There were a lot of extraordinary moments in the “Homeland” season 6 finale, “America First,” and nearly all of them underscored what the show does best: Walking the tightrope of ethical acrobatics, revealing every imaginable moral gradation between the concepts of right and wrong. The episode also serves as a horribly subversive reminder to be careful of what you wish for.
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that we’ve been handed most of the plot points we could have hoped for at the season’s outset — Dar and his co-conspirators like General McClendon (Robert Knepper) exposed, no longer pulling the strings from the shadows; not to mention Carrie having succeeded in avenging Sekou Bah’s death and keeping Keane safe — and yet we find ourselves celebrating a mostly hollow victory.
Hell, it’s uncanny how we as an audience were granted just about everything on our wish list, only to find that the devil’s in the details… And that he’s managed to erase any joy or meaning from getting what we wanted. And, as ever, that holds doubly true for our surviving heroes, who will pay the price for that success — possibly even in blood, and new treason.
When Saul (Mandy Patinkin) visits Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) in prison after the thwarted assassination attempt on President Keane (Elizabeth Marvel), Dar seems to speak to Saul with a fair amount of candor… Which perhaps only Saul can elicit from him. It’s been so long since their camaraderie was more than a distant memory. And remarkably, Dar, archvillain of the entire season (and seasons prior), can declare President Keane a bit “off” while still seeming both pretty awful — and more than a little bit right.
By episode’s end, Keane has conducted a sweeping and highly paranoid purge of anyone who may have been involved in the conspiracy against her. Even Saul, who has been nothing but good to Keane — in fact, has offered her his best self these past few weeks — is swept up in this merciless operation… While Carrie, instrumental in saving Keane’s life, has been both played and is now relegated to an as-yet-undefined fringe position, fairly soon after being promised a juicy promotion within Keane’s administration.
It can’t be an accident that the final shot, in which a demoralized Carrie stares at the White House from a distance, is a direct callback to an identical shot from several seasons prior, in which Nick Brody (Damien Lewis) stood in the exact same position: Lost idealists searching for a new ideal — and fighting, perhaps, for a better version of America:
Nick’s vision was tainted by his relationship with Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban) — but the impulse, to gut out the darkness lurking behind America’s bright rhetoric… That’s something Carrie now shares. It’s even what motivates President Keane.
As Dar reminds us, by way of Grahame Greene: The shadowy secret services of America are its unconscious, the hidden mind and heart. And that’s what makes its illness so difficult to diagnose — and like addiction, or any other mental illness, it defends itself at all costs. That’s all Dar ever was, or needed to be: The defensive response of a self-preserving cancer.
Brody’s approach to the disease was more like aggressive chemotherapy than surgery, and Keane seems to be in amputation mode. But Carrie Mathison has been obsessively saving America in contravention of all law and logic since before 9/11 — she needed at least Berlin, and this transitional New York year, to get to a place where she could find peace as an America-loving radical — and if we know her, and the show, she is also the only person that might actually do it right.
It’s now Carrie who is rudderless — adrift in a professional, personal and moral limbo. And in Carrie’s case, having given up on Saul and only come to realize that she and Peter Quinn’s “true north” has been, for a long time now, each other — the only rudder left to steer with means returning to her first love: America itself.
Of course now that Saul’s been swept up in the purge — sorry, “detained” — he’s inaccessible to Carrie, seeing as how he’s been “detained”— and that’s after he found himself alienated by Carrie’s dogged loyalty to Keane. We can guess as to where Carrie was coming from in refusing to look Saul in the eye and have a real conversation about his concerns: The problematic thing he saw her doing yet again, characteristically throwing herself full throttle onto the Team Keane track, and him calling out the probability (make that inevitability) that she was going to “hit the wall.”
The irony, too, is that one of the episode’s lightest moments — Saul tenderly encouraging the President in the face of her last great stand against the Breitbartian mob mobilized by O’Keefe (Jake Weber) — turns out to be his undoing. “They like a President with balls,” he jokes — in a double entendre painfully accurate for those of us watching in the real world — and this, plus the trauma of her near-assassination, are the final ingredients in her dogmatic pursuit of accountability and radical transparency.
