This Homeland review contains spoilers for the season 5 premiere, “Separation Anxiety.”
Homeland Season 5 Episode 1
Nowadays, beginning a new season of Homeland is a bit like starting over with an anthological show. Similar to American Horror Story and True Detective, the later seasons of Homeland rarely enjoy major or direct connective tissue from year-to-year other than Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin’s reliably stellar performances; every season is a new topical, “ripped from the headlines” threat, and each do-over mostly dismisses story threads from the previous year.
For example: whatever happened to Javadi after he became the CIA’s mole in Iran? Also, what effect did Saul being a hostage have on his getting a new job at the CIA (where he is apparently back in a command position)? Also, are we ever going to find out about lingering aftermath from the attack on the U.S. embassy in Pakistan from last season?
Forget about all that jazz, kids. We’re now in Pakistan, and Carrie is the one on the outside of the CIA. Saul is back in Langley with Dar Adal, and this season is leaving behind the Benghazi and Taliban/Pakistani window dressings in favor of hacking, ISIS, and Syrian decorations from hell. We even have a walking, talking cliché that is Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Judith Miller all wrapped up into one. Like the tagline for season 3 says, “Brace yourself.”
Strangely what works best about “Separation Anxiety” is the aspect that felt like a drag on season 4: Carrie Mathison is trying hard to be a mother. Whether this is out of spite for her own mom from last year’s season finale or out of genuine guilt over abandoning her daughter for the warzones of Pakistan and Afghanistan remains to be seen. I doubt that even Carrie knows. But seeing Carrie begin the season with a stunning dose of Catholic faith and taking her daughter to school is more startling than her beginning the last season as the Queen of Drones.
Carrie raining hellfire and death on a wedding? Sure, of course. Carrie encouraging her daughter to learn German words at her preschool after two years of apparent normalcy? Disquieting.
This transition also comes with a job outside of the CIA since she now works for a foundation with deep pockets and a questionable past. Otto During (Sebastian Koch) plays the European humanitarian who sets one of the two conflicts in motion when he insists he wants to write a large check for displaced refugees in Lebanon. However, Saul detests this man, his foundation, and some apparently unpleasant mid-20th century history in Otto’s family. Additionally, Otto is German in an espionage series built around terrorist paranoia and from executive producers who worked on 24. Of course he’s up to something more nefarious than he says—or he’s a red herring who will be dead soon.
Either way, the crux of the episode, and probably the season, relates to Carrie working for a foundation that Saul despises, a foundation with links to activist hackers that will willingly publish CIA documents stolen on the Internet, and a foundation that both employs Carrie’s new perfectly understanding boyfriend Jonas (Alexander Fehling) and also Laura Sutton (Sarah Sokolovic), the latter of whom is a walking cliché of what neo-cons hate.
Generally, the domino placement is all so convenient this year that preparing to watch them fall down is indeed an anxiety of sorts, but not the kind in the title. The only separation I feel is from not having more Saul and Carrie scenes. Even if that one exchange was truncated and heated, at least their fight makes sense: why would Carrie work for an organization like this?
Of all the characters on the series who might end up at a left-leaning, anti-espionage group, Saul is the obvious candidate. Perhaps it is too obvious, but that does not make Carrie working for an office that leaks CIA documents out of spite to disconnected phone calls appear subversive. Rather, the development is just cloyingly dumb since we all know it’s going to end in flames with her boyfriend either dead, estranged, or part of Otto’s aforementioned nefarious shenanigans to come. Just “writing a check?” Sure, and Carrie is going to the Catholic Church because she is born again, and not because it will be part of a mid-season twist of sneaky spying. Everything is exactly as it appears, move along.
In the meantime, the show’s right-leaning perspective feels less hard hitting and challenging as it has in previous seasons. This time, newcomer Sokolovic is forced to play what Bill Kristol must imagine San Francisco residents talk like, and Rupert Friend going dead-eyed as a newly hollowed-out Peter Quinn. He’s apparently been in or around Syria for two years, which provides another amazing coincidence for him to come back into Carrie’s life as she jets off to the Middle East, as well as a chance to stand on a soapbox to lecture the unnamed Obama administration about how we need to send ground forces back into Iraq and/or Syria.
My disagreement with Homeland’s politics has never been a major issue and still remains a minor annoyance. But the first season of Homeland moved like a sniper shell to the head when it debuted as inarguably the best show on television. Everything about that first season (and a large chunk of the second) felt finely calibrated with the characters and conflicts creating real tension.
Season 5 is only just beginning, but I can already see the same straining to keep Carrie in the thick of things that made seasons 3 and 4 so uneven, and the political posturing has only gotten more awkward in its clunky inclusion.
I sometimes wonder if Homeland had debuted a few seasons later, after “anthological television” became a thing, whether the series would have been an ongoing story or not. Danes, Lewis, and Patinkin were all amazing that first year, and really every year they have since been on the series. But the story ended somewhere in the first half of season 2, and every time it comes back, the logic feels even more incredulous and that thrill of authenticity from season 1 seems ever fainter.
The Homeland season 5 premiere ends with a Munich styled assassination, and Carrie bartering for protection for her special trip to Lebanon. Perhaps she can ask for a better second episode when she gets there too.