It’s a little bit weird offering my opinion on a new episode of a television series that’s been around for a few years. Some programs offer a lot of entry points to new viewers, while others expect newcomers to start with the earlier episodes, readily available on DVD, iTunes downloads and streaming video. Homeland is the latter sort of series, with new installments building on earlier developments. Much of how you respond to the series depends on an existing familiarity with the characters and events from the first two years. It would be a shame to find out about some of the surprises of the first two years. If you’re interested in Homeland, check out the first season’s DVD. It’s quite good. The only person for whom this review would really have much value is someone who has seen the first two seasons and isn’t sure that it’s still worth watching.
The major questions about the premiere are obvious: Is it any good? Is it promising as an indication of the quality of the entire season? I’d say yes to both.
Claire Danes continues to provide one of the best lead performances on television as CIA operative Carrie Mathison. I honestly can’t think of any actress who has obviously been better as the lead of a series. She ably depicts a woman under an inordinate amount of pressure, facing a congressional investigation into whether she had failed to stop a major terrorist attack — with the knowledge that she would be a convenient scapegoat and that, if she talked about what she really knew, she would come across as a lunatic. There’s some intrigue as someone starts leaking information from the classified hearings. Plus, there’s the mental illness. She’s a ticking bomb that’s gone off several times before.
Mandy Patinkin continues to be incredible as Saul Berenson, Carrie’s mentor. Things have changed for him as he’s gone from a man on the fringe of the organization to the guy in charge, mainly by the dint of being the last man standing. The knives are out for the world-weary old hand as he faces a new threat to the existence of the CIA from a government that believes it’s time for drastic changes. The man who refuses to compromise is forced to cut some corners. The decisions are complicated, so it isn’t a clear-cut moral failing. The weight of the world is on his shoulders, and Patinkin conveys that. There’s one scene where he considers whether to do the convenient thing, and you realize that it’s also something he wants to do, even if part of him recognizes the way in which it’s unwise.
The other players generally do fine work. Damian Lewis‘s Nicholas Brody is nowhere to be seen, although his family deals with the high scrutiny that comes in the aftermath of the end of last season. Morena Baccarin‘s Jessica Brody has to balance financial woes — it seems that no one wants to hire her after what her husband is believed to have done — with the aftermath of a drastic decision by one of her children. These have probably been the worst two months of her life, and the show made the right decision sticking with the family and exploring the consequences of their new infamy. F. Murray Abraham is an imposing background figure as black ops specialist Dar Adal, now mostly on Saul’s side.
Creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa had worked on 24 before, and they excel at suspense. There’s an eight-minute sequence in the second half as the CIA attacks multiple targets in a small time window with everything dependent on Rupert Friend‘s Peter Quinn, who has to strike the first blow before anyone else can proceed. He has to figure out a way to do so without casualties. Based on the strength of the sequence, director Lesli Linka Glatter, whose previous work on the show included the episode “Q&A” (arguably the high point of the series), would be a solid second choice for any movie Kathryn Bigelow turns down.
There’s a twist at the end of the episode that paves the way for an interesting struggle in the third season. It’s a conflict between two of the main characters, suggesting that there will be more to the year than just the mystery of what happened to Nicholas Brody and the inevitable clash with a terrorist mastermind. This seems to be a season devoted to the aftermath of a major event, which is an interesting thing to see on television — a medium ideally suited for this type of narrative exploration. According to Wikipedia, Glatter is directing at least two more episodes, so there is much to look forward to.