Though its title refers (erroneously, as far as I can tell) to political bomb thrower Brett O’Keefe (Jake Weber), the inspiration for the ghastliest tattoo this side of The Resident, the most important character in “Rebel Rebel” is a computer—or, to be precise, the talking ransomware Carrie “I’m CIA, motherfucker” Mathison (Claire Danes) downloads to her laptop. Let’s set aside the fact that a highly trained intelligence operative who once directed drone strikes in Afghanistan does not know, in the year of our Lord 2018, that you don’t click on shady files posted to the furthest reaches of 4chan: I practically screamed with delight when the nameless hacker, who I will call Bane, began murmuring through the machine’s speakers. In “Rebel Rebel,” Homeland (once again) goes completely off the rails, only this time it’s as an ecstatically absurd spy thriller. It’s like they bottled one of Carrie’s episodes and mainlined it into my eyes.
I’m no medical professional, so I can’t say with assurance whether Carrie’s therapist is correct that her lithium treatment has become ineffective, but it seems clear that she’s unraveling—because she’s broke, because she’s at loggerheads with her sister (Amy Hargreaves), because Saul (Mandy Patinkin) has joined the Keane administration as national security advisor, because she has the White House chief of staff’s home lit up like a Christmas tree with surveillance cameras. In short, because launching into a striptease for an anonymous cybercriminal with the phrase “So what if I’m a freak?” and then agreeing to meet at his darkened murder warehouse are not signs of someone who’s thriving, even if she does manage to whip him into submission by episode’s end. Still, the fight sequence that caps off “Rebel Rebel” and Carrie’s subsequent threats—more Diehard than Homeland, to be honest—are admirably wild creative choices, so thoroughly off-key they almost work. (See also: the stomach-churning silhouette of Bane’s face, saliva visibly smacking in his mouth, as he directs Carrie to undress.)
Emphasis on the “almost.” Carrie’s ploy has the benefit of being blissfully absent “politics,” at least in the Beltway sense of the term; I read it as a particularly twisted and surprisingly satisfying rendition of a trope familiar from Alias, The Americans, even Homeland itself, in which the heroine uses sex, and her adversary’s misogyny, to achieve an objective. (The fact that she first encounters Bane on a message board crawling with repellent comments about the president’s “fuckability,” for lack of a better term, only adds to the episode’s gratifying climax, in which she kicks his sorry ass.) The rest of “Rebel Rebel”—most of Homeland, at this point—is such a witless confusion of real-life analogues that its attempts at something resembling political commentary resemble, well, 4chan shitposts. In writing around, through, under, and over the specter of Trump—basically, in re-jiggering an arc seemingly inspired by Clinton to respond to the fact that she lost the election—Homeland has had to create its own alternate universe, one in which certain specifics are the same (“This Hitler in the White House,” “the resistance,” fierce anti-FBI sentiment), but the broader picture is a muddle.
For me, this is attributable to the fact that O’Keefe has no real convictions—as suggested by both his “lunatic fringe” remark and that glorified slapstick at the pistol range—and no personal texture, either. Nor, for that matter, does President Keane (Elizabeth Marvel), her commitment to retooling the U.S. approach to the War on Terror having been long since abandoned by the writers’ room. I think it can be fairly be described as a problem when the two explicitly “political” characters in your ripped-from-the-headlines, D.C.-set drama are a Rush Limbaugh puppet and a “castrating bitch” meme come to life, but hey, that’s just one man’s opinion. Toss in O’Keefe’s (correct) “conspiracy theory” that Wellington (Linus Roache), Keane’s top aide, orchestrated McClendon’s death; his rural, ultra-conservative well-wishers; his lip service to gun nuts; and his promise of (violent) “revolution,” and he’s exactly what you’d expect of a centrist, female president’s most vocal opponent. Except that president’s an ice-cold tyrant who ordered the assassination of an American general and the series’ protagonist considers a threat to the country.
I suppose there’s potential here for a fruitful “strange bedfellows” narrative—Carrie joining forces with a conservative TV host to dismantle a corrupt presidency; Saul accepting a place in the administration, presumably hoping to change it from within—but so far, at least, the season’s plot and its referents in our universe line up so awkwardly it just feels like cowardice—a desire to capitalize on the current atmosphere in Washington without acknowledging, much less examining, the ideological particulars thereof. Even Saul, describing the resistance to the feds he finds in that east-of-nowhere mattress store, idealizes the American past by comparing it to the Iraqi, Afghan, and Syrian present, though the fact is, as the self-proclaimed rebel of O’Keefe’s entourage suggests, the separatist militias of our own present can count the Confederacy, the Lost Cause, the rise of white supremacist terror, and the death of Reconstruction among their (age-old) antecedents.
Stripped, quite literally, of this moronic political shellac, Homeland reinvents itself once again, at least for a moment—this time as an unapologetically over-the-top tradecraft soap opera, a spy-game Scandal with a manic pitch. This, at least, is the series at its most honest: “I’m CIA, motherfucker” made me cheer for Carrie in my living room, but it also acknowledges that American politics has always been about force.
Read all of Paste’s episodic reviews of Homeland here.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.