There’s more than one line in the Season 6 premiere of Homeland, which airs on Sunday, that resonate loudly: When Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) tells Dar Adal (F. Murry Abraham), “I’m not sure the American people are getting what they bargained for,” for example. Or when Dar insists, “Presidents don’t get chances; they get tested.”
It’s no surprise that a show about U.S. foreign policy feels particularly relevant at a time when our real-life president-elect has gleefully taken a hammer to it. Homeland has never been idealistic about America’s role in other countries’ conflicts, but suddenly its vision of the intelligence community and the administration it answers to looks like something out of The West Wing.
The new season takes place entirely in the 72 days between the presidential election and the inauguration. The incoming president, a junior senator from New York, has set up her transition team in the Intercontinental hotel in Manhattan, where news cameras are parked outside, their correspondents breathlessly discussing the “complex” transfer of power going on inside, where the president-elect is “huddled with her transition team.”
Carrie (Claire Danes) has moved to New York (specifically, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn) to be closer to Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend), who’s recovering in hospital following a chemical-weapon attack at the end of Season 5. Rupert Friend ably rises to the challenge of transforming Quinn from a steely-eyed hit man to the victim of an attack that’s left him brain-damaged: His speech is slurred, his movement is impaired, and he appears to have sunk into a deep depression, refusing to show up for his physical therapy sessions and lashing out at everyone around him. The nurse informs Carrie that her visits in particularly upset him, and tells her the doctors think it’s best she not come so often. When Carrie comes to see him, he begs her, “Let me go.”
When she’s not alternately helping and tormenting Quinn, Carrie’s working with a Williamsburg-based lawyer, Reda Hashem (Patrick Sabongui), who advocates for Muslims accused of acts of terrorism to get a fair trial. In the season premiere, her story intersects with that of Sekou Bah (J. Mallory McCree), a young man born in America to Nigerian immigrants who lives with his mother and sister in an apartment in Brooklyn’s Marcy Houses — which the FBI eventually storms, arresting Sekou on suspicion of inciting terrorism on his website.
So far, so relevant. But no TV show can begin to match the reality of real-life politics, and Homeland‘s characters, while not always motivated by the right things, can at least agree on the basic facts. And two episodes into the new season, the fact that the president-elect is a woman is a non-issue. President-Elect Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel) is wily, blunt, and wary of the CIA, which takes precedent over the fact of her gender. She takes a meeting with Dar, the head of the CIA, and Saul, who leads the organization’s European division, that leaves them both worried about their ability to advise and influence the incoming president on security matters. Meeting privately afterwards, Dar floats his theory to Saul: That Keane intends to hold the intelligence community “accountable” for the death of her son, who died in Iraq at age 28. “I think she despises us, Saul,” Dar says. “I think she blames us for her boy.”
Saul and Dar hear something else in Keane’s promises to shake up America’s foreign policy: Carrie Mathison. The new season taps into Carrie’s growing disenchantment with her work in the CIA, and her commitment to her relatively humble new job — “small potatoes,” in the words of philanthropist Otto Düring (Sebastian Koch) — seems proof of her insistence at the end of Season 5 that she’s not the same person she used to be. Confronting an FBI agent after a press conference about Sekou, she says, “What if he’s just honestly opposed to U.S. foreign policy in Muslim countries, like I am more and more?” And yet Saul, who knows Carrie better than anyone, and who was unable to persuade her to join him back at the CIA last season, has reason to suspect she’s secretly advising the president-elect.
After two episodes, the season’s political and emotional arcs appear not unrelated. In terms of the former, the season turns the discussion about terrorism and U.S. foreign policy inward, focusing less on the threat of a foreign attack on U.S. soil than the question of how best to keep the country safe while protecting citizens’ rights. Does a hawkish approach only breed more disaffection and violence? What happens when the duty to preempt an attack infringes on individual freedoms?
Carrie’s dedication to Quinn poses a similar problem. Carrie feels responsible for Quinn — not just because he has no family, but because she is partly to blame for his condition, since she and Saul went against doctors’ orders to wake him up from a coma in order to get information about a potential attack in the Season 5 finale. And yet Carrie’s very presence sends Quinn into self-destructive spirals, even after she takes him home from the hospital and installs him in her basement apartment.
But the move to Carrie’s home only seems to make him worse, at least in the short term. He refuses to shower, and hoards cans of food in his basement suite. He ignores Carrie’s pleas to take his medication, preferring to listen to a raving radio host ranting about the “mainstream hivemind.” His condition feels like a statement about the growing problem of radicalization not only abroad, but right here at home.
Homeland Season 6 premieres Sunday, Jan. 15 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.