Is ‘Homeland’ better off when Carrie is stable or unstable?

Senior Television Writer
10.02.15 46 Comments

Showtime

It’s no secret that TV critics talk among themselves about screeners they’ve watched. We love discussing television – it’s the reason we got into this job in the first place – and before a show has actually premiered, the only people we can discuss it with is each other. So we email, or DM, or GChat, or actually have an audible conversation with one another, and sometimes discover that there’s a consensus about a show being good or bad, sometimes learn that we’re a lone voice in the wilderness, and sometimes learn that there’s a very sharp split in the community.

The new season of “Homeland” (it returns Sunday at 9 on Showtime) seems to be one of the latter. You won’t find many reviewers suggesting the show is stronger than ever – like virtually every Showtime drama, this is one that would have been better off ending after a season or two – but based on the three episodes sent to critics, there’s a clear divide over what kind of show we’d like “Homeland” to be as it rumbles through middle age.

(Some mild spoilers follow.)

Season 5 picks up about two years after the events of last season. Carrie has left the CIA to become security chief for a German philanthropist. She’s living in Berlin with daughter Frannie, has a functional relationship with her live-in boyfriend (another ginger; Carrie’s got a type), and has managed to put most of her troubled past behind her. She’s even found a drug regimen that keeps her bipolar disorder at bay without feeling like her personality has been erased.

Obviously, this level of peace and stability isn’t going to last, anymore than Jack Bauer was going to keep working on that oil rig and living with Connie Britton and her son. The first two episodes begin laying the tracks for how Carrie will stumble back into the espionage world she tried so hard to leave behind, in the same semi-topical fashion that illuminated season 4. (Last year, the story being ripped from the headlines was the U.S. drone program; here, it’s unauthorized release of documents exposing a government surveillance program.) There’s some very strong material dealing with how the intelligence community looks at an emigre like Carrie (unsurprisingly, she and Saul are not on good terms), and the show gets tremendous value of shooting on location in Berlin.

After that… well, let’s just say that by the time we get to episode 3, many of Carrie’s demons resurface in a big damn hurry.

And that’s where the schism seems to be among the small sampling of critics with whom I’ve discussed these episodes. Some found the attempt to turn “Homeland” into a calmer, more sober and traditional espionage thriller dull and against the whole point of the series (just as they weren’t impressed by last season’s more “24”-esque stint in Islamabad), and found the third episode (written by “Homeland” co-creator Alex Gansa and longtime writer Meredith Stiehm, and directed by Keith Gordon) to be the season’s liveliest and most genuinely “Homeland.” And others – myself included – have lost all patience with The Misadventures of Crazy Carrie, and would prefer that if the show has to continue, that it downplay that aspect rather than giving us periodic episodes where she’s hallucinating and giving us Claire Danes at her most wild-eyed. The first two episodes presented a perfectly solid, if not spectacular, show we’d be fine watching; the third reminded us of every aggravating thing “Homeland” has done since the end of season 1.

On yesterday’s podcast series finale, Fienberg argued that it’s just not fair to ask “Homeland” to stop being “Homeland,” and that Carrie’s mental illness and erratic behavior at work aren’t just a core part of her character, but a core part of the series. I suspect he’s right, and that the rest of us are better off simply cutting the cord and watching any of the other 19 dozen dramas available to us in Peak TV in America, rather than sticking around because there’s so much talent still here, and because we have fond memories of the great show “Homeland” was early on.

But because I’ve had this conversation not only with other critics, but with regular “Homeland” fans – who also seem split between those who love Carrie at her most unpredictable and those who prefer those occasions when she’s genuinely on top of things – how all of you feel. In general, when a show’s at the age “Homeland” is, the audience is self-selecting, and most of those still watching are those who don’t mind the parts that have driven other viewers away. With this series, though, I get the sense that there’s a fair number of you who are, like me, still hope-watching for what it once represented, even as it keeps frustrating us.

What does everybody think? Do you prefer a “Homeland” where Carrie’s on top of things, or when she’s a loose cannon?

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