Developed for American Television by Howard Gordon & Alex Gansa
Based on the Israeli series Prisoners of War by Gideon Raff
Original Air Date: January 15th 2017-April 9th 2017
By the time Homeland’s sixth season premiered, the world was changing in a way that the series couldn’t avoid. If you looked closely throughout the opening credits of the first three seasons, you would have caught brief glimpses of various Presidents of the United States. Clips and audio of Ronald Regan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were clear to pick up on, the inclusion of the latter suggesting that while Homeland was a work of fiction, it was very much set in the same world as its audience.
The references to 9/11 in that same credit sequence and the dialogue in the pilot episode, such as Carrie’s anger at having missed something in the lead up to the events of that day, very much positioned the series in our reality.
Going into season six and debuting not long after what would be the swearing-in of the next elected official, Homeland found itself both reflecting the real world, but also putting into place elements that would make it its own fictional universe, albeit one commenting on what was going on beyond the television screen. Beginning with Carrie firmly settled into New York, and now working for a non-profit devoted to defending the civil liberties of American Muslims, this will be the most predominantly American set story of the series since its first two seasons, Homeland’s writers opting to have season six set within a period following a US Presidential Election.
However, the world of American politics was about to go through one of its most contentious periods of upheaval because of that election. The well-oiled machine of the Obama administration and its aura of a political office that knew what it was doing, led by a charismatic president in charge of an administration that had a grasp on how to lead a country, was about to be replaced by a turbulent atmosphere, a large degree of incompetence and a dominant language of hatred.
It makes one wonder how Homeland would choose to reflect the real world within its own setting. Whenever references were made in the past to ‘the President’ one always assumed it was Obama that its characters were referring to. Going into season six, the series was going to tip its hat to the work its writers had done on 24 for nearly a decade by creating their own Commander-in-Chief.
Premiering on Showtime in January of 2017, season six of Homeland and the debut within the series of President-Elect Elizabeth Keane (the same name given to the main protagonist on NBC’s The Blacklist, interestingly) coincided just when Donald Trump took his oath for office.
You get the sense that Homeland hedged its bets in case either Hilary Clinton or Trump got elected. The series’ version of a president is female, but she seems to carry a controversial allure that has worked those opposed to her in a truly vindictive manner.
Except, it sometimes feels as if Homeland is so busy trying to keep up with real-life events here that it can’t quite grasp the characterisation it’s aiming for. Keane is such a contentious figure that it prompts Dar Adal, whose motivations have been somewhat mysterious throughout the series up to this point, to finally turn into a full-on villain and to inflict real emotional damage on the lives of Carrie, Saul, and Peter this season.
F. Murray Abraham has been one of the core strengths of the series’ main cast and there is a joyful feeling that the restraints have come off as the character is finally let off the leash. Positioned somewhere between being a help or a hindrance in the past, he becomes a genuinely frightening figure as the season continues, confused at the change in US policy and leader, and one who wants to fight that change by any means necessary, aligning himself with renegade US generals and right-wing commentators whose motivations are chaos and hatred disguised as patriotism.
Carrie being a mother to Franny comes under the spotlight and with it emotionally intense use of Social Services which sees Carrie having to contend not only with having to deal with an America falling apart politically as the line between the left and right takes a violent turn, but also in trying to remain a mother to her daughter. Dar being the increasingly dastardly villain that he is, we witness him rig the system against Carrie to destroy her, not in terms of her standing with the agency or her role in US politics, but as a mother. Unsurprisingly, it gives Claire Danes a chance to flex those crying muscles repeatedly throughout the season.
There are fraught emotional stakes in various episodes, from Carrie trying to retain custody of her daughter, to a now somewhat damaged Peter dealing with the fallout of his injuries from the end of last season. It comes as a strange surprise to see Quinn back again, given that it felt like the series was coming to terms with writing Rupert Friend out of the series at the tail end of last season. Instead, not only has he come back but he is also a broken shell of who he was, the damage his body and brain having taken from not only being exposed to sarin gas but Carrie’s decision to take him out of a coma having had a profound effect on him.
Friend is superb throughout the season, make no mistake, bringing considerable emotional poignancy to a character that is no longer the slick agent that he had been up to last season, although the tough Jack Baueresque elements are still there and when they rise to surface, they are amongst some of the most satisfying moments of the season. The spectre of Carrie’s decision to take him out of his coma hovers over their relationship, not to mention the missed opportunity for a life together that they walked away from at the end of season four. The season’s second episode, ‘The Man in the Basement’ contains one of the most powerful moments of the series’ entire run, when Carrie shows Peter the video of his exposure to the gas last season but then has to contend with Peter’s confusion and questioning over why it is she is still looking after him.
That Danes wasn’t nominated for an Emmy this season comes as a major surprise. She really ought to have been for this scene alone. The scene also plays as a reminder of some of the core strengths of Homeland, that for its brilliant political thriller trappings and suspenseful set-pieces, it’s when it slows down and stops to focus on character it can deliver some of its truly best work, both in terms of writing and performance.
It comes as inevitable that Peter will discover Carrie and Saul’s decision from the end of season five, and sure enough, Dar being the increasingly horrifying character that he is ends up being the one to tell him this piece of news.
