Homeland's Crisis of Conscience

In season six, the Showtime series seems to have countered accusations of Islamophobia by turning U.S. intelligence agencies into its primary villains.


In Sunday night’s episode of Homeland, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) confronted a young American Muslim, Sekou (J. Mallory McCree), about a video he’d put online, violating the terms of the agreement she’d used to get him out of jail. Sekou had been set up by an FBI informant who encouraged his increasingly radical behavior, and Carrie was helping him, she explained, because “this whole country went stupid crazy after 9/11 and nobody knows that better than I do.”

In its past five seasons, Homeland has positioned Carrie against myriad enemies: a radicalized American Marine, al-Qaeda, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, ISIS, double agents, the warnings on the backs of prescription-drug bottles. But in season six, for the first time, the Showtime series seems to be explicitly setting up the U.S. intelligence community itself as the bad guy, with the former CIA operative now a crusader for justice. It’s a marked shift in direction for a show built on dramatic terrorist plots against the U.S., and it perhaps reveals some of Homeland’s fatigue in trying to keep up with whiplash-inducing current events. While season five—which portrayed a shocking terrorist attack on a major European city and Russian agents working within the CIA—was almost uncomfortably prescient, season six appears to be undergoing something of a crisis of conscience.

In some ways, this makes Homeland impossibly relevant (it’s hard to think of a better time to consider civil-liberties abuses against Muslims in the U.S.). In others, it illustrates the impossibility of writing a television show that aspires to interpret real-world geopolitical events through a fictional lens. Season six is set in the weeks between election day in America and the inauguration of a new president, Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel), a groundbreaking female senator from New York. Notably absent from the narrative is a brash former reality-show star who campaigned on barring Muslim immigrants from the U.S. and arguably benefitted from a letter sent to Congress by the head of the FBI.

Also missing from the new season, at least thus far, is Russia, easily the most intriguing foreign power when it comes to the current administration. Last season on Homeland, Russia was revealed to have infiltrated the highest levels of U.S. intelligence by turning Allison Carr (Miranda Otto), the CIA station chief in Berlin, into a double agent. But the last three episodes of the new season have focused largely on Carrie’s attempts to free Sekou from an apparent FBI sting and President-Elect Keane’s intelligence briefings, in which the CIA’s Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) falsely informed her that Iran is working on a parallel nuclear program with North Korea, violating the terms of its 2015 deal with the U.S.

It was a surprisingly slow start that culminated in a characteristic twist at the end of the fourth episode when Sekou was blown up in Manhattan by a bomb in the van he was using to make deliveries. All the evidence suggests that it was either the FBI or the CIA planting the device to make Sekou into a scapegoat—either to justify dubious ongoing investigations into suspected radicals, or to frighten the president-elect sufficiently to deter her from pursuing reforms within the CIA. Either way, it’s a remarkable indictment of agencies that the show has generally portrayed in the past as heroic, if frequently misguided.

The impetus for the change in direction, Homeland’s showrunner, Alex Gansa, told CNN, was a degree of “soul-searching” in the aftermath of the ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks on Paris in November 2015. The events unfolded the day before Homeland was due to film its season-five finale, which saw Carrie thwart a sarin-gas attack on the Berlin metro, and led Gansa to consider whether the show was telling its stories responsibly, or somehow sensationalizing horrific real-world events. In the past, too, the show has been criticized for being Islamophobic in its focus on Islamic terrorists, notably via graffiti featured in a season-five episode that read “Homeland is racist” in Arabic. “It was eye-opening,” is how Howard Gordon, Homeland’s co-creator, explained his subsequent reaction to The New York Times, in a discussion about whether American television could be fair to Muslims. “Part of it was just mischief, but part of it started a productive conversation that I think led to this year’s story.”

Perhaps predictably, the new season has led to criticism that the show is being politically correct, and losing much of its dramatic potential in the process. “In the unlikely event anybody has, within the first five minutes, not grasped the re-education mission of the series’ new season,” Dorothy Rabinovitz wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “the writers once given to obliqueness in the interest of mystery and style have Carrie hammering the messaging home.”

This being Homeland, it’s of course likely that everything could be upended by the season’s end, with the CIA’s reputation restored. But it’s intriguing to see a show grapple in real time with the consequences of its storylines, and to confront accusations of anti-Muslim bias in an environment in which such attitudes have been thrust front and center. Being accused of Islamaphobia, Gordon said, “started a dialogue—the dawning sense that there’s a responsibility not to just traffic in these not-helpful stereotypes.” But at the same time, he explained, “you have the conundrum [that] the show is about counterterrorism.”