It’s no secret that I got increasingly frustrated with Homeland, a show that I loved in its first season (and will be recapping for Vulture this year), last year. But there are a lot of things that work there, including Claire Danes dynamo of a performance, Mandy Patinikin’s beard, and a chilly sense of the politics of the War on Terror. To that end, here are five things I’d like to see Homeland do in its third year, and my sense of how the show is doing on each based on the two episodes I’ve seen so far (which requires a discussion of minor plot points).
1. Figure out what to do with Carrie when she’s not dancing a pas de deux with Brody: The best thing about the first couple of episodes of Homeland is that Nicholas Brody isn’t in them. Damian Lewis is a crackerjack actor and a cuttingly sharp dresser, but Homeland nearly suffocated last season by getting drawn too deep into the dynamic between the soldier-turned-Congressman-turned-Vice-President-murderer and the CIA agent who suspected him, then loved him, then got angry at him, then dreamed that they could go back to the land and start life over, or something. Carrie Mathison was someone, dealing with bipolar disorder, and her family, and her sense of responsibility of the September 11 attacks long before she spotted Brody’s squirlly hand gestures at the end of the Homeland pilot, and it’s time to get on with her journey.
Does the show do this? Kind of! Carrie’s still obsessed with Brody, but the show’s pulled back a bit, making her obsession part of a larger context rather than the only question the show cares about. As a result, we can think about it a bit more and Carrie can begin to take on a new role in the series, as a potential anti-hero, or even villain.
2. Manage Saul’s transition to acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency: Saul is such a terrific character, and Mandy Patinkin gives such a terrific performance as the conscience of the CIA that it’s always been unfortunate when the show does to him what it does to Virgil, and reduces him to simply an accessory of Carrie’s. Making Saul the acting director of the CIA, which happened last season in the wake of the devastating attack on CIA headquarters during a memorial service for Vice President Walden, is significant because it means he gets to make operational decisions. Where David Estes would cheerfully drone strike terrorists, Saul’s the kind of guy who would drive cross-country with one and talk about Judaism and guilt along the way. What will it mean to have someone with that view of the world at the top? And what influence will Dar Adal, the CIA’s operations director, have on him?
Does the show do this? Yes. I won’t say too much so you can enjoy a development in the first episode this season that I thought was a doozy. But it’s nice to see Saul step to the fore more, even if the attempts to treat him as a more independent character meet with some bumps in the road.
3. Make the Brodys matter even with the paterfamilias out of the picture: I may be the rare critic to feel this way. But I would have been sorry if losing Nicholas Brody for a while meant that Homeland also jettisoned his family. A smart idea that Homeland hasn’t always been able to capitalize on is the idea that the sacrifices of military families in the U.S. are worthy of exploration. And now that Brody’s on the run, it’s not as if that story stops for the Brodies. If anything, the widespread belief that he bombed the CIA has put even more pressure on them.
Does the show do this? Fortunately, yes. It’s particularly blunt and perceptive about how difficult it is for Jessica to care for her children without financial support from the U.S. military, and with a decades-old accounting degree that isn’t doing much to land her a job in a tight market, particularly given new needs that emerge for the family this season. The writing isn’t always as sharp as the ideas. But it’s good to see that Jessica, Dana, and even poor Chris are still in the mix.
4. Find something new to say about the War on Terror and Washington’s conduct of it: If the first season of Homeland was about the potential blowback from the War on Terror, the second season was an argument that vigilance was still necessary, and that you can’t depend on human goodness to prevent plots in motion. The third season takes a different perspective, focusing on the Congressional inquiry into the attack on the CIA in a way that mirrors the Republican attempts to score points by investigating the response to the Benghazi attack.
Does the season do this? To a certain extent. The investigation storyline, which is probably the sharpest part of the first two episodes of the season, is well-acted by the playwright Tracy Letts, showing up here as Sen. Andrew Lockhart, takes on the War on Terror as a political football, and makes some strong points about terrorism as media currency and the response to it as a political entity.
5. Expand the world, after destroying a whole bunch of it in that explosion: To a certain extent, the explosion at the CIA felt like something Homeland was doing to rid itself of characters it didn’t know what to do with, particularly Danny Galvez and the David Estes. But the world of Homeland is exceptionally narrow: it has fewer characters who are developed in any depth than any prestige drama on the air, fewer even than Breaking Bad, which is a tiny jewel box in comparison to The Wire or The Sopranos sprawling dioramas. If only to give Carrie’s quivering chin a break, we need some more characters who can carry storylines of their own.
Does the season do this? Eh. Peter Quinn is still mostly ultimatum guy. Dar Adal is still mostly real talk guy. Lockhart’s promising, but as Letts plays him, he’s a cold fish who’s more the season’s big bad than anything else. We’ll have to see what comes of a new analyst who shows up in episode two.