'Homeland' Season 5: TV Review

Homeland S05E01 Still - H 2015
Stephan Rabold/SHOWTIME

Homeland S05E01 Still - H 2015

The Showtime favorite's fifth season starts slow but gathers steam. 

Carrie's past and present lead to plenty of Claire Danes' tears on the fifth season of the Showtime hit.

Homeland begins its fifth season on Sunday, October 4, like a drama approaching its endgame.

To be clear: Nobody associated with Homeland has said that this upcoming season will be its last, and it's hard to imagine Showtime cashing out on a hit series that had a renewed burst of critical and awards attention last season. But the three new episodes made available for critics find Homeland in an introspective frame of mind for a season that seems destined to bring Carrie Mathison's journey full-circle. 

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Since it was able to de-emphasize the Carrie-Brody relationship, Homeland has been morphing into 24, only with real country names and the ability to swear. The fifth season premiere continues that shift with a vintage 24 reset. After the tumultuous events of last season — pretend all of that character development stuff from the action-free finale never happened — Carrie (Claire Danes, ever the Frank Gehry of spontaneous tears) has left The Agency behind and she's living in Berlin, working security for an allegedly philanthropic organization run by German billionaire Otto During (Sebastian Koch). She's in a relationship with lawyer Jonas (Alexander Fehling, muscular and ginger, like an upgraded Brody), she's raising her daughter without drowning in temptation and she's even found spiritual peace. But a trip to a refugee camp in Lebanon brings Carrie back to her earliest spy days and yanks her back into her familiar, dark world.

Meanwhile, a hacktivist group has released a key CIA document regarding surveillance on German civilians, which is causing trouble for Berlin's Chief of Station (Miranda Otto) and, of course, for Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), whose flawlessly manicured beard is the manifestation for his own inner peace, at least relative to last season's often untethered bushiness.

It was the annual 24 launch: Jack has a new job, a new girlfriend, a new life. He thinks he's free. He thinks he's healthy. But he can't stay out for long. On 24, that would usually mean a major terrorist attack in the opening five minutes and then, in later seasons, it kept transpiring that no matter how global the ostensible scale, everything related to Jack Bauer and something he'd done in the past.

Homeland works at a slower pace and the premiere mostly lets Carrie keep up the illusion that she'll be able to live a carefree life with strudel and a smile, letting Rupert Friend's Quinn, wholly down the rabbit hole of black ops espionage, hold down the need for action. It takes a little time before Carrie gets involved in the explosive international foofaraw that we all know is coming, as the tension is amped up in the second episode and then really drawn taut in a third episode that hails from series co-creator Alex Gansa and so-called Carrie-Whisperer Meredith Stiehm. It's that third episode, in which Carrie realizes that past misdeeds are coming home to roost, that the shape of the season really takes effective form.

Titled "Super Powers," the episode is awash in Carrie crying, smooth-operating Saul and cold-eyed Quinn, bringing together so much of what Homeland does best and acknowledging and embracing so much of what has always made Carrie so complicated. It's a Carrie Mathison's Greatest Hits album of an episode that also gives the season a necessary charge after two episodes dedicated to showcasing the headline-ripping abilities of the Homeland writers, as they cover the Syrian unrest and government spying in a dry-but-serious fashion that will reward news savvy viewers, but won't do much to gain audience interest in any of the season's new characters. Eventually Otto's CIA veteran shows ambition, while Jonas grows a spine when he sees the intersection between New Carrie and Old Carrie, but any investment in those two characters stems from their proximity to Saul and Carrie.

The most vivid of the fifth season's additions is, as the cliché goes, the city of Berlin itself. Location shooting, even if the locations are standing in for other countries, has been a recent Homeland strength and Berlin playing Berlin offers a variety of distinctive urban backdrops and if Koch — fairly bland initially —offers anything, it's a tie to the fine Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others, which has some thematic intersection.

Homeland has always been Carrie Mathison's show, sometimes to its detriment for some viewers, and that feels even more true this season, both her past and present. We've occasionally been asked to take for granted that what the good Carrie did as a spook outweighed the bad she did both professionally and personally, but season five may be the long-awaited moment at which Carrie's choices are called to account.

It's an initially interesting turn inward, but how much will Homeland still have to say after judgment is rendered?