“Standoff” isn’t a misnomer, exactly—conservative media figure Brett O’Keefe (Jake Weber) and newly minted national security advisor Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) come face to face… to discuss… the nature of the… political discourse—but Homeland’s latest is most intriguing when it turns its focus to Carrie (Claire Danes) and Dante’s (Morgan Spector) stakeout. Having accepted, after “Enemy of the State” and especially “Rebel Rebel,” that the only way to enjoy the series was to steer into its melodramatic skid, “Standoff,” which spends an inordinate amount of time trying (and failing) to add flesh to its subplots’ bones, is mostly an exceedingly dull disappointment. As O’Keefe assures Saul during their tête-à-tête at that Waco-esque compound, “I serve my audience”— advice that Homeland, in its late absurdist period, would do well to heed.
I did say “mostly,” though: I mean, this is an episode in which Carrie’s lithium tolerance becomes dangerous enough that her doctor prescribes Seroquel, hoping to cut her mania short, and in which Dante, her burned source, rouses her from her quetiapine-induced slumber for no discernible reason to tail the woman from Wellington’s (Linus Roache) house; in which Carrie ditches Dante to break into the woman’s home, only to be spotted by a neighbor and picked up by the police for questioning; lies incessantly about everything in order to weasel her way out of being officially booked; is forcibly fingerprinted while Carrie Crying in the middle of the precinct; and finally released after Dante pulls some strings. It’s set in motion with what can only be described as a laugh line (“I don’t have a head wound. A head wound would be a fucking relief,” she tells her poor doctor. “Can you focus?”) and concludes with her sitting on a curb near a brightly lit, completely empty football stadium pondering—you know what, who the fuck cares what she’s pondering? This detour is the sort of baldly manipulative, utterly contrived, deliriously entertaining, inadvertently funny, Shonda Rhimes-style Homeland I’m stanning for this season. “I’m grandiose,” Carrie admits to her therapist in the opening minutes. “I think we can all agree on that.” Yes! More! Keep turning up the volume until the knob melts off!
In other words: Serve. Your. Audience.
As for the rest of “Standoff,” a head wound would be a fucking relief. For one thing, there’s no tension in the ostensible standoff, unless you count waiting for Saul to counter O’Keefe’s description of bussing victimizing white folks or the existence of trans people victimizing everyone else and hearing the deafening silence of a writers’ room in which “the issues” are—at best—narrative fire alarms: BREAK ONLY IN CASE OF EMERGENCY. (Do I really expect Saul to offer criticism of O’Keefe while negotiations for his surrender are under way? Of course not. But the latter’s disquisition on the past half-century in American life isn’t doing anything for the plot, the pacing, the mood. The only potential sparks are from a disagreement that never comes.) That Homeland ultimately thinks better of O’Keefe turning himself in and unfurls an ambush of ATV-riding yahoos is proof enough that the standoff’s a whiff—at least for now. There’s always next week, because hey, filling 12 hour-long episodes is hard!
Don’t even get me started on President Keane (Elizabeth Marvel), a character so “enigmatic” (read: flatly written) that her apparent “complexities” simply spin into ideological nonsense. She’s a Gold Star mother/possible cyborg and also a committed peacenik, plus an authoritarian tyrant who commands her chief of staff to have a former rival assassinated? She’s desperate to evince strength but dismisses out of hand a relatively minor and strategically valuable attack on a weapons convoy from Iran to Assad’s regime in Syria? She’s as prim as a schoolmarm and as unsentimental as an icicle, but relies on a formerly hard-partying, mealy-mouthed apparatchik for support? Homeland, seemingly unsatisfied with this shit sandwich, decides to have Wellington betray her, going behind her back to a hawkish general (sorry, redundant) to approve the air strike anyway, this literally one week after he finally convinced her to stop going after military and intelligence officials because a few rogues in the community tried to have her assassinated. One suspects this will eventually go south for all involved. Right now, though, it’s just white noise.
Here’s the thing: Homeland is never going to get good again until the writers throw a frag grenade into the entire Keane/O’Keefe arc. It’s way beyond recovery, at this point—a thrice-baked soufflé of grave miscalculations (killing off Quinn, for one; at least they gave him tasks), topped by a cherry of undeserved self-seriousness. We’ve been here before. The last time the series went so sideways, the only out was wholesale reinvention—and the result, in Seasons Four and Five, was an acidulous, stripped-down portrait of the so-called “War on Terror” that approached, in stretches, the brilliance of Season One. All I ask of you, Homeland writers, is to serve your audience—and listen to your heroine. Yes, as Carrie points out, it’s scary as hell to go “back to the beginning again.” But sometimes you need to destroy the TV series in order to save it.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.