Just over a year ago, “Homeland” elected a female president, and today it’s still the most relevant modern-day spy series on television. Season 7 sees an administration as brutally divided as its country, a revolution on the rise, and government officials willing to take drastic efforts to preserve whatever version of America they believe in. The first episode (all that was provided in advance for critics) sees the president called “a fascist,” described as “thuggish,” and leading a vengeful witch hunt inside her own agencies.
Creating a compelling narrative from real-world parallels has always been a specialty of the Showtime drama, but this year feels particularly aggressive. Everyone is on edge. Politics have invaded every sphere of society, including the home life, and what really resonates after the first hour is a personal question: “Homeland” asks if Claire Danes’ hero of the past six seasons has been driven irreversibly mad — that even when she’s at her most objectively sane self, she’s still become part of the problem — or if she’s the only person who can save the world.
Its unsettling opening episode, filled with “fake news” talking heads, military tribunals, and shady power moves, makes it clear the new season means business, but that’s as much as we’ll say about the plot. Part of “Homeland’s” lasting appeal stems from its versatility: Viewers can take it as seriously as it often takes itself, or they can step back and excitedly giggle at the insanity on hand. There are certainly fewer moments of glee in the Season 7 premiere, but Alex Gansa’s Showtime drama has always blended the preposterous with the authentic to challenge our conceits of both: After all, it began by chronicling a Central Intelligence Agency given unprecedented power after an unprecedented attack on American soil — things are bound to get crazy.
The heavily researched, intricately crafted, and addictively thrilling series had soapy charms aplenty in its first few seasons, including an improbable yet undeniable romance, but its sense of urgency toward topical issues gave it explicit purpose, and it’s leaned into more serious terrain in more recent seasons. The post-Brody years have been almost anthological; picking up fresh cases and characters each year, playing out their story and moving on to newly pressing current affairs next season.
But Carrie Mathison has always been at the center of that divergence — like Spider-Man clinging to two splitting ends of the ferry, heroically straining to bring them together. In the early years, her web was frantically fraying as she balanced work and love while self-medicating her bipolar disorder with multiple bottles of wine. Now, she’s more balanced; Carrie has embraced motherhood by behaving more responsibly. In Season 7, she even says, “I’m taking my meds. I’m exercising and sleeping and eating.” She’s doing everything she can to keep an even keel.
But in 2018, the world feels irreversibly divided. No matter what Carrie does to strengthen her webbing, the ferry halves are sinking on both sides. Confronted with a growing child and lacking a personal life, she’s forced to consider why she’s holding on at all.
It’s too early to tell where Season 7 will take this question — just talking about “Homeland” after one episode and without spoilers is, as you can likely tell, quite the challenge. How far will Carrie be pushed toward reconsidering her choices? The writers have done that before, most notably during her “drone queen” phase in Season 4, but the juxtaposition of Carrie’s curbed craziness just as the world spins off its axis creates compelling questions: Who’s crazy in a world gone mad? Who can bring it back? How?
“Homeland” is uniquely positioned to tackle these questions, given the studious pre-season producers’ sessions (with ex-CIA operatives and other intelligence officers) and Carrie’s persistently human core, still intact after all these years. Where she ends up at the end of Season 7 feels more pressing than ever: Her future isn’t the only one at risk.
“Homeland” Season 7 premieres Sunday, February 11 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.