Homeland's eighth and final season premieres Sunday, February 9. Yes, head-to-head with the Oscars. Perhaps that's a sign of how little Showtime cares about its geopolitical drama that, in years past, drove much of the premium network's prestige buzz. Or maybe it's a sign of how confident the network is that Homeland's fans will continue to make time for it in an ever-more-crowded TV landscape.
More than likely, it's actually an understanding of viewership habits and DVR time-shifting at work, but if Showtime does trust Homeland to take on the Academy Awards, it would be with good reason. I've seen the first four episodes of Season 8, and after a two-year hiatus, the show hasn't lost a step. The premiere, knowing even completists will probably have forgotten almost everything except Saul's beard, smartly reviews key elements of Season 7, then throws us right back into it, and the first handful of episodes showcase everything that's historically made Homeland both maddening and exciting at the same time.
So if you forgot it was coming back, if you thought you'd just let it ebb into the past now that Quinn (Rupert Friend) is really dead dead, or you ditched it after Season 3, I feel all of that, but it's worth tagging back in with Season 8, and seeing it through to the end. I'm in, and I hope you'll join me. Here's why:
No need to eat up a weekend with a marathon catch-up. Characters from seasons past do factor into Season 8, but you'll get the exposition you need in-scene. Plus, most Homeland season plots exist discretely from each other. You won't get lost, it's not in the show's branding interest to let you, because...
And a pretty damn good one. Not that Carrie's (Claire Danes) agonized relationship with Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) didn't make an interesting emotional focal point, and not that it didn't drive some fascinating (and nutty) plots, but one of the show's true strengths is the process-y stuff — the "tradecraft," as they say in the spy game. How to lose a tail, time an extraction, stymy parabolic microphones, ask for a meet using a desk lamp... that's half the reason I watch, and Homeland is great at choreographing those nail-biter set pieces.
This has been a key criticism of Homeland over the years, that its willingness to turn embassies into smoking craters and decimate the executive branch of the U.S. government is unrealistic. I can't argue with that — or, really, with the charge that the thriller mode in which many of those holy-shit moments are shot isn't at least in the same neighborhood as disaster porn. But they're not cheap thrills; Homeland is sincerely trying to step its characters, and us, through what it would look like if a U.S. embassy in a Middle Eastern capital got invaded, or if a president resigned, or if a CIA station chief's bored trifling husband accidentally became a tool of a foreign power. It's not realistic for Carrie still to have a job, either, but the show's not going for C-SPAN verité.
So many creators of so-called antiheroes and "flawed protagonists" don't know when to stop with the imperfections, ending up with glossy-haired piles of off-putting mannerisms and felonious behavior nobody around these people could credibly tolerate. Carrie is frustrating, no doubt — unable to hide her impatience or to try to attract flies with honey, reluctant to admit to mistakes, bullheaded, volatile — but the audience sticks with her because she's so good at her job. She's also consistently the way she is. The show, to its credit, has always known that these same qualities in Jack Bauer weren't even worth mentioning, and has never sanded off Carrie's edges.
I can't speak to whether Homeland has done the best possible job representing Carrie's illness. No doubt it has exploited its periodic blurring of her reality for plotting purposes on numerous occasions. But it's one of the few dramas that has at least tried to incorporate a character's struggle with mental illness into said character, versus making it her only attribute.
There's nothing else in scripted television quite like Carrie and Saul's bond. Sometimes it's a fairly straightforward mentor/mentee relationship, other times they're at odds, and act more like exes than colleagues. Still other times, it's deeply warm and familial, parental, their communication non-verbal, and a lot of that comes down to the performances from Danes and Patinkin... And to Saul's beard. Honorable mention to the best crying tremble-chin in the business, but that beard is very nearly sentient. Long may it reign.
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Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. She's also the editor-in-chief and publisher of Tomato Nation, and true-crime blog and podcast The Blotter Presents.