When “Homeland” took the world by storm in 2011, it was due, in part, to the gripping mystery at its core. Was Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) an American prisoner of war returning home to the country and family he loves, or was he an al-Qaeda sleeper agent who had been turned by the opposition during his imprisonment? Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) suspected the latter, but her quest to prove it — to her superiors, herself and the audience at home — made for some of the most thrilling television of the golden age (and won a heap of trophies to boot).
The topicality of the series was one of its many strengths, and, to remain relevant, we’re long gone from the Brody era. Season 3 saw to that, but also managed to lose a considerable portion of the series’ prestige. Notorious for being the first (and now only) season to miss out on a Primetime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series, some thought the CIA thriller had burned too brightly, too fast.
Then came Season 4 and with it, redemption. Implementing a calculated plan and pace, showrunner Alex Gansa — with the help of top-tier collaborators like Lesli Linka Glatter — crafted a season worthy of the show’s barely forgotten glory days. Moving past Brody and establishing “Homeland” as a one-woman show — supported by some other talented players, from veterans like Mandy Patinkin to a steady rotation of fresh faces like Tracy Letts — wasn’t an easy task. But it was better for those speed bumps… and continues to build from the choices made in Season 4 to this day.
If last season was the redux, then Season 5 is peak “Homeland.” You can take that in both its traditional, positive light or its more recent reappropriation toward the negative. In the first three episodes of the new season, nearly everything that’s led to the series’ current reputation has been tossed into the mix. We’ve got a crystal clean philanthropic foundation in Germany that the CIA suspects of being a little too squeaky clean (nicely paralleling the Brody mystery of Season 1). We’ve got an impending refugee crisis and a cyber terrorist threat to illegal intelligence activities (keeping things current). And, of course, we’ve got Carrie losing her goddamn mind.
It’s the latter of these three tropes which will likely determine your reaction to the new season, as fans will fret and cynics will laugh as the bipolar ex-CIA agent is yet again set down a self-destructive path. “Crazy Carrie” has become something like lore without ever disappearing from the series: Last season, she hallucinated the return of her dead ex after being tricked into taking placebos. In earlier years, she was driven to the nut house and nearly fired from the CIA. This story driver has proved a bit troublesome in the past, and may try some fans’ patience this year when it resurfaces with questionable justification. Whether or not her decision works for the audience is too subjective a point to argue, mainly because in each and every moment of “Homeland” — especially these — it’s up to Claire Danes to make it work.
The actress has yet to miss out on an Emmy nomination after her back-to-back wins for the first two seasons, and Episode 3 makes a strong case to be chosen as her 2016 submission. Nearly every side of this multi-faceted, intense and trying character is shown in its rawest form over a brisk 55 minutes, and Danes hits each note with graceful authority. It’s a performance that could feel too showy if nudged too far in any direction, or dialed back enough to be made wanting. It’s also one we’ve come to expect from Danes, and with those expectations comes an association with her character; a blend of both admiration for the actress while also forgetting there’s any acting at all. Only Carrie remains, and Carrie — who grew to know herself better than ever before over the course of last season — needs to stop repeating old patterns.
Thankfully, there seem to be forces in motion set up to do just that. As we saw in Season 4, revisiting these patterns doesn’t mean a show is spinning its wheels. Carrie’s relationship with Aayan — which very much mimicked her connection to Brody — brought out powerful developments she’s still coping with today. As has been widely reported, Season 5 jumps forward two years from the Season 4 finale: Carrie is now working as head of security for a charitable organization, while Saul has become the ultimate company man and Quinn is acting as a hired assassin without emotional recourse. That’s as much as I’ll say regarding specific plot points — as is the standard with Indiewire’s spoiler-free season reviews — but each character is provided an intriguing path. How and when they collide, as well as the secrets they’ve collected over the course of going unobserved for two years, makes for fertile dramatic ground, with some noticeable growth already sprouting.
After remaining skeptical early on last year, I must say my trust in what’s coming next has been solidified. Season 4 helped quite a bit, but these first three episodes have been crafted with assurance. No matter what you think of Carrie, she is a never-ending fountain of drama, and the creative team behind “Homeland” has honed her actions to be purposeful, even when they seem erratic. With the better part of the season left unscreened, it’s impossible to know for certain what this fifth year will bring. Yet, considering the payoff and potential within these first three episodes, it’s time to embrace both Carrie and “Homeland” like we did at the start.
“Homeland” Season 5 premieres Sunday, October 4 at 9pm. Indiewire will be publishing weekly reviews of each episode.