Carrie Mathison has been largely missing from this season’s proceedings, leaving all the heavy lifting to others who aren’t embroiled in a harrowing custody battle. But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t been using that time wisely, and it doesn’t mean that all of her counterintelligence instincts have been supplanted by maternal instincts. In “The Flag House,” Saul drops by Carrie’s place after his ex-wife Mira talks him out of fleeing the country lest he have to own up to his embarrassing involvement in the Berlin station debacle. He lets himself in and looks around, eventually stumbling onto Carrie’s secret war room, which the audience gets to see at the same time Saul does. When Saul sees how much work Carrie has been putting into understanding the deadly conspiracy unfolding around her, he smiles like a proud papa.

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The takeaway is clear: Carrie is always in the game, even when it looks like she’s asleep at the wheel. Homeland built up to a similar reveal in its polarizing third season, when what appears to be Carrie’s lengthy, painful psychological breakdown during involuntary hospitalization is actually part of a long con designed to lure a terrorist cell out of hiding. The twist was widely panned at the time, with some critics pointing out the difference between tricking the fictional antagonists and tricking the actual audience. There was another way of telling the story, one in which the audience found out sooner that Saul only pretended to immolate Carrie during a congressional hearing, and knew exactly what Carrie was up to and why. Instead, the writers suggested it was all real before lifting the veil after episode four, and keeping the secret required some storytelling choices that could be charitably described as “cheats.”

This time, the revelation of Carrie’s covert intelligence work goes down a lot easier. As it turns out, Carrie’s conspiracy cork board prowess is untarnished by her time away from the intelligence game. She has a full spread, complete with every manner of newspaper scrap, print out, and sticky notes. There are so many thumb tacks and so much multicolored yarn, Carrie’s bank account would probably rival Otto During’s if she had a nickel for every time she’s been asked if she wants to apply for a Hobby Lobby credit card. Carrie’s had some downtime this season, but honestly, not so much that it seems like she’d have the time to compile an investigatory canvas quite this elaborate.

But it’s easy to overlook the details, because Saul is back to being impressed by Carrie’s work at putting together the larger narrative, just as he was in season one when he figured out Carrie’s color-coded scribbles were actually a timeline of Abu Nazir’s activities. It’s a classic example of one of Homeland’s staple scenes, the one where Carrie and Saul manage to emotionally bond through the work, sometimes when they’re not even in the same room.

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Much of “The Flag House” works as a collection of scenes, which has been the case with the better episodes of the season. The serialized story has three wobbly wheels, but Homeland is still a thoughtful, highly competent show despite season six’s many flaws. Co-creator Alex Gansa wrote this pivotal episode, and perhaps that’s why “House” feels more like good old Homeland than the rest of the season. But it also feels more familiar because there’s momentum, and the long-simmering conflicts are finally beginning to boil over.

After weeks of eyeing each other warily like a pair of coiled snakes, President-Elect Keane and Dar Adal finally make their mutual distaste known, and it’s pretty phenomenal. Elizabeth Marvel is excellent at playing this type of character, the well-intentioned politician who thinks she can jump into a mud pit wearing a dry-clean-only blazer and somehow crawl out clean. But at this point, Keane isn’t nearly as interested as she once was in playing politics or exchanging niceties with Dar Adal. He just keeps drawing new lines and crossing them.

Dar manages, once again, to use Frannie as leverage against Carrie. Carrie’s all set to head to the hearing where she’ll spill everything she knows about Berlin to help topple Dar, and a driver arrives to pick her up. At the destination, the driver tells Carrie the supervised visit with Frannie, scheduled for later that afternoon, might not be a sure thing. Sure enough, when Carrie calls the case worker, she’s told Frannie suddenly fell ill and isn’t available anymore. Carrie bails from the hearing, and like magic, her visit with Frannie is back on again. Even when Keane shows up and demands an explanation, Carrie won’t admit Dar is manipulating her.

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Carrie seems relatively unbothered by the decision she’s made, and that’s why there’s a hint of tragedy to her choices. She never backs down, but suddenly, here is Carrie capitulating to a bully within the intelligence community. Inasmuch as Homeland has been about Carrie’s choice between agency life and motherhood, her cooperation with Dar was an indication that she was choosing Frannie over seeing justice served. But then Saul discovered what she’s been doing with all her free time.

Saul’s discovery is resonant when cut together with Carrie’s reunion with Quinn, who has managed to track Mystery Neighbor down to a flop house for mercenaries. Carrie looks through Quinn’s scope and sees the man across the street. At long last, it’s Carrie across with the street with her sights on him. The Carrie-Saul-Quinn alliance hasn’t been quite this strong in ages, and it’s a relief to see them finally working toward the same goal. To borrow the title of the controversial season three episode in which Carrie’s undying vigilence was first revealed, game on.

Stray observations

  • The interesting thing about Carrie’s conspiracy wall is that it suggests the writers might be doing what I hoped they were working toward, which was showing Carrie that she’s gone to a whole lot of trouble to escape the work that is, for better or worse, her calling.
  • Carrie has more reason this season than she had last season to completely forget about Quinn for a while. But still…she thought he was still in Bellevue? Considering she began the season being told to stop coming to the hospital, it seems a little weird that she hasn’t figured out how to get an update on him.
  • Justine might be my favorite character now.
  • I didn’t realize how much I missed Mira until she popped up. I loved her response to Saul telling her he wouldn’t be seeing her again, as if quality time was ever the foundation of their relationship.
  • Max is in hot water after being discovered with an unauthorized cell phone at his new job at Elliott O’Keefe’s Sock Puppets, Interweb Propaganda, and Gravel-Voiced Shouting. (They should really think of a snappier name for the company.)
  • The flashbacks to Quinn’s youth are poignant, but I didn’t find them especially valuable.

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