul croaks. When Carrie tries to assuage his fears, he fires back, “It fucking matters. It determines what we do next. You want realistic? We’ve been through this before after 9/11. We did everything wrong.”

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What Saul is correctly asserting is that we don’t actually know why President Warner’s helicopter crashed, nor did we even know at that point in the episode if he was alive. I made a rushed assumption last week just like Vice President Ben Hayes, a dithering war hawk, and such assumptions can steer nations toward disasters: like running toward a war in Iraq even though the nation had nothing to do with 9/11, all while neglecting Afghanistan for years.

We’d like to think we know better now, but the current American government is run by a man who actively tries to subvert facts and blur the truth. In the last week, the real-world President of the United States tried to haggle with the World Health Organization about the mortality rate among those infected by COVID-19, as if this was a price point in negotiating a beauty pageant’s marketing budget. But facts, as Saul notes, do fucking matter, and if you ignore them, you court calamity. It happened to America at the beginning of the 21st century and it can happen again… it’s certainly happening on Homeland.

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We get to speculate as much while watching Vice President Hayes effectively become president. At the beginning of the episode, he is as aghast as everyone else to learn that President Warner’s helicopter crashed. He also uses it as an opportunity to berate Saul (setting up Saul realizing he just became powerless under the new regime inside of a minute) and bemoan the current situation. His kneejerk reaction is to believe Warner was shot down, which is a fair assumption to begin working off one set of options from. However, he thinks that is the only option, saying Haqqani and perhaps all of Afghanistan are uneducated bad faith actors. One almost suspects he’d like to use the word “savage.”

Yet when he gets confirmation later in the episode that Warner is dead, he seems genuinely shaken and close to a tear. This took me by surprise, as Hayes was introduced as having his own political ambitions to run against Warner, acting as a fictional reminder for why there will never again be presidents and vice presidents of opposing political parties. Sure enough when disaster struck, he began immediately dismantling everything Warner was working toward. With that said, he seemed to mourn the loss of an American president and his predecessor.

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But as the episode carries on, we learn a lot more about Hayes, and begin seeing him as ineffectual and indecisive. That is not to say he minds the trappings: we learn he is more interested in moving into the Oval Office than making the tough call as to whether to bomb the crash site with the president’s body (more on that in a moment).

Trammell is an interesting actor. For eight years he played affability personified on True Blood and has an innate friendliness that you imagine would be a useful tool for any politician. He is not being presented as a mustache-twirling caricature or some kind of opportunistic liar. Rather he appears, in some way, to be a ghost of President George W. Bush. The writers have introduced a potentially likable guy and put him in way over his head. The writers room subtly evokes how Bush was shocked and unsure of what to do on 9/11, or at least when he was told America was under attack and sat in a classroom in front of cameras looking petrified for almost 10 minutes. (History now suggests Vice President Dick Cheney ran most of the nation’s immediate response at the top that day.)

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Hayes is a guy in over his head, with preconceived notions about what the “truth” in Afghanistan is. That can be just as deadly as a president who had preconceived notions about the “truth” of Iraq in the scary days after a devastating terrorist attack.

Of course the irony is it might not be a terrorist attack on Homeland tonight. I still believed it was so while Patinkin gave new shadings to resignation by becoming despondent and sending Carrie into the field. I also suspected as much when he called Haqqani. It’s disquieting when the National Security Advisor can tell the head of the Taliban, “I believe you but no one else will,” but it’s also acutely realistic. We the audience can see Haqqani is on the level with Saul, but even I still suspected his son had something to do with this. Either way though, Saul’s hopes for a peaceful resolution to the Afghan War went up in smoke when he begged Haqqani to get out of the city.

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And sure enough, Vice President G’ulom became President G’ulom in Afghanistan and signaled he intended to keep American and Pakistani interests wedded to his own for another 20 years as he revealed to the world that both America and Afghanistan’s commander-in-chiefs were dead. He also introduced what is clearly a false narrative to the public: their helicopter was shot down on the orders of Haqqani. Once you put misinformation out into the world, particularly as a head of state, there is no walking it back. Not really. It spreads like a virus.

