Damn you, “Homeland,” for making us fall a little bit — or maybe even a lot — in love with Agent Conlin (Dominic Fumusa) in tonight’s (Feb. 26) episode, “The Return,” only to rip our smitten hearts out in a surprise double-twist that saw him infiltrate a deep-web private security firm, get fully onboard Carrie’s (Claire Danes) narrative that Sekou wasn’t a willing — or even witting — accomplice to the bombing of midtown Manhattan, and confirm every suspicion she has, just as Quinn (Rupert Friend) is falling swiftly into full-on paranoia…
…And then take all our hopes of an inter-office partnership, and maybe even friendship, and pierce them with a bullet. Sorry about previously dismissing you as little more than a smug frat boy, Conlin. Seriously.
It takes a big man to admit, in so many words, that he was wrong — particularly to the face of his frenemy, Carrie, who from Conlin’s perspective did make him look really bad to pretty much everyone at the FBI. And despite this, he puts his wounded ego aside and trusts Carrie enough to investigate the photos on Quinn’s phone, and track down the guy Quinn’s been so worried about. He finds pretty quickly — and obviously — that our non-officially-existent mad bomber is a deep-cover agent for somebody else, as expected, and then goes looking for info on the Jeep, which is where things get interesting.
Agent Conlin, the Boy Who Kicked a Hornet’s Nest, tracks the ownership of the jeep that took Carrie’s shady across-the-street stalker to the parking lot of Sekou’s workplace all that way up a Russian nesting-doll series of shell corporations, all the way to an ominous corporate compound that’s recruiting huge numbers of ex-NSA and other cyberwarfare experts with a heavy-duty pitch: Access to all the data, according to an applicant Conlin deftly schmoozes — his smarm, in service of good rather than evil, a thing of beauty — in the reception area: The backup backbone of the internet, a dark web so knit into our infrastructure that only corrupt privatization could, as it inevitably does, find a way around regulation.
Conlin pretends to be another applicant just long enough to take a super-creepy elevator to a bunker six floors down, where he goes full James Bond, breaking from the group with his beautiful, swanlike ninja moves and doing a little rogue investigating… Before getting caught by some very staunch characters and escorted out, only to call Carrie with just enough information to whet her appetite — not to mention ratchet up what was already the most suspenseful episode in years, with last week’s Quinn hostage situation in a solid second — and invite her to his home to speak more freely.
Obviously, this means he is going to die before they can meet — this deep-web operation puts the at the scope of “Homeland” events like the time the entire CIA blew up while Carrie and Nick Brody (Damian Lewis) were making out, or that memorably brilliant and irritating arc where an institutionalized Carrie was seemingly hung out to dry in front of the entire world by Saul and Dar Adal (Mandy Patinkin & F. Murray Abraham) — but the only question is when and where… Which is how the show brilliantly plays it out, with Madame President-elect TK (Elizabeth Marvel) in what could be a similarly dicey situation that goes a different way.
A frightening haunted-house shenanigan greets Carrie, as her across-the-street assassin/spook buddy stalks her through Conlin’s home “Silence of the Lambs” style, before she finds Conlin, body in a staged suicide, and barely escapes. She runs for her daughter, of course, because this is the second week in a row — third, if you count Saul’s visit to his estranged sister — that “Homeland” has made it clear the story, and the war, are now on the homefront.
Oh, Conlin. Who knew you’d be the guy who’d share Carrie’s dogged determination to dig deep, past the smokescreen and #altfacts and self-serving agendas of some shadow-lurking baddies in power, toward what is sure to be a particularly dark and ugly truth? The Mulder and Scully thing you and Carrie had going on felt so right. Before going not gently into that good night, Conlin even pulled a few strings on Carrie’s behalf to get her into Bellevue to see Quinn — which goes heartbreakingly awry, as Quinn is still stuck on the idea that he was protecting Carrie, which he’s decided means her “takedown” to save his life is a sign she’s in on whatever plot he is now tormenting himself with believing.
After Saul’s (Mandy Patinkin) jaunt abroad, he’s gotten really curious about the recent activities of Mossad operative Tovah Rivlin (Hadar Ratzon Rotem) — and when official channels prove compromised, he goes outside the lines… To discover that Dar’s been having secret meetings with her, finally confirming just how far out of Dar’s loop he finds himself.
And how much do we love President-elect Keane (Elizabeth Marvel)’s refusal to stay put — or more importantly, to stay “handled”? She decides she’s had about enough being sequestered, ostensibly for her own safety, while the sitting President makes big speeches in Manhattan — filled with an unmistakably pro-police state vibe, to boot — right out in the open. No shrinking violet, she wrangles staff member Mrs. Diehl (Deborah Hedwall) into smuggling her back to Manhattan, in a car ride that unexpectedly challenges certain aspects of her anti-war public facings.
It’s stressful, as mentioned, because we don’t trust anybody — and the camera has been indicating for several weeks that Mrs. Diehl is more than she seems. That proves to be a bit of a red herring, as the mood suddenly changes: She confesses to having not voted for Keane, and Keane can’t leave well enough alone as to why not. We discover that Mrs. Diehl also lost a son in the war, and she can’t grasp why Keane never mentions her own son Andrew in public — because that reads a lot like shame, not pride for nor remembrance of the sacrifice that both their sons made on behalf of their country.
Not long after, Keane nicely rights that wrong, in a fiery speech of her own to the press. The conversation between Keane and Diehl is a beautiful reaching out “across the aisle” moment that all but missing in our real-life reality: The calm curiosity, the lack of vitriol and name-calling, that leads to an unexpected discovery of common ground? Yes, maybe it’s too good to be true — but all the same, more of that, please. (Can writer Charlotte Stoudt please clone herself and follow us all around IRL and hand us script pages whenever we find ourselves talking to someone with opposing political views? Because the world would be a better place for it.)
Given that Carrie is once again on somebody’s hit list, it’s the last of several nailbiters when Quinn is drugged in the dead of night and smuggled out of Bellevue into a black SUV at episode’s end… Until the BND’s own Astrid (Nina Hoss)’s face looms large over his, with a friendly guten nacht. (This must be “The Return” that the episode title promised.) At least his German-spy-with-benefits ex is a more welcome face to see than many others would have been in this kind of situation — even if Astrid’s usually a wild card, at least it means we still have cards to play.
Showtime shows usually go so far into auteur-episode territory that seasons barely hang together as more than strings of mini-movies, but “Homeland’s” often had the opposite problem: Its pieces fitting together so very well that any given episode only makes sense in context, which is a frustrating state — especially for internet superfans, who go nuts when they have so little to work with; witness again that Season 3 long-con that had us believing Carrie’d go turncoat — if you’re not a streaming binge show. But here, we see it working perfectly, as the shocks keep coming and the hidden-in-plain-sight secrets keep bearing fruit… And now this big-data stuff on top of it? Damn, Season 6 has really hit its stride.
“Homeland” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime.