“Chalk One Up” is one of Homeland’s shorter episodes—barely 40 minutes without the credits and “previously on” recap—but it’s a pivotal one, somewhat undermined by a sense of inevitability that hangs over the entire running time. In a weird way, though, our certainty that something terrible is going to happen to President Warner at some point during his ill-advised jaunt lends a queasy suspense to the proceedings. It’s like watching a slow-motion car wreck.
Some methods of generating suspense are more effective than others. As “Chalk One Up” begins, Carrie is returning from another night motorcycle ride, sneaking back into the CIA station through the kitchen again. The only real reference to her Russia troubles comes when she overhears a couple of analysts discussing the recording of her meeting by the fountain and their attempts to make it intelligible. That plants the seeds of further paranoia when military police show up to escort Carrie out of the building and into a car bound for Bagram Airfield. If we put ourselves in Carrie’s state of mind, it makes sense that she’s on edge, but this feels like a trick Homeland pulls too often to be effective. It’s just a car ride, and the secrecy has nothing to do with anything Carrie has done.
In fact, as she learns upon arriving at the air base, this is a reward. Warner has specifically requested her presence so he can personally thank her for efforts last season, without which he probably wouldn’t be president. The big surprise, however, is that Warner and the Afghan president aren’t staying to make the announcement of a successful peace agreement. Against the wishes of the Secret Service and pretty much everyone else, they’ll be flying to a combat post for a live, televised announcement. It’s not hard to guess which one.
Carrie’s moment in the sun is short-lived. In Kabul, Samira and her friend are adjusting to life after the cease-fire: no gunfire, no explosions, just Taliban in the street handing out ice cream cones and posing for selfies. The optimistic mood is shattered when Samira’s former brother-in-law arrives for a visit. She hasn’t been back to her village since her husband’s murder two years earlier, but what at first appears to be a friendly catch-up session takes a sinister turn when he tells Samira it’s time for her to remarry—specifically to him—and doesn’t take no for an answer. Samira is able to call Carrie for help and a rescue mission ensues. What’s interesting here is that a character like Samira is too often a plot device used once and quickly forgotten: Carrie got the information she needed, and there was no reason to think we’d ever see Samira again. Her perspective as one of the Afghan people whose lives are being affected by these events is important, however, so that we’re not just watching a political chess match with no human consequence.
Still, that chess match is ongoing. At the reception in Kabul, Saul prevents Tasneem from getting her phone and leaving while the president is still in dangerous territory. She and G’ulom aren’t happy that this settlement has been reached without their input, but is it too late to do anything about that? As Warner’s visit to the combat post plays out on a large screen, the sense of impending doom is impossible to miss.
In what may be (but most likely aren’t) his final moments on the show, Beau Bridges conveys the hubris and recklessness of Warner, but also his fundamental decency. His address to the troops is sincere, but the fact that he’s there at all smells of political desperation in the face of an unexpected election challenge back home. The image of Warner in his helmet recalls Dukakis in the tank back in 1988, but the way his speech is staged, we can almost picture that “Mission Accomplished” banner from the George W. Bush era. It’s a premature celebration that ends with the president’s chopper a smoking ruin and the prospect of peace as illusory as ever.
- Knowing ahead of time that next week’s episode is titled “Chalk Two Down” also served as a bit of a spoiler while watching this one.
- Max may be a good luck charm after all. He decides to stay behind rather than hitching a ride on one of the departing choppers, neither of which makes it to safety. Will Max beat himself up over not using his good luck powers to save the president? Is this the silliest storyline in Homeland history? There is some competition for that title.
- Jenna is still trying to play best friends with Carrie, but her grilling about Carrie’s meeting with the president doesn’t do her any favors. “It was nice to talk to someone who trusts me” pretty much shuts it down.