For the first eight episodes of the season, Homeland charted a serpentine course back from its own worst excesses, winding through war zones, embassy corridors, and Taliban strongholds to arrange the constituent parts of Haissam Haqqani’s (Numan Acar) elaborate conspiracy. It scarcely seems possible that the love affair between Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) and Nicolas Brody came to its tragic end but 10 episodes ago, yet the wholesale reinvention of the series now appears to be complete. With the brilliant “There’s Something Else Going On” and tonight’s spare, somber “13 Hours in Islamabad,” Homeland has once again assumed its place as television’s sharpest appraisal of the War on Terror, a grim, even despairing examination of chickens coming home to roost.
As “13 Hours in Islamabad” begins, the high-pitched whistle that follows a bomb blast emanates from the ambushed convoy carrying Carrie, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), and John Redmond (Michael O’Keefe) from the airfield prisoner exchange to the U.S. embassy. Redmond’s dead, Carrie’s panicked, and Saul evinces an eerie, almost anesthetized calm, even as sniper fire rains down on the Marines called to respond to the attack. Almost simultaneously, as she prepares to retreat to the secure vault with her traitorous husband, Dennis (Mark Moses), and other U.S. officials, Ambassador Martha Boyd (Laila Robins) warns Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) that an embassy breach is imminent; Quinn conscripts a U.S. Army private to help him track down the Taliban forces infiltrating the building; C.I.A. director Andrew Lockhart (Tracy Letts) directs Fara (Nazanin Boniadi), Max (Maury Sterling), and the rest of the Islamabad station’s staff to incinerate documents and destroy hard drives; and the ISI’s Tasneem Qureshi (Nimrat Kaur) prevents colleague Aasar Khan (Raza Jaffrey) from calling in the Pakistani military. “It’s time [the Americans] get a dose of their own medicine,” she says, dismissing his protestations. “I’m not the one who keeps insisting the enemy is our friend.”
In short, the episode tosses the viewer headlong into the chaos of the moment, and the first 25 minutes play as a merciless action-adventure set piece curdled by years of mutual distrust. The utter helplessness of the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, one current and one former C.I.A. director, the C.I.A.’s Islamabad station chief, and assorted American military and intelligence personnel in the face of Haqqani’s small cadre is an objective correlative of the entire conflict, an alarming admission that, 13 years after 9/11, we remain vulnerable to the sudden storm of violence. To wit, Haqqani, in search of a top-secret list of C.I.A. assets in the region, threatens to behead Fara if those hidden in the vault do not emerge, and Ambassador Boyd’s bleak assessment of the situation reduces the episode to a handful of resigned words. “He’s going to cut her head off, for Christ’s sake!” Lockhart says. “It’s a war, Andrew,” she replies.
The crux of “13 Hours in Islamabad,” however, turns out to be not the attack, but the aftermath, and the episode brings the mayhem to an end almost as suddenly as it began. Haqqani procures the list and murders Fara anyway, escaping into the embassy’s bowels, his terrifying presence replaced by a series of quiet, tired conversations, as even the stalwart patriots of Homeland edge up to the moment of surrender. Quinn turns the tables on Carrie, for instance, pleading that desperate times call for desperate measures as the end of the American presence in Pakistan approaches. “And they can choose to just walk away, like that’s an option?” he rages. “We’re handing Haqqani Afghanistan on a platter. Fuck that!” “No, not ’fuck that,’” Carrie responds. “This time, we listen to them…Because for once, they’re right.” Dennis Boyd’s offer to commit suicide to protect his wife’s reputation; the way she tosses the belt to the floor of his prison cell; the disappointed, almost disgusted expression that flashes across her face upon seeing him alive the next morning: These, too, are the actions of the hopeless. I can’t think of a contemporary American television series that so thoroughly examines the desolate end of the empire. In “13 Hours in Islamabad” there are few paths forward, but even more woeful is the knowledge that there’s no going back.
The episode’s defining feature, then, is a litany of dreadful images, recalling the fall of Saigon, the Iran hostage crisis, the rise of the Islamic State, and other historical moments that ruptured the thin skein separating us from what we have wrought. A black Taliban flag flies above the embassy entrance. Corpses covered in blue and white tarps stretch before the foot of the main stairs. Bystanders throng at the gates, cellphone cameras outstretched. Carrie cries as she reports the news to Fara’s father. Saul clutches his head, unable to remember the particulars of Haqqani’s compound. Quinn hides his face as he goes off the reservation. In retrospect, the entire season, maybe the entire series, seems constructed around this brief, stark interlude, returning with remarkable efficiency to every misstep, every betrayal, every compromise, every choice: Never before has Homeland so bitterly acknowledged that the blame for more than a decade of death is ultimately shared by all. “Will this ever fucking end?” Lockhart asks, and on the basis of “13 Hours in Islamabad” it seems possible that the answer is “No.”
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