While season 5 of Homeland may not always bring the thrills like the very consistent season 4, it’s still a mildly entertaining political thriller miles ahead of traditional television fare. This season abandoned much of the terror and intensity that made previous seasons so enthralling, in favor of a plot of conspiracies, of the new world order. Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) adjusted to her new life with her daughter and her new job, but finds herself being hunted and uncovers a deeply-embedded web of lies within the Berlin government. Not everything was harmonious, with a string of dragged-out side plots and a b-plot with everyone’s favorite Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) lacking major focus, but when it works, season 5 was Homeland firing on all cylinders.
Let’s start with what didn’t work, and most of that is concentrated in the middle third of the season. Allison Carr (Miranda Otto) is totally believable as a villain, but some of her motivations were hazy. When Carrie’s name appears in Quinn’s kill box in “The Tradition of Hospitality,” Allison’s name is rightfully thrown around, and Carrie eventually uncovers her conspiring with her former handler to carry out terrorist attacks in Berlin. Miranda Otto is a competent performer, and has the presence of a woman with conviction hardened by her lengthly career as an agent, yet the show doesn’t seem interested in finding out why or where that conviction came from. A few flashbacks in 5.08 “All About Allison” don’t do her story justice, as we learn her backstory with Carrie in 2005. If she had been introduced a few seasons back, and we had gotten more acquainted with her, we might not have been having this discussion. In a similar vein, her romantic relationship with Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) only serves to put Saul in opposition and at a crossroads for the majority of the season. While this leads to some thrilling moments in which Saul is trying to figure out what the hell exactly is going on, the dramatic irony is lost almost immediately. A few “a-ha” moments like the one at the end of “All About Allison” barely save this story from going under.
Another part of the season that didn’t quite go as planned is the background plot involving the German government bypassing their country’s privacy laws by hiring the CIA to report on suspected terrorists in Berlin. This is where the timely material comes into play, something Homeland has always been good at, yet this story feels like two ends of a sloppy book. It starts out brilliantly, and sets the stage for the majority of the rest of the season’s dramatics. Hacker Numan (Atheer Adel) is the perfect 21st century ‘villain,’ or ‘hero’ depending on how you see him. The whistleblowing tactics resonate in a world where nothing is certain, where the enemies are individuals hiding behind a keyboard. Numan works just fine as a representation of those ideas, but his partner in the spotlight, the overbearing American Laura Sutton (Sarah Soklovic) lacks that well-drawn characterization. Almost everything she spews is nonsense, and Soklovic neither looks up for the part nor convinces you of her views. It’s a waste of a character and almost an insult, because her conviction is sound, it’s just how she goes about it that isn’t.
A theme in the last two paragraphs was that when the focus is off of Carrie, things being to fall apart. Nowhere is that more evident than in the side plot involving Peter Quinn. He starts out as a solitary man, and props to Rupert Friend for giving an on-point and brilliant speech about the state of U.S. foreign policy in the premiere, “Separation Anxiety” (Emmy reel, please). Yet when Quinn gets injured and wanders away(?), he gets captured by Syrian jihadists with ties to the main plot mentioned above. This was the most contrived plot, one that went one for far too long as he got to know their leader Bibi (Rene Ifrah). Quinn was not on top of his game since the premiere, and it’s disappointing to see him in this state, as he becomes their guinea pig for a saran gas experiment. His relationship with Carrie is unorthodox, to be sure, and the show hasn’t completely dismissed their feelings for each other, so at least there are stakes here, even if they are centered on romance like Allison’s. Whatever Quinn’s fate at the end of the finale (and it didn’t look pretty), he’ll always be remembered as the rogue badass with a soft side.
Luckily, Homeland has and always will be the Carrie Mathison show. Since season three, the show has remained self-contained in little seasonal arcs, and this allows the focus to be mainly on Carrie herself, with Saul, Quinn, Dar Adal in the background. This season found Carrie struggling with atonement, as she learns that she can’t control everything. Claire Danes has never been better, and although she doesn’t have as many scenes where she can really dig into Carrie’s psyche (see: Carrie off her meds in “Super Powers”), she still brings her A-game the whole season. Her rocky relationship with Saul, something that still hasn’t been clarified yet assumedly happened after she sabotaged his bid for the CIA directorship, led to some tense and well-acted moments between the pair who go way back. Carrie’s a free agent now, done seeing Saul as a mentor, yet he still remains in a position of authority for her. Carrie’s surrogate for that relationship, her new boss Otto During (Sebastian Koch), fails to offer the same warmth and respect that Saul used to offer her. I like Otto as a character, and the finale sets him up to appear in season six (already given a green light), so I hope we see more from him.
When Homeland, like Carrie, goes off its meds, it can lead to some good stuff. The brilliant episode two, “The Tradition of Hospitality,” brought us back to season two-level Homeland, with an outstanding sequence with Carrie and her boss in a refugee camp in Beirut. This mostly self-contained episode reminds us that Homeland might not be prettiest in its plotting, but it certainly knows how to hold your attention. The direction from showrunner Lesli Linka Glatter draws inspiration from Kathryn Bigelow, and the action scenes (when they come) are thrilling, just look at “Our Man in Damascus.” I could’ve done, however, without the treading water of episodes five through about eight, which serve as mainly catch-up episodes for viewers and characters. Both Homeland and The Affair could benefit from shorter seasons, as the momentum is lost when episode after episode is simply stalling.
This season really conflicted me, a long time Homeland fan. It’s nowhere near the awfulness of season three, but I wish it took more risks in its storytelling this time around. I’m grateful for the focus on Carrie, and she can keep the show afloat, but the supporting cast needs to be rounded out, as one-off characters each season might not be the best route to take. I’m not saying get rid of Saul (the exact opposite, more please!), but rather remember why we fell in love with Homeland in the first place. Allison, like Martha from season four, isn’t the compelling black-and-white antagonist we’re accustomed to, and the series’s broad strokes and lack of convincing supporting characters of color only serve to show how behind Homeland really is in geopolitics, no matter how relevant its themes may be. Still though, Showtime’s Homeland more than belongs in the category of “Peak TV” for its ability to portray a complex character like Carrie Mathison without ever going over the top.