Forget Islamist Terrorism, 'Homeland' Homes in on a New Threat

The most conspicuous absence at the start of 'Homeland' Season 7 is a ticking bomb

Claire Danes in 'Homeland.'
Showtime

A few days after the first episode of “Homeland” aired in America in October 2011, the U.S. State Department placed a $10 million bounty on the head of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

A few days after season seven of “Homeland” premiered in February 2018, the U.S. Justice Department indicted 13 Russians for trying to subvert the 2016 presidential election.

This tells you everything you need to know about why the latest season of “Homeland” is, to borrow a phrase from a certain political leader, “America first.”

I’m sure I’m not the only viewer who endures a love-hate relationship with “Homeland.” In fact, I’ve tried dumping the Showtime spy thriller more times than Selena Gomez has split with Justin Bieber. Yet, just like them, I always come crawling back for more, willing to give it one last chance to recapture the magic of season one.

Yet much as I loved the explosive denouement of that first season (between Damian Lewis’ Nicholas Brody character and his daughter Dana), it did doom the show to two seasons of absolute nonsense, culminating in Brody’s “noble sacrifice” in Tehran in the third season, then a real dog of a fourth season in Islamabad. Season five in Berlin was a belated return to form.

Throughout all of these seasons, the constant threat has been Islamic terror (well, that and Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison coming off her meds). Season six started off in a similar vein in New York, before it became apparent that Islamic terrorism was now a MacGuffin, and the real story was the enemy within – a domestic war between the intelligence services and the newly elected leader of the free world.

By the end of the season, President-elect Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel) had survived two assassination attempts and the CIA’s Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) was behind bars after trying to unseat her. Given his paranoia about the intelligence agencies, we can only hope President Donald Trump never watched it.

Season seven picks up a few weeks after six ended, with Carrie now back in D.C. with sister Maggie (Amy Hargreaves) and her family, and young daughter Frannie, who still looks like she remembers how her mom harbored thoughts of drowning her back in season four. For those who miss Dana (what, just me?), there’s a new teenager on the scene – Maggie’s now 16-year-old daughter Josie (Courtney Grosbeck), who seems to be around mainly so Carrie can act irresponsibly and place her in harm’s way.

Carrie, who was “this close” to becoming a senior adviser to the president at the end of season six, is now working independently, racking up a lot of credit-card debt in her efforts to discredit Keane and trying to get an old colleague, Dante (Morgan Spector), to testify in front of a Senate committee about the new president. In a line that sounds like a pitch for the entire season, she tells him: “I know you thought fighting terrorists was the most important work you’d ever do in your life but what if this is?”

It’s not hard to see Dante becoming the new man in Carrie’s life (after all, she locks him in car trunks and treats him like crap – so he fits the bill), especially given the anger some fans displayed last year over the demise of semi-love interest Quinn (Rupert Friend). Isn’t it strangely reassuring to know that even with everything crazy happening in the real world right now, some people still considered it most important to mount a #NotOurHomeland campaign protesting Quinn’s death, even taking out an expensive ad to vent their spleen?

Shakshuka method

The show’s other mainstay, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), is one of 200 people detained for the attempts on the president’s life and starts the season rotting in jail. One of the show’s most implausible scenes (which is really saying something given its own low standards) features the president’s chief of staff, David Wellington (Linus Roache), visiting Saul to offer him the job of national security adviser – doesn’t he know that federal prison is invariably where these people end up, not where they’re hired?

In "TV (The Book),” critic Matt Zoller Seitz argues that if “Homeland” had ended after one season, with Brody either detonating his bomb or being killed or arrested, the show might have “been acclaimed as one of the great, wild miniseries in TV history.” Fast-forward six years, though, and few will stake a claim for its greatness.

It has been superseded by superior espionage shows (FX’s “The Americans”; “Patriot” on Amazon), and arguably hit its cultural peak when “Saturday Night Live” spoofed it in 2013 (which for me is still Anne Hathaway’s funniest performance).

For its season 6-7 storylines, the show has seemingly grabbed random headlines from The New York Times and mixed them together in the hope they might coalesce into something resembling a plot (what Israelis would call “the shakshuka method”).

The most conspicuous absence at the start of the new season isn’t Brody or Quinn, but an actual ticking bomb – the palpable threat that will propel the entire season forward. What we get instead of a bomb is woolly talk about “saving democracy,” although Russian interference is no doubt on its way soon.

As well as a thinly sketched president – perhaps the world’s only proto-fascist who despises the military – we have right-wing talk show host Brett O’Keefe (Jake Weber). He’s a barely concealed portrait of “InfoWars” nutjob Alex Jones, and you know you’ve got problems when Jones comes across as the more plausible of these two characters (let’s not forget, his whole schtick is allegedly reserved for his radio broadcasts – not 24/7, like O’Keefe is here when he goes on the run as part of the, ahem, “resistance”).

Yet the biggest problem facing “Homeland” is that it’s arriving at a time when the whole world is off its meds. Sure, President Keane is implausible, but no more so than the current incumbent at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Imagine how we would have scoffed a year ago if “Homeland” had presented us with a president who spent his mornings watching trashy television, barely read his daily briefings and retired to bed with a burger at 6:30 P.M.

Maybe the world would have been better if Hillary Clinton had been elected president and Trump had become the fictional president on “Homeland” – existing in a harmless place where he could arrange his military parades and marvel at the size of his nuclear button. Instead, we got the worst of both worlds: one in which art and life can’t work out who’s meant to be mirroring whom.