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Homeland season 6 simply can’t compete with reality’s plot twists

The current season is the show’s most frustrating in years — but it’s largely not the show’s fault

Carrie tries to uncover a stateside conspiracy in Homeland.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for April 2 through April 8 is “R Is for Romeo,” the 11th episode of the sixth season of Showtime’s Homeland.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

The president, angry, accuses a media personality of peddling fake news. For a second, it seems as if the charge might stick, but then, the media personality pushes back, suggesting the president is wrong to threaten the freedom of the press, even by implication.

But there really is a fake news conspiracy within the United States — or at least one that’s meant to spread extensive misinformation in order to turn people against powerful politicians. The whole of American power rests on a knife’s edge, and the transition from one presidential administration to another is caught up not only in the question of who’s peddling all the bullshit — but the question of how much that bullshit ultimately factored into the result of the election.

Oh, and have I mentioned that Russia remains an elaborate, omnipresent boogeyman, or that there are rumblings of the collapse of a nuclear deal with Iran, even though nobody’s sure the Iranians are reneging on the deal?

It’s all happening, only it’s happening on Homeland, and the way in which it’s happening reveals both how relevant and utterly insignificant the show remains. In its sixth season, the show feels, more and more, like it got a whole bunch right about how the world operates, how the security state tries to maintain its iron grip of power on America, and how dangerous the spread of deliberately false information can be.

Except Homeland can’t help that it’s been trumped — the pun is unintentional, I swear, but it might as well not be — by reality.

Homeland is afraid of the Deep State, even as it’s kind of in love with it

The sixth season of Homeland is the show’s first to be set stateside since its third, and it’s the first to be filmed in New York. It takes as its premise the transition from one presidential administration to the other.

The president-elect is an unexpected victor, with questions still swirling around the story surrounding her. She’s a New York senator. She’s also deeply embroiled in a war with the intelligence community, who see her as hopefully naive. (She thinks the intelligence community has hoarded enough power so as to effectively turn the US into a police state.)

In the broad outlines of this character — named Elizabeth Keane and played with great panache by Elizabeth Marvel — you can see how Homeland spent much of last year, when season six was being written, trying to have its cake and eat it too. On a very superficial level, President-elect Keane resembles Hillary Clinton. But on a deeper level, her outsider status and battle against the intelligence community resembles our current president.

President-elect Keane tries to handle a situation rapidly spiraling out of control.

Yet Homeland’s sympathies lie with the president-elect. She’s advised, after all, by Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), a deeply flawed character but one who genuinely seems to be trying to better herself, and Carrie increasingly believes the War on Terror has consumed America’s soul. The intelligence community, none too excited to have the incoming administration threatening to undercut it, works fervently to undercut everything the president-elect is up to.

What “R Is for Romeo” finally makes clear — thanks to a sudden realization by Saul (Mandy Patinkin, playing the one Homeland character who is Always Right) — is that the CIA itself (under the auspices of the treacherous Dar Adal) is not only dragging Keane’s name through the mud, but also following a playbook it’s used in nations from Chile to Iran to topple fledgling regimes the United States didn’t support. The vast fake news complex the season has slowly untangled isn’t a Russian or Iranian or Israeli ploy (all ideas the show floated). It’s homegrown, a CIA operation, through and through.

In and of itself, this is an interesting twist, even if it falls prey to one of Homeland’s most persistent problems, namely that Saul and Dar occasionally seem to be telepathic superhumans who can predict exactly what everybody they know will do in any given circumstance. Homeland is always at its best when it’s reflecting reality, but in an eerie, more unsettling way, not an exact one. And season six is certainly a funhouse version of America.

The season also openly invites those who are anti-Trump to grapple with themselves about how far they’re willing to go to see him pushed out of office. An FBI investigation? Sure. That body’s designed to investigate criminal activities, even if the president is carrying them out. But what if the effort extends beyond that? Is it worth removing a president you dislike — maybe even a dangerous president — if the process effectively entrenches the intelligence community as another branch of the government, beyond J. Edgar Hoover’s wildest dreams?

Homeland exists to play out these what-if scenarios — but reality doesn’t necessarily need help at the moment

Homeland, like many other series set in the world of Washington and its environs, has found itself racing to catch up to a reality that increasingly feels like an incredibly bizarre potboiler of a novel. Hell, even Quantico is attempting stories about what it means to live in an America where Donald Trump is president, and Quantico always seemed like a show that had only the most passing of familiarity with reality.

Homeland prides itself on telling stories that are tomorrow’s headlines, presented today, or an alternate spin on what’s really happening. As such, it becomes all the harder for the show to deal with a reality that seems like a video-game glitch. Why would viewers turn to Homeland for stories about how the CIA is trying to discredit (or maybe even assassinate!) the president when social media and blogs hum with conspiracy theories that try to make sense of our own reality?

Homeland used to construct these elegant little conspiracies that played out over 12 episodes, before Carrie and Saul closed the case. It was, in its own way, comforting — yeah, there were bad eggs in the CIA, but there were also folks like Carrie and Saul. These days, the immense amount of smoke surrounding whatever is happening with Trump’s ties to Russia has lots of people seeking out fire, and there’s simply no way fiction can compare to that.

Dar and Max discover a plot seemingly designed to frame Quinn.

This would be okay if Homeland were at its peak. Just last season, it was telling a brutal, bruising story about the ways America had let itself down during the War on Terror, one that concluded with a lonely shootout in a Berlin subway tunnel, not with the kind of whiz-bang action the series sometimes goes in for. It was the show’s best season since its first, and it’s easy to see how a version of that story could nicely play off our current reality.

But too much about Homeland’s sixth season simply doesn’t make that much sense, and it’s hard to imagine the season finale explaining its leaps of logic in satisfactory fashion. For instance, even if we assume that Dar has assembled a gigantic media misinformation campaign, how long has he been running it? (The presence of an Alex Jones-style figure suggests it’s been a while.)

And if — as the end of “Romeo” suggests — Carrie’s friend Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) is being set up to take the fall for some horrible act against the president-elect, how on Earth did Dar so perfectly predict every step he’d take all season? (Quinn, who suffered a stroke just last season, is more of a human punching bag than a character at this point, and that’s led to many of the show’s worst moments of late.)

When reality is riddled with plot holes you could drive a truck through, fiction, perhaps unfairly, has a higher bar to clear. Homeland exists, in some ways, to provide a safe space to explore what-if scenarios about the War on Terror and the American deep state in our treacherous present. But the show sometimes becomes overheated, seizing on a good idea — the CIA is trying to turn America against its president-elect — and delivering it in the dopiest way possible.

Season six began in a way that suggested Homeland and its characters were trying to atone for bad things they’d done in the past. Carrie, you might remember, started the season working to represent American Muslims who’d been unjustly accused of terrorism by the government, as big a mea culpa as Homeland could come up with. But the series can never escape its own gravity, its suggestion that the CIA is an all-powerful force that’s shaping the world in the shadows, and not a squalling, fractious body that’s just trying to keep the lights on.

Homeland airs Sundays at 9 pm Eastern on Showtime. All previous episodes are available on Showtime Anytime, and the first four seasons are available on Hulu.