Though “The Return” is, in the scheme of Homeland’s sixth season, an interstitial episode—it rather precipitously scuttles President-elect Elizabeth Keane’s (Elizabeth Marvel) “sequestration” in upstate New York, and buries Quinn (Rupert Friend) in a psychiatric institution closer to Dickens than John le Carré—its aesthetic is pointed and purposeful. Though the series is not without traces of stylistic invention, it only rarely draws attention to its formal (as opposed to narrative) choices, which is why “The Return” is so striking; again and again, director Alex Graves underlines the central thrust of Charlotte Stoudt’s script, which is its heightened attention to a set of interlocking conspiracies. At the heart of the episode, in fact, is the sequence in which FBI Special Agent Ray Conlin (Dominic Fumusa) encounters the turning gears of the surveillance state, cloaked in the private sector’s preference for secrets and shell corporations. As if to match Conlin’s curious conversation with an eager job applicant, the episode’s depiction of an office building’s sterile sub-basement, featureless and foreboding, raises more questions than it answers. All we know, as Carrie (Claire Danes) suggests in her troubling exchange with Quinn, is that the government is the sole entity capable of this level of opacity: “Deep fuckin’ spook,” she says of the mysterious figure from across the street, shaken by the very acknowledgement.
If “The Return” fails to capitalize on the unsettling presence of Keane’s host—I half expected her to drive the president-elect straight into the arms of her enemies—or create much suspense around Quinn’s rendezvous with his former lover, Astrid (Nina Hoss), a member of the German intelligence services, the episode nonetheless animates the speed with which the bombing of New York becomes, as I wrote last week, part of the nation’s casus belli. As Carrie points out to Conlin, even if Sekou was in on the attack, the bomb’s maker is still at large, and yet the president calls for his successor to shore up the PATRIOT Act by framing the assumed perpetrator as “a young man filled with hate,” as if the failure here was to collect sufficient information on his online radicalization. That Conlin is murdered by the aforementioned “spook” is enough to suggest the opposite: The real danger stems from the government’s lack of transparency, not its citizens’. (This seems to be the reason Keane, an ardent critic of the deep state’s unchecked power, has been sidelined; her unequivocal call for a “new strategy” in the War on Terror, after her host sneaks her out of the compound so she can return to Manhattan, is the episode’s most satisfying moment, proof that the president-elect refuses to be cowed by the likes of Dar Adal.)
It’s worth noting that Homeland’s growing suspicion of the hawks inside the intelligence community is not a form of principled resistance to their tactics; “The Return,” in particular Graves’ direction of two exchanges involving Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), also portrays tradecraft as a tool of those whose motives we trust. As he presses a fresh-faced agent for information, or leans on a longtime source, the camerawork fosters a potent sense of Saul’s subterfuge—the earlier moment’s off-center composition and the latter’s decisive focus are both indications that he’s now operating outside the lines. This is “slippery slope” territory (the idea that such extracurricular activities can be justified in the “right” circumstances is what created this mess in the first place), but each conversation is sketched in such compelling terms that it feels like a genuine attempt to grapple with the blurry boundary between the ideological and the pragmatic. “We backchannel for our bosses, turn down the temperature, keep the peace,” Saul says. “Such as it is.”
Saul’s admission that the tenuous “peace” forged since 9/11 is a hollow one—a peace sustained by constant war and omnipresent surveillance, by the sacrifice of sons and daughters to a conflict with no clear end—has long since become Homeland’s true subject, and the regret that Carrie, Saul, and Keane express in “The Return” sends the season into its second half with an identifiable undercurrent of bitterness. After all, the blame for our failed “peace” doesn’t fall only on the architects of the country’s worst excesses; the expansion of the deep state has, at every stage, required the consent of senators and analysts and ordinary citizens too easily swayed by claims of expedience. Carrie’s description of Conlin’s murderer thus reads, at least to me, as more than an assessment of the facts. It is also, in its fearful clarity, a reckoning with the consequences. The terror our actions once sought to salve is now their foremost byproduct: “Spook” is exactly the word for it.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.