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TV Weekend: Can You Trust Homeland Again?

Showtime's espionage thriller returns from a crazy season slower and better. But let's not get Carried away just yet

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Kent Smith / Showtime

Trust no one: that’s the byword of the current generation of paranoid, twist-heavy thriller dramas. The philosophy can make for suspenseful drama as well as thoughtful themes, as in Homeland, which followed brilliant, unstable Carrie Matheson and asked by extension whether chasing terrorism had make our national security apparatus, indeed required it to be, a little crazy.

But it’s not so great when viewers apply “trust no one” to your show itself. Homeland’s second season featured one of the quickest turnarounds from worship to mockery in memory (even, or especially, among its biggest fans). For me that point came somewhere past halfway in, after the fantastic “Q&A” episode, when the show twisted itself in knots to juice up the Abu Nazir chase and make Carrie and Brody into romantic heroes. For others, it may have been when Brody tipped off Nazir with a text from a secure room, or when he killed the vice president by, basically, hacking his pacemaker.

Homeland can still be excellent–I still believe much of season 2 was excellent–but the need to drive the plot was killing what was great in it. So the beginning of season 3 is partly about the question: what would it take to make you trust Homeland again?

The season opens as deliberate and slow as season 2 was frenetic. After the bomb went off at Langley and Brody hightailed it into exile, the first two episodes linger long and smolderingly on the consequences. The command structure of the CIA has been decimated, leaving–as we saw at the end of season 2–Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) as the senior man standing to clean things up. Confidence is shaken, fingers are being pointed, many of them at Carrie. Brody is nowhere to be seen in the early going, but there’s a lot of focus (too much focus) on the effects of his presumed guilt on his family left behind. (Dana fans–both of you–you are in for a treat!)

At moments, it’s like Homeland blew up not just CIA headquarters but season 2 itself. That is, it’s a version of what it might have been like if–as was apparently the original plan–Brody’s explosive vest did go off in that government shelter at the end of season 1. And it works, mostly, at least for the two hours of the season’s beginning. A series like Homeland can’t keep sprinting from crisis to crisis without devaluing the idea of crisis in general. If its big moments are to matter, then they have to be given time to land.

And here, the CIA bombing lands hard. There is a pall over the series, a feeling that all the competent, brilliant people we’ve been following truly do not know what comes next. The episodes repeatedly visually remind us of the crater left at the bombing site, the kind of hole left in a nation’s sense of itself after a massive attack. The aftermath of violence feels real here, the mourning and recrimination, in a way it never did on 24, for instance. Slowing the events down lets Claire Danes work at a compelling simmer rather than a constant raging boil. She’s adrift, with Saul busy keeping the CIA afloat and working increasingly closely with the sketchy spook Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham). (An intriguing CIA addition this season is a rookie Muslim analyst played by Nazanin Boniadi.) Carrie’s isolation and frustration at being unable to defend herself or find the real culprits is searing, and the viewer feels as caged as she does.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The return episodes simply kick down the road Homeland’s core problem, that it kept Brody’s story going beyond its shelf life and sacrificed its plausibility to do it. That story still needs to be resolved, and it’s not a spoiler to note that Damian Lewis is still a co-star of the show. There are only so many times Brody can go from bad guy to good guy to conflicted guy, from hero to terrorist to fugitive, while still maintaining any believable connection to the story. And yet, when it’s come down to it, Homeland has shown that–like Dexter before it–it’s more committed to keeping its stars around for a long time than it is to its narrative reality.

So can we trust Homeland again? Has the show fixed itself, or is this the calm before another storm of crazy? For now, I’m treating this series like a potentially valuable asset that may have a hidden agenda. Trust–but verify.