“Casus Belli,” the title of tonight’s Homeland, is often translated from the Latin as “cause of war,” but the precipitous relationship this implies—its inevitable aspect—misreads the real meaning of the phrase. According to Merriam-Webster, casus belli in fact refers to “an event or action that justifies or allegedly justifies a war or conflict”: It requires two or more parties to whir into motion, one to commit the offending act and the other to transform it into a reason to fight. In this sense, Showtime’s long-running drama, as compelling now as at any point since the end of its first season, applies the term with care. “Casus Belli” focuses not on the bombing in midtown Manhattan that concludes “A Flash of Light,” but on its usefulness to those who claim to speak for its victims. As the embittered, hangdog host of an Infowars-style program proclaims of President-elect Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel), blaming her for the attack on New York before her inauguration, “You’ve got the fight of your life.”
It’s in resisting the temptation to hunt for co-conspirators that “Casus Belli” casts its lure, and if Alex Jones is a soft target—his persona satirizes itself—the opening sequence nonetheless frames the remainder of the episode as an attempt to separate signal from noise. In unspoken league with the crackpots and cranks is Dar Adal (F.Murray Abraham), his precise, clipped speech a calming veneer for his ulterior motives: His goal, going so far as to suggest that the van’s explosives might have been meant for her, is to spook Keane into hawkishness; as he says to Saul (Mandy Patinkin) later, “She’s not chastened, exactly, but a little more open.” (It doesn’t help that the President-elect’s been whisked off to a “secure location,” cut off from her chief of staff, and left in the care of an older woman for whom conspiracy theories are bedtime viewing.) That “Casus Belli” manages to create a swirl of suspicion around this sequence without stating it outright is one of the advantages of Homeland’s deliberate pacing: Its patience squares space for our instincts to rush in, transforming the absence of information into a knot in the stomach.
It’s clear, at this point, that “the reality,” to quote Adal, is far more insidious than Saul and Keane suspect; for one thing, as Carrie learns from her NSA source, the audio that secured Sekou’s release came from a “third party,” which suggests high-level machinations to pin the bombing on a “lone wolf,” a “radical Islamic terrorist,” an “enemy combatant,” or any of the other labels our leaders use to build their casus belli. Indeed, if tonight’s episode has a unifying principle, a central theme, it’s the power of fear, the ease with which it insinuates itself into our moral calculus: “They don’t do that to tell people what’s going on,” as Carrie (Claire Danes) says of cable news, by which each crisis is subsumed within one or another prefab narrative and thus metabolized by the public. “They do that to scare people.”
That Quinn (Rupert Friend), currently Homeland’s paranoiac-in-residence, should turn out to be justified in his own casus belli might be cause for concern, but the truth is—as he says to Carrie before they’re caught in a nest of red laser sights—he has “proof,” while Adal has only prejudices. (The importance of facts is at the heart of the episode: Compare Keane’s sudden interest in right-wing vitriol, which grows from her isolation, with Saul’s concern, supported by evidence, that Mossad coached Nafisi before his interrogation.) The speed with which Quinn turns 45 minutes of babysitting into a full-blown hostage crisis is laughable—I mean, he pushes a reporter down the stairs and shoots a protestor, for Christ’s sake—but his warped conviction is engrossing enough to hold the line until the subplot’s purpose becomes apparent. In an atmosphere of constant terror, one shadowed by the very idea of “the next attack,” acting in extremis becomes the sole mechanism for amplifying the signal and drowning out the noise. As Carrie scrolls through the photographs on Quinn’s phone, then, the dangerous situation in which we find ourselves comes into sharp relief: When the only consistent feature in the life of the country is chaos, everything becomes a casus belli, and those whose power derives from fear are angling for a fight.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.