[This is a review of Homeland season 5, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
Over the break between seasons 4 and 5, it would seem Homeland took some classes at the University of le Carré and graduated with a degree in advanced spycraft. The result of this apparent reeducation not only makes the series more propulsive than it's been since its improbable second season – though the last few episodes of season 4 hinted at the show's return to some semblance of quality – it also suggests that the continuing adventures of Carrie Mathison may finally be ready to climb out from under the shadow of her romance with Nicholas Brody, in order for the series to become something it's always hinted at being: a solid spy series.
It is worth noting, though, that Homeland faces more of an uphill climb than simply becoming a solid spy series; it also needs to be one free from the trappings of everything that made it great for a single season – and subsequently made it good to middling to flat-out terrible in the three seasons that came afterwards. The series has to face serious questions about not only moving on from a Brody storyline that should have ended in season 1 (along with the series, if it were really looking to achieve lasting greatness), but also about the depiction of its primary protagonist, played to Emmy-winning gratification by Claire Danes.
Over the years, the series has used Carrie's mental illness to achieve some compelling storylines, but it has also been used as a narrative crutch, one that, especially last season, demonstrated just how incapable the series was of moving past season 1. Most damning, however, is the notion that Carrie, despite having one of the worst track records of any fictional agent in history, has been rewarded for her failures with increased responsibility and greater status in the CIA. At a certain point, it seemed as though the series was having as hard a time figuring out what the character's post-Brody storyline could conceivably be, as the character herself was. And so, after a handful of promising episodes last season, Homeland, the one-time jewel in Showtime's original series crown, appears ready for the soft-reboot treatment (much like HBO's The Leftovers, which also premieres tonight).
Like The Leftovers, Homeland has chosen to relocate its central protagonist, and to usher in additional changes in order to make the series more accessible. Unlike The Leftovers, however, Homeland has much more history to sift through and characters whose backstory is important to consider when shuffling things like setting and plot. And since this spy series essentially runs on plot – rather than emotion – it is essential that the writers nail it down as soon as possible.
With that in mind, season 5 jumps forward several years, to see Carrie working in Berlin for a billionaire philanthropist, raising her daughter with a co-worker and only occasionally being asked to deal with the sorts of things she's been asked to during the past four seasons of the show. Time jumps are tricky things, but the way this one so clearly demarcates Homeland season 5 from the rest of the series, it feels more like a breath of fresh air than a risky maneuver. And very early on, it would seem the series didn't so much crawl out from under the shadow of Nicholas Brody as it simply outran the shadow's reach.
From the new setting on down, Homeland feels like it has drawn inspiration from the work of John le Carré, specifically his 2010 novel A Most Wanted Man, which was adapted into a terrific film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2014. That story also unfolded in Germany (albeit Hamburg) and also featured dealings with a wealthy moneyman whose financial wellbeing was the result of many decades of shady business practices. Here, Otto Düring (Sebastian Koch) becomes a key component in the story of Carrie Mathison, running a business that made its fortune from working with the Nazis.
All of this, the setting and the supporting players – which include new ones, like The Lord of the Rings' Miranda Otto, and familiar (but cranky) faces, like Mandy Patinkin's Saul Berenson, F. Murray Abraham's Dar Adal, and Rupert Friend's Peter Quinn – present a carefully balanced concoction of the old and the new. And while it is all handled expertly in the first hour (titled, 'Separation Anxiety'), perhaps the most impressive aspect is that the writers appear willing to let the years that have gone by remain in the cracks and small spaces, which exist between the characters. Allowing the audience to fill in those nominal gaps is an important step in establishing a newfound trust with the viewership, but here it goes a step further, suggesting the show really is done with the past, and is ready to be about Carrie in the here and now.
The idea of "here and now" may be the most potent ingredient this iteration of the show has to offer. Despite some questions as to when the season actually takes place, the universe Homeland exists in is dealing with some familiar problems. Here, the threat of ISIS looms large, but so, too, does the Syrian refugee crisis and, as seen in a terrific opening sequence, the influence of Edward Snowden and the lengths to which the government is surreptitiously keeping tabs on its citizens, and how exposing such efforts becomes the murkiest of gray areas.
Sure, there are glimpses of how the past may not be done with Carrie – such as her ordeal in securing an invitation from Hezbollah for her boss, or her run-in with Saul in Berlin – but these elements play as important a part in where the character is going, as they ever did in where she has been. Homeland has been trying for several seasons to figure out what kind of show it could be, if it weren't solely about an American soldier turned sleeper agent and the CIA agent who loved him. After plenty of false starts and dead ends, it would seem the series is on the right track to establishing the right kind of new identity.
Homeland continues next Sunday with 'The Tradition of Hospitality' @9pm on Showtime.