Celebrating television has become such a full-throated, full-time, and, occasionally, full-contact pastime that it’s often easy to forget just what it is we’re celebrating. This is particularly tricky during the final days of Breaking Bad, when critical adulation and audience frenzy have combined to form a crushing tsunami of unanimity and acclaim. As rewarding as it is to experience, this sort of reaction is rare and potentially misleading. Unlike cinema, in which every little detail can be frittered over and futzed with forever, television is the art of anti-perfection: It’s an unforgiving and relentless world of best worst decisions, happy accidents, and lucky mistakes. Breaking Bad aside, nearly every show up on prestige drama Mount Rushmore is laced with cracks we’ve all seemingly agreed to forget: Sopranos dream sequences and general late-stage entropy,1 The Wire‘s newsroom nonsense. As with other idiosyncratic and demanding art forms — barbecue, say, or assembling an NBA roster — sometimes the failures can be just as interesting as the successes. Loving TV means loving the process. And oftentimes that process can be unforgiving.
No show is more in need of absolution than Showtime’s Homeland,2 which returns for a third season this Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT. In its first two years, the series hasn’t proved itself to be so much brave as it is fearless — like those people literally born without the gene that allows them to feel fear. That could be a very bad thing if engaged in race car driving or snake handling, but TV storytelling? It can work and work well: Homeland‘s dizzying debut season began with an outrageous question — was Nicholas Brody, POW turned national hero, actually a terrorist? — and got only more provocative from there, pouring sex, religion, secrecy, and shame into a blender, adding a healthy glug of Chardonnay for taste, some lithium for balance, and then pulsing with the lid off. TV shows rarely get extra credit for degree of difficulty, but maybe they should.
After a surprising sweep of the major categories in last year’s Emmys, Homeland Season 2 opened with a bang and ended with a much louder one, the better to mask the questionable events that had transpired in the interim. There were car crashes and helicopter kidnappings, remote control assassinations and a second 9/11 that somehow played second fiddle to some fireplace nookie in the woods. At some point between Carrie’s shocking, tender dismantling of Brody in “Q&A”3 and her shoddy capture by a freshly shaved Abu Nazir, Homeland‘s delicate high-wire act turned into a public hanging.
So what went wrong? Well, for one thing, Homeland fell prey to the problems endemic to any television show, particularly one built on sexy questions: There’s almost no way for the answers not to inevitably disappoint. To showrunner Alex Gansa’s great credit, he recognized this early and, with the urging of the veteran writers on his staff, made a conscious decision to slam down on the accelerator whenever the plot suggested pumping the brakes. Gansa has spoken of how, now that Twitter has transformed a once-passive viewing audience into a nation of nitpickers, the most powerful tool in the showrunner’s arsenal isn’t “what” or “how,” it’s “when.” That’s why, in that thready first season, Carrie and Brody hooked up in Episode 6, why Brody’s true allegiances were revealed in Episode 8, and why confrontations that felt tailor-made for the second-season finale happened before fans had a chance to catch their breath. This constant spinning functioned as a distraction — hey, what were Raqim and Aileen planning on doing with that house near the airport, anyway? — but also as a centrifuge, helping to separate a busy show into its core components of suspense, spying, and sex. Many series take on the attributes of their protagonists,4 and Homeland was no exception: At its best, the series raged against expectation, logic, and even sanity like Carrie Mathison shoving away her meds. And yet, as Carrie learned time and time again, eventually there has to be a reckoning for all that crazy.
Complicating things further was the fact that not all of Homeland‘s wounds were self-inflicted. By piecing together quotes from interviews and some unsourced industry whispering, it becomes pretty clear that Damian Lewis has been ready to hit the unemployment line since Season 1, his character’s continued presence more an executive-suite mandate than a quirk of fate. I insisted in the past that leaving Brody alive for a second year made sense on both a creative and commercial level — having Carrie proved right but continuing to believe she was wrong put an already unstable character in a deliciously wobbly place — but it grew increasingly hard to make that argument as Season 2 tumbled dangerously close to absurdity.5 Brody was the spark that ignited Homeland but now threatened to burn the whole thing down. Yet how do you go about convincing a suddenly ascendant network that the best move for long-term survival is to kill the Emmy-winning costar of your most talked-about series?
The answer is: You don’t. Last year, I wrote about how Homeland augured a new Silver Age of American television, one that replaced auteurist whimsy with steady, genre-tweaking professionalism. There’s a downside to that, too: Unlike, say, Mad Men, Homeland wasn’t designed as a delivery system for the idiosyncratic vision of a single storyteller. It was built to be a TV show, one that creaked and wobbled but stayed on the rails to Profit Town for as long as humanly possible. There’s plenty of art to it, but there’s also a good amount of business.
