“Supremely artful.” “Increasingly unwatchable.”
The words above are excerpts from a four-year argument with myself. All of them have been plucked from pieces I’ve written about Homeland since it premiered in 2011. Flipping through my own back pages is an exercise in extremity and whiplash. Was I constantly wrong? Was I ever right? Or is bipolarity par for the course when reviewing a series like Homeland, one that chugs merrily along the tracks laid by its crazy-train protagonist, Carrie Mathison?
Looking back over past mistakes is a luxury not often afforded to high-intensity professionals, be they clandestine field agents or stressed showrunners. (For both, the next existential crisis is only an explosion — literal or otherwise — away.) But in the 10 months since I happily declared that Homeland had “restored my admiration” — let the record show that this declaration occurred less than three months after I had announced “you can’t go Homeland again” — and on the eve of Sunday’s highly enjoyable season premiere, I’ve grown reflective. Homeland debuted at more or less the same time I did as a full-time television critic. My early championing of the Showtime drama did much to publicly establish my voice and my taste. (Likes: espionage and white-wine drunks. Dislikes: teenage sons in prominent roles.) When Homeland’s finale detonated like a dirty bomb in December 2011, enthralling even the president with its audacity and timeliness, it felt as though I had lucked into covering the next great TV drama. When Homeland won the last award of the night at the 2012 Emmys, it was clear I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
The problem was that the very thing that made Homeland stand out also made it vulnerable. In comparison to the celebrated slow burn of the previous decade’s dramas, Homeland’s Molotov cocktail of sex and secrets seemed more radical than the dread Abu Nazir. But leaving the audience wondering “how can they ever top that?” so early in a show’s run is risky. It’s possible to build buzz off of a single, titillating question — in this case, was POW turned Carrie paramour Nicholas Brody actually a terrorist? — but you can’t construct an entire series off of it.
The more popular Homeland became in that first year, the more unsustainable its central mystery became. The show was ascending, but, in hindsight, it’s possible to see that we were watching a high-wire act, not a rocket launch. We weren’t gawping at the way it went up so much as we were gasping that it hadn’t yet come crashing down to earth.
Even so, Homeland’s second season started strong and even dazzled with its fifth episode, “Q&A,” in which Carrie confronted Brody with her own weapon of mass destruction: the truth. And, with that, all of the show’s storytelling chips were pushed into the center of an interrogation table. Showrunner Alex Gansa and his team of veteran scribes had written themselves into an existential corner: They could continue to push events toward a natural conclusion, one that would deal with the real — or real-adjacent — fallout of Brody’s betrayal and likely result in his death. Or they could take one more spin of the wheel, betting everything on the long-term viability and appeal of a certain treasonous redhead. I think we all know how that turned out, particularly those of us who spent actual work hours Googling “remote-control pacemaker assassination.” From the Season 2 moment in which the villainous Abu Nazir — in mufti, in Virginia — shackled Carrie to a pipe until Homeland exorcised its Brody demons one final time with last year’s cleansing “13 Hours in Islamabad,” Homeland frustrated as much as it entertained. As Carrie fell head over heels in love, the show stumbled right along with her.
Still, for as much as I complained about Gansa’s choice of soap over opera while it was happening, I certainly don’t begrudge it now. For decades, the primary business model of television was to find something — anything! — that works and then maintain it for as long as you possibly can. Pivoting Homeland toward its buzziest extremes was, at its essence, no different from Family Matters becoming all Urkel, all the time or Lost doubling down on time-traveling polar bear insanity. TV is an insatiable animal gorging at an impossible pace. You can’t plan for tomorrow — or next season — when there’s barely enough material to get through today. There are greater sins than feeding the beast by giving it exactly what it claims to want, long-term consequences be damned.
So, it’s easy to say that Gansa and his team were merely chasing ratings when they went all in on the Carrie-Brody faux-mance, or merely trying to survive. But I think the truth is more complicated. What has always distinguished the Homeland writers room is that it is packed with so many smart, talented TV lifers: people like the late Henry Bromell, Meredith Stiehm, and Gansa himself, all of whom spent decades toiling in the unglamorous, blue-collar trenches of shows that are widely watched but rarely celebrated. (Bromell devoted years to Northern Exposure and Brotherhood. Stiehm created Cold Case. Gansa did time on Dawson’s Creek and Numb3rs.) These are well-compensated adults, not kids looking to establish themselves with shocks or win the Internet with clicks. What they sought, I’d argue, is both simpler and more elusive: greatness. When Homeland’s first season reached that rarefied air of cultural and artistic acclaim afforded to only the very few — your Weiners, your Davids (Simon or Chase)1 — I’d wager it was hard to imagine dipping back down into the industry’s familiar, workaday slog. That the show’s ticking-clock conceit made its high standards impossible to maintain was unthinkable. Under this scenario, what did Homeland in wasn’t the show’s willingness to leap off of creative cliffs. It was Gansa’s stubborn, admirable belief that he and his team could always find a way to stay aloft.
All of whom, by the way, emerged from TV’s previous, tarnished age only to find themselves celebrated as geniuses in the next one.
I wanted Homeland to be great too. It’s why I continued to beat the drum for its excellence even when the show had lost it. But it’s also why, over time, I occasionally caught myself reviewing the show as it existed in my head rather than reviewing the one that was flickering across my screen. It’s a very natural fan reaction to be disappointed by a once-beloved program — with relationships this intimate and long-lasting, every misstep is a betrayal. But, as a critic, I ought to be more dispassionate. Reading some of my recaps from Seasons 2 and 3, I’m struck by how offended I often was by Homeland’s natural growing pains, how unforgiving I could be toward exactly the sort of wild (some might say “insane”) risk-taking that, in other circumstances, I openly pine for. I often dinged Carrie Mathison for the way she greeted every geopolitical hiccup like a slap to the face and each personal setback as the start of World War III. But was I any less rational? Even when Homeland was good, it was never quite good enough for me.
