The more things change on Homeland, the more they stay the same.
When the fifth season of Showtime’s counter-terrorism thriller begins, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) appears to be a new woman, living a balanced, fully medicated life in a city far away from the politics of Langley. Two years have passed since the events of season four, and Carrie is now in Berlin, working as head of security for a philanthropic organization called the Düring Foundation, spending quality time with her daughter, and enjoying the company of a new boyfriend who, naturally, has some Brody-esque strawberry in his blonde hair. She’s out of the CIA for good, which means she’s finally escaped the unpredictable danger of life in the agency.
But of course, just when Carrie thinks she’s out, they pull her back in; before the first episode is even over, she’s meeting with the CIA’s Berlin chief (Miranda Otto, new to the cast this season), butting heads with Saul Berenson (now the CIA’s European division chief and really angry at Carrie for ditching the spy life) and dealing with the shadowy members of Hezbollah as part of an effort to ensure safety for her boss’s upcoming visit to a Lebanon refugee camp. Pretty soon, all that oh-so-Homeland imagery is filling the screen again. There’s Carrie in a bustling city street, wearing a headscarf while looking gravely concerned. There’s a bomb unexpectedly going off and knocking a car off its wheels. There’s Quinn (Rupert Friend) — yes, he’s back, too — once again in ruthless mode, hiding in shadows and unapologetically putting bullets into brains when necessary.
The key plot threads have changed since last season — among other things, our principal characters are concerned about a death threat and a massive CIA security breach — but more or less this is Homeland as we have come to know it — which is to say, a Homeland that we’ve accepted will never again reach the brainy adrenaline rush that was season one, but also, based on last season’s improvement and the general strength of season five’s first three episodes, probably will never deteriorate into the off-its-meds mess that was season three.
The series, at this point, knows what it does well and keeps on doing it. There’s a set piece in the second episode, directed by the always assured Lesli Linka Glatter, involving Carrie’s attempt to keep her boss (an ultra-cool Sebastian Koch), safe during that Lebanon visit that should, in fine Homeland tradition, cause a number of viewers to nervously nibble at their cuticles. There are hints, reveals, and reveals followed by completely contradictory reveals that imply that certain people’s allegiances may not lie where we thought. There are narrative threads that tap directly into topical real-life concerns (the refugee crisis, the vulnerability of the U.S. government’s supposedly classified information). And, as ever, there’s the fiercely committed lead performance by Danes, who anchors the show and convinces us to keep caring about Carrie even when she does what she always does: exercise exceedingly poor judgment. (At one point, Saul tells Carrie she’s “being naive and stupid, which you never were before.” And it’s like: Saul, come on. She’s definitely been naive and stupid before, on numerous occasions.)
There are off notes, for sure, in the initial batch of season five episodes. Saul, played by the great Mandy Patinkin, seems to have developed a personality that’s all edges and no soft corners and, at least in the early going, it’s not entirely clear why. As usual, there’s a tendency to dump massive amounts of exposition on viewers, to the point where it may be challenging to keep all the storylines straight. And then there’s that unmistakable feeling that we’ve seen all of this before on Homeland and, frankly, are fatigued of seeing it all again, even if the settings and some of the actors and the shades of character motivation have changed slightly.
But then, but then, episode three happens. It’s technically called “Super Powers,” but I have officially named it “The Batshit Episode,” because it’s when things get completely batsh*t, the way they so often do on Homeland. This is the episode when Carrie does something that’s so totally ridiculous and so totally Carrie, that when it happens, you will yell at your TV and/or mobile device: “Good God, Carrie, are you kidding me?” You will say, “No. NO. Not this AGAIN.” But you will not be able to look away and by the end of the hour, you’ll be hungry to leap directly to the next installment.
Because that’s what Homeland does. It’s a show about a bipolar woman that is bipolar in quality. And every time you think you’re out, it pulls you back in.