Written by Darin Morgan, the most effective episode of the current season of Fox’s The X-Files forced Scully and Mulder to question their very mission within a 2018 world. How, the episode wondered, are you supposed to seek out a concept as nebulous as “the truth” in an age of fake news and empirical facts suddenly under attack by partisan interests?
A similar kind of introspection is at the center of the seventh season premiere of Showtime’s Homeland. For years, Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison has struggled to keep the world safe while also battling her mental illness. The show has often tried to suggest that the unconventional and non-linear thinking that make Carrie good at her job — if you choose to believe that a woman who has made as many crucial and critical mistakes as Carrie has is actually “good” at her job — is tied to her bipolar disorder, her superpower, as it were.
The question, as the seventh season begins, is what happens when the world becomes too crazy to be processed by anybody deemed conventionally sane? Many people in our real world struggle with the idea that listing the various news cycles for any given week makes them sound crazy, and the same is true in the world of Homeland. The America of Homeland has become the Land of the Blind and it’s possible that Carrie Mathison’s one-eyed woman is our only hope. Again.
When we left things, Quinn (Rupert Friend) had heroically sacrificed himself as part of the prevention of the aforementioned coup, which had also stoked President Keane’s (Elizabeth Marvel) insecurity. Carrie, meanwhile, had found herself squeezed out of any governmental influence by Keane’s steely patrician chief of staff David Wellington (Linus Roache).
As we return, Carrie is living with her perpetually disapproving sister Maggie (Amy Hargreaves) and brother-in-law Bill (Mackenzie Astin). As you’d expect with Carrie, even though she’s on her meds and maintaining a healthy workout routine, she’s begun to wear out her welcome. The host family also includes Carrie’s pouty, outspokenly liberal teenage niece Josie (Courtney Grosbeck), a character seemingly introduced either because the Homeland producers desired redemption for the multi-season misuse of Dana Brody or because they had run out of loved ones for Carrie to put in jeopardy.
Carrie’s in a bit of limbo, because she doesn’t have President Keane’s ear, probably because President Keane has gone full-on Crazy 24 President and her subtle neuroses from the start of last season have bloomed into full-scale paranoia, complete with demanding execution for conspirators in the coup and locking up 200 government and intelligence officials for either ties to the coup or on general suspicion. You’ll already recall from the finale that Mandy Patinkin’s Saul was among those caught in Keane’s expanding web.
Keane’s disregard for constitutional rights and basic freedoms represents nothing less than a threat against the presidency and the American way of life, which is the sort of thing that can be both true and sound unhinged when you rant about it, so Homeland offers us two competing versions of truth-telling: There’s Carrie’s driven pursuit of justice, which includes making an alliance with a crusading senator impeccably played by Dylan Baker, a pursuit that bears a striking resemblance to her obsession when she goes off her meds. And then there’s Jake Weber’s Brett O’Keefe, a conspiracy-mongering TV provocateur who may be misogynistic and xenophobic and pandering to the worst of American instincts, but whose distrust for Keane has proven to be correct, almost by accident.
In this respect, the Homeland premiere captures the uncertain, unsteady mood of the nation, without any especially perceptive pieces of headline-ripping.
Presumably Carrie and Brett are destined to come together as unlikely kindred spirits, which is sure to be bombastic, since Danes’ main performance choice as Carrie has always been to wear her emotions prominently on her sleeve and Weber’s main performance choice has been “hammy as hell.” I spent all of last season pondering how one could possibly model a character after Alex Jones and still look over-the-top compared to the original and yet from hyperventilating intensity to wandering-but-exaggerated accent, O’Keefe’s cartoonishness has become even more conspicuous as he’s been placed in the story’s center, rather than its fringes. Added to Marvel’s increasingly extroverted performance, Homeland is running the risk of having a very theatrical season, which I’m only onboard with if it finally allows Mandy Patinkin to sing.
Despite some outsized acting and the large implications of Keane’s actions, on a narrative level the Homeland premiere is decidedly small. Although Homeland has fundamentally been a character-driven drama, the threat of the world on the brink of cataclysm has always lingered on the surface. Assassinations. Terrorist actions. Upheavals of power. The seventh season premiere keeps the implied stakes high, but the literal stakes middling. A lot of time is spent on Robert Knepper’s General McClendon, a character I remember from last season only in the haziest terms. No time at all is spent memorializing Quinn, an initial choice that will really irritate a small segment of fans while having no impact at all on me. Through most of the premiere, nothing explodes and there’s no talk of high-level catastrophes and instead we watch Carrie engage in rudimentary spycraft. She’s setting up a meeting. She’s covering her tracks and watching for tails. She’s observing. It’s more muted John Le Carre-esque spook-work than the show’s usual melodrama. Spoiler alert: Carrie doesn’t even sob.
For now, another thing that Showtime is keeping small is the output of episodes available for review, in this case only the opener. The sixth Homeland season had a somewhat similarly contained press rollout and eventually became a season in which an attempted coup on a yet-to-ascend president was orchestrated within the government — so it won’t be surprising when the seventh season becomes crazed and global in scale, too.
Premieres: Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Showtime)