When Saturday Night Live roasted Homeland in a sketch last year, it was evident that the backlash against the award-winning show had reached gale-force velocity. This year, Homeland’s third season—which, by some measures, is much more sprawling and ambitious than its second—has been greeted with raucous mockery, even from TV critics who are usually tolerant of a certain amount of absurdity. Oh, sure, they’re hitting the reset button: The whole “lock Carrie up because she’s nuts” angle was part of a secret master plan. But hold on, she’s pregnant now? The CIA is using Brody to help them install a mole at the highest levels of the Iranian government? A broken-down junkie is fast-tracked back into a Marine super-soldier, ready for black-ops work? Isn’t this all a little ridiculous? To which anyone who’s seen an episode of two of The Blacklist or Hostages or Reign or Dracula would have to ask: Compared to what?
Compared, most likely, to Homeland’s first season. Those first 12 episodes in the fall of 2011 weren’t perfect, but they did earn the show a reputation as a serious, intelligent drama about espionage in the post-9/11 world, as opposed to a pop-espionage fantasy like Alias or 24. There was just one problem with that first season, a problem that Homeland shares with such unlikely cousins as Twin Peaks and Heroes: It was a story with a beginning, a middle, and at least the appearance of an end, and no obvious way to keep going beyond it.
In trying to find a way to keep itself alive, Homeland’s third season has come to resemble an anthology series, built with the materials generated for the show’s first two seasons. For a while, before the big plot twist was revealed, it seemed to be a character study of a confused, possibly deranged patriot at the mercy of larger events; then it picked up the story of the American terrorist’s daughter, and let that play out for a while until its possibilities seemed exhausted; then it finally relented and let Damian Lewis back into the story for a couple of episodes, only to have him soundly upstaged by the great Erik Todd Dellums, as a doctor so regally saturnine that he made Mandy Patinkin and F. Murray Abraham look like Jack McBrayer characters.
Despite Lewis’ skill, having him in the show is a tricky proposition. He tends to come across as if he were missing some important part, and it’s not clear if even he knows what that is. He’s most effective—as in the series Life, the Lodge Kerrigan movie Keane, and the first season of Homeland—when the context provides a guess as to what the missing part of him might be. So it was a smart move to keep him on the sidelines as much as possible.
Claire Danes was always the best argument for keeping Homeland going, and for at least half of this third season, she’s been the best excuse for its current incarnation. It will not be news to anyone who trusts their memories of My So-Called Life that the actress is fearless, and her willingness to throw herself into every emotional outburst and navigate every hairpin transition the scripts throw at her has become as inspiring as her character’s commitment to national security.
As the show has focused more and more on Mandy Patinkin’s grand scheme to bring the forces of violent disruption to heel, F. Murray Abraham became a series regular. Abraham popped up a few times in the second season, but now he’s rolled in and put his feet up on the desk; you might have thought that the last thing this show needed was another cynical, bearded know-it-all, but he and Patinkin have an entertaining rapport. They’re two grouchy brothers from another mother, and while the brilliance of both men is not to be doubted, Abraham’s true loyalties are a gray area, and a dependable generator of suspense.
After Homeland painted itself into a corner in the first season, the artistically pure thing would probably have been for the show to refuse to return for a second—forcing the writers to either come up with a new cast of central characters to explore its themes, or to simply close up shop and allow Homeland to live on in the minds of its fans as a short-lived, self-contained experience that was spared the ravages of time and the law of diminishing returns.
But then we would have missed out on what the continuing story is trying to say. For all its rough edges, this season of Homeland has made for some compelling television. What’s become clearer in the last few months is that the series does have a reason for going on, because though it may have outlived its best self, it hasn’t outlived its moment: At a time when primetime television is choking on gratuitous torture scenes—scenes that speak to how much 9/11 and its aftermath are still shaping the culture—Homeland remains the only show that’s committed to trying to make sense of that day—why and how it happened, and what happened in response. The other big criticism that’s been made against the show this season is that its conception of international terrorism and the efforts made to combat it is improbable, illogical, and downright ludicrous. To which one might ask, again: Compared to what?
Developed by: Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa
Stars: Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Mandy Patinkin
Airs: Sundays at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. The third series finale airs Sunday night.
Format: Hour-long dramatic series
11 episodes watched for review