Mandy Patinkin
Photo: Antony Platt (Showtime)

This is not fake news: Homeland can still deliver the escalating tension and dread exploding into chaos that made it a hit in the first place. “Like Bad At Things” is easily the best episode of the season, and maybe in years. It’s not perfect—there’s still a little too much of Carrie’s domestic drama for my liking—but writers Patrick Harbinson and Chip Johannessen and director Alex Graves have pulled a shaky season on track with a genuine nail-biter.

Carrie has very little to do with that, but at least she’s getting closer to uncovering the high-level conspiracy without getting too sidetracked. Her surveillance of Wellington’s house pays off when President Keane drops by unexpectedly to vent about the military brass conducting an air strike without her permission. When Wellington informs her that he’s the one who ordered it in an effort to get the president “in the win column,” Carrie sees and hears it all, but she needs to find a way to implicate Wellington without getting herself and Max in hot water. The parking ticket from Simone Martin’s apartment leads Carrie to a payday loan branch near the federal prison in Hazleton. In an amusing bit of self-awareness, Carrie channels her sister Maggie in order to intimidate the clerk into telling her what her bipolar sister was doing there. Max uses Martin’s EZ Pass records to track her route between Washington and Hazleton and the stops she made along the way, indicating that she collected close to $50,000—enough to finance a hit on General McClendon.

So far so good, but then Carrie is late to pick up Franny for the 479th time in this show’s history. Look, the die is cast here. The decision to give Carrie a child was made long ago, and the creative team is sticking with it despite every opportunity to have the kid seized by CPS or raised by someone else. I’m sure the theory is that it adds an extra layer of meaning and complication to every decision Carrie makes; here her pursuit of the evidence against Wellington clashes with her well-being as she’s forced to buy black market uppers to combat the prescription sedative her sister insists she keep taking. I find it hard to care because we’ve been down this road so many times before and it really feels like a too-easy shot of personal drama that the writers can inject at any time. Besides, Carrie is a terrible mother. I don’t know how you argue against it at this point.

Claire Danes, Maury Sterling
Photo: Antony Platt (Showtime)

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Fortunately, most of the action this week revolves around the ongoing standoff at the compound in Lucasville, where events are spiraling out of control in that way they tend to do when the FBI comes up against gun-toting survivalists. (Saul name-checks the major precedents, Waco and Ruby Ridge.) Complicating this one is the presence of Brett O’Keefe, who sees the siege as a lively spectacle to serve as dramatic backdrop to his broadcasts, It fits perfectly into his ongoing narrative, and he’s willing to let everything go to hell in order to fuel the fantasy he’s selling.

That doesn’t sit well with at least one of his hosts, Mary Elkins, especially once her 16-year-old son is shot by an FBI agent. (Yes, he raised up his gun, but they killed his dog. The feds aren’t the good guys here either.) She can see through O’Keefe’s bluster and his craven use of the situation for his own glory, and she interrupts him in the middle of his self-righteous rant while he’s on the air. She wants to get her family out of this safely, and O’Keefe has the power to make that happen, but not the decency or courage. His exchanges with Saul over the phone are interesting in that Saul keeps trying to frame the negotiation as though they’re the only two adults involved. In reality, Saul is the one sane voice on the premises, and he’s sitting on top of a powder keg that is inevitably going to explode.

When that happens, Homeland finally feels like A Show For Our Times again, in its heightened, pulpy way. “Fake news” is a term that’s been co-opted by the Trump administration, but there’s no denying we live in an age where skepticism is at a premium and the gullible are taken in by the latest meme they’ve seen on Facebook. So when a rumor leaks that the FBI let the injured boy die, accompanied by photo seeming to indicate he’s been left unattended, it doesn’t matter that Saul knows it’s not true. All that matters is whether he can convince O’Keefe to pass on the news. We’ll never know whether the survivalists would have believe O’Keefe, because he chooses to keep the information to himself and allow the situation to deteriorate to the point of no return. It’s one more exciting backdrop for his broadcast as he cowers in the basement while the rest of the civilians are slaughtered. Who knows where it goes from here, but for one night at least, Homeland reminded us it can still leave us breathless.

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Stray observations

  • I can only assume the survivalists had access to a transporter device, as they materialize around the wounded boy and the FBI agent they take hostage out of nowhere. Seriously, they’re in a clearing dozens of yards from the treeline and the sharpshooters on the scene never noticed them emerging from the woods?
  • I don’t think that airstrike is going to dominate the news cycle in quite the way Wellington hoped.

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