Homeland (S8E4) “Chalk One Up”: Heating Things Up For The “Prestige”

The first episode in season 8 was a slow burn, reintroducing characters while heating up the background tension. Episode two culminated in high-octane explosions and an abduction. Episode three returned to the trough before we crested the action wave once again, with stakes suddenly higher than they’ve ever been, in Homeland‘s latest outing: “Chalk One Up”.

Episode Summary

The President is on his way to Afghanistan. He plans to personally deliver the good news of the war’s end to the troops stationed there on the front line, and to hold a Press Conference with Afghanistan President Daoud (Christopher Maleki). While sitting in one of the vehicles in the decoy presidential motorcade, Carrie (Claire Danes) receives a call from Samira Noori (Sitara Attaie), who is being forcibly removed from her home by her late husband’s brother, Bilal (Omar Farahmand). Carrie immediately leaves to rescue her.

President Warner (Beau Bridges) gives the troops the good news, then boards the helicopter that will take him to the Press Conference, where Saul (Mandy Patinkin) and a host of other journalists and delegates are waiting for he and President Daoud to arrive. As Carrie manages to rescue Samira from her captors, Saul gets devastating news: the helicopter carrying Warner and Daoud went off radar and disappeared. Back in Washington, a visibly nervous Vice President Hayes (Sam Trammell) is also briefed on the situation, and watches in horror as the rescue chopper comes upon the wreckage of the Presidents’ helicopter. Suddenly, all hell breaks loose as an RPG, allegedly wielded by Taliban fighters, brings down the rescue helicopter as well.

Homeland (S8E4) "Chalk One Up": Heating Things Up For The "Prestige"
source: Showtime

Homeland‘s Final Season

Indulge me in a bit of a tangent. Back in 2006, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan adapted a Christopher Priest novel into the excellent film The Prestige, which takes a compelling look at the cost of true dedication to one’s art: magic, in this case. A certain passage from the book describes the magician’s process, but what makes the passage brilliant is that it can accurately be applied to the stories we tell, whether purely fiction or grounded in reality. It is a testament to the prowess of Priest’s writing that this passage is delivered in the film entirely unaltered, and beautifully delivered by Michael Caine:

Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called the Pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called the Turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call the Prestige.

Effective storytellers understand this process very well. Early television drama provides a simple example. Back when storylines were less interconnected and more episodic, a common tactic in keeping audience interest was to present the resolution of a conflict early in an episode. This initial resolution, or the Pledge, would invariably unravel, revealing the real conflict of the episode’s story. This unraveling, the Turn, would propel the story forward as the conflict deepens. Of course, viewers always know that the resolution could not truly come so early into an episode, and yet, the tactic worked then, and continues to work now, thanks to our willing suspension of disbelief. Put simply, we “want to be fooled.” Modern shows use this same tactic, albeit elongated across an entire season.

In similar fashion, Homeland viewers throughout season 8 have been presented with the specter of a resolution that only now do we see falling apart, and the fact that the show continues to uncannily predict real-world events offers little comfort. While it’s true that we want to be fooled by the twists and turns of a TV political thriller, the expectation is that eventually, in the world of storytelling, whatever has been made to disappear will be brought back in “[the] third act, the hardest part, the part we call the Prestige.”

The Space Between Conflict and Peace

Throughout “Chalk One Up” we find a theme in the space between conflict and peace. The struggles between these two extremes are present in both individual and national relationships. Samira Noori finds herself the target of extremists within her own family, who insist she must remarry despite her decision to pursue a more enlightened life in Kabul. Simultaneously, war-weary nations find their leadership the target of extremists who insist the conflict must continue despite their desire to reach for something better.

An extremely compelling scene is found very early in this episode, when Samira explains to a friend (Farzana Nawabi): “The Taliban were out there, hiding. Now, they’re here right in front of us. With their trucks. And flags. And I’m sure their guns.” Almost on cue, a small group of Taliban members approaches the pair. They offer Samira an ice cream cone. There is some hesitation, but she accepts, and her friend asks everyone to get together for a selfie. Again, there is hesitation, but eventually, they do.After years of fighting, something as simple as a shared treat and a selfie seems like an oasis in a desert. This scene spoke volumes, and did so masterfully.

Homeland (S8E4) "Chalk One Up": Heating Things Up For The "Prestige"
source: Showtime

However, the reality is complicated. This week, the U.S. actually did sign a cease-fire with the Taliban. However, there is significant opposition to the deal, as many say it is simply a capitulation to Taliban demands, and does very little for Afghanistan and its people. According to Washington Post reporter Karen DeYoung, a senior defense official speaking anonymously said intelligence officials “are concerned that the [Trump] administration is putting too much stock in the promises of the Taliban,” who will “simply sign anything to get us to leave.”

The deal promises exactly that, pending certain conditions being met by the Taliban. However, according to a former State Department head, quoted in the same article, “the conditionality piece appears far too ambiguous to take any comfort in it.” Worse, the deal completely bypasses the Afghanistan government, making Homeland‘s depiction of President Daoud standing at Warner’s side a significant miscue.

Homeland (S8E4) "Chalk One Up": Heating Things Up For The "Prestige"
source: Showtime

Of course, one hopes for peace, but the situation is clearly far too volatile for such a one-size-fits-all approach, and the plain fact is, peace is very unlikely. It doesn’t help that the U.S. has a long history of prolonging conflict, having seen only fifteen years of peace in two and a half centuries of nationhood. Suddenly, Homeland‘s ability to predict a future of perpetual conflict doesn’t seem so impressive.

On To The Prestige

In the eighth and final season, viewers are well and truly committed, having been presented with the Pledge, and now, in the capture or death of Presidents Warner and Daoud, the Turn. However, like all storytellers, those running Homeland have the fortunate advantage of being able to choose between two very different but equally satisfying options when preparing for the Prestige: bliss or irony. As the show comes to an end, perhaps the conflict will be resolved and everything will be tied up into a perfect little bow. This method of wrapping up a story is often associated with naivety, deservedly so (ignorance is bliss, yes?).

Or, perhaps we will be left wanting, as the conflict continues, and we’re forced to confront the uncomfortable but inescapable truth that conflict is eternal. Paradoxically, it is empathy that makes us able to appreciate the irony of conflict, a bizarre circle that forms the satisfaction we feel at the second method of bringing a story to its close: an ironic un-ending. Such an un-ending, one that delivers satisfaction based purely on well-delivered commentary regarding the futility of the human condition, is the ultimate storytelling Prestige, and shares lofty company with shows like The Wire and The Sopranos, or films like The Seventh Seal, Dr. Strangelove, A Single Man, The Godfather, The Graduate, Night of the Living Dead, The Departed, and Parasite, to name a few examples.

“Chalk One Up”: Conclusion

It is very likely, of course, that Homeland‘s storytellers will choose irony, and rightfully so. Personal and political wars will continue, despite a certain President’s desire to pull a fast one on the general public in order to look like a master dealmaker. Still, among all of the seemingly endless conflict, we see glimmers of hope as people stand up and try to do the right thing. So to those who spend their days in thankless jobs that keep us safe, or trying to bring a real and lasting peace into this crazy world (rather than band-aid solutions), Homeland seemed to take a moment this episode to say, as President Warner did to Carrie, “Thank you.” We say the same.

Homeland Season 8 Episode 4: Chalk One Up, aired on March 1, 2020, on Showtime.

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