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Showtime’s CIA-focused drama series Homeland has been a test case in how to make a great TV show, ruin it, revive it, ruin it again, and somehow make it even better. Every time Homeland has crashed and burned, it has risen from the ashes stronger and better than ever. After Season 1’s excellent run, the show lost its way for two seasons while trying to find out with to do with Damian Lewis’ Brody, who had become (unfortunately for their characters) inextricably linked to Claire Danes’ Carrie Matheson. But when the show let Brody go, finally, it was better for it. Season 4 was a fascinating, heart-pounding whirlwind — until its finale let all of the steam out from what it had been building. But Season 5, to start, captures the same tension and urgency of last season, yet also seems poised to surpass it.
No matter what kinds of mistakes or reboots or resets Homeland has gone through, though, it has never strayed far from its original conceit. The show always comes back to its exploration of loyalty, identity, and dualism. Season 5 is no different. Two years since the conclusion of Season 4 and the bombings in Islamabad, Carrie is out of the CIA and working in the private sector in Berlin. She has a stable job and a stable home life (having found a new ginger lover, Alexander Fehling’s Jonas, who helps her with Franny), and is in a stable mental state.
But Homeland challenges Carrie almost from the very start, after hackers are able to accidentally-on-purpose steal a slew of CIA documents that link a secret USA-German surveillance program. Much of this will sound familiar, and Homeland integrates aspects of Edward Snowden’s case, Syrian unrest and the refugee crisis, ISIS gaining ground, and much more in a way that allows the show to be both an observer and a commentator. When Carrie hears about the document leak, she immediately sides with the CIA, and worries about state secrets falling into the wrong hands, while coming up against those fighting for a freedom from such secrets.
That pull between being in the CIA and not becomes a major factor later, as Carrie asks for intel about Lebanon in order to protect her boss on his journey there, and doesn’t receive it. Later, after seeking out a Hezbollah leader, the CIA comes to her for intel — but she doesn’t give it. This, coupled with a frosty relationship with her old ally Saul (Mandy Patinkin) and Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) as the CIA director keep Carrie on the outs, even as she’s pulled back in to conflict.
The season’s tension, so far, hinges on a cat and mouse game that plays with the idea of atonement, both for Carrie and perhaps for the show itself. It reaches back into her past and its own, revealing that she has become to target of an old foe. Soon afterwards, viewers more or less know who. It’s an interesting decision that puts viewers ahead of Carrie, even if we can’t see where it will all lead. But it also creates a huge amount of pressure as we see her desperately seeking answers in all the wrong places.
It matters more than ever, because Carrie is not just in a new place literally from previous seasons, she has also been toying with being in a new place in her life. The season opens with her at church, continuing with the theme of forgiveness, and finds Carrie embracing a sober, more moderate life. Homeland saves an in-depth discussion of Carrie’s mental state for the its third episode, where she at first seems to treat going off of her meds as having the potential to unlock a super-powered mania in order to solve the mystery of who wants her dead. But soon she unravels, and it’s heartbreaking to see her attempt control in reasonable ways, only to have everything implode.
The new season’s first three episodes are extremely taut and well-crafted, introducing Carrie’s new German life and making her return to Middle Eastern conflicts something that feels organic for her character. Though her relationships are important to her and her decision making, she’s not controlled by them in ways that affected other seasons so negatively. The balance, finally, is right.
Speaking of balance, there are also a myriad of connecting side plots involving Mirada Otto as a Berlin station chief, Russian intelligence, grandstanding journalists, and the return of fan-favorite character Quinn (Rupert Friend), whose two years “in the shit” have left him dead-eyed and cold. All of this in concert makes Season 5’s opening trio of episodes an impressive start to what could be a thrilling season. Long-time fans will know better than to completely trust the series, both in knowing what to do with a good story, and also knowing when to stop it. But fans who have stuck with Homeland this long have made our loyalties clear, and with this season and most of the last, we’re finally being rewarded. What comes next may be a question, but it’s a hell of a start.
Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent
Homeland Season 5 debuts on Showtime Sunday, October 4th at 9 p.m.