'Homeland' Season 6: TV Review
The first two episodes of the new season of the Showtime favorite feel less like '24' and more like HBO's recent 'The Night Of.'
The first batch of Homeland fifth-season episodes sent to critics last winter culminated in "Super Powers," a seemingly pivotal installment in which Carrie went off her meds and attempted to use her unique brain chemistry to crack whatever the year's terrorist plot was. Everything in those early episodes pointed to Carrie's sins coming home to roost, and I sensed a looming finality to the proceedings.
That was a misreading. The fifth season of Homeland quickly ceased to be about Carrie's past misdeeds and became a superficially finger-on-the-pulse story of Muslim extremism in Europe, Saul's blind spot when it comes to women he loves and Quinn sacrificing himself over and over and over again for Carrie or America, or something.
The fifth season of Homeland started as something deeper and then turned into another season of prestige cable's buffed up version of 24.
So take it with ample grains of salt that the sixth season of Homeland, at least through two episodes sent to critics, appears to be shifting its focus entirely away from sensationalistic bombing-of-the-week cliffhangers, seemingly leaving the 24 trappings behind to do a riff on HBO's The Night Of. Just because these first two episodes are going for something slower and ostensibly more thoughtful doesn't mean it won't be back on 24 terrain by midseason, and that probably wouldn't hurt, because these early episodes aren't really what Homeland does best.
To give an overview of the plot as we pick things up is to spoil things regarding the fate of Rupert Friend's Quinn, last seen seemingly dying heartbreakingly in the Homeland season five finale.
To be fair, it's only four minutes into the premiere — now available online and OnDemand, but initially slated to premiere Jan. 15 — when we learn that a reasonable amount of time has passed and the location has shifted to New York City and Quinn is alive and less-than-well. Actually, given all of the dying he did last season, Quinn is doing surprisingly well, but on a practical level he's living at a VA facility and struggling with his rehab, both physically and emotionally. Carrie (Claire Danes), whose regular visits agitate Quinn, is working for a foundation providing legal aid to Muslims living in the United States. Specifically, Carrie has taken an interest in the case of Sekou (J. Mallory McCree), a young man whose blogging has attracted the suspicion of Homeland Security.
Meanwhile, Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) and Saul (Mandy Patinkin) are helping provide transitional assistance to President-elect Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel). PEOTUS has certain superficial similarities to Hillary Clinton, but she's frustrating Dar Adal and Saul with her disinterest in taking intelligence briefings and certain international positions that feel personal rather than political.
In addition to Marvel and McCree, other new actors include Dominic Fumusa, Hill Harper and Robert Knepper. All are fine. None are particularly dynamic initially, but I'd bet at least two of the characters will be moles eventually. The new season also features one returning character whose qualification for his season six task appears to have been "availability."
The Quinn stuff is likely to be some viewers' favorite part of the new season, and it's representative on several levels of why my own involvement with Homeland has become strained permanently as the show has progressed since its early peak.
Last season in particular felt like the show was pandering to the fandom that insisted on eventually coupling Quinn and Carrie up, even when nothing in the text or structure of the show seemed to be demanding anything of the sort. The character has turned into an emotional lure, then, for viewers with that particular fixation, and what happened to Quinn in the fifth season has to go down as one of the roughest stretches of episodes for any single character in TV history. But it turns out that "three" is the exact number of episodes you can end by teasing a character's death before I check out on his fate and it becomes too late for me to care about bad things that happen to him.
Quinn's PTSD is fairly well played by Friend, and Keith Gordon, director of the season's first two episodes, does a good job visualizing his disorientation, but once a character has cheated death thrice in a small window of time, I don't trust the writers to do justice to this arc and not to have Quinn back in full Jack Bauer mode by midseason. Certainly Carrie's ability to go on and off and back on her meds at a moment's notice and to be continually rewarded for professional "achievement" that's actually closer to disaster has always made "consequences" something Homeland only pays lip service to, much to my chagrin.
Really, Homeland only pays lip service to a lot of things, but consistently gets credit for much more. The writers are great at identifying the issues of the day, but not so great at turning them into more than buzzwords. Last season absolutely had its finger on a pulse when it came to terrorism fears in Europe and to paranoia about Middle Eastern refugees, but after using them to propel the plot, did nothing thoughtful with them. Quinn's frustration with the VA already has the whiff of something real and important that Homeland is just using as a peg upon which to hang Carrie doing something illogical and stupid. My early fear is that the legal aid plotline is essentially the same thing, taking the very real issues of a skewed justice system and online extremism and positioning them as something Carrie is now randomly involved with so that she can misapply her actual skillset.
But Carrie doing stupid things is presumably part of what dedicated fans love about Homeland, so I guess my complaints also can be taken as reassurance that Homeland is starting its sixth season doing what it loves to do. It's actually possible that Homeland is being self-aware about its repetitiveness, because there are a couple of twists that are practically treated as unsurprising, as if the show is saying, "Old Homeland would want you to be shocked by this, but we know you anticipated it." Along the same lines, I can affirm that Dar Adal is doing mysterious things that look shady, but are probably just the way government operates, while Saul continues to aggressively misread people, even if the show likes to pretend he's gifted at reading people. Oh, and Carrie cries.
A lot of people hailed last Homeland season as a comeback of sorts, just as a lot of people hailed parts of the fourth season as a comeback of sorts, ad infinitum working backwards. It's all a way of saying that Homeland is a show that continues to flaunt great performances — no matter how many times you've seen Claire Danes make her crying face — and float some interesting ideas and compelling cliffhangers, but that is plagued by disappointing or predictable execution.
Like Carrie and her meds or Quinn and his deaths, inconsistent quality is something Homeland delivers with no real consequences. If the first two episodes of the new season aren't really all that thrilling or gripping, that probably means that the next Homeland comeback is only an episode or two away.