As has been much noted, Claire Danes' extraordinary knack for crying begins with her chin. When in a good mood, the chin is shapely and unobtrusive. But distraught, it puckers, juts out, begins to tremble. Only when the chin is wobbling like an "American Idol" contestant's vibrato does the rest of Danes' face catch up with the chin's unhappiness: it crumples, her eyes scrunch, all of her features recede, except that chin. As "Homeland's" bipolar protagonist Carrie Mathison, Danes' chin has worked hard for two seasons, but it has never carried a burden quite like it does in the early episodes of Season 3, which begins on Showtime on Sunday night (when everyone will be watching the series finale of "Breaking Bad"). "Homeland" left off with a massive explosion, one that followed the implosion of the series' plot and priorities, and it is as if Carrie's chin has been called upon to express not only its owner's extraordinary pain but also "Homeland's" remorse at its recent flip over the top. The chin — and the acute, growing psychological distress that sets it to wobbling — are the focus again, not outlandish storylines and implausible histrionics.
"Homeland," a show I love even though continuing to do so may be a sign I need to cadge some of Carrie's pills, ended last season a shambles. A series about the ethical and emotional complexities of national security in a post-Abu Ghraib America forsook realpolitik for real love. It transformed itself from a psychological thriller with a romantic element, into a romance with a ludicrous action element. Unbalanced, genius CIA agent Carrie Mathison's relationship to unbalanced Marine-turned-terrorist-but-maybe-still-patriot Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) was always central to the show, but it was not, previously, the center of the show. The writers, as enamored with Brody and Carrie's chemistry as a "One Direction" fan girl is with Harry Styles, turned the story over to the pair's grandiose, operatic, star-crossed love affair at the expense of logic, character, story and the show's own future. Like Carrie, "Homeland" has sacrificed itself over and over again to keep Brody alive. And as with Carrie, the cost of that sacrifice is to be hollowed out and reduced, distraught, searching for answers. "Homeland," a show about a post-hubristic America, has entered its own post-hubristic season.
That season begins 58 days after last season's finale, when a car bomb detonated at Langley killing 219 people. Brody is at large, the prime suspect in the bombing and the most wanted man in the world. Everyone he left behind is struggling, including his family, the CIA, now being run by Saul (Mandy Patinkin), and Carrie, who has gone off her meds, because on her meds, she missed something. Carrie is attempting to self-regulate with exercise, booze and casual sex, as ineffective a strategy for maintaining mental health as it sounds. She remains convinced of Brody's innocence — the time he killed the vice president forgiven and forgotten — and this puts her in direct conflict with Saul, the CIA and Congress, which is about as unfair a fight as it sounds.
One way to think of "Homeland" is as a dramatization of collateral damage. All of the events of the previous two seasons — Abu Nazir's jihad, Brody's devotion to his cause, their alliance and everything it spawned — are collateral damage from the collateral damage that was the death of Abu Nazir's son Issa. The blowback is still blowing. Abu Nazir's scheme and Brody's secrecy have wounded and are still wounding every character on the show, and the new episodes survey the grievous psychological harm. The results are bleak, relentlessly so. But the first few episodes are grounded in a way the show has not been since the early half of last season.
The episodes are evidence that "Homeland" would be just fine if Nicholas Brody were never, ever to return from the wilds of Canada. But as the trailers for the new season show, and the series creators have been happy to explain, Brody will be back. Brody's lurking makes me enormously, unhappily skeptical about this season's ability to stay coherent. He is "Homeland's" Achilles' heel. The writers are more sentimental about him and his importance to the show than the most soft-hearted fan, and they have compromised and contorted storylines again and again just to keep him alive. Even Damian Lewis thinks that Brody should die: In a recent Men's Journal story, he said that "The more compromised storytelling is to keep him alive and to keep him bubbling along somehow," which is not something one hears from an Emmy-winning lead actor very often.
As "Breaking Bad" has demonstrated, it is possible to unfold intricate, insane plots without alienating viewers. As distressing as watching "Breaking Bad" has recently been, there is still something safe about the experience. Over many seasons Vince Gilligan has proved that he knows what his show is about, knows what his characters would and would not do, and doesn't get into tight corners without an escape hatch in the floor. You can hop on the "Breaking Bad" ride and never worry that the brakes will give out. Meanwhile in the "Homeland" car, however smoothly it appears to be running, there is no guarantee that at the five-episode mark it won't get a flat tire, turn out to be running on a hackable pacemaker, and get hijacked by a disturbed man with Walter White's haircut.
In a recent interview, showrunner Alex Gansa all but conjured that hijacker, saying that in response to the critique of last season, he asked the writers whether they believed Carrie and Brody were truly in love. But that's the wrong question: The issue is not whether Carrie and Brody are in love, but whether that love should be the centerpiece of the show. Thankfully the greatest love story no one ever wanted to be a love story is not the focus of the first two episodes, which illustrate the power and punch "Homeland" can still muster when freed from its more Hallmark-ian tendencies. I hope the rest of the season lives up to the promise of these episodes, but watching "Homeland" has made me paranoid.