As the late, great Peter Quinn could tell you, very few people on Showtime’s Homeland met their end at the exact moment you might have expected. The show was littered with characters who stumbled along for multiple seasons after they logically should have achieved their eternal rest, with just as many who, for purposes of high drama, had their torches snuffed with ample unresolved business remaining.
So, too, for Homeland as a series. This isn’t to introduce a predictable “Showtime lets all of its shows go on too long” review, though surely Homeland went on too long — but rather to note that several of my reviews for previous seasons have mentioned that new episodes felt like series creators Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon were heading toward an apparent endgame, only to have the series just chug along.
As we pick up with Homeland for the first time in nearly two years. the series is really, clearly, most sincerely winding to a close, and I guess you can tell because rather than making things about all of Carrie’s demons coming home to roost — a regular Homeland trope — the writers are looking back to the pilot. The series started, if you’ll recall, with Damian Lewis’ Nicholas Brody escaping captivity, but facing questions about whether or not he had been turned and whether or not he’d necessarily even know.
If you’ve forgotten, the seventh season wrapped with Carrie (Claire Danes) being released after 213 days detained by the Russians, who possibly tortured her and definitely prevented her from taking her meds … and we all know what happens to Carrie without her meds. We’re several months later and Carrie is in the midst of physical and psychological recovery at an Army medical center in Germany. She’s looking somewhat healthy and seems clear-headed in her counseling, but there are two big problems: First, she has 180 days of her incarceration unaccounted for in her memory; and second, she recently failed a polygraph. Some military observers are cautious about Carrie, but Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), national security advisor to Beau Bridges’ President Warner, is sure she’s on the road to health, or Carrie’s version of health.
Of course, Saul would think that. Not only does Saul have a series-long blind spot when it comes to Carrie, but Saul needs Carrie. He’s attempting to broker peace in Afghanistan and, after hitting an impasse, he requires the connections that only Carrie possesses, because in the world of Homeland, an operative with a lengthy history of mental illness, insubordination and behavior verging on treason remains the CIA’s only viable asset in the region. It’s this sort of logic that Homeland has always required you suspend and the situation is even more illogical this time around, with everybody other than Saul wondering whether or not the Russians turned Carrie and whether or not she’d necessarily know.
One of the oddest aspects of Homeland is the eerie slippage it has created between its fictional universe and the real world over the past decade, made all the more conspicuous because of the gap between its penultimate and final seasons. Most of the tension in the first couple episodes of the new season is diplomatic and, for viewers who didn’t have the chance to rewatch recent seasons, a lot of drama comes from trying to extricate the differences between events from the real past, events from the series’ past and events that maybe took place while Carrie was locked away or recovering. Homeland functions as a Near Beer version of history and I’ve never been as conscious of it as watching these early episodes, in which confusion — Wait, am I supposed to know who that person is? Wait, is the incident they’re discussing one from a past season? What’s up with ISIS or the Taliban in this timeline? Does any of it matter? — sometimes serves as a replacement for compelling drama.
For three episodes, it’s a lot of Carrie looking uncertain and Saul looking hopeful and no clear sense of what the final season hook actually is. That hook comes aggressively in the fourth episode with a twist which is, in familiar Homeland fashion, unsettling for ripped-from-the-headlines reasons, but not in this case headlines the Homeland team possibly could have researched or anticipated. That instigating event rejuvenated my interest in the season, though I’m fairly sure the discomfort it raises is something the producers might have avoided if they’d had time.
It’s pretty straightforward Homeland otherwise. Danes and Patinkin are obviously tremendous at what they do here, but neither is being asked to do anything new or different or exciting. Several appearances by Costa Ronin, so unnerving as Yevgeny Gromov, represent early highlights. The stuff back in Washington features the return of Linus Roache, still not being used to his full potential after three seasons on the show, and the introduction of Sam Trammell as the sort of archetypal, probably shady vice president that Homeland and 24 have churned out on a factory line over the years. The same is true with all the Middle Eastern and South Asian characters, because although Homeland has made clear its effort to polish up its characters of color, it’s simply not a thing the show does well.
So far, nobody has mentioned Dana Brody and her motel hospitality job.
My favorite part of the new season, honestly, might have been reflecting on how, after this lengthy Homeland journey, the character who has gravitated up the call sheet by virtue of sheer survival has been Maury Sterling’s Max, now given a meaty subplot in which he becomes a good luck charm for a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan. This welcome spotlight for such a solid character-actor turn is the upside of Homeland‘s zig-zagging approach to character death. Max could have died at any time and yet he’s now almost the star of the show.
And that’s a reason to check out the final season of Homeland, as we wait to see what the creators have in mind as an endgame.
Cast: Claire Danes, Maury Sterling, Linus Roache, Costa Ronin, Nimrat Kaur, Numan Acar, Mandy Patinkin
Showrunners: Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon
Airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime, starting Feb. 9.