The real world is filled with differing ideas, opinions, and agendas, and to someone who wishes to control that world, this can be frustratingly inconvenient. Just look at how cheerful the usually gloomy Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) seems in the latest episode of Homeland, “Sock Puppets,” as he’s called into a meeting with President-elect Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel), a former adversary who seems far more amenable to the man’s policy proposals now that she’s been fed false intelligence about the Iranians. Dar practically glows as he stops by the hotel room of Majid Javadi (Shaun Toub), the Iranian defector who lied to Keane at Dar’s behest, so much so that Javadi even calls him out on it. Dar’s downfall—and perhaps Homeland’s—is in the way “Sock Puppets” sacrifices character development for the sake of scoring a few more points in that game, insisting on the accuracy of a single viewpoint instead of the ambiguity of differently motivated agents.
The episode’s worst moment sees Dar going into full-villain mode, casually selling Javadi out over a quiet breakfast. “Mossad made the case that the head of the IRGC had a lot to tell them,” says Dar, allowing abductors into Javadi’s hotel room. “Unfortunately, I could not convince anyone that they were wrong.” This easy-going kidnapping conveniently gives Javadi time to dial Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), who loops in Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), who, in turn, enlists the aid of his convenient C.I.A. buddy, Nate Joseph (Seth Numrich), to trace the call. It’s perhaps in Javadi’s character to punish Dar for dooming him, but it’s unlike the usually efficient Dar to overlook the man’s phone, which contains the video evidence of Mossad’s lies about Iran.
The thrilling catharsis of Keane realizing Dar’s guilt—“That obsequious little shit,” she says—doesn’t excuse the scene’s overall contrivance. There’s no new information given in this scene, nothing that wasn’t established a dozen times before. Instead of this moment being earned, as it would have been had Javadi been honest from the get-go, it feels like a hasty disavowal of everything that happened in “Alt.Truth.” Keane’s curt dismissal of Carrie is water under the bridge and Saul’s no longer being packed off to Langley. Up to this point, the season has painted the picture of a massive conspiracy with many convoluted parts, only for the complete picture to be illuminated with the sudden revelation of a single video that conveniently lands in Carrie’s hands because of Dar’s inexplicable incompetence.
Do the show’s producers feel that all the hot air they’ve been blowing for eight episodes allows them to indulge in the over-the-top scenarios that abound throughout “Sock Puppets”? The portrayal of Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) is particularly risible. As if it weren’t already apparent that Astrid (Nina Hoss) was brought onto the show solely for the emotional shock of her murder, “Sock Puppets” even more explicitly uses her death to give Quinn a new purpose. He’s painstakingly posed her body on the couch, swaddled her almost religiously in a blanket, and sanctifies himself by daubing his lip with a bit of her somehow still-wet blood. Quinn’s newfound focus doesn’t exactly wash away his debilitating physical condition, but he seems to have no problem waltzing past the local police as he exits the cabin. Later on, it only takes a single molotov cocktail for him to distract all the employees and customers of a gun store and walk off with a duffel bag full of weapons.
Such feeble justifications lead to implausible scenes, and “Sock Puppets” is full of them. No reason is given for Max’s sudden decision to attempt to infiltrate the same black-box building that led to F.B.I. Agent Ray Conlin’s murder, so we’re left to speculate that Max is telling the truth about having spiraled downward after losing someone overseas. (We haven’t seen his brother, Virgil, since the show’s third season.) But Max’s abrupt recruitment becomes even less believable when he discovers that Brett O’Keefe (Jake Weber) is the one running this operation. And this comes across less as a surprise and more as a lazy conflation of two different types of Bond villains.
O’Keefe isn’t just the crazy right-wing purveyor of fake news, but the mastermind of a secret counterintelligence operation. It’s a reveal that makes little sense: How can a man who can so efficiently dispose of an F.B.I. agent, and can so easily hide an off-the-books facility, at the same time employ someone like Trent (Bradford Anderson), a techie so incompetent that Max is the only one who can get their 22,000 sockpuppet accounts back online? When those Facebook and Twitter accounts are restored, they’re dizzyingly projected onto the walls, a moment that exists for no reason other than to stylishly convey the magnitude of O’Keefe’s evil operation.
“Sock Puppets” abounds in good character beats, even if they’re stuck playing second fiddle to plot machinations. The episode’s best scene strips everything down to the essentials, tight on Carrie’s face, catching her every eye roll, hesitation, wistful sigh, and tear. The framing of the scene rouses our curiosity about where Carrie is in the moment, forcing us to focus on the powerful immediacy of what she’s saying and why; only gradually does the camera zoom out to reveal that she’s speaking to her CPS-mandated therapist (David Adkins), trying to earn the right to supervised visits with her daughter.
This opening close-up also sells the episode’s thematic point, which O’Keefe later articulates when talking to Max about his resume: “Blank spaces make people nervous.” Those who’re unknown cannot be as easily controlled, and are therefore a threat. As such, it’s no wonder that the bad guys prefer so-called sock puppets. But not everything needs to be completely known on a show such as Homeland, which is why the explicitness of “Sock Puppets,” from its revelations about the conspiracy at the center of this season to its one-dimensional characterizations, are so frustrating.
The scenes that suit Homeland best are firmly rooted in character before plot, like an argument between Carrie and Saul over what will happen to Saul if she testifies against Dar. “Maybe you shouldn’t have been fucking a Russian mole,” Carrie fumes, stuck in an awkward position. “Coming from someone who fucked a guy in a suicide vest, that means a lot,” retorts Saul, speaking from the sort of outrage that can only be earned through a well-established friendship. Such moments even provide Dar with his one good scene, as Quinn pulls a gun on him. Dar doesn’t address Quinn’s conspiracies, he speaks directly to him: “I raised you, Peter. You are my child. I love you.” Homeland’s efforts to craft a season around false flags, fake news, and alternative truth is admirable, but it’s all for nothing if its characters lose sight of what’s real.
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