Meanwhile during all of this, however, Carrie Mathison’s initially wild seeming goose chase reveals something frustratingly believable: there’s a chance the helicopter simply malfunctioned. Showing how instantly powerless he’s become, Saul makes Carrie (and later Max) his unofficial avatars, because he has lost any hard authority under Hayes’ faltering leadership. But Carrie goes to the Air Force base expecting to uncover a mole or conspiracy like this was an episode of 24 (or Homeland during its dark middle-era seasons). Instead she discovers the engineer who worked on Warner’s helicopter and suggested they switch birds ran off base to… visit his secret pregnant Afghani girlfriend. He suggested changing helicopters because these birds sometimes just have mechanical issues.

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It’s a fair point, which is one of the many reasons why, in reality, the Secret Service would never allow the POTUS to chopper into the frontline of a warzone. But it creates a hell of a pickle for ripe television conflict. While it is still possible Haqqani the Younger is responsible for the downed helicopter thanks to miraculous intelligence from the Russians, here is a plausible alternative series of events:

Warner’s helicopter suffers mechanical failures and crashes. The ensuing explosion not only attracts the back-up chopper but nearby Taliban warlords who indeed were observing the ceasefire, but then mistake the explosion to be an act of war. They see another helicopter with guns mounted and assume the Americans are the aggressors and shoot it down. Now a series of mistakes is marching us on the path toward oblivion.

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It may not be so cut and dry, but the horror for Saul and Carrie is we might never know. Because sure enough, when Max’s military cheerleaders reach the crash site with our favorite Langley IT guy, it is swarming with Taliban hostiles. So many that this single military unit is unable to hold the ground long enough to secure Warner’s body. They however are able to confirm that it is Warner’s body, and the audience, including myself, can believe them because Max is with them and saw the corpse for himself.

The president is dead, and with him dies a chance for a happy ending. Still, there might be a way to avert ramping up the Afghan War yet again. They just need to find evidence that the helicopter crashed because of possible engine failure instead of a rocket. But the attacking Taliban forces make that impossible as they slaughter all those poor soldiers we spent the last four episodes… well, tolerating if not outright liking.

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To be completely honest, the Max subplot of season 8 has been the year’s weak link, and that didn’t change now even as it left Max on the ground for easily the most suspenseful sequence of the first five episodes. But I’m glad he’s there, and I’m even happier he seemed to survive. All around him, the other soldiers we’ve spent time with drop one by one, and I grimaced each and every time, because even if they were poorly developed characters, seeing American service men slaughtered on the front line in the Middle East is always disturbing.

As they fall, it becomes impossible for Hayes to do anything but order the incineration of the helicopter crash site. If the Taliban were to claim Warner’s body, and it was stripped naked and paraded in front of cameras… well, the damage that could do on the American psyche is immeasurable. Nevertheless, the fact one president is ordering the desecration of his predecessor’s body is also a grim precedent that will come back to haunt future episodes. And that bomb means there will be no evidence of anything to counteract G’uolm’s fake news about Haqqani ordering the helicopter of being shot down.

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That is save perhaps the vehicle’s flight recorder, which at the cost of several American lives, Max is able to barely retrieve. The white knuckle suspense of these final 10 minutes proves Homeland can still fire on all cylinders. And its retrieval means there might be a path toward deescalating tensions and preventing this moment from becoming another 9/11 flashpoint.

Maybe. Because Max saves the flight recorder but is captured with it by the Taliban. Where does this leave Max, Carrie, and Saul going forward? That’s a good question. I thought season 8 would be about rescuing a kidnapped POTUS from behind enemy lines, but it now looks like it will be a desperate scramble just to lay their hands on evidence that might prove a POTUS died due to extraordinarily bad luck, as opposed to assassination. Then again the wheels of retribution are already turning, and will finding facts after political narratives are already enacted even matter? Can truth still matter?

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This, in the context of America’s decades of Middle East war and the legacy it leaves, is the final story of Homeland. And it’s one I am riveted to see explored, even if I think I know the grim truth already.

Rating:

5 out of 5