In 2013, as a fledgling freelancer and not-yet-lapsed graduate student in U.S. history, I drew up a proposal for a short, digital-only monograph on Homeland. Though the pitch went nowhere—I had neither the time nor the money to submit a draft on spec—my interest in the series never wavered, even as Season Three sailed headlong into one after another narrative dead end: I recapped the fourth season for Slant Magazine, filed an Emmy column on the fifth for Indiewire, and decided, after becoming TV editor at Paste, to assign reviews of the sixth to myself. The point is, Homeland still fascinates me—for both its merits and its flaws—as surely as it did four years ago, when I first outlined my argument:
The result is a powerful and disconcerting allegory of the United States in the post-9/11 era—Terrorism: A Love Story. Carrie’s theory about Brody begins with a legitimate, if incautious, desire to prevent the next attack, but soon sends her into a psychological tailspin. As both CIA analyst and romantic partner, she’s drawn ever closer to her target, who is, until the climactic moment in the [Season One] finale, in fact planning a suicide bombing. Similarly, the U.S. government began the so-called War on Terror with the legitimate desire to prevent a repeat of the 9/11 attacks. In the years since, though, the prospect of “terrorism” seems increasingly to be used as a justification for any application of power, at home or abroad. Like Carrie, Washington hawks have fallen in love with terrorism, even while crazed by the fear of it—it is, after all, the raison d’être of the CIA, the NSA, the Defense Department, and the Department of Homeland Security. Like Carrie in Homeland, the apparatus of “Homeland Security” requires “terrorism” in order to function, and thus fails to judge adequately any question of means versus ends. It is now difficult to determine where the War on Terror (armed conflict, drones, NSA surveillance, heightened vigilance) ends and the reasons behind terrorist attacks (armed conflict, drones, NSA surveillance, heightened vigilance) begin.
After Carrie’s (Claire Danes) conversation with Sekou (J. Mallory McCree) in the latter stages of “A Flash of Light,” I dredged up what I’d written from my laptop’s hard drive, concerned that my description of the series might not be as I remembered it. What I found instead was confirmation—confirmation, at least, that my earlier reading of Homeland was not so far from the series’ evolving self-conception. “This whole country went stupid crazy after 9/11,” as Carrie admits, “and no one knows that better than I do.”
One might in fact see this season as Homeland’s attempt to reckon with itself, of which tonight’s episode is an explicit example: The rancor that emerges among the characters, their constellation of ideological and tactical disagreements, appear to be fueled by long-gestating frustrations, held in reserve until rushing forth. On the side of the status quo: Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham), the anonymous intelligence officials who accuse President-elect Keane (Elizabeth Marvel) of “accommodating” state sponsors of terrorism, and the Mossad operative who detains Saul (Mandy Patinkin) in Israel. On the side of reform—not, it should be noted, of a radical volte-face in U.S. policy: Carrie, Keane and Saul. Perhaps most striking, for a series in which the emotional thermostat is most often set to “frigid,” is the fact that the exchanges among members of these loose contingents are fueled by contempt, even rage; as Keane takes Adal to task for “peddling… horseshit to the press,” or Carrie blinks back tears after he turns up at her daughter’s school, it’s clear that their disgust with the state of affairs is no longer an abstraction. “No, you stand down,” Carrie snarls. “You had your turn—50 fuckin’ years of it—and look where we are now.”
That Homeland complicates my schema even as it assumes its shape explains, in part, why “A Flash of Light” never quite slips into didacticism, though I must confess that the political climate has softened me to series in which the treatment of the times is more forthright than I might otherwise accept. As Reda (Patrick Sabongui) notes, Carrie remains open to the techniques of clandestine organizations when it suits her purposes (applying pressure to Conlin, for instance), and Keane’s desire for “leverage” over Adal suggests that she’s no moral lodestar, either. Though it’s since brought us to Pakistan and Germany, the series is as much an examination of the many meanings of “Homeland Security” as it was in its first three seasons, attuned to the structuring logic of the post-9/11 era, which is that the dual goalposts of means and ends can be shifted, without consequence, to meet the moment. Homeland no longer endorses this line of thought, if it ever did, but “A Flash of Light” counts as its most fervent critique to date: To continue as we have, Carrie suggests, is to embrace a form of national derangement, in which our greatest fear becomes our animating force.
In this context, the characters most skeptical of America’s tattered empire, Sekou and Iranian intelligence chief Majid Javadi (Shaun Toub)—last seen in the Season Three finale—constitute a third contingent, one that frames the revanchists and the reformers alike as inhabitants of the same political ecosystem, haggling over questions of degree, not kind. “Half your country will wake up tomorrow convinced that we’re cheating, and half of mine will wake up chanting ‘Death to America,’ Javadi tells Saul under cover of darkness. “That is the truth. Only you would call it succeeding.” “Good,” Sekou whispers, nearly inaudible, when Carrie claims offense at his understanding of the world. Homeland refuses to endorse this line of thought, too, but it no longer suggests, if it ever did, that the nation’s critics, and indeed its foes, aren’t worth understanding. At minimum, the cure for our ailment cannot be to double down on the same strategies.
As it turns out, the flash of light in “A Flash of Light” is not the detonation of a nuclear weapon, as Adal and Saul’s Israeli counterpart fear—it is Sekou’s incineration by the bomb that’s been placed, unbeknownst to him, in the back of his delivery van. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s been set up; his surprise at the two beeps that precede the explosion, along with the fact that Quinn (Rupert Friend) trails his mark to the Medina Medley lot, points to a much deeper conspiracy. It may be my own fear that the rule of law in this country is more fragile than ever, or the series’ indication that hard-liners within the government, Adal included, are eager for an excuse to crack down, but it seems to me that Homeland is now poised to pen the next chapter in America’s sordid love affair with the War on Terror, this time with clearer eyes than ever before. “A Flash of Light,” after all, returns the series to Ground Zero, the fateful moment from which the grim history of the last decade-plus has descended. “You’re needed back home,” the Mossad agent says to Saul at episode’s end. “There’s been an attack on New York.”
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.