More so than any other cable channel, Showtime has the nasty habit of continuing its original programming long past the point where the quality drops off. While HBO and AMC will usually drag a story one season past its logical conclusion, Showtime seems incapable of striking a balance with its creators and finding a tidy endpoint: Weeds began its precipitous slide into oblivion during the fourth of its eight seasons, and Dexter stumbled through a terrible third season and managed to squeeze out a surprisingly good fourth before regressing for the remainder of its run. Thus, as Homeland enters its fifth season (the second Brody-less one), we find ourselves in the red zone, the season in which the rest of the network’s (cough) prestigious shows have faltered.
The road to this point has been anything but smooth. Homeland is, by its very premise, an incredibly frustrating show. Starting in season one, the writers created tension by positioning CIA analyst Carrie Mathison (played to bipolar perfection by Claire Danes) as the lone sane operator in the espionage world, the only person apart from the audience who knows that Nicholas Brody (portrayed by an emotional Damien Lewis) is a traitor. The first season functioned by exploiting this dissonance, and we watched Carrie risk her career and sanity in pursuit of what we, the audience, knew to be the truth. The second and third seasons dealt with the fallout from Brody’s decision to turn into a double (triple?) agent and strayed into soap opera territory by crafting a romance between Carrie and Brody before ultimately killing off its male lead. The fourth season sent Carrie to Afghanistan, where she was put in charge of drone operations and oversaw the bombing of a wedding while targetting an Al Qaeda commander.
After season one, the show began to have wild fluctuations in quality, reaching its nadir during the middle stretch of its third season. Because the show is ultimately plot-driven, entire episodes went by where characters are going down roads that, due to its epistemological model, the audience knows to be doomed. The best arcs are the ones that come as surprises to the audience, particularly the bombing of the CIA headquarters at the end of season two and the stretch at the beginning of season three where Carrie is seemingly disavowed by the CIA, and the worst are those that are telegraphed from the beginning, like Carrie carrying Brody’s child. Still, when the show is good, it is great, and when it is bad, it is frustrating rather than boring.
The cast of characters around Carrie and Brody has always been strong. Mandy Patinkin plays Carrie’s mentor and direct superior Saul Berenson with a grumbly intensity, Morena Baccarin as Mrs. Brody spent the first three seasons having her and her children's lives convincingly dismantled by Brody’s seeming resurrection, and Rupert Friend breathes depth into the role of Peter Quinn, another CIA analyst under Berenson’s command who specializes in wet work. F. Murray Abraham’s high-level spook Dar Adal grows in prominence through the series and is present for some of its best moments, as is Tracy Letts’ Senator Lockhart. Even the minor characters like Max, one of the private spies for hire that Carrie enlists early on in her clandestine surveillance of Brody, and Fara, an analyst who struggles with the morality of America’s mission in the Middle East, are nicely developed and rounded.
After Brody’s death at the end of season three, the writers increased the show’s current events content with positive results. Season four focuses on CIA drone strikes and culminates in a Bengazi-style attack on the US embassy in Kabul. Season four ended on something of a cliffhanger. Carrie, now mother to Brody’s child, returns to the states and has an abortive relationship with Quinn before a sitcom-esque misunderstanding splits them up. Quinn winds up being deployed in Syria while Carrie storms away from Berenson and Adal in anger. Season five opens after a very well-managed two year time jump: Carrie is living in Berlin, working at a non-profit run by a billionaire and living with a man (not Quinn) and raising her daughter; Quinn has spent the last two years fighting ISIS in Syria and has become jaded by the situation on the ground; and Saul continues to work one level below CIA Director Adal with tangible resentment towards Carrie, who he feels cost him his shot at the highest position in the Agency (after this season of True Detective’s poorly-managed mid-season time jump, the grace and subtly with which the two year span was handled in this first episode of Homeland’s fifth season was a relief).
Right off the bat, the show seems to be doubling down on its current events inspiration. The plot for this season is kicked off by the dual events of Düring, Carrie’s boss, deciding that he wants to visit a refugee camp in Lebanon to help with the growing refugee crisis in the area, and a pair of German hackers gaining access to and subsequently leaking CIA files regarding a secret spying operation in Germany to a muckraking journalist who seemingly works at the same non-profit as Carrie. Carrie herself, though at first reluctant to help her boss enter a dangerous war zone, quickly slips back into her old CIA ways, first asking the CIA directly for help and then straying into the world of underground Islamic jihadists in Germany in order to ask for safe passage from Hezbollah, which controls the camp. Simultaneously, Saul arrives in Germany to deal with the information breach and has a brief, tense conversation with Carrie about her currently treacherous occupation. Meanwhile, Quinn is deployed to carry out clandestine assassinations of Islamic dissidents living in Germany, beginning with the badass detonation of a bomb-maker using the man’s own materials. The episode ends with Carrie receiving a call from Hezbollah granting Düring safe passage to the camp; she takes the call in bed beside her beau and daughter, and the contrast between the cloak-and-dagger world of espionage and Carrie’s newfound life is a poignant conclusion to the premiere.
The first episode of the season does a lot of work, but does it well. Establishing everyone’s position post-time jump could have taken up the whole episode, but the writers wisely throw the characters immediately into the action and let the audience adjust to the temporal leap on their own. Carrie, who has clearly spent the intervening two years between last season and this one distancing herself from the CIA both physically and morally, is quickly drawn back into the Agency’s world. Despite this, she does not seem terribly comfortable with her new life, and only makes hesitant motions before diving headfirst back into the world of daylight abductions and underground meetings. Quinn’s time in Syria has ossified his cynicism into full-blown nihilism, and he has finally been stripped of everything but the primal urge to kill bad people. Saul’s journey is the least clear: he seems to be tired above everything else, as if he knows the CIA is fighting a losing battle and it is his job to play out the string.
All things considered, season five of Homeland seems to be off to a strong start, yet we would be wise to hold our judgement in reserve until it closes out. The show’s tendency towards unevenness might prove to be its greatest strength: if it can maintain the same ratio of good to frustrating as its previous outings, I see no reason that crossing into the mythical fifth season need spell its doom. And even when Homeland is at its most frustrating, it is never boring, which is enough to keep me watching as long as Showtime continues to air new episodes. Just don’t expect me to like every one.