Forget blood and oil: The liquid spilled most profusely by the conflicts at the heart of Homeland is ink. Its first season was rapturously received by critics (and audiences, and Emmy voters) for its nuanced take on the War on Terror, its suspenseful cat-and-mouse core, and its pair of remarkable lead performances – one of them provided by a woman, Claire Danes, and thus a real rarity in the androcentric antihero-driven New Golden Age of TV.
But the cockamamie, credulity-stretching second season triggered a well-deserved backlash that not even another Danes Emmy win could defuse. The season ended with a massive bomb blast that leveled the CIA's Langley headquarters, left the conflicted and bearded Saul Berenson in charge, and sent congressman Nicholas Brody, framed for the attack by his former terrorist associates, on the run – with the help of his arch-nemesis and true love, agent Carrie Mathison. With the decks so explosively cleared, how does Homeland look now?
The biggest difference is absence. Gone with last year's terrorist plots are the show's one-dimensional politics-as-usual antagonists, Vice President Walden and CIA Director David Estes, and with them a drain on the show's dramatic oxygen. (There's a showboating senator now, but in terms of this premiere he's just a shouty guy in a Senate hearing room, not a genuine foil for Carrie and Saul.) More surprisingly, Brody's nowhere in sight either – out of the country, off the grid and inaccessible not just to the CIA operatives hunting him down, but to Carrie, the woman who secretly helped him escape.
In their place stands a new addition to the core cast, F. Murray Abraham's shrewd, steely Dar Adal. Introduced last season as the mastermind behind the hush-hush black-ops assassination squad to which agent Peter Quinn secretly belonged, Adal is suddenly back in the limelight as Acting Director Saul Berenson's right-hand man. Literally: Abraham spends much of the episode right by Mandy Patinkin's side, his character coming across like Saul's physical and metaphorical shadow. The staging says a lot about that relationship, as does Adal's mere presence about the new political climate. In the wake of Langley's destruction, suddenly a wetworks specialist once deemed too hot to handle now gets courtside seats at Congressional hearings in full view of C-SPAN's cameras. Secrets are out, and the safety is off.
That's the dual driver of this episode's plot. Confronted with failure so catastrophic it threatens the very existence of the CIA – politicians are threatening to revoke the charter and, presumably, devolve the Agency's responsibilities to elsewhere in the alphabet soup of organizations tasked with spying and killing for Uncle Sam – Saul faces a pair of choices.
Does he allow Carrie to take the fall for Langley, pinning Brody's apparent actions on her mental illness and their romantic involvement? The decision to work Brody as a double agent rather than arrest and charge him outright was Saul's as much as anyone's, but Carrie provides an enormously convenient scapegoat for an agency badly in need of one. (Besides, though Saul doesn't know it, she really did help him escape, and whether or not he was guilty, she really can't be trusted.)
And does he approve a complex coordinated counterstrike against half a dozen terrorist targets, right on the eve of the hearings? If there's one thing America loves, it's Godfather-style Five Families simultaneous hits, and as an advisor tells him in the briefing room, "The president wants closure." Again, the move would presumably take a lot of heat off the CIA. But blowing it would be a disaster, and even pulling it off would take the agency further away from its core mission, and that of Saul himself.
"We're not assassins, we're spies," he says. "We don't kill our targets if we don't have to." I'm sure we could find a few thousand drone-strike victims who might say otherwise if they were alive enough to speak, but Patinkin softly sells Saul's adherence to a smarter approach to spycraft – one that stands a better chance of netting both the fugitive Brody and the Langley strike's true mastermind, the legendary Iranian intelligence official Majid "The Magician" Javadi. (His connection to his fellow evil genius Abu Nazir is unclear, which, given the real-world antipathy between Shiite and Salafist extremists, is probably for the best as far as plausibility is concerned.)
