While the first few episodes of Homeland's sixth season were maybe not the most exciting hours of television in recent memory, they've at least worked to build a relatively interesting story so far. Carrie Matheson has given up the tradecraft and international espionage, instead working in New York as a civil rights lawyer, and it's becoming more and more likely her most recent client has been set up to look like a material supporter of terrorism. Saul Berensen and Dar Adal are up against an incoming President-Elect who lost a son in Iraq and appears intensely disdainful of the intelligence community. Peter Quinn is still recovering from the Sarin gas to which he was exposed last season and Carrie, feeling guilty for his condition, takes him in and offers to care for him. Each story thread is ripe with subtext, is compelling of its own accord (so long as they're written well, which they have been so far), and offers the show a lot to think about and plenty to chew on thematically. All of this gets thrown out the window, though, in favor of a hostage situation that derails the entire episode (if not the entire season) and seems less fitting for Homeland than it does for its dumb bro of a younger cousin, 24.
Homeland is an interesting specimen of a series. It kicked off with an absolutely brilliant first season, but found itself painted into a corner when it realized it had exhausted its engaging central premise pretty quickly. After tapping the Brody storyline out in its first season and a half, Homeland had to figure out what kind of show it wanted to be. Eventually it settled on examining the way United States foreign policy impacts the lives of those who draft it, enforce it, and are on the receiving end of it. The results, as any longtime viewer can attest, have been varied. Some seasons crackle with timely sociopolitical commentary and plotting that tends to zag when most viewers might expect a zig (the show's bucking of traditional season structure a reflection of the jazz motif present in its opening title sequence). Other seasons have left viewers wondering when something exciting is going to happen and found their suspension of disbelief strained near its breaking point when it did. Season two gives a good example of this: "Q&A" offers a deep dive into the Carrie/Brody relationship and why it works the way it does, giving us one of the series' best episode — by a long shot — only to be all but negated a few episodes later when Carrie runs into a scary mill unarmed at the end of "Two Hats." Homeland seems to have a consistent problem with veering from thoughtful and timely to sensational and silly, and this sixth season seems to be no exception.
In all fairness, the season's primary plot is an interesting one so far. It's mostly been focused on Carrie and her relationship with new client Seykou Bah. Carrie, working as a civil rights lawyer, takes on Seykou's case when he is arrested by the FBI for materially supporting terrorism. In his spare time, Seykou posts videos online in which he is strongly critical of the United States government, and all but outright praises terrorists who have committed various attacks around New York. His online presence is dedicated to discussing, if not outright fetishizing, these attacks. It's obviously not a good look, but Carrie's job is to determine whether or not he's actually doing anything illegal, and she doesn't believe that he has. The rest of the details I'm just going to bullet point, because they get a little complicated. To wit:
- Seykou makes videos discussing and praising terrorist attacks; his pal Saad is usually the cameraman.
- Saad is also an FBI confidential informant.
- At some point, the FBI set their sights on Seykou and told Saad — knowing that Seykou would be visiting Nigeria, which is the home base for terrorist outfit Boko Haram — to give Seykou $5,000 and ask him to meet with a prominent terrorist leader.
- Seykou refused the meeting and would not take the money to the terrorist, but the FBI insisted that Saad give it to him anyway (knowing, one assumes, how bad it would look).
- Seykou is arrested for materially supporting terrorism on the strength of his videos, his ticket to Nigeria, and the $5,000 in cash that was hidden under his mattress.
- Carrie discovers that Saad was a CI and meets him, against the court's orders. Saad reports this, so the FBI withdrawals their plea deal and prepares to take Seykou to trial.
- Carrie talks to an old NSA contact and asks for a recording of a conversation between Saad and his FBI handler. The contact says no, and reports it up the chain. Carrie is then delivered the tape by an unknown third party.
- The tape exonerates Seykou and makes the FBI look bad, so they drop the case altogether. Seykou is set free.
- Some short period of time later, Seykou is driving his van for work when it explodes, making it look as though he perpetrated the attack just as soon as Carrie got him released from custody.