And so much of the latter half of Season 2 felt like a frantic improvisation to satisfy both masters. Gansa and his team did their best — and I stand by what I wrote at the time; there was much to like about Homeland last year, even after the BlackBerry Skyping — but their hands were tied. No matter how many times Gansa insisted otherwise, Homeland was never a starry-eyed romance between Brody and Carrie. Their connection — like the show that soared whenever it brought them together — was something far more twisted and dark, a collision of damaged people intent on remaking the world before even attempting to fix themselves. When they boinked with the CIA cameras rolling, it was not only kinky, it was saying something audacious about our modern surveillance state and the way all of us — men and women, soldiers and terrorists, gingers and blondes — get off on performing roles, not necessarily believing in them. It decidedly wasn’t saying what Gansa seemed to be suggesting, which is that the bipolar, self-medicating analyst and the would-be suicide bomber turned congressman were just a couple of crazy kids who could have made something beautiful had they not been on the run from the federal government and a shadowy cabal of international Islamists. Homeland is many things — a lot of them good, a bunch of them nuts — but romantic ain’t among them. Turning the show into a doomed love story may be an easier sell, but it’s a far tougher watch.
When the second season ended with a deck-clearing, CIA-and-supporting-cast-decimating explosion, it was dramatic, sure, but also potentially restorative. Carrie and Brody had gone as far as they could go — to the gates of hell, or at least the border of Canada — and the bad soldier had been left behind. It was time for a new crew of antagonists, a new set of questions. Recent events and shifting national attitudes on just what it means to be “kept safe” had given Gansa plenty with which to play. The jittery and brilliant Claire Danes, who attracts Emmys as easily as she sheds tears, remained under contract, as did Mandy Patinkin, whose sturdy, rabbinical Saul Berenson added moral weight and bearded gravitas to even the most fantastical proceedings. No one would have minded a complete reboot in Season 3 because I think contemporary audiences are keyed in enough to recognize that Homeland‘s first story had been told and that one of the benefits of television’s makeshift hothouse6 is the ability to radically improve things on the fly. Yes, Breaking Bad is lauded for the singularity and consistency of its vision, but other shows don’t need to play by its rules — or be judged by them. It’s TV, not chemistry, that’s the real study of change. And Homeland was ripe for some.
Judging by the first two episodes of Season 3, Alex Gansa and Homeland — much like our real-life national security apparatus — are still stuck fighting yesterday’s wars. Rather than approaching the CIA bombing as a chance to build something new from the ashes, the season premiere, written by Gansa and Barbara Hall, focuses long and hard on the implications of that smoldering crater.7 In the universe of the show, the unthinkable has actually happened: another 9/11, on Carrie Mathison’s watch. The realpolitik of this is almost impossible to wrap one’s head around: A congressman was a member of Al Qaeda? And wiped out 219 men, women, and children (and children of vice-presidents) with a car bomb? The actual response to such an event would be rioting in the streets and 100 new wars, not the gentle upping of F. Murray Abraham from guest star to recurring.
Sunday’s premiere, titled “Tin Man Is Down,” is a strident and occasionally clumsy hour of exposition intended to help viewers adjust to the new normal. Much of that exposition is offloaded, in great gulping bits of speechifying, to new cast member Tracy Letts — an actor better known as a brilliant playwright — as a scheming senator aiming to railroad Carrie and, perhaps, shut down the CIA entirely. Saul is now the acting head of the Agency, with Abraham’s slippery Dar Adal by his side. This change has the benefit of putting Patinkin in a more important role, but it also places Saul’s love of country ahead of his more fatherly devotion to Carrie. There’s a wonderful echo of John le Carré in the shared history of Saul and the season’s new adversary, an Iranian nicknamed “The Magician”; Rupert Friend’s Peter Quinn remains a compelling, complicated spook. And though the racial politics of her entrance is botched, I quite liked the introduction of a Persian American CIA officer named Fara, played by Nazanin Boniadi.8
But for every lurching half-step forward, there’s an agonizing backslide: With Carrie once again off her meds, Danes is forced to play a reveille of familiar, manic notes. It’s a showy solo at a time when harmony is desperately needed. And though Brody, mercifully, is nowhere to be seen in the first two hours — Lewis remains in the main cast, so his return is guaranteed — his family is still hanging around. I admire the intention in this more than I like the results: There’s no one better suited to reflect the personal toll of the ex-congressman’s apparent guilt than the wife and kids he left behind. But I honestly don’t think anyone outside the walls of the writers’ room left last year thinking the solution to what ailed Homeland was more Dana Brody. And so far, there’s a lot more Dana Brody.
Everything set out in the early going is uncomfortably yoked to all that came before: the tracking down of Abu Nazir’s remaining network, Carrie’s unshakable belief in Brody’s innocence. I usually have no interest at all in monitoring the plausibility of my made-up entertainment, but Homeland keeps forcing my hand, asking me to root for a CIA that allowed a terrorist to run for Congress and welcomed back with open arms the loony-tunes case officer who couldn’t keep her hands off her asset. The more Letts’s Senator Lockhart fulminates on the profound failings and illegal madness of the last two years, the more I want to root for him. There’s something noble, if masochistic, about the way Gansa has doubled down on the attempt to find some shades of recognizable truth in his outrageously ballsy fiction.9 But I’m not sure if even Picasso was able to paint himself back out of a corner.
Still, wouldn’t it be fascinating to watch him try? Homeland remains a uniquely compelling series, often as clever as it is dim, as goofy as it is good. (As Saul himself said to Carrie last December: “You’re the smartest and the dumbest fucking person I’ve ever known.”) Recent history aside, the very best TV is almost never about the destination. It’s about appreciating the perilous journey taken to get there. And that’s something worth remembering as Homeland‘s writers once again attempt to tiptoe across a crater they themselves created.