There’s a symmetry to the final season of “Homeland” that speaks louder than any of its international rabble-rousing and high-octane action scenes. Carrie Mathison, the CIA officer with bipolar disorder who Claire Danes has squinted, screamed, sweated, and shaken her way into becoming over seven intense seasons, is now a former P.O.W. suspected of turning on her country. To Carrie, such an accusation is as ludicrous as it is insulting. She’s a patriot. She’s put her life, sanity, and family on the line, time and time again, for America. To see it any other way is impossible.
And yet, over the course of the first four episodes, Carrie is forced to reexamine her perspective; to consider the unthinkable in order to, once again, protect her country — this time, possibly, from herself. Not only is this a clever means to put Carrie in the shoes of her one-time enemy, long-time lover Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), but it encompasses the parallel stories “Homeland” has told since he left the show. Carrie has worried her mind will betray her when it matters most; that she won’t be able to serve her country to the best of her abilities because of her disorder, her drinking, or even her child. The series, meanwhile, has tried to force viewers to reexamine who’s the real enemy in the war on terror; to empathize and rationalize with people whose opinion of America is less than “Great!”
Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon are bringing these questions full circle, and the early episodes are a strong start to a complicated goodbye. When Nicholas Brody turned out to be a terrorist, it opened up a deeper, richer conversation about what that word meant. When we find out what happened to Carrie Mathison during her seven months in a Russian jail, we’re going to know a lot more about what it means to be a patriot — a definition “Homeland” has been exploring for nearly a decade.
Season 8 opens with Carrie still in isolation post-imprisonment. She’s been debriefed, interviewed, and analyzed, but her time behind enemy lines is still a mystery. Her memory is missing big chunks of time, which is taxing on Carrie but suspicious to her colleagues. Does she really not remember, or is she choosing to exclude key details? Before anyone is comfortable with an answer, Saul (Mandy Patinkin, still in fine, blustery form after all these years) steps in to pull Carrie out of friendly captivity and into enemy territory.
As the National Security Advisor to President Warner (Beau Bridges), Saul’s top priority is negotiating an end to the war in Afghanistan by brokering peace talks with Taliban leaders. This, as one might assume, is no easy task, and Saul needs his protégé to help push the deal through. To say much more would enter into spoiler territory, and given “Homeland” builds to momentous event after momentous event, just know the following four episodes are solid if not spectacular, intriguing but unsurprising.
Over the years, Gansa has thrown just about everything he can justify throwing at his audience, from an explosion at CIA headquarters and Saul’s kidnapping, to multiple assassination attempts and the death of Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend). Because of the extreme nature of select twists as well as the sheer onslaught of their number, the cumulative effect is neutralizing. Unless someone sticks Carrie or Saul’s head on a spike, the drama has to come from elsewhere — and it does, usually in small, character-focused moments of conversation, appreciation, or betrayal.
Danes’ remarkably elastic visage is put to good work yet again, as Carrie finds new ways to stress her points or express her exasperation. Patinkin remains TV’s most earnest TV dad (who’s not actually a dad) — delivering the scolding equivalent of a verbal hatchet to the head before turning to his adult daughter with a smile as comforting as a bear hug. Longtime director and executive producer Lesli Linka Glatter returns for the first two episodes of the final season, and, for as much credit as she rightly gets for her beautifully staged and tensely cut action sequences, the performances she evokes in a still or slightly shifting frame are incredible. To find fresh moments of revelation and worry in Carrie Mathison after all these years is a credit to Linka Glatter as well as Danes.
How far “Homeland” is willing to go in its analysis of America’s international role, in its depiction of heroic, self-sacrificing agents, and in its re-contextualization of loyalties are all still up in the air after four hours. But there are purposeful pieces in place, running a circuitous yet skeptical mission. What may seem impossible now may not in a few months — that’s what “Homeland” would have us believe, and so far, it’s worth going along one more time.
“Homeland” Season 8 premieres Sunday, February 9 at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.