The torture of a sitting senator. The attempted assassination of the president-elect. The death of a stalwart character. Gunfire. Explosions. Political purges. “America First,” which closes the book on an otherwise sedate season of Homeland, has all the elements of a 24-style thriller, but beyond “the kill zone,” as Carrie (Claire Danes) calls it—to the shell-shocked chagrin of Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel)—the episode’s action is sorely misguided, constructing a coda that seems more interested in setting up the series’ seventh season than putting a punctuation mark on this one. For 26 minutes, Homeland fulfills expectations, throwing the viewer into its maelstrom with blunt efficiency; the remainder of the episode upsets expectations, making a mess of what came before.
As it dawns on Carrie that the Special Forces operating out of the suburban safe house poses a threat to the president-elect’s life, “America First” whirs into motion. Saul (Mandy Patinkin) attempts to assuage Keane’s fear that her appearance on The Real Truth has done more harm than good. (“What you did took balls,” he jokes. “People like a president with balls.”) Carrie and Quinn (Rupert Friend) head for the city with a warning. Dar (F. Murray Abraham) gathers that his plan to weaken Keane before she assumes office has spun out of control, and whatever his rationale for doing so—loyalty to Quinn, the desire to avoid punishment, genuine distress at the thought of such treason—it’s his phone call to Carrie that ultimately protects Keane from incineration. For a moment, at least, the season’s many moving parts click together, and the result is a torrid sequence in the bowels of a Manhattan hotel, as Carrie and Keane evade two merciless gunmen: From the murder of the leader of the president-elect’s Secret Service detail to her emergence from that black SUV comprises a few minutes at most, but it’s one of the highlights of the season.
Were Homeland to exhibit the patience it asks of its audience—stretching the tension to the length of the episode, or at least refusing to gloss Quinn’s death with a mere mention of his memorial service—the episode might count as a fitting cap to a solid, if unspectacular, season. As it stands, though, the final act of “America First” transforms more than 11 hours’ worth of staunch resistance to heedless militarism, the “deep state,” ultra-conservative commentators and alt-right media hoaxes into a moral muddle, one that might suit the tenor of the times but fails to suggest that the foregoing narrative was built atop any identifiable ideological position. With due respect to Marvel’s sterling performance—most notably, the chilling calm Keane exudes when Carrie arrives, screaming, at the Oval Office door—the implication that she’s a tyrant-in-waiting dangles off the end of the season as if clinging to a cliff for dear life. “This is payback, pure and simple,” Carrie says, enraged, at Keane’s intelligence community housecleaning, though Homeland refuses to leave it at that: What would Carrie corkboard next season, if not “the real truth” about the woman she once admired?
It’s not the idea that power corrupts I object to; in fact, as Carrie’s involvement in the drone war in Season Four made clear, the compromises of characters we hold in esteem are a rich vein of material. It is, rather, the clumsy handling, the way the image of Keane coolly sipping water at the Resolute Desk confirms the suspicions of both Dar Adal and Brett O’Keefe (Jake Weber), all condensed into such a short space of time that there’s no room to introduce the sort of nuance on which Homeland thrives. Is it altogether surprising that Keane, already skeptical of the intelligence agencies, should use the attempt on her life as an excuse to exert control? No. Is it worrisome that “America First,” perhaps inadvertently, frames this in a fashion that undermines its admirably hard-edged treatment of the hawks in the government? Yes, not least because it’s so inconsistent with the rest of Season Six, dramatically speaking: There’s little indication, before “America First,” that Keane has ulterior motives, or that she’d embrace Stalinesque tactics without pause.
What we’re left with is the sense that Dar Adal, erstwhile villain, is correct to cite Graham Greene, that his justification for his actions holds water. “They’re the only real measure of a nation’s political health, the one true expression of its subconscious, he says of the “secret services,” with his usual arrogance. “What I did was unforgivable, Saul, but I’m not sure it was wrong. There’s something off about her, the president, I mean… Something distinctly un-American.”
In abler hands, one might read between the lines and see the season’s central theme, which is that imperial adventures abroad are as American as baseball and apple pie, woven into the troubling fabric of the nation. But “America First,” despite the declarative simplicity of the title, does more to obscure this perspective than to clarify or critique it; the suspense that accompanied the season’s astute politics evaporates in the episode’s latter stages, as if it never existed at all. With reference to the novel in which Quinn hides his few keepsakes, Homeland fails to follow through on the promise of “A Flash of Light,” which was to offer a form of self-reflection our foreign policy dangerously lacks: Great Expectations, dashed.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.