Elizabeth Marvel and F. Murray Abraham (Photo: Showtime)

To describe what happens in “The Covenant” is to detail Saul Berenson’s love of and dedication to shredding documents. After he’s finished putting the screws to Farhad Nafisi, a money bundler suspected of helping Iran mount a parallel nuclear program in North Korea, Saul is asked if he needs help disposing of a dossier on Nafisi’s activities. Saul insists he’s got the situation under control. You see, Saul loves to shred documents, and he approaches the process with the utmost diligence and reverence. You won’t catch him trying to jam a half-ream of compromising sex photos into the slot like some kind of brute. Saul puts the documents in one at a time, lest the gears jam. This is a scene in an episode of Homeland.

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Of course, there are layers to the scene, and part of a larger tapestry. In the course of his conscientious document disposal, Saul discovers a suspiciously empty pack of cigarettes just like the kind Nafisi had. What ramifications that will have remains to be seen, but never before has Homeland asked its audience for quite this much faith and patience. The audience for a show like Homeland gets more critical the older the show gets because there’s more and more to compare it to. So far, Homeland season six doesn’t stack up to any season prior, and I don’t have the confidence I used to have at its ability to rebound. It doesn’t help that Peter Quinn spent the bulk of season five being used as a pincushion, a storyline that teased interesting possibilities but only amounted to a cruel gauntlet. In fact, in Homeland’s history of playing the long game, there are several examples of it backfiring. The first half of season three comes to mind.

The difference between this season and others is that Carrie’s connection to actual intelligence work is as tenuous as it’s ever been. As the head of security for the global During Foundation, Carrie’s role provided a direct path back into the world she was trying to extricate herself from. And to her credit, I suppose, she learned the lesson that you can’t have one foot in and one foot out of that life. You’re either stopping terrorist plots or you aren’t doing that, and Carrie is focused on raising her daughter and atoning for the morally complex choices she’s had to make in her career. Now, the most Carrie is doing to affect the global war on terror in advising President-Elect Keane, which is a big deal in theory, but in the show it’s only amounted in clandestine, hushed-toned meetings. If I was friends with Carrie Mathison in real life, I’d applaud her for the steps she’s taken to gaining stability and making herself whole. As someone watching her on a television show, Carrie’s new life is kind of a drag.

Take for example Carrie’s victory in her new career as a non-degreed legal partner or whatever. Naturally, Saad immediately goes to Conlin and tells him Carrie confronted him about his role in Sekou’s charges. Upon finding out Carrie violated the judge’s order, the government pulls the eight-year plea deal and insists on going to trial, a strategy Reda has already strongly recommended against. Reda lambasts Carrie, who again takes matters into her own hands and gets audio of Conlin pressuring Saad to entrap Sekou despite having no real evidence of the latter’s intention to commit a crime. She takes the recording to Conlin’s office and demands the government free Sekou or else she’ll blow the whistle on him. When Carrie walks out of Conlin’s office, she does so with the same satisfied smile she wore in “New Car Smell” after she reconnected with Brody for the first time. But this isn’t as satisfying a victory as that one because it’s simple blackmail, and because it only applies a Band-Aid to Carrie’s self-inflicted wound.

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Quinn has a similar sense of satisfaction after he confronts the degenerate who robbed him and steals a pistol so he can confront the mysterious man across the street. This aspect of the Quinn storyline is kind of interesting inasmuch as the producers have turned him into the intermittently reliable narrator Carrie once was when she didn’t have her illness under control. Between Quinn’s window-breaking outburst and his awkward sexual advances on Carrie, Quinn is being portrayed as a man with a slippery grip on objective reality. Now, despite little more evidence than a jiggling doorknob, an armed Quinn is prepared to confront the neighbor across the street and do God knows what. Hopefully his instincts pan out because there’s no character in greater need of a win than Quinn.

But honestly, this whole show is in need of a win. “The Covenant,” which might go down in history as Homeland’s least compelling hour ever, was written by Ron Nyswaner, who also wrote last season’s terrific “Why Is This Night Different?” That episode—number four of the season, it should be noted—accelerated the story in a surprising way, and maybe this year’s version of that development is forthcoming. But this slow burn is way too slow, and all the ripped-from-the-headlines talk about the Iran deal won’t be enough to rescue it.

Stray observations

  • In fairness to Saul, I also love to shred documents. Are there people who don’t love to shred documents?
  • Dar is treading on thin ice. Eavesdropping on the president-elect seems like poor form.
  • Saul’s conversation with his sister, a Jewish settler in the West Bank, is the kind of thoughtful discussion that usually makes for a cool tonal counterpoint to the rest of the show. It’s still a great scene, but it’s a shame it was the best thing to happen in the entire episode.
  • Is Carrie completely sober now?
  • I wonder how often one of the writers pitches “Maybe Carrie has an old friend who owes her a favor or something?” as the solution to a problem.
  • The opening scene of Quinn’s nightmare was shot beautifully by executive producer Lesli Linka Glatter.

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