Frankly, all of this works, and it works pretty well. We've got a potential false flag attack on our hands, and I'm always in for a good bit of government conspiratorial intrigue. The plot surrounding Seykou is an interesting one, and Seykou is a fantastic character to put at the center of it. Even though we don't know a staggering amount of information about him, Seykou is an interestingly layered character just on the surface. He clearly has some beliefs that most of us wouldn't agree with, but what we know of his backstory (particularly the parts about his displaced father) points to a very understandable anger and shows us a kid whose youth and confusion has perhaps led him to the most toxic possible outlet for that anger. When it comes down to it, though, it's clear that Seykou is angry, hurt, and scared...as opposed to being dangerous, calculating, and violent. He represents a lot of the fears and anxieties felt by groups both within and without the United States right now, and his treatment by the government — as well as the way his family gets caught in the crosshairs — is all too familiar to far too many people right now.
All of this character work and engaging plotting, though, is massively undercut by the Peter Quinn subplot, which seems to dominate way too much of this episode and threatens to drive the entire season straight off the rails. Quinn is in the midst of a difficult recovery from his Sarin gas exposure in season 5. He's doing himself a bunch of drugs, hanging out with prostitutes, listening to an Alex Jones analogue nonstop, and generally just freaking out and being a huge basket case. Carrie took him in when he got himself kicked out of the VA hospital where he was recovering, but he's really been making it tough for her not to regret that decision. To top it all off, he goes ahead and fills most of "Casus Belli" (a Latin term describing an act that provokes war) with a stupid hostage situation. Carrie's status as Seykou's lawyer has attracted a ton of intrusive reporters to Carrie's house, where Quinn, Frannie, and the babysitter are staying while Carrie is out dealing with Seykou's situation. The intrusive reporters outside cause a situation that escalates to the point where Quinn shoots a civilian from inside the house, inadvertently taking Frannie and her babysitter hostage and sparking a police standoff with a SWAT team called in and the whole nine yards. Nobody listens to Carrie telling the police that Quinn is a former Black Ops soldier with hardcore PTSD, nobody stops some asshole from throwing rocks at someone's house, and none of this mess makes any actual dramatic sense. This is a show that is way better than putting Carrie's daughter and nanny in semi-peril during a contrived hostage situation. Truly, this is this cougar chasing Kim Bauer through the Angeles National Forest in the second season of 24.
What makes this development even more inexcusable is the fact that Quinn's storyline was actually a pretty compelling one so far. He was certainly on a rapid downward spiral, but his episodes leading up this one had the ability to show how dire his situation was and even be a little bit shocking or disturbing without diving into silly melodrama the way this hostage situation does. Also irritating is that Homeland seems to be ignoring some rich opportunity to explore the true price a soldier can pay after a life serving his country in the vital and highly secretive way that Quinn did, but instead we're treated to an overblown and completely melodramatic hostage situation that belongs on another show altogether.
"Casus Belli" is a very mixed bag of an episode. Season six had mostly been on a good track so far, but this entry threatens to upend a lot of the good that had been done. Quinn's subplot so far is only tangentially connected to Carrie's plot, and it's looking like the one thing that actually does them might be sheer coincidence. We'll see what comes next; it'd be awesome if the show just forgot all about this Quinn nonsense and focused on the Seykou conspiracy, but that's unlikely. Either way, Homeland is going to have to spend the next episode or two in recovery mode.
Oh, and also...
• So it actually does look like the Seykou conspiracy is being set up to be some kind of actual false flag attack, set up somewhere within the government. I guess this is why we're getting so much Fake Alex Jones. That clearly-British actor is really struggling with that American accent, though. And so am I.
• The writing for Frannie is some of the most god-awful this show has served up in all of its wildly uneven run. I was so, so glad when I thought we were done with child characters after the Brody Family was no longer part of the show.
• I liked Quinn so much better when he was just hitting a dude with a sock that had a can of Coke in it. Are we really supposed to believe (and I know it's early, but at this point it seems likely) that one of the agents responsible for planting the bomb in Seykou's van just happened to be operating out of an apartment across the street from Carrie's? I'm really hoping we find out that's more than just simple coincidence.