Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson and
Courtesy of Showtime

“Alt.Truth” ranks as the most paranoid episode of “Homeland” since Nicholas Brody was finally outed as a fellow traveler of terrorists in season one.

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you haven’t seen the March 12 episode of “Homeland.”

Simply put, the eighth installment is the best hour of “Homeland’s” sixth season so far. It has everything that “Homeland” does best — capers, cat-and-mouse chases, the formation of unholy alliances, snappy banter about ideological dilemmas, whiplash-inducing plot twists, and a surfeit of grim-face Saul and quiver-face Carrie. By the end, the bell tolls for a well-loved character. And there’s a touch of “Flash Gordon” in the closing seconds that is forgivable because everything else that comes before is riveting.

“Alt.Truth” is sharply written by Patrick Harbinson, razor-sharply directed by Lesli Linka Glatter, and grounded by incredible work (as usual) from stars Claire Danes (Carrie Mathison), Mandy Patinkin (Saul Berenson) and Rupert Friend (Peter Quinn). The look and feel of each sequence changes markedly depending on the primary character.

Nothing is more unsettling than the world view of Peter Quinn, who is so far gone in his mentally challenged paranoia that he gut-punches his former lover Astrid, the German agent who crosses the Atlantic to help him out when summoned by CIA honcho Dar Adal. Adal’s motivations are anything but benevolent, but Astrid doesn’t know that. Quinn doesn’t know much, but he knows enough to suspect Adal is up to no good, and thus he suspects Astrid is, too. The fact that Astrid winds up dying trying to protect Quinn from a sniper attack — most likely ordered by Adal — is another great big hunk of professional guilt that Quinn is going to have to work out some day. Nina Hoss is so good in the role as Astrid that she makes you realize she was hurt more by Quinn’s angry declaration that “we f——d each other because we were lonely — that doesn’t make us friends” than by the connection of his fist with her stomach.

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Quinn warned Astrid — and viewers — that he was unpredictable early in the episode in a sequence with dizzying hand-held camera work that telegraphed his unstable sense of being.

“My dreams have a realness, and my realness,” he tells Astrid, who prompts him with the right word, “my reality has a dreamnesss… And my thoughts keep disappearing.” It’sa great line that would never work unless delivered by an equally great actor.

Astrid isn’t the only casualty in this episode. Truth is annihilated more than once in parallel storylines converging around President-elect Elizabeth Keane.

The episode opens with a return visit from ultra right-wing firebrand Brett O’Keefe, played to unctuous perfection by Jake Weber. O’Keefe is masterminding a plan to smear the character of Keane’s dead son Andrew — and his mother by association — by branding him a coward during his military service in Iraq. It’s a page from the shameful 2004 Swift Boating campaign waged against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

O’Keefe brings former soldiers under Andrew Keane’s command to his TV studio to tell a selective tale of Keane’s actions on the battlefield, complete with carefully edited video footage. After all, this was “the YouTube war,” as O’Keefe tells Adal when he shows him his handiwork. O’Keefe’s zeal to tear down the President-elect at all costs — even when the footage clearly shows Andrew running to help save some of his wounded men — is chilling. And it’s all too timely for our real-life moment when partisan vitriol among liberals and conservatives has reached incendiary heights, whether in the extreme sentiments expressed on some signs at anti-Trump rallies or by the Internet-driven ravings of Alex Jones types. “The most dangerous person to ever set foot in the White House” and “ceding control to the world government,” O’Keefe rails about Elizabeth Keane when ex-soldier Rudy when he hesitates at taking part in the segment. Sounds all too familiar.

The assembling of the segment that diet Coke junkie O’Keefe so proudly plays for Adal runs the length of “Alt.Truth,” making it a time bomb that seems likely to go off in next week’s episode. Even Adal seems to flinch when O’Keefe proudly tells him his planned tagline for the segment: “Cowardice — it runs in the family.” Without saying as much, this plot thread underscores how much political perceptions can be manipulated by what we now call “fake news.” The surname choice of O’Keefe for the character hardly seems accidental. In the real world of partisan propaganda wars, self-styled conservative activist James O’Keefe has been unleashing sting videos for years, most recently last month with his Wikileaks-esque release of hours of audio recordings from inside CNN years ago. “Homeland’s” O’Keefe even shows Adal the uncut footage taken from Rudy’s helmet cam, which proves Andrew was running into harm’s way, not from it, when he was fatally shot in the back.

Meanwhile, truth is an elusive commodity for Saul and Carrie in the plot thread that finally reunites them. Like Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Garcia and Weir or Gallagher and Gallagher, these two were simply meant to work together. When they finally compare notes on the strange coincidences surrounding Carrie’s life and the roadblocks to Saul’s investigation of Iran’s nuclear ambitions (or lack thereof), the runway is set for them to kick some institutional ass in the remaining four episodes of the season.

