Something unusual happens in the sixth season premiere of Homeland, Showtime's long-running international espionage thriller about how too much exposure to free jazz causes otherwise brilliant CIA investigators to constantly go off their anti-psychotic medications. It's not that Carrie Mathison, as played by the always-compelling Claire Danes, is living a relatively mundane life in Brooklyn; it's not that her former mentor, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), now seems to be a CIA company man through-and-through; it's not even that Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) has grown some terrible facial hair and started dancing to the Cowboy Junkies in random brothels.
The unusual thing is that nothing really happens.
Once upon a time, Homeland was a show where everything happened, and then even more happened, and soon enough you couldn't keep track of who was double-crossing whom because of the extreme amount of plot constantly happening. The team behind the show (including showrunners/creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa) have been backed into a corner ever since Brody became a triple agent and Abu Nazir turned into a two-bit horror movie villain in season two. Changing Brody and Carrie from erotically-charged adversaries into us-against-the-world star crossed lovers still sounds like the product of some really bad fan fiction.
But that first season, judged on its own, was a near-perfect season of television, expertly ratcheting up the suspense episode-by-episode and throwing off the audience again and again with delirious twists. If Brody had gone through with his initial plan to blow up his suicide vest, it could have ended there and been remembered as one of the great one season wonders (RIP Terriers). Or it could have explored the ramifications of that incident in future seasons. Instead, season two tried to double down on everything that made season one great and ended up making people give up on the show faster than you can say, "Vice President pacemaker hack." Then season three was even worse, a funereal and unsatisfying coda to the Brody storyline with twice as many frustrating detours (ugh, Dana and Finn).
Homeland has spent every season since trying to get back to its core concepts—how does the war on terror affect those fighting it, what are the ramifications for America's meddling in other countries, why are the opening credits so bad, how is Saul's beard so effortlessly robust—and also doubling down on the thriller aspects. Except it also had to deal with a meta problem: what was Homeland without that intense Carrie/Brody relationship at its center? Could it convince the audience that it could provide one?
Season four and five were both, ya know, fine—almost like the middle seasons of 24 where you knew all the basic story beats but you could still find some pleasure just riding it out and seeing Carrie be the best at what she does. Neither was particularly memorable, even with Danes' always-sterling performance and Quinn's emergence as the only reasonable person on the show. There was still an obligation to them—no one was convinced any longer that it was a prestige show, but it was still too good to just be a whatever one.
Season six is still grappling with the same questions, but it's trying a lot of new approaches. The most startling thing is how quiet the premiere is—there is no big terrorist attack (the showrunners promise there will not be one in NYC: "That was our first karmic principle this year"), and no immediate or identifiable threat to deal with. The show is doubling down on the psychological horror and ramifications of the war on terrorism—even if the characters are familiar to us, the storytelling approach feels almost like a soft reboot.
Carrie now lives in Bed-Stuy with her daughter, renting out her downstairs garden apartment on Airbnb. She takes the bus to Williamsburg where she works as an advocate for Muslim Americans. Except for her daily visits to see Quinn, she has completely removed herself from her old life in the months since season five ended. She's doing important work that is "small potatoes" to her boss. She seems stable and kind of boring, and that's probably a good thing for everyone still involved in her life.
At this point, it's too soon to tell whether a slow burn approach to Carrie's story will work (because, as we all know, she is going to end up getting dragged back into the war of global terrorism eventually, and things have a tendency to get nuts quickly). What does work immediately, as rough as it is to watch, is Quinn's storyline. After having a pretty terrible time in season five, culminating in a chemical warfare attack which should have killed him, he is now a shell of his former self. Quinn is living at the VA Hospital, he's shaking like a leaf, and having psychedelic visions of moving wallpaper (brain damage and PTSD will do that). It's horrible to watch him spiral out of control, but fascinating to watch him become a completely different person compared to the steely character we had followed the previous four years.
As Gansa told EW regarding the storyline, "One of the very first ideas [executive producer Howard Gordon] and I had when we talked about Homeland was there was no show on television dramatizing the return of our soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. So now we really get to watch a true causality of the war on terror." It's not exactly fun viewing material, but it is consequential.
Unfortunately, the other major plotline of the new season is a failure on a deeper level. The entire season will take place during the 72 days between the election and the inauguration of a new president, played by Elizabeth Marvel, a former junior senator from New York who has more than a few shades of Hillary Clinton to her. Even though the producers went out of their way to imbue her with some "maverick" tendencies, she is fiercely intelligent and seems to be trying to peel back American interventionism. In other words, she's competent—the opposite of the current IRL President-elect.
It's a great idea on paper to use the presidential transition period as a jumping off point (how did 24 never do something during that time?!?), but in this particular instance, it doesn't work. It's worse than that: it's so far removed from the farcical reality we're living in, it's actually a distraction. Homeland has always relied on—and thrived—using its real-life parallels to its advantage; this is the first time that it feels like it has so completely missed the mark.
Gansa touched on his fears about this with the Hollywood Reporter: "I think the election result was as much of a shock to us as it was the rest of the country," he said. "To say that we took it calmly would be a complete lie. My first reaction was, 'Oh my god, we are now counterfactual to the point of being irrelevant.' It took a while to dig ourselves out of that feeling. We just came back to that fact that Homeland, after all, is a fiction." Maybe you won't have as visceral reaction as I did, but it took me out of the show's world every time.
You can look at the CIA shenanigans (Carrie is also defending a young Muslim man accused of supporting a foreign terrorism subject, Dar Adal is a "paranoid fuck" with great taste in giant scarves) and the presidential plotlines, roll your eyes and call it the same old thing. Or you can find the more subdued tone, the agonizing Quinn storyline, and the foreboding (chickens coming home to roost) vibe to be, at the very least, enticing enough to warrant sticking around for a dozen more episodes.
Maybe it's become the worst version of itself: a boring take on 24 set in Brooklyn. Or maybe it's finally figured out how to change enough so that you aren't left wondering what Chris Brody is up to these days.
"I'm not getting any better, can't you get that through your fucking skull?" Quinn yells at Carrie early in the premiere. "Let me go." Just like Carrie, it's hard to give up on an old friend.