This binge-and-purge cycle of ardent engagement and snarky disdain is the thready heartbeat of Internet culture in 2015; it’s a wonder anything survives it for long, let alone something as fragile as a television show. Critics aren’t immune to it, and neither are creators. Yet to take a step back from its grim rhythm is to appreciate the many things Homeland did well, even when Dana Brody was still taking road trips: its willingness to engage in the messiest corners of the American psyche and the larger world, its devotion to shock-and-awe storytelling, the steady warmth of Mandy Patinkin‘s unflappable supporting performance. In our hyperbolic moment, it’s important to note that a show can often be worthwhile even if it’s not consistently first rate. A steady B is nothing to sneeze at, even if it’s easily overlooked in the rush to hand out A’s and F’s.2
To be clear, I’m not insinuating bad faith on any other critics. Homeland has given people plenty of things to dislike! I’m just reckoning with my own reactions.
Not that I need to explain that to Homeland’s many fans. It’s worth noting that for as much as my critical peers and I soured on Homeland, the public at large never did. The ratings stayed strong through all the Brody mishegoss, and, when he was finally dispatched to that great Yorkshire Gold plantation in the sky, they barely dipped. (Season 3 averaged near 2 million viewers per original airing. And, give or take a few hundred thousand, so did Season 4.) The affection within the industry for Homeland never wavered, either. The show was nominated for Outstanding Drama at last month’s Emmys, just as it has been every year save one. This suggests that the bulk of Homeland’s audience and creative peers came to grips with the show’s reality long before either its critics or, indeed, its creators ever did.
The Homeland that returns on Sunday night is older and wiser. I won’t go so far as to say it’s peaceful — this is still Homeland, after all, and a pipe bomb goes off in Act 3 — but it is decidedly at peace: with itself, with its abilities, and with the sort of story it’s best suited to tell. Set two years after the noisy events of last season and filmed entirely on location in Berlin, Homeland now strikes me as the decent, engrossing, and occasionally infuriating show it was always meant to be. It’s a savvy hybrid of 20th-century spy fiction and 21st-century histrionics — imagine John Le Carré’s 24 or Smiley’s People as directed by Neveldine & Taylor. Freed, at last, from the burden of Brody — though his baby still hangs on Carrie’s neck like an adorable albatross — Homeland has become at once more nimble and somehow sturdier. It plays solely to its strengths. Occasionally, it even drops the grimace and plays.
The German backdrops are new, but so, too, is the context: Two years have passed since the fourth season; the Iranian threat has been swapped for a Snowdenesque data breach, and a Syrian refugee crisis threatens stability in the region and beyond. I must say, it’s a huge relief to have story lines ripped from the headlines, not a Harlequin novel. Homeland is well suited to this reimagining as a sort of global Law & Order, one custom-built for a confusing, gray-streaked era in which data is fiercely monitored but drones are not.
To the relief of everyone, allies and enemies alike, Carrie has quit the CIA. She’s living in Germany with her daughter and a new red-haired lover — hey, the heart wants what it wants! — this one an even-keeled attorney and Carrie’s coworker at the Düring Foundation, a global charity run by a dashing industrialist (Sebastian Koch, The Lives of Others). When some enterprising hackers inadvertently swipe a phone book’s worth of secrets right out from under the nose of the Berlin station chief (played by Miranda Otto with poise and, yes, red hair), a slimmed-down and hawkish Saul Berenson jets in to help clean up the mess. His chosen janitor? Rupert Friend’s deadly Peter Quinn, a black-ops assassin now trending perilously close to permanent midnight.
That all of these players collide in unexpected and violent ways is no surprise. (That a well-medicated Carrie, nine months sober in the premiere, will leap, liver-first, off the wagon isn’t much of one either.) But I found it surprisingly pleasurable to watch them do it. Koch and Patinkin make for fine sparring partners — the former purring, the latter practically barking. (“You are all great humanitarians, you Americans,” Düring says to a furious Saul, “when someone else is on trial.”) Nina Hoss, after a brief appearance last year as one of Quinn’s old flames, is a welcome addition to the cast as a Teutonic spook. And Danes, at last, is on much steadier ground.3 After years playing the lone-wolf crusader, Carrie is now a babysitter for idealists. Her innate pessimism about the world, once a professional calling card, is no longer a point of pride. Rather, it’s something to mourn.
Well, at least until the third episode. Let’s meet back here to discuss once it airs.
Yes, blemishes abound: It’d be nice if Homeland trusted its audience enough to allow German nationals and Hezbollah soldiers to speak in something other than accented English. I wish that a series so devoted to chronicling the West’s engagement with the Muslim world would make an effort to include a single nonwhite face in its cast. (It’s not necessarily malicious that characters played by David Harewood and Nazanin Boniadi were killed off in previous seasons, but it’s not exactly awesome, either.) And it’d be preferable for all involved if left-leaning characters, like Koch’s Düring and Laura Sutton, a crusading journalist played by Sarah Sokolovic, weren’t presented as vain dupes or grandstanding assholes — as if belief in due process were a character flaw.
But to its credit, Homeland has never run from mistakes. (In fact, one could argue quite the opposite.) At this stage, I actually appreciate Gansa’s sporadic overreach — far better to be “a man too used to getting his own way,” as Saul is described by a rival, than a man who has given up trying entirely. Homeland remains a messy, occasionally manic entertainment. It fishes for big ideas with C4; it’s an infantry grunt treading into political territory usually reserved for snipers. Yet it tells a cracking story and does so with more style and verve than most. Is that great? No. But it’s good. And given the circumstances, that is more than good enough.