To give Peter’s death meaning, we must cling hard and fast to the notion that Keane was worth dying for. And she was — the horror of this season-ending betrayal is that it all makes sense. Keane quietly ignoring Carrie’s justified flip-out during the purge is not the move of an arrogant evil, it’s the move of a President, who knows that personal allegiances do not trump the national interest. She takes no joy in it — to her, Carrie is touched by the madness — the self-preserving paranoia and shadow games of the national unconscious, its covert apparatus — that caused Peter’s heroic death, which clearly traumatized and galvanized the president in equal measure: Carrie isn’t an enemy, yet, but she has no business interfering.
As for Peter’s death, it’s so very “Homeland” that within the span of maybe thirty minutes, his sacrifice would be in some way problematized. It’s a subtly and retroactively horrifying death, in fact, because his heroism is less in vain than an active cause of what comes after. One of the things we’ve loved this season, after Allison Carr (Miranda Otto) was such a nightmare, is the Bechdel Test complexity and familial psychodrama of Carrie’s relationship with Keane. Here, the dream is laid out in the season premiere: Working with Keane in the dawn of a new era, working with her foundation toward peace. And waking from that dream is a cold, ugly shock.
Carrie spent the first act of the series surrounded by men, and this second three-season arc scrambling to grow up and out of that — first negotiating a relationship with Allison that caused devastation everywhere we look, and now with President Keane. We’ve not loved Carrie, in a very long time, quite so much as during their “killzone” sequence together, as she and Quinn worked to save the President’s life — but her righteous rage during the administration’s purge is part and parcel of this year’s new Carrie.
Carrie’s spent this season caught between the daylight world of Otto Düring (Sebastian Koch) and her daughter Franny, and the dark underpinnings represented by Dar and Quinn. In the finale’s final act, we see that balancing act turn literal, as she serves as the spy community’s liaison to the administration — and that would have been a good story, a good marker for where she is in her own journey.
But to have that transition turned in on itself so cruelly, just as she’s making arrangements to get her daughter back and move them to Washington to help create a brighter new America, is the kind of twist that would have dragged a younger Carrie into its undertow… And seems, instead, poised to turn her against the current state altogether.
It’s easy enough to imagine what (or more specifically who) Carrie will be fighting for in Season 7: Franny, and presumably Saul. But looking beyond these most obvious and immediate story goals, it’s hard to imagine that Carrie’s idealism could survive Keane’s betrayal. Who is Carrie without her idealism? What happens when that idealism is turned against itself? We already know: Nick Brody loved America more than anything, and his invisible heroism is scrawled on the CIA’s wall of stars and nowhere else.
When Max (Maury Sterling) comes upon Carrie, quietly weeping over the humble remains of Peter’s life — a dog-eared copy of “Great Expectations,” containing between its pages photographs of his lost son through the years, and a single picture of Carrie Mathison — he’s taken by her grief and shame instantly. Like a star scrawled on the wall that nobody will ever know about, this tiny funeral is a reminder of just how small Peter’s life has always been:
This is the man who built his life around her, his north star even when he was in the darkness — even after she’d destroyed what tiny life he had. (Quinn and Brody have few parallels, but the ones that do exist are reliably devastating.) In the end, though, both men and thousands of others have died for a cause — and that cause is for no greater purpose than the redemption of America’s heart from within. And it continues.
If Season 6 has taught us anything, it’s that we are all, no matter our politics, prisoners of war. And to return, again, to the Gil Scott-Heron quote that plays us into every episode this season:
“The first revolution is when you change your mind about how you look at things, and see there might be another way to look at it that you have not been shown. What you see later on is the results of that — but that revolution, that change that takes place, will not be televised.”
Next season, it just might be. Another prisoner of war has been turned, and the world keeps turning. And the revolution never ends.
“Homeland” has been renewed for Seasons 7 and 8.