In the opening stages of “The Flag House,” as Saul (Mandy Patinkin) prepares to flee for Athens, he meets a man in the bowels of a Diamond District warehouse. Guns, cash, mobile phones: The black duffel bag the man presents contains the full Jason Bourne escape kit, though when it comes to understanding Homeland’s thorny politics, it’s the message on the card therein that best suggests this season’s tenor. With this code, Saul lays claim to diamonds he’ll never use, for a trip he’ll never take; it’s the phrase itself that struck me, its apparent application to our protagonists’ plight.
After all, “The Flag House” finds Saul, Carrie (Claire Danes) and Quinn (Rupert Friend) caught in the vise between politics and policies, traditions and reforms, as if to illustrate the consequences of the country’s shrinking center. If the two poles, represented by President-elect Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel) and veteran operative Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham), remain the most formidable forces at play—their showdown is the episode’s centerpiece—the words in question nonetheless read as a pearl of enduring wisdom: “You can’t fall off the middle.”
“The Flag House,” the title of which refers to the staging ground for a group of Special Forces, recapitulates real-world concerns over the role of the “deep state”: It focuses on Adal’s attempt, in collaboration with ultra-conservative media figure Brett O’Keefe (Jake Weber) and his battalion of “sock puppets,” to undermine Keane’s more diplomatic approach to counterterrorism. Of course, neither Adal nor O’Keefe acts on the basis of genuine ideological conviction; the former, asked after his endgame, can’t muster more than the promise to “keep America safe,” while the latter admits that the slander of Keane’s son simply taps into online trolls’ unquenchable desire to call people pussies. The real fight here is for power itself, stripped bare of motive or purpose, and both men indulge authoritarian impulses—Adal for control, O’Keefe for adulation.
The threat this poses to the democratic process is clear, and Keane’s forthright frustration in “The Flag House” is its foremost emblem. “I am the next president of the United States. 60 million people voted for me,” she says, standing, as her voice trembles with anger. “Who the hell voted for you?” That she’s usurped by an unelected intelligence official is troubling, not least because—contra many of the leaks that have plagued the current administration—the “information” weaponized against her is “a dirty, disgusting lie.” Homeland’s sixth season has leaned too hard, perhaps, on its ripped-from-the-headlines aspect, but it deserves credit for prescience, repurposing the raw materials of our political climate in ways that continue to hold water.
If anything, the tacit acknowledgment that Keane’s gender is a factor in Adal’s opposition to her is even more compelling: Down to Marvel’s mannish posture, leaning back with her legs splayed, her confrontation with Adal points to the razor-thin line women must walk in order to be seen as “strong” by the men in their orbit. “You’re goddamn right” she’s taking it personally. Wouldn’t you?
Meanwhile, as Adal’s interference in Franny’s case convinces Carrie to abandon her deposition, and as Quinn flashes back to his young, spry, smiling self in that low-slung suburban home, tonight’s episode sees the season’s arc continue, after “Sock Puppets,” to accelerate. The characters close in on the truth about the Manhattan bombing (the Medina Medley van in the garage); about Adal’s relationship with O’Keefe (the surreptitious footage Max captures of their meeting, which he sends on to Carrie before being caught); about the truly terrifying lengths to which those in power will go in order to maintain their grasp on it (the high cost O’Keefe’s libel exacts, personally as well as politically). There is, as Keane admits, safety in silence, in retreat: “For ten years, he was safe,” she says of her son, in a tearful, tormented moment that marks Marvel as the season’s MVP. “His memory was with me, alone. And then I opened my big, fat mouth… Have these people no fucking shame?”
The answer is “No,” but against the temptation to let flight surpass fight among the characters’ political instincts, “The Flag House” offers a potent alternative. Before he departs, Saul sets a meeting with his ex-wife, Mira (Sarita Choudhury), to request her discretion. Her bewildered expression, as his directions—cleverly matched to Patinkin’s narration—lead her to an empty apartment, is pleasurable in its own right, but it also returns the episode to its structuring principle: You can’t fall off the middle. As Mira observes, the willingness to negotiate between opposing points of view isn’t simply a political position, a form of centrism that’s become unfashionable—it’s a moral one, in the sense that the refusal to steer clear of the scrum is also the refusal to be cowed by it. “I’ll be humiliated publicly,” Saul worries, much as Carrie’s humiliated by the watchful presence of ACS or Quinn’s humiliated by his ungainly stride and halting speech. The only option, Mira replies, is to hold the middle ground anyway, and by the end of “The Flag House” it finally appears as though our heroes are ready to do so: “When has that ever made the slightest bit of fucking difference to you?”
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.