In “The Covenant,” when Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) uses the word “conclusive” to describe the findings of his Abu Dhabi operative, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), Carrie (Claire Danes) knows that something isn’t right. A true intelligence officer would never speak so decisively; they prefer to hedge their bets, as Carrie explains to President-elect Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel). Only those with an agenda to push would act so bluntly, and at its best, Homeland describes such dealings with subtle ambiguity.
It may be that Iran is breaking their nuclear deal by running a parallel program through North Korea. Or Dar’s words might be an exaggeration on the part of a man desperate to prove his value to Keane’s administration. It’s possible, too, that Saul’s findings are nothing more than an illusion, a false-flag operation run by fanatic Mossad agents like Tovah Rivlin (Hadar Ratzon Rotem) who are so eager to protect their Israeli homeland that they’ve created threats that would justify their preemptive strikes.
Rather than hint at an overarching villain or ticking time bomb, Homeland seeds its new season with doubt and suspicion. It’s become an anti-action series, a critique not only of the spy genre, but the real-world C.I.A. that “old dogs” like Dar represents. The series even explicitly mentions as much when Saul frets that a mistake in Iran would be Iraq’s WMDs all over again.
At times, the show’s writing feels accusatory, as when Carrie discovers that the F.B.I.’s Ray Conlin (Dominic Fumusa) has been deliberately obfuscating evidence that would interfere with his case against alleged terrorist sympathizer Sekou Bah (J. Mallory McCree). She demands: “When did we start arresting people for crimes they might commit?” Even here, Homeland remains ambiguous, as Conlin unapologetically answers, “Some time between 9/11 and Orlando.” Conlin isn’t presented as a corrupt or malicious man; the worst part about the government’s prosecution of Sekou is that it isn’t personal so much as a matter of business. This echoes almost exactly a conversation Saul has with his sister in the West Bank. After all, if one truly believes that God promised Israel to Abraham (the literal covenant referred to by the episode’s title), then anything done to secure that land is permissible.
Homeland’s overarching thesis may be this ideological war between skeptics like Saul and Carrie and entitled believers like Dar and Tovah. But the series roots these observations in a deeper character study, trying to understand what drives the certitude of these individuals and if, in the end, there’s actually any difference between them. For the first time in ages, Homeland seems interested in its secondary characters, using them not for exposition or plot, but so as to give a face to those suffering from a loss of personal liberty.
Carrie’s legal partner, Reda Hashem (Patrick Sabongui), is the one character this season who acts most within the law, doing his best to minimize the charges being brought against Sekou, and he rightfully lashes out in frustration at Carrie’s reckless defiance of court orders. Through his perspective, it becomes clearer that it doesn’t matter if Carrie is correct about the injustice being done; what matters is that her gut now threatens to leave Sekou stranded in jail for 15 years instead of a plea-bargained seven.
When Carrie is most swept up in her obsessions, she’s often difficult to relate to; she might as well be a computer, spitting out predictive algorithms. As a character, she’s more relatable when forced to deal with her far less reliable emotions. Sekou serves the same purpose this season that Brody, Aayan, and Quinn have in the past, reminding Carrie that there are human stakes behind every bad call. Here, balanced between conviction and compassion, is where Danes’s performance comes most fully to life, and when Carrie stumbles through an apology to Sekou, it feels more genuine than anything offered up by Homeland’s other political operatives.
Maybe that’s because when Carrie swears to make things right, there’s no sign of a deeper agenda; she’s truly remorseful about having gone too far. Sekou may end up being thankful that Carrie is in a privileged enough position to beg an old NSA ally for cellphone transcripts that prove F.B.I. malfeasance, but Carrie is breaking just as many laws as the F.B.I. in pursuit of what she deems to be the truth. This act is no more or less justifiable than Dar’s wiretapping of private conversations between Carrie and the president-elect.
“The Covenant” demands that its characters question their ends-justifying-the-means ways. For all of Saul’s good intentions, his first action upon landing in Abu Dhabi is to cooperate in a Mossad honeypot scheme, luring the Iranian delegate Farhad Nafisi (Bernard White) into what ends up being a rather forceful interrogation. Saul may not have pushed the man as hard as Dar would have, but that doesn’t make his hands any cleaner; the revelation that Farhad has been covertly buying equipment—possibly legal Russian anti-aircraft weapons, but more probably North Korean nuclear components—doesn’t really justify the way he had his men pry Farhad’s eye open so as to bypass a retinal scan on Farhad’s banking records. If anything, Saul’s skepticism of makes things worse: The sight of a cigarette wrapper prods him to suspect that Mossad may have staged the whole interrogation, but he thinks nothing of the tactics he actually employed?
Sekou and Farhad help to demonstrate the cost of unfettered and zealous F.B.I. and C.I.A. intervention, but Homeland’s strongest exhibit of this is Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend), or what remains of him. “The Covenant” opens with a glimpse into Quinn’s nightmares, and horrifying as the sight of sarin gas streaming out of his showerhead may be, it almost pales in comparison to the mundane way in which the disabled Quinn struggles to take his pants off. There’s no happy place left for this man, and though he doesn’t yet seem to remember it, his debilitated condition isn’t just a result of his exposure to this normally lethal poison: Carrie and Saul—his friends—are the ones who made the call to wake him from a medicated coma in their relentless pursuit of terrorists.
There’s a fine line between being used by the good guys and abused by the bad guys, which is why it’s nice to finally see Quinn reclaim some small part of his agency, as he tracks down Tommy (Bobby Moreno), the low-level drug dealer who mugged him in “Fair Game,” and manages to get some revenge. Then again, Homeland is rarely so simplistic—or full of happy endings. The fact that Tommy knows where Quinn lives—Carrie’s home, where her daughter Franny resides—hints that our every action, no matter how seemingly justified, can lead to complex and tragic ramifications.
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