In the end, Saul chooses C: both A and B. In a tense sequence that blends Homeland's usual focus on the decision-makers in D.C. with first-person-shooter aesthetics, the six-way strike — utilizing Wizard of Oz code names for each target (hence this episode's memorable title, "Tin Man Is Down") – is greenlit contingent on Quinn's successful hit on the Langley attack's bankroller in Venezuela. Ever the hitman with a heart of gold, Quinn calls off the initial plan to blow up the guy's car when he discovers the man's kid inside, choosing instead to infiltrate his residence and murder his way through a phalanx of faceless guards to kill the guy at close quarters.
But Quinn winds up keeping his appointment in Samarra anyway, shooting the child to death after mistaking him for a security goon. Though not lingered over the way the pivotal death of Abu Nazir's son Issa was (not to mention the way similar killings on the child-murder-obsessed show Breaking Bad have been handled), it's still a chilling moment. Quinn did what anyone who's played a little Call of Duty would do, and the show presents the fatal shots as acts of wholly admirable instinct — until it reveals the horrible thing that actually happened. Though he doesn't yet know the details, Saul's joyless reception of the news that the operation was a success is an indicator that when it comes to killing people for a living, "success" is a bleakly relative term.
Even so, Saul's a guy who's fighting to keep his reason for living alive. The ruins of the CIA headquarters remain pointedly un-reconstructed, perhaps never to be rebuilt. The same could be said about his marriage to Mira, given a last-minute reprieve when she returned from her overseas job to be with him in the aftermath of the Langley attack but now on life support once more, thanks to his investigation of same. Without the continued existence of the agency, what would be the point?
So, with just the slightest hint of newfound coldness in his avuncular rumble of a voice, he growls "Take 'em. Take 'em all" to approve the operation, and appears before Congress to sell Carrie down the river the very next day. Her teary-eyed smile of incredulity as she watches him air her dirty laundry on national television is a dark mirror image of the gleeful grin she displayed in the Season Two premiere, when she escaped a Hezbollah operative during her first time back in the field after her breakdown.
It's a complex and compelling scene to close the episode on, because both Saul and Carrie are blaming her for a combination of things that both are and aren't her fault. Brody did not, in fact, do the bombing, but Carrie did, in fact, help him escape. Carrie did fail to see the attack coming, but neither because (as Saul implies) she was bipolar and sleeping with Brody, nor because (as she fears) her bipolar-disorder medication diluted her thought process and prevented her from making the bold intuitive leaps of mania. Carrie's right to feel betrayed by Saul, but she's currently betraying him in turn, first by helping Brody escape and lying about it, then by going off her meds and quietly spiraling into note-scrawling, chart-making, binge-drinking, impulsive-sex-having mania again.
If all this seems like small beer, a matter of quiet contrasts and low-key crises – well, good. After Season Two's increasingly showy, soapy, silly plot twists, from Dana Brody's hit-and-run to Abu Nazir's secret lair, it seems like showrunners Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa are content to let things simmer a bit. In watching this premiere, I realized that whether or not it worked came down to whether or not you simply like spending time in these characters' company, and I surprised myself to discover that despite the show's crash and burn last season, yeah, I do. Saul is a far more lively, active, and empathetic mentor figure than such characters tend to be, while Carrie is obviously one of the most interesting roles for women on television this century. And both Quinn and Dar Adal are watchable in that mid-run Breaking Bad lead-villain way. Provided they're surrounded with reasonably strong material, they're pleasures.
Granted, there's also the Brody family, currently embroiled in a suicide-and-selfies storyline centered on Dana. While I don't hate this stuff the way I'm sure a lot of people do, and while Morena Baccarin and Morgan Saylor do good work, after the literal and figurative car crash of last season I don't trust the show enough to pay as much attention to this material as I otherwise might. The same might be said for Brody himself, whenever he reappears: The character famously only still exists because Showtime suits thought his bad romance with Carrie was ratings gold, and he's passed his expiration date twice over now. His increasingly preposterous loyalty shifts, and a few false notes in Damian Lewis's previously impeccable performance during late Season Two, make me wary of his inevitable return.
For now, however, Homeland has a good head on its shoulders. Or two, perhaps, one with an amazing cryface and another with a marvelous beard. If it stays focused rather than frantic, it could once again be worth that ocean of ink.