“You should’ve come to me,” Saul says, with a pained look, after learning Carrie’s side of the story so far. “Honestly Saul, I didn’t know whose side you were on.” Ouch.

Saul literally walks into Carrie’s life at a rough moment, as she’s barely holding it together after losing custody of her daughter, Franny, in the previous episode (thanks to meddling by Adal). Saul is sympathetic but still single-minded in his goal of getting his one-time double agent, Iranian Major General Majid Javadi, in front of the President-elect Keane. On some level it’s clear Saul also knows that the one thing that can lift Carrie out of her puddle of depression is a clearly defined mission. He sees his opening when Carrie expresses her desire to see for herself that Franny is safe. Saul still has the connections to help. As Saul and Carrie sit in the car outside the foster home where Franny is running around, neither of them have to state the obvious: at this point in Carrie’s ever-tortured life, the kid is probably better off.

“I swore to myself it would be different here,” Carrie tearfully tells Saul. Ouch again.

Saul and Carrie are determined to have Javadi assure Keane that Iran is not pushing a deal-defying covert nuclear program. But Javadi destroys Saul and Carrie’s credibility by changing his story once he’s in front of Keane, telling her to “watch your back” where his country is concerned.

Javadi turns traitor on Saul because he realizes how far out of the CIA power loop his old friend is. Why else would Saul have to enlist Carrie, who doesn’t even work for the agency anymore, to arrange the meeting with Keane? Saul can’t even find a safe house for Javadi to cool his heels while he waits for the U.S. to grant him political asylum. He has to suffer the indignity of bedding down in a homeless shelter in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

When the time comes for Javadi’s covert rendezvous, he’s whisked away not in a standard-issue black SUV but Carrie’s dark-blue Volvo. The car sequence between Carrie and Javadi, played by Shaun Toub, is fantastic.

“You?,” he says, leaning his head in the window. “Yeah, me. Get in.”

Javadi pushes every button in Carrie’s worn-out body by going so far as to tell her that he found a nice final resting place for Brody in an Iranian cemetery for martyrs — this after Carrie obliquely references his sacrifice for the cause of getting the Iranian nuclear deal done. Javadi promises to draw her a map — as if she’ll be making a pleasure trip to Tehran soon. He also signals his coming betrayal with one of the many great lines in this script.

“I’m worried about him,” Javadi tells Carrie, referring to Saul’s waning clout with the home office. “It’s all that men like me and Saul know is our careers. It’s a very painful moment when we realize we no longer make the weather.” Ouch.

Back in the zone of Quinn, the final sniper attack sequence in the upstate New York hideout home that leaves Astrid dead is made more intense by the scream that Quinn lets out when he sees her fall. The burly guy who had been watching Carrie’s Brooklyn townhouse has hunted down Quinn — proving that while he is definitely paranoid, it’s not without reason.

On the run, Quinn falls into the lake after taking a second shot, or at least grazing, from Burly Guy’s high-powered guns. He manages to stay underwater and dodge a half-dozen more bullets shot into the lake until Burly Guy takes off. Yes, that’s a stretch, but by this time, Quinn has earned his reprieve, and so has the audience. My jaw was clenched for most of the hour.

Stray thoughts:

  • Got a chuckle out of seeing “Showtime” as a selling point on the marquee of the roadside motel where Quinn whacks the wrong guy over the head with a tire iron.
  • The conk on the head that Saul suffers when Javadi pushes him away after the debacle with Keane seems likely to come back to haunt Saul’s prodigious brain.
  • Actor Chris Coy, who played soldier Rudy, was good in the brief role that may well grow as the season winds down. Loved him in HBO’s “Treme,” too.
  • Brief but wonderful Saul moment: “Who are you, again?” he says to Max after barging in to Carrie’s apartment.
  • Once a demanding boss, always a demanding (but not uncaring) boss. “Carrie, pay attention, I’m not f—-ing around,” Saul barks at her as Carrie takes in the sight of Franny playing in the front yard of the foster mother’s house.
  • Would love to know the back story of Saul’s association with Josie, who was dishing up food at the homeless shelter. “I owe you, Josie,” he says as he breezes in to find the agitated Javadi. “Anytime, hon,” she replies.
  • Quinn’s unfounded suspicion of Astrid grows when he finds a stash of money, drugs and a fake passport and Social Security card for him, in the guise of “David Ekley,” in the house. In truth, that all seems like standard operating procedure for ex-CIA staffers. Maybe he’s doubly freaked out because Ekley’s home address is listed as Buffalo, N.Y. But in all reality, Quinn should give the Queen City a shot. Buffalo’s been on the upswing of late and really has its charms.

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