If a television show could develop mental illness, take anti-psychotics, stabilize, go off its meds, lose all sense of reason, take its meds again, return to normal life, and then repeat that cycle ad infinitum, that show would be Homeland. Ever since it debuted to emphatic critical acclaim in 2012, the Showtime drama has bounded back and forth between two extremes: being a smart, provocative, morally complex drama about a CIA agent fighting in the war on terror, and being a manic, pulsating, teeth-grinding, jazz-riffing, tequila-pounding, sexually impulsive swarm of hot messiness. Like its protagonist, Carrie Mathison, it seems determined to believe that it can’t be one without also being the other—that its brilliant instincts and acute observations wouldn’t be possible without its sloppy, paranoid, downright unprofessional addiction to turmoil.
The ultimate question for the viewer, then, is whether the payoff is worth it. If you can overlook the nonsense—the omnipresent cryfaces, the world’s most pointless pregnancy subplot, the whole Caracas interlude, the time Brody murdered the vice president by hacking his pacemaker—more power to you. If you’re among the naysayers, the doubters, the cringing few who doff their fists at the screen every time Carrie starts constructing her Wall o’ Crazy™, then rest assured that season five won’t necessarily be easy for you. But it is, at least judging from the first three episodes, starting to realize that its star asset might also be its biggest weakness.
After the Carrie-Brody-centric crests and falls of the first three years, season four attempted something of a reboot by definitively dispatching with the latter and sending the former to Pakistan, as the Islamabad bureau chief for the CIA. The exploration of new territory was mostly welcomed by critics, although the show continued to prove it valued shock and awe above logic and reason, enabling a bloody raid on CIA headquarters by a high-profile Taliban leader via a not-so-secret tunnel. But it also, more subtly, established the ways in which Carrie seemed to be doubting the ethics and the efficacy of her job. When she walked away from Saul, her reliable mentor and booster, after realizing he’d agreed to a deal with the man who’d murdered several of her colleagues, her disillusionment felt both plausible and long overdue.
Season five pushes the reset button once again by zipping two years into the future, taking Carrie out of the CIA and relocating her to Berlin, supposedly several time zones from her old life at Langley. She works in private security for an enigmatic German billionaire (Sebastian Koch), spends quality time with her adorable moppet of a daughter, and (old habits dying hard) has a boyfriend with (obviously) red hair whom she (obviously) met at work. She announces at one point that she’s been sober for nine months, a record so transparently destined for interruption as to be almost tragic.
The reason this feels familiar is that it’s exactly how season two of Homeland began, with Carrie living as a civilian, taking care of her health, and seeming anything but enthused about it. The show has never been subtle about the fact that Carrie craves, literally inhales, drama, whether by spinning out of control in a basement apartment, chasing terrorists in a foreign locale, or swigging liquor and snorting crushed-up caffeine pills for “focus.” She just doesn’t know what to do with herself. But the paradox of Homeland is that it doesn’t either: Its writers seem to scoff at the idea that a show with two explosions, one kidnapping, one ambush, and approximately four murders in the first three episodes of a season could find ways to grab viewers’ attention without the protagonist also having a mental breakdown. Inevitably, Carrie will decide at one point to go off her meds. Inevitably, she will recover. It’s season five, and we’re still doing this?
But there are also plenty of ways in which the show shows its sophistication and complexity, typically when its star is out of the frame. When it isn’t hustling for the gotcha moment, jolting viewers awake with surprise after surprise, it’s offering a remarkably insightful take on the compromised morality of everyone involved in the war on terror, regardless of allegiance. So many of its characters, old and new, seem to have been swallowed whole by cynicism: Saul (Mandy Patinkin), whose ability to broker deals to his own benefit now appears to rival only Dar Adal; Peter (Rupert Friend), back from two years in Syria and returned to his off-the-books assassinations; the CIA’s Berlin station chief (Miranda Otto); and a crusading journalist and apparent enemy of the state (Sarah Sokolovic). In one scene, Peter tells a group of U.S. leaders that the only way to win in the Middle East is to send in 200,000 troops and “pound Raqqa into a parking lot.” Almost immediately, the camera cuts to Carrie making balloon animals with Frannie in a jarring, barbed transition.
So, too, the series shows its timeliness when it comes to current affairs, tackling ISIS, Hezbollah, surveillance, hacking, an Edward Snowden-esque security breach that dangerously tarnishes the CIA, and the long-term ramifications of the drone strikes Carrie approved when she was in Islamabad. Its situations are never simple; its solutions are never ideal. In one scene, a bearded man of Middle Eastern descent walks shiftily through a station in Berlin, the camera lingering on his bag. In forcing the viewer to confront their own assumptions about what he might be doing, Homeland shows how shrewd it can be. In making none of its characters obvious good guys, even while it presents a handful of cartoonishly alluring baddies, it offers one of the most honest portrayals of contemporary affairs in culture.
The looming threat, of course, is that things could go off the rails in an instant, as tends to happen when a show wants both the eminence of prestige drama and the permanent adrenaline surge of a late-’90s Nicolas Cage movie. But for now, at least, Homeland is back with a surprising show of force.
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