Justifiably angry, the knock-on effect of this information and his subsequent distrust of Dar and Astrid proves disastrous. Just to show once again how out of their depth the core trio of characters are this season, Peter’s distrust of Astrid, which proves misplaced, ends up getting our favourite German Intelligence Agent killed in one of the season’s most distressing scenes because the suspense is palpable, but the payoff grimly inevitable.
One of the biggest highlights of the season ends up being not only Friend’s performance but his dynamic with Danes. There is a tender tragic nature to the Carrie/Peter dynamic all season that brings out the best not only in Danes and Friend but in the season as a whole. Inevitably, the Homeland writers realise that they have really taken the character of Peter as far as they can go which means that come to the season finale, there is only one storytelling trick left and that’s the self-sacrifice move.
It’s an episode that the series really goes to town with, laying on chaos and violence in increasingly fraught ways, but it also indicates the playing field the series is trying to grasp at now. No longer is Homeland a series about the war on terror, it’s about the war on American democracy from antagonists that are firmly rooted within the US itself.
Every season of the series, even the more predominantly American set seasons when it began, would feature sequences in Iraq or outside the US borders, but this feels very much like the most American set season of the series to this point. New York becomes the home base for so much of the drama, right down to the staging of terrorist acts that galvanise the country in manipulative ways.
Having a larger phantom menace gives the season an epic scope. The visuals are easy to discern; President-Elect Keane is a woman and the conspiracy against her is not only one that feels like is firmly against her left-leaning ideals, but against the character, because she’s a woman. Dar Adal and General McClendon (Robert Knepper adding to his roster of villains in popular television series) take against her immediately, for why we’re never quite sure and it’s perhaps the biggest weakness or oversight of the season that the writers can never get to grips with their motivations until the final moments of the season when it finally finds a reason for the character to elicit a fearful response from others.
In fact, if anything, the season posts Dar, McClendon, and
Alex Jones Brett O’Keefe into the villainous role so well that the audience cannot help but adore Elizabeth Marvel’s performance. Like President Palmer in 24, Keene feels like a character that has walked in from an Aaron Sorkin series but is having to contend with dramas and issues that are the brainchild of writers that aren’t keen on dreamy liberal escapism and want to plunge such a character into murkier, moral quagmires and antagonists with deadlier intent than trying to scupper their policies, although if they can do that too, all the better.
Come to the final episode, we’re cheering Carrie, Saul and Peter on in their attempts to save her life during the prolonged New York attack finale (a very entertaining sequence for sure) that you have to admire the manner in which the season then ends on what feels like is meant to be a truly bitter sting but which instead also feels like is making the mistake of condoning the actions of the season’s villains because they were right all along.
Of course, there is an irony here. In trying to kill Keane, the conspiracy against her ends up creating the situation they were trying to fight against and yet if they hadn’t pitted themselves against her, then the US wouldn’t be ending up with a President that has opted to take actions that would make Josef Stalin nod in approval.
The biggest problem with this is that the season doesn’t end with an acknowledgement of that and it’s hard to figure out if this is the series missing its own point or simply laying the groundwork for themes and ideas it’s going to run with in season seven.
For the first time since those early Brody-filled seasons, not only is Homeland settling down for an intense drama on home soil, but it’s also leaving threads open to fully return to for their next run of episodes. The series had settled into gently rebooting itself every season that it comes as a lovely surprise that the story isn’t over here. Knowing that they had two further seasons to play with from this point, Gansa and Gordon and their team of writers set up a playing field for what feels like is going to be Homeland’s most epic season.
Where before it was the motivations of a lone US marine that was spearheading the series’ most central concerns, like the world that the audience lived in on the other side of the television screen, Carrie and Saul must contend with a President whose motivations are rooted in disregarding political policy and the rulebook in place of their own belief system that involves, frighteningly, disregarding civil liberties.
More potently, the series establishes Keane not as a buffoon-style idiot who struggles to read a teleprompter, but as someone who is clever and knows how to do her job. She is the type of President dreamier liberal writers such as Aaron Sorkin and Barbara Hall (who contributed to Homeland before creating the underrated Madam Secretary) would have a field day writing in a less intense setting.
Homeland’s world is not The West Wing or Madam Secretary. In another similar comparison to 24, it’s a series that takes dreamy liberalism and destroys it with stories and events drenched in paranoia and terror. Where David Palmer got out of political office before his soul was destroyed anymore in 24 (although he still couldn’t escape a bullet later on), Keane has more speedily gone in a direction somewhere between Charles Logan and Allison Taylor. Her ideals end up becoming compromised like the latter, but maybe she isn’t the villain that made the former so memorable, although her methods are more dangerous because the very thing she is seemingly destroying is the fabric of democracy because of her own fears.
Like the pilot episode, which seems so long ago, the episode ends with Carrie looking at Capital Hill. Unlike when Brody caught sight of the building at the end of such a memorable and brilliant opening episode, Carrie doesn’t want to destroy it. Instead, we’re seeing someone who is looking outside as it gets destroyed from within.
Inevitably, the episode is entitled ‘America First’.