When his short stay in an Israeli settlement spurs an argument with a friend, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) frames his case in terms of politics, not religion: “How can you love making enemies?” he challenges her. “How can you love knowing that your very presence here makes peace less possible?” In an episode called “The Covenant,” with its connotation of the sacred bond between God and His chosen people, Saul’s turn toward the secular is telling, as if to suggest that the relationship between citizens and their government is consecrated, too.
As Homeland deepens the conflicts that will shape its sixth season—as Quinn (Rupert Friend) fights his paranoia; as Carrie (Claire Danes) fights to free Sekou (J. Mallory McCree); as President-elect Keane (Elizabeth Marvel) fights the hawkishness of Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham)—its unifying feature thus far is its increasingly explicit criticism of actions masquerading as “security” that in fact make us far less safe. As Saul says to Dar of Iran’s shadow nuclear program, the consequences of leadership by diktat and propaganda are dire indeed: “The last time we were wrong about WMDs, it turned into a national nightmare.”
It’s fitting, perhaps, that this week’s Homeland—which is, in essence, a leery glimpse into the gears of the post-9/11 “security” state—should air amid the implementation of the White House’s flagrantly un-American executive order on immigration and the ferocious, rousing public outcry against it: We’ve reached the logical next step in 15-plus years of authoritarian impulses, impulses to which the series itself has occasionally succumbed, and find ourselves recoiling at what we’ve wrought. As the FBI’s Ray Conlin (Dominic Fumusa) tells Carrie when she inquires, somewhat daftly, when we started arrested people for crimes they might commit, “Somewhere between 9/11 and Orlando.”
Their exchange comes after Carrie’s interference in Sekou’s case causes the FBI to retract his plea deal, and if the dialogue is emphatic, “The Covenant” nonetheless refuses to let its protagonist off easy. Early on, as Reda (Patrick Sabongui) bristles at Carrie’s injurious decision-making, director Lesli Linka Glatter frames the pair separated by the gray partition between two panes of glass; later, Sekou spits “You’re sorry?” at her after she attempts to apologize. The extent to which Carrie’s (self-) righteousness remains mired in the moral compromises of her CIA career is breathtaking, to the point that liberal acquiescence to U.S. foreign policy becomes one of the episode’s secondary targets. She continues, of course, to advise Keane to play ball, even if she counsels skepticism, while Keane herself, with Marvel’s impeccably cool delivery of “I wish,” struggles to balance her criticism of the intelligence community with the pleasures and responsibilities of power. Hell, Carrie’s still willing to use the government’s surveillance apparatus when it suits her: “Oh, please,” she says, incredulous, when a former colleague protests that the U.S. only collects metadata on phone conversations, rather than the content of the calls.
With Dar eavesdropping on Carrie and the President-elect and Quinn screaming through nightmares about his near-death from sarin gas, Homeland thus elaborates, as it did in its fourth and fifth seasons, a parable of the War on Terror as a war of terror, a monster of our own making. As I wrote last week, this doesn’t excuse the series’ damaging depiction of Muslims so much as suggest a sort of repentance—not unlike our own desire, as it happens, to treat the (racist) “no-fly list” as a gun control measure and then stand, aghast, as the Trump administration pushes existing “anti-terror” policies to new extremes. We can and should highlight the histories of such programs, if we’re to re-establish civil rights and the right to privacy, but this doesn’t mean we can’t take advantage of the present come-to-Jesus moment to hold the line in the meantime, and Homeland at least appears to recognize the dangers of the government’s overreach.
Where this season is going—where Saul is going, during his surreptitious departure from his friend’s home; where Quinn is going, with his Rear Window-esque observation of a figure across the way—is unclear, and I may yet end up eating my words, but so far Homeland, in particular via Saul’s journey to Abu Dhabi, seems set on illustrating the limits of our foregoing approach to “security.” In the distinction he draws, speaking to a Mossad agent, between “conclusions” and “objective evidence,” Saul not only alludes to the same reliance on “alternative facts” that propelled us into Iraq and the creation of the hideous “Muslim ban” (architect Rudy Giuliani’s words, not mine); he also reminds us of the now long-standing tradition by which our intelligence agencies place the ideological cart before the verifiable horse.
It’s worth noting, in this vein, that Saul catches the Iranian “bag man” in a lie by dint of his extensive knowledge of the provisions of the nuclear deal: The “national nightmare” we’re in, itself the product of misinformation, can only be fought effectively if we acknowledge that “intelligence” gathered by torture and mass surveillance is no intelligence at all. “The Covenant,” then, is not an argument to maintain our bonds to our government, but to respond in kind to that government’s willingness to break them. Unlike God, our leaders are not all-powerful: The social contract works both ways, and it’s high time we withdraw our consent.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.