Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
There’s a messiness about the first two episodes of Homeland’s third season, “Tin Man Is Down” and “Uh… Oh… Ah….” (That second episode’s title is a mess in and of itself.) In many ways, Homeland is still the heavyweight show that it was in its first season, with its precise focus on character and its tenacity in nosing out accurate details about the American war on terror. It continues to confound preconceived notions of where the story will go and remains one of the most suspenseful and relevant dramas on television. But it’s hard to suss out exactly what Homeland is trying to accomplish with the first part of its third season. It’s not even clear what the first two episodes are about.
To be fair, Homeland painted itself into a corner with its season two finale, which ended with a mysterious terror attack at the CIA headquarters in Langley, killing many major players at the agency and sending Nicholas Brody (played by Damian Lewis) to flee the country for his life. It was a bold stroke, but there are so many questions left hanging and so much fallout to rake through that it looks like much of the third season will be devoted to cleanup. The third season starts 58 days later, with Langley still under reconstruction and American politicians desperate to find someone culpable for this attack, dubbed “the second 9/11” or “12/12.”
Lewis, for the last two seasons of Homeland, has been one half of the Emmy-winning duo at the head of the show—admirably going toe-to-toe with Claire Danes, which is no easy feat. Now, though, he’s gone. He’s still one of the top-billed names on the show, but producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon are staying mum as to exactly when or how he’ll reappear. Half of the show’s romantic relationship—the focal point of the last two seasons—is missing, and it feels perplexing. Lewis’ guilt is in doubt, his reputation, tarnished; his family is left abandoned by the Marine Corps and marginalized by society. His implication in the bombing puts Danes’ character under pressure by a Senate subcommittee, and then, the mass media. In some sense he’s absent, and in some he’s more present than ever, as all the characters struggle to cope with the “truth” about him.
Homeland seems to be subtly shifting the viewer’s focus in these first two episodes, making several peripheral characters more and more significant and introducing a few new faces to keep the story moving. It’s a canny storytelling choice, if also a bit risky. It has the potential to pay off incredibly: Presumably, if we’re all waiting for Lewis, his reappearance could be very rewarding; in the meantime, there’s an ever-widening web of characters and stories to implicate in the season’s conclusion. At the same time, it’s also a little aggravating. After hooking viewers with the romance between the two leads, it’s frustrating to lose the thread and focus on what seem like trivial details at first.
But Homeland is a show about how personal relationships come into play with matters of global importance, and in that light, the more that’s known about the characters, the better the season will play out. The most dramatic reaction to the revelation that Lewis was a traitor happens before the third season starts, and is only alluded to obliquely. It’s an event that draws no national headlines and is hardly even out of the ordinary: His daughter, played by Morgan Saylor, attempts suicide. Apparently she came very close to succeeding—the stains caused by the blood loss require a major overhaul in the Brody household. Saylor has always been a lightning rod of blunt reason for the show, a character highly sensitive to the painful truths her world is raining down on her. Seeing her grow into a main character is rewarding and heartbreaking, which bodes well for her arc in the rest of the season.
In fact, much of Homeland is about highly sensitive players in a ruthless game, and despite the rearrangement of the pieces, little has changed. Danes is still both the CIA’s occasional genius and convenient scapegoat, and the leaked information that she had a relationship with Lewis forces Mandy Patinkin’s wonderfully understated CIA operative to choose between saving her reputation and saving public opinion of the agency, which has plummeted since the bombing. The subplot that threatens the CIA with shutdown is distractingly unlikely, but it does highlight the show’s perpetual conflict between good intel work and good politics. The employees at the embattled agency are forced to engage with that conflict as well, and that provides a lovely backdrop for supporting player Rupert Friend. As with Saylor, it’s unclear how Friend is going to play into season three, but the facility of the actor and the range of his role suggest good things.
Despite what feels like risky storytelling, Homeland is staying true to its characters, following through on its fireworks to examine the ashes as well. It’s hard to tell which way it’s going to go, but for its performances and sheer courage, it’s worth watching.
Developed for American television by: Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon
Starring: Claire Danes, Damien Lewis, Mandy Patinkin, Rupert Friend
Returning: Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern on Showtime
Format: hour-long drama
Two episodes watched for review