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Homeland season 6 pits the intelligence community against the president-elect. How unrealistic!

The show remains as smart, savvy, and blockheaded as ever.

Carrie (Claire Danes) receives a troubling phone call on Homeland. Then again, on Homeland, they’re all troubling phone calls.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

No show on television enjoys having its yellowcake uranium and eating it too as much as Showtime’s Homeland, which officially begins its sixth season on January 15. (The season premiere is already available online to subscribers.)

The series feints toward being a serious critique of the American intelligence apparatus, and from time to time, it’s as scathing a look at the intelligence community as one could imagine commercial television coming up with. But because it’s a TV show, where the heroes must inevitably be proved right, and because most of the heroes are spies (or spy-adjacent), it usually reverts to some version of “It’s a dangerous world; sometimes, awful things must be done to keep people safe.”

As such, it gets to indulge in heady discussions of state morality — while also offering up big, tense action sequences with terrorists threatening everybody.

But perhaps no choice the show has ever made exemplifies both its canny foresight and its ability to weasel out of the traps reality lays for it as a new character introduced in season six, which is set in the 72 days between a presidential election and the inauguration. (I’ve only seen two episodes so far, which is what Homeland typically sends to critics before a season premieres.)

This president-elect is a woman (played by Elizabeth Marvel), and her background nods toward Hillary Clinton, sure, but also anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, of all people. Meanwhile, her prickly hostility toward the CIA calls to mind none other than the man who will step into the White House just a few days after season six premieres. Just when the real world seems to have the show pinned down, Homeland finds a way to keep going.

Homeland’s history used to be its biggest curse. Now, it’s the show’s biggest asset.

Thanks to the series’ history, meetings between characters like Saul and Carrie can have even more weight behind them.

In its first three seasons — the Nicholas Brody years — Homeland’s gradual accretion of wacky plot twists slowly became its undoing.

Here was a series that wanted to be a deeply serious treatise on everything from how America’s foreign policy decisions kept rebounding against it to the nature of terrorism, but also a series where a terrorist mastermind killed a man by hacking his pacemaker via knowing its serial number. The show’s writers could point, often, to how such a ludicrous thing was theoretically possible, but it didn’t matter. It felt like something out of a junkier show.

Thus, by the time Homeland reached the end of season three, when accused terrorist and new drug addict Brody went through a training montage to get back in fighting shape so he could go assassinate somebody in Iran or something, the show’s politically charged themes and occasional moments of beautiful interpersonal storytelling kept running up against that huge collection of ridiculous details. It was hard to take seriously.

But in its fourth and fifth seasons, Homeland re-earned audiences’ trust the hard way — by playing up the handful of character relationships that still worked, telling engagingly knotty espionage tales, and escaping Brody’s shadow.

Now, Homeland’s history became an asset. Yes, it often seems to handwave away the Brody years — early in season six, one character discusses how the US hasn’t seen another attack similar to September 11, conveniently forgetting that one time the CIA itself blew up in the season two finale — but when the handful of characters still around from Homeland’s earliest days come into conflict here and there, their encounters have the kind of weight that only serialized television can truly offer. There’s a deeper, darker tragedy at work in their lives.

That’s particularly evident in Homeland’s main character, Carrie Mathison, still played by Claire Danes with relentless honesty, even though the show’s writers long ago stopped trying to do much beyond make her cry.

Carrie has lost essentially everything in the name of keeping America safe, and in season six, she’s trying to hold onto what’s left of her soul. She’s left the security state behind — for good, or so she believes; students of television will know it’s only for now. In the season’s first two episodes, she’s working for a group that tries to build bridges between Muslim Americans and the country at large, as well as defends Muslims it believes to be unjustly accused of terrorism.

Homeland never feels anything less than scrupulously researched, and that quality serves the show well in Carrie’s storyline, which involves a young Muslim man accused of being an accessory to terrorism — even though the government’s case proves impossibly flimsy the instant Carrie so much as looks sideways at it. But at the same time, her old colleagues Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) and Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) are convinced the incoming president is too naive about the threats facing the world. The security state must continue to exist, because in its absence, well, how would we stay secure? Or so it would have us believe.

This is where Homeland is still at its strongest. Its examinations of the Catch-22s built into the endless war on terror are frequently incisive, and in Carrie, it’s created a character who neatly stands in for America itself — trying to atone for some of the most awful things it’s done, but sloppily, and mostly to cover its own ass.

Still, Homeland’s been here before

Dar Adal and Saul are up to something. It’s never clear what.

Homeland might have learned how to turn its history into an asset, but it also can’t escape the fact that, like most shows with long runs, it can do little to surprise us anymore.

Danes keeps Carrie watchable through the sheer force of her charisma, and Patinkin is always a treat. But the show’s third major returning character — Rupert Friend’s Peter Quinn — is now essentially Homeland’s punching bag, because it must always find someone to punish.

As season six begins, he’s trying to regain his strength after the events of season five (in which he was tortured, poisoned, and brought back from the dead by Carrie so she could get information from him), but every time the show turns to him, it crashes into the ditch.

He visits drug dens and stumbles around woozily. He escapes hospitalization and lashes out at Carrie. Homeland’s greatest weakness has always been its inability to let go of the idea that Carrie needs a love interest, and poor Quinn seems to be suffering sheerly for that weird preoccupation.

Most seasons of Homeland start slowly. Showrunner Alex Gansa and his writers want nothing more than to emulate great spy novels, which take time to build up steam.

But even by those standards, the early episodes of season six are a patience-testing slow burn. The Quinn stuff is unnecessary, and every other storyline feels like it’s taking place on a different show. It’s not clear why Carrie, Saul, and the president-elect are all in the same series, except for the fact that they have been before. And even when Homeland tries to knit them together, the result feels slightly forced.

And yet Homeland is never that easy to shake. Even when it was at its worst, it felt like a baroque examination of why combatting terrorism so often pushes nations to become their worst possible selves. The show’s characters suffer immense pain and deal out even greater pain to others, yet they keep coming back.

Late in the season’s second episode, someone asks why they persist in this madness, and Carrie answers the only way she knows how any more — by bursting into tears. This is who we are. Or maybe it’s who we’ve always been.

Homeland season six debuts Sunday, January 15, on Showtime at 9 pm Eastern. The first four seasons are available to Hulu subscribers. Season five is available on Hulu with a Showtime subscription.

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