I will admit: I don’t have any rational reasons to be so excited for the return of Homeland. The show — which started off strong as the story of obsessive, bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison trying to uncover the terrorist affiliations of former American war hero Nicholas Brody — devolved in last year’s second season into a full-tilt soap opera, and not a very good one.
The dread Abu Nazir, the made-for-cable Osama-bin-Laden-alike who had indoctrinated Brody into the arts of terror, somehow managed to posthumously blow up the CIA headquarters. The dread Carrie-Brody relationship, which had inexplicably metastasized from a toxic sexual mistake into an undying and star-crossed True Love, lost any semblance of emotional realism. Teenage driving mishaps and drawn-out love triangles were treated as catastrophes on par with international terrorism. Carrie Mathison, a woman who had been defined primarily by her burning need to prevent terrorist attacks, wound up releasing Brody, the prime suspect in a massive terrorist attack, into the woods, just because he happened to be her boyfriend. (Or, alternately, because the writers had somehow lost the last few pages of the script and replaced them with the end of Harry and the Hendersons.)
So we come back, in season three, for a version of Homeland that is just as much a fragmented, smoking ruin as the CIA headquarters themselves, which have yet to be rebuilt after Abu Nazir’s attack. Yet there is some reason to have hope, if only because the show seems to be settling back into its core strengths.
As the season opens, Carrie testifies before a Congressional committee that is trying to uncover evidence that the CIA overlooked important evidence and thereby laid itself open to attack. The general consensus is that Brody perpetrated the attack, which is not an unreasonable conclusion to reach, given that the bomb was in his car and that his suicide tape — something he recorded before yet another planned attack in Season One, which he then backed down from — was issued to the media. But Carrie keeps lying on the stand, denying that Brody was offered immunity in exchange for helping the CIA to uncover Nazir’s network (he was), denying that she had anything to do with said decision (she did), and saying, hilariously, that she was in the bathroom when the bomb hit and took 14 entire hours to regain consciousness (she wasn’t, she was letting Brody wander free like the sad Bigfoot he is). Meanwhile, someone is leaking documents to the committee, resulting in several of Carrie’s lies, particularly those concerning Brody’s immunity, being either suspected or uncovered outright.
These scenes are heavy-handed and soapy, sure, and Carrie’s cardboard antagonists have an alarming tendency to spell out their exact motivations with blunt speeches — “I don’t buy it! I don’t buy half of what you and your colleagues are selling! You’re hiding something, Miss Mathison, and when we find out what it is, we’re going to put the whole lot of you in jail!” — but they do tap back into one of the show’s richest veins: the unfair price Carrie Mathison pays for her personal dysfunction.
Carrie Mathison isn’t just one of TV’s best female characters — she’s also the most realistic, empathetic portrayal I’ve seen of someone with bipolar disorder. She’s brilliant and dedicated, but her brain speeds up and slows down without her consent, making her reckless, obsessive and volatile one minute, a quivering ball of raw nerves and overworked tear ducts the next. Without the disorder, she probably wouldn’t be capable of the exceptional work she pulls off. Her thinking can occasionally reach peaks of inhuman intensity, making unexpected connections and chasing rabbits down their holes at 500 miles a minute. Which she knows: After the attack, she’s stopped taking her medication, in the hopes that her un-medicated brain will be able to prevent another catastrophe on the same scale by picking up on hints that the healthy, leveled-out Carrie missed. But the agony the disease puts her through, the sheer personal oddness and self-destructiveness it imposes on her — she’s equally capable of uncovering an assassination attempt or screaming at her only remaining friend about sensitive information while in a crowded restaurant — means that she’ll never really experience the success that her talent merits. Carrie is an asset only in the moment she’s won a victory. At all other times, she’s a disgrace. The scorn with which the Congressional committee treats her reminds us how bad much of her would-be heroic behavior looks in the cold light of day, and how impossible it is for her to justify herself to an unsympathetic audience.
And Carrie’s team is getting smaller. Aside from the dramatic courtroom tableau, the underlying tension in this episode comes from whether Saul Berenson — Carrie’s mentor, and now the acting head of the CIA due to all of his superiors having unexpectedly exploded — will sell out his principles.
Saul is the other core of Homeland, played by Mandy Patinkin with a soothing, world-weary empathy that always makes me think Patinkin missed out on a profitable side career as the world’s first singing therapist. In previous seasons, his grounded, humanist perspective has kept even progressives like me from getting sick of the show’s constant War on Terror rhetoric: He doesn’t kill wantonly, and he doesn’t hate anyone based on their national or political affiliations. He just tries to understand his enemies and prevent as much damage as he can.
And yet, he’s not the right guy for the politically loaded position that Abu Nazir’s surprise bomb has landed him in. For one thing, he’s facing down shadowy antagonists who, with inexplicable cartoon-villain logic, are looking to disband the CIA by revoking its charter. To make matters worse, he’s being counseled by a very ominous F. Murray Abraham as Dar Adal, a CIA operations director and fellow old hand who could not be a more obvious suspect for the Congressional committee document leak if he were shown diligently fashioning classified documents into paper airplanes and throwing them out his window. To save the agency, Adal blithely suggests shady, face-saving political moves, such as taking out a bunch of terrorist mooks to make it look as if the CIA is “winning” or publicly citing Carrie’s bipolar disorder as the reason everything fell apart.
Saul takes the first suggestion, resulting in the death of several mooks and one blameless child. And, when news of Carrie’s undying True Love for Brody — which Saul knew about well in advance of the bombing — is leaked to the media, he has no choice but to take the second one as well, effectively leaving Carrie to face the consequences of her actions alone.
Homeland is a hard show to keep in balance: It wobbles between realism and reactionary politics, suspense thriller and soap opera, and the second season proved that it can be an appalling mess when that balance is lost. But at its best, it’s a show about paranoia: the constant feeling that someone, somewhere, somehow, is out to get you. As the first episode closes, we’re easing back into that feeling: It’s just us, and Carrie Mathison, against an increasingly terrifying world.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.