In “Imminent Risk,” Homeland nearly lost its balance, steadying itself against its allusions to the past. “Alt.Truth,” in which the series sways on this tightrope for much of the hour before finally tumbling off, possesses no such Polaris; its central theme, its basic structure, is a sort of double vision, through which it becomes impossible for both characters and viewers to distinguish fact from fiction. If it were handled more deftly, the episode’s commitment to this conceit might produce genuine fireworks—each plotline echoes precisely the same concern with regard to truth and its alternates—but by the time Quinn (Rupert Friend) emerges from that frigid lake, “Alt.Truth” is no more than a knot of contrivances, the series’ most risible installment since the end of Season Three. There’s even an unintended connection here to the episode’s thrust: As it happens, the real trust issue it raises is with Homeland itself.
Before it comes undone, however, “Alt.Truth” is a capable (if unsubtle) exploration of the ways in which our perspectives and preconceptions shape our understanding of the facts; as with the foregoing entries in the series’ sixth season, tonight’s episode is admirably attuned to the notion that new information is easily assimilated into narratives we already know. “Doesn’t sound like a hero to me,” the ultra-conservative Brett O’Keefe (Jake Weber) remarks in the opening sequence, which juxtaposes President-elect Keane’s (Elizabeth Marvel) morning routine with O’Keefe’s manipulative “exposé” on her son. As Keane examines the tiny portrait of Andrew she keeps in her locket, O’Keefe cajoles a tetchy veteran named Rudy into tarring his compatriot’s reputation, pressing the young man’s sketchy story into a familiar ideological mould. Strip this interlude of its conspiratorial language (“the world government”), though, and it mimics Carrie’s (Claire Danes) plight, in which the set of facts the Administration for Children’s Services presents in court wrongly adds up to “unfit mother”: From the same data points, we can string together a tale of courage under fire or cowardice in the ranks, a woman ably navigating mental illness or endangering her daughter with it. One need not fabricate “alternative facts” to dissemble, distract or discredit—stories can do that work for us, and also the reverse.
The unforgivable sin of “Alt.Truth,” then, is not that it wrestles with competing, even opposing narratives—of Andrew Keane’s death, of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, of Quinn’s relationship with Astrid (Nina Hoss)—but that it overplays its hand, collapsing the subject of the title into its most reductive iteration. As we learn later, for instance, O’Keefe is in contact with Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham), for whom he’s cut the footage of Keane’s last patrol into a venomous piece of propaganda. (Though O’Keefe is clearly modeled on Infowars’ Alex Jones, his name seems to be a dig at discredited “journalist” James O’Keefe.) On its own, this is satisfyingly thorny; the real O’Keefe’s misleading footage, amplified by right-wing outlets from Fox News to Breitbart, has indeed gained purchase among powerful figures in the U.S. government on more than one occasion, and the vilest lies now spout unabated from the raw sewage geyser where once the White House stood. It’s in concert with Majid Javadi’s (Shaun Toub) abrupt volte face and Quinn’s not-so-paranoid delusions that the doctored video begins to suggest the flat-footed gambit of a flailing drama, ginning up “excitement” when it can’t generate suspense.
To describe Javadi’s meeting with Keane as a cheap trick, then, is to give it too much credit—the word “trick” at least implies a successful illusion, whereas Javadi’s snake-like presence is an omnipresent reminder that he’s a duplicitous ally at best. (The question of Keane’s position, after Javadi claims—against Saul’s objections—that Iran is pursuing a parallel nuclear program in North Korea, is far more scintillating, and likely to be more consequential in the season’s home stretch.) The same might be said of Quinn’s conviction, which turns out to be both true and false, that the man observing Carrie’s apartment in “The Covenant” has tracked him upstate: As with Javadi’s short-lived collaboration with Saul, the episode’s treatment of Quinn’s suspicion is amateurish at best, predicated more on misdirection than on cultivating doubt. The insert of Quinn meeting the man in his building’s foyer, which flashes on screen as he prowls the aisles of the store, is as deceptive as O’Keefe’s tape, using an established fact to support a fiction—in this case, Homeland’s own.
In this, “Alt.Truth” hews to its title, an hour-long feint whose sole purpose, it seems, is to set up the jump scare of the sniper’s first shot. As with Keane’s dismissal of Carrie, Saul’s surprise at Javadi’s subterfuge, or O’Keefe’s contact with Adal, the effect is fleeting; having spent the season setting the table, Homeland flips it over with abandon, and all that’s left after the initial clatter is a terrible mess to clean up. Astrid’s dead, Quinn barely survives, and Carrie and Saul are frozen out of the President-elect’s decision-making, though to what end this serves the season’s arc is beyond me. “We’re in the midst of the series’ most self-conscious interlude,” I wrote last week, approvingly, and I see now that the concomitant risk is that Homeland will return not to its strengths, but to its weaknesses. It turns out that “Alt.Truth,” with reference to Brody’s death in “The Star,” is as alive to the past as “Imminent Risk,” but here the concern is that the series itself is slipping into troublesome patterns. As Carrie says of her return to the United States, “I swore to myself it would be different here. I swore to myself that I would be different. And look what happened.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.