The best thing about Homeland has become the worst thing about Homeland. During the first season, the drama’s portrayal of Carrie Mathison’s (Claire Danes) bipolar disorder was wrenchingly realistic. Her manic episodes have been shaped by Homeland writer Meredith Stiehm, whose sister suffers from the illness, and the show has often manipulated those bipolar flights to masterful effect, using them to trigger a more general paranoia in the viewer — who, like Carrie, can’t decide whom to trust. But the problem with presenting a relatively accurate depiction of the disorder and its cyclical nature is that it requires the show to rehash the same story lines over and over again. By the third episode this season, Carrie’s off her meds again, and it’s hard not to feel like the show is regressing along with its heroine. Five seasons in, and Carrie’s right back where she began.
That’s especially frustrating since this season was supposed to mark another fresh start. Carrie has left the CIA and taken a new job in Berlin, where she’s working as head of security for Otto Düring (Sebastian Koch), a billionaire steel magnate and philanthropist. She’s living with her lawyer boyfriend (Alexander Fehling) and her daughter and seems mostly stable — until a journalist (Sarah Sokolovic) funded by Düring’s foundation publishes a wealth of WikiLeaks-like intel that implicates the U.S. in spying for Germany. Suddenly, the CIA suspects that Carrie might be divulging info of her own. The Edward Snowden-inspired plot is the most compelling story line this season, which is packed with conspiratorial intrigue and complicated questions about political and journalistic ethics. It’s also a smart, logical way for Homeland’s writers to keep Carrie connected to Saul (Mandy Patinkin) and Quinn (Rupert Friend), a task that has become impossible without making the CIA look inept. This is a woman who effectively aided a terrorist, suffered a public scandal that was broadcast on the nightly news, and basically turned the whole Middle East against the United States — and yet, up until now, the agency kept finding reasons to rehire her.
So, at first, it seems that Homeland is moving in an interesting direction, away from the tired oedipal drama of Carrie and Saul, away from the relentless existentialism of random-stranger-killer Quinn, toward a tangled international conflict that’s narratively more rich and more of-the-moment. But the second that Carrie yields to her first fit of mania in years, pasting newspaper clippings all over her house and searching for connections between them — surely, there are computer programs now that allow people to do this without ruining their wallpaper! — it’s déjà vu all over again. Worse yet, the show seems bent on confirming Carrie’s delusions. Without spoiling anything, certain plot twists suggest that everyone in the world truly is out to get Carrie, even those high-level figures who must have more important targets to fight. Carrie’s paranoia isn’t as gripping when Homeland keeps confirming that it’s not really paranoia. There’s still enough at stake with the journalist to keep a viewer hooked, but if this season doesn’t revamp the same old tropes soon, it’ll be tempting to fast-forward through Carrie’s latest breakdown. Homeland already requires some extreme suspension of disbelief. Is it too much to hope that, one day, Carrie can manage her illness, too?
Homeland premieres Sunday, Oct. 4 at 9 p.m. ET.