For Monitor this week, Aaron Yap looks at how Homeland has embraced explosive twists and stories pulled-from-headlines to breathe new life into the political thriller.
Homeland made an unexpected, somewhat miraculous comeback with its fourth season. It wasn’t perfect, but improved immensely on the wobbly second and third. Back then, the show couldn’t decide what to do with the ball-and-chain saga of Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis), the ex-marine PoW whose muddy, see-sawing motivations and torturous relationship with bipolar CIA operative Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) were dragged out beyond reason. When he was finally written out at the end of Season 3, it felt like a massive weight had been lifted. We were relieved, even if his agonising departure left some of us a blubbering mess.
Somewhere along the line, Homeland began to resemble 24, which it initially appeared to be a more mature, considered version of in its approach to the War on Terror. Granted, some of the bold, crazy directions taken were as deliriously entertaining as anything 24 achieved in its prime. It made for a bumpy ride, but I appreciated the conviction that showrunners Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa – both 24 alums – showed towards orchestrating those oh-hell-no-they-didn’t curveballs.
Having shed the Brody deadweight (mostly anyway let us not speak of the ill-advised cameo), the fourth season refocused the show’s energies to Shit That Mattered, allowing those explosive twists to be given the ample wallop they require to work. I don’t think there was anything as exciting on TV last year as the back-to-back brilliance of “There’s Something Else Going On” and “13 Hours in Islamabad”.
Season 5’s opener hits the reboot button, jumping two years ahead to relocate its principal characters and assign them with newish roles. Carrie’s out of the CIA, and heading up security for billionaire philanthropist Otto Düring (Sebastian Koch) in Berlin. The move seems to have done her some good, creating some semblance of normalcy she was deprived of while at Langley. At the very least, it’s a long way from wanting to drown her half-Brody ginger kid Frannie, whom she’s now playing stable settled-down mom to. She’s also attending mass, and living in a cushy apartment with new boyfriend Jonas (Alexander Fehling), a legal counsel for Düring.
Directed with a creeping sense of foreboding by series regular Lesli Linka Glatter, the bulk of the episode pivots around that huge elephant in the room: Carrie’s past. It will catch up to her, and is already doing so. In response to a refugee crisis spiraling out of control in the Lebanon-Syria border, Düring is planning a trip over there to cut a cheque for food and medical supplies. Aware of the escalating tension in the region, Carrie is reluctant to have him go, but soon finds herself poking around for favours and intel anyway. First she goes through CIA Berlin station chief Allison Carr (Miranda Otto), and then a Muslim scholar who’ll put her in touch with Hezbollah commander Al-Amin (George Georgiou).
Though requesting a meeting with the latter would mean getting hooded, thrown into a van and strapped to a chair in an underground tunnel, Carrie almost doesn’t seem too surprised. Her pleading for safe passage from a member of former terrorist leader Abu Nazir’s security team just proves she hasn’t lost any courage in the last two years. How long before we see the return of “The Smile” from Season 2’s highlight? Carrie contented to be back in the field, doing the dirty work that’s always been coursing through her veins, not the kind that involves wearing balloons on her head at kids birthday parties and receiving communion in church.
Over at the CIA, Saul (Mandy Patinkin) is sweating over a security breach. 1361 files have been stolen by a hacktivist working out of some webcam/brothel joint in Berlin (Homeland’s hacking isn’t up to Mr. Robot’s standards of technical scrutiny, apparently).The files contain a top secret surveillance program where the Germans, to circumvent their privacy laws, have employed the CIA to snoop around and weed out potential Jihadists in the midst.
In pulling a lot of its material from the headlines, Homeland is going some way to strengthening its relevance, if not radically changing its formula. There are still familiar, ongoing dramatic beats to deal with – such as the strained mentor/protégé dynamic between Saul and Carrie. The wounds from Season 4 have not healed: “You’re being naive and stupid”, he says of her current position in their one icy, awkwardly timed meeting this ep.
Quinn (Rupert Friend) has re-surfaced, more removed and robotic than ever, after running special ops in Syria. One has to wonder if the inevitable encounter with Carrie will stir up dormant feelings for her. For fans of Dar Ardal (F. Murray Abraham) – if there’s such a thing – the guy is slithering around somewhere in Langley too, never not looking duplicitous.
Season 5 is off to a pleasingly solid start. Danes is as watchable as ever, though I’m itching to see Carrie to be back in her element. Give me a minimum of cry-faces, a moratorium on mining her mental condition for suspense, zero Brody flashbacks, and just good ol’ spy-craft, and there’s a likely chance this’ll shape up to the best Homeland since its inception.
In reboot news, MacGyver is coming back from CBS, and James Wan (Furious 7) is being tapped to direct the pilot… Haywire, Lethal Weaponand Time Bandits are the latest movies getting TV make-overs… John Woo is producing a serial killer series called Cognition, created by Alex Garcia Lopez (Utopia, Misfits)… ABC is developing Marvel’s Damage Control, a half-hour single-camera comedy about the crew who cleans up after superheroes… George R.R. Martin’s “werewolf noir” novel The Skin Trade is in the works from Cinemax…
Intrigued by the murky political thrills of Homeland? Click below to catch up on seasons 1-4 